Silence is Golden? Struggling with Esther (@revpamsmith)

The story of the Book of Esther is dramatic. A poor Jewish girl charms the King of Persia and becomes his Queen; a very hiss-able pantomime villain, Haman, plots to have the Jewish people destroyed and is outwitted; and Esther’s courage brings salvation for her people and a satisfyingly sticky end for their enemy.

Despite its exciting story, I found it hard to think about the Book of Esther in terms of digital discipleship because Esther herself is so limited in her choice of actions, and the way women are dealt with in the story is so harsh. The first Queen, Vashti, is sent away when she refuses to come into the King’s presence when he sends for her. It is spelt out that this happens to discourage other wives of powerful men from disobeying their husbands. A law is then passed to compel women to do what they are told throughout the kingdom. The process by which the king chooses his new wife is based squarely on their physical attractiveness – after a year of beauty treatments, potential candidates spend a night with the King so he can choose the one he likes the best to be his new queen. Those who fail the test become royal concubines, separated from family and friends forever. Esther’s guardian, Mordecai, apparently has no hesitation in putting Esther into this process, despite the fact she may end up as a concubine.

It may seem like an over reaction for me to take this personally. I live in 21st Century Britain – we have a legal right to be treated equally, regardless of gender, sexuality or ethnic background. Yet the ‘silencing’ of Vashti and other woman – including Esther – is horribly resonant for me as a woman in church leadership and working online. Any woman who expresses a forthright opinion online is liable to provoke a flood of abuse, ranging from apparently mild put downs like ‘get back to the kitchen’ to full on verbal abuse and threats of sexual and life threatening violence. These are not a joke. They represent a real feeling that women have no right to express themselves, and should ‘know their place’. A few years ago, the comedian Harry Enfield produced a series of spoof 1930s ‘public awareness broadcasts’  on the theme ‘Women, know your limits!’ I found them uncomfortable because as far as I was concerned women were still being told to know their place in my church, the Church of England, where the struggle for equal opportunities in God’s service still continues.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LS37SNYjg8w]

I have lived for a long time with the paradox of being a leader in a church which gives members permission to avoid me if they don’t believe women should be in positions of leadership. People outside the church wonder how I can work within an organisation which doesn’t give me its full backing. I sometimes wonder that myself. But the church is not God – it’s a human institution which tries to hear and respond to God as best it can. I’ve never been in any doubt that God values each of us equally, and can and does call anyone to leadership – even, in Esther’s case, a woman whose voice has been more or less taken away from her by oppressive laws which forbid her from disagreeing with her husband or coming into his presence without permission.

Unfortunately, the Church of England isn’t the only Christian organisation which seems to take women’s leadership less seriously than men’s. Sometimes it can look from the outside as if we haven’t moved on very far from the court of King Xerxes. Some Christian conference posters suggest the Rapture may have happened without us noticing and all the women in leadership and teaching roles in the Church have been taken up to Heaven, leaving only men to run and lead the conferences!

Last year, the God Loves Women blog did some groundwork to look at the numbers of male and female main stage speakers at various UK Christian conferences, showing an overwhelming imbalance in favour of men.

This provoked a great response from Martin Saunders who blogged about how, and why, his organisation had moved towards a much more equal representation for men and women on the platforms of the Youth Work Summit – the main point being that such a shift has to be intentional, and takes some effort to succeed.Waiting for ‘good women speakers’ to come forward in such numbers that they displace the well known men is not a good strategy for change. 

These blogs, and others, prompted some interesting discussions, but this year’s crop of festival and conference programmes seems to show no great improvement in the ratio of female to male speakers overall. But change does take time, and unless we speak out, nothing will ever be different.

Social media gives us an unprecedented opportunity to speak directly to decision makers to make our views known. Just as Esther used the opportunity she was given to address something she knew to be wrong, so should we. 

Pam Smith

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