Last week, Dr. Richard Beck, a psychology professor at ACU made a public announcement on his blog, experimental theology. In it, he explained that he has chosen not to participate in any part of his church’s worship service in which women are not also welcomed to take part. At Highland that pretty much means preaching, leading worship, and acting as an elder. At most of the other churches I have attended that list is much longer. I would like to take a moment to thank him. And here’s why:
One Monday afternoon last fall, while I was standing at a lab bench, vainly trying to correctly purify a protein I can no longer remember, our advisor came into the biochemistry lab and asked a few of my classmates to help fill the usual roles in the upcoming departmental chapel: teaching a lesson, leading a few songs, offering a closing prayer. The usual.
Most agreed with little hesitation, but one student said that he would really rather not pray publicly. His reasons were his own, and I don’t know what they were, but she obviously needed someone. So in an attempt to help her, and relieve my friend of the pressure to do something he obviously didn’t want to do, I turned around and volunteered to lead the prayer.
And everyone was just kind of silent for a moment. She put her hand on my arm, and looking a bit uncomfortable, said something like, “I’m sorry, but…”
To which I finished, “I’m not allowed to pray in chapel, am I?”
And she shook her head slightly.
A bit of polite discussion was had about the topic. A few of the boys standing around expressed mild bewilderment, and I think someone made an equally mild defense of the policy.
I just turned back to my experiment. I didn’t want them to see how angry and hurt I was. If I’m completely honest with myself, I was a little worried I might start crying if I invested myself in a discussion about the topic.
Our advisor resumed trying to find a male student who would agree to pray.
Now, I want to make it very clear that this is not an attack on our advisor, who is spectacular both as an advisor and as a person. She was doing her job. Nor do I want to attack any of the professors in the my department at ACU, who are some of the kindest, most loving, most intelligent people I know.
But I find this unbelievably frustrating.
It didn’t matter that I was a senior member of our student body or that I spent almost two years as a bible major (where, incidentally, woman are allowed to participate in chapel). It didn’t matter that I spent a summer working as a counselor at a Christian camp and another summer working on a church ministry staff. It certainly didn’t matter that I love prayer and find our daily chapel to be something that is significant and valuable.
I was a woman. And, therefore, my prayer was somehow unwanted or inferior. Period. And I’ve fought with myself about how to say this, because I don’t want to be melodramatic or inflammatory, but I don’t know how else to interpret that message.
I do not understand how a university that claims to see woman as equal to men, who claims to value our intelligence and input in areas of academic pursuit, who will confer upon men and the women the same degree, even in ministry, can simultaneously tell it’s female students that they are not allowed to pray publicly for their faculty and fellow students in chapel.
It is painful and it is confusing.
And I try very hard to see both sides of the issue. I recognize that these are rational, intelligent, generally kind people who make and enforce these rules. I can usually play devil’s advocate; I can argue both sides.
But not about this. I do not get it.
I do not understand why a man’s ability to lead would be threatened by his sister praying in front of their congregation.
I do not understand why women are encouraged, and sometimes expected, to serve the bread and pour the drinks at every meal except the most important.
And I do not understand their belief in a God who would be saddened or angered or anything but overjoyed by one of his daughters standing in a classroom or an auditorium and sharing with her fellow believers what she has learned or seen or experienced about God and his desires for his people.
David and I were having a tangential conversation on a recent drive back from Abilene, and he made the comment that people fighting for their own rights will never be as powerful as those with the power choosing to lay it down for the sake of someone else.
I brought up the issue of prayer, and he told me that he wished all the guys at ACU would stop agreeing to pray in chapel until women were allowed to pray, too. And then said, “Man, I wish I’d thought of that while I was still at school.”
Because he’s right. And while that might not have worked for a number of reasons, that would be heard; it would have to be acknowledged.
Because slaves demanding their right to freedom will be a much more difficult battle than slave masters deciding that they no longer want to participate in the exploitation of their fellow human beings.
And neighborhoods, full of poverty, pleading for better schools and communities, will be much more easily ignored than a group of wealthy families giving up their privilege, and moving into those communities, and investing their resources there.
Like it or not, we live in a world ruled by power, and it is rare to see someone surrender their position or their voice. The greatest tool we have for changing ingrained dichotomies and institutional hierarchies will come from those who choose to lay down their power, who refuse to live in an economy of scarcity*, who recognize that women don’t have to be silenced in order for men to be heard.
And I realize that this is one act, by one man, in one congregation.
But it means a lot to me.
So thank you, Dr. Beck.
*This is a phrase that I actually first header from Dr. Beck when he was teaching a class at Highland. I believe he may have gotten it from a book, but I don’t know which one.