Women in Worship

My life seems to be a juxtaposition of multiple contradictions, which I am constantly trying to reconcile. One such apparent contradiction is my commitments to both Christianity and feminism. Now, feminist theologians will say this isn’t necessarily a contradiction, and I tend to agree. But the reality is, in both Christian and feminist circles you are the odd one out.

People who know me are familiar with my opinions on women in worship-leading. They are pretty straightforward: we need them! From a musical point of a view and a representation/role model point of view, and even from a connection point of view, women are an essential part of any good church worship team. Unless you are in an all-male church, then I concede defeat.

I recently auditioned for our church worship team, mostly because I thought they didn’t have enough women. Prior to moving to this city, I have around 15 years of worship leading experience, mostly in churches where you are required to think about what you say and also carry a tune. I enjoy leading people in to a time of contemplative worship, loud praise, passionate love-song worship and more. I auditioned with my youngest child (9months) in a sling sleeping and my eldest child (8 years) hanging around wanting a turn on the microphone. My diaphragm was not in its free-est position, and my mind was not really 100% concentrating. The songs were songs we frequently sung at church, but were in keys more suitable for male lead singers. Anyway, for the first time, I failed to get in to the team — mostly because of my poor ability to harmonise.

I got a lovely email from the co-ordinator, who was apologetic and invited me to spend some time practicing my harmonies and get back to him if I still felt called to the team. I thought for a while, then got back to him with this:

Thanks so much for your gracious reply — I am pretty sure it was the worst audition I have ever done. It was more just testing the waters for me and seeing where God was leading now we are in [this city] and I did get a sense it wasn’t quite where he was waiting for me. Being part of a worship team has been such a big part of my life for so long it just seemed like a good first step. I think I had come to rely on my most recent music director partner too much to match the key and songs for my voice and for others to harmonise with me 🙂 Out of practice with a year off anyway!  There are some fantastic singers around and it was joy to hear them all, and you are certainly not short of talent so I feel quite happy with the decision.Can I encourage you to consider the needs of women in the congregation for one or two songs every service where we can belt it out and not just be harmony? In my previous role we did some scoping with how can we best help the congregation enter an awesome worship time — and surprisingly, one thing was feeling free to belt it out at the top of their voices. This was difficult when songs were chosen for one range over another, and really musical people can cope with anything and still find a musical space to worship in — the not so musical people struggled to feel comfortable.  One of the reasons I was auditioning was because I thought you might be short of female leads at [this church]. But clearly you are not short, there are some fantastic singers and keyswomen  there although they may need some confidence building!! I am still loving the worship here though, you guys do an awesome job — must be a challenge in such a large church.

The email is granted not very ‘out there’ or direct, and I am indirectly suggesting that the leadership look at the gender balance in their worship leading and not assume that women like to sing harmony. But I try to harmonise my feminism and Christianity as lovingly as possible.

I don’t know if it was related to my email or not, but on Sunday one of the ‘backup girls’ led the entire worship time in keys suitable for a ‘normal’ women’s range (recognising not all of us fit in that!). It was awesome — such a sense of freedom for the women in the congregation to be able to sing in their natural range with power and strength, rather than restraining themselves in harmony (or straining themselves, if they could not sing harmony). And it was really clear that the guy that normally led the worship was struggling to harmonise. I hope this experience helps our church move forward in making a space for men and women to worship freely and easily.

Turns out I might be better at harmonising than I thought?

UPDATE: 5 January 2015: I recently found a project dedicated exactly to this issue. Check out Ashley Beckford’s blog and her Project WOW.

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