The Arm Warmer Dilemma

This week my friend Alastair Roberts has been given lots of mentions across Twitter after some of his writings were quoted by Andrew Wilson. If you haven’t heard of Andrew Wilson before, he is one of the UK’s most prominent complementarian leaders.  He is an elder at Kings Church in Eastbourne, a large New Frontiers church.  Two great posts which unpick Alastair’s thoughts and how they have been presented by Andrew Wilson are Hannah Mudge’s “A Post about A Post” and Danny Webster’s “Where Does Our Strength Come From?”


This post is not a critique of what Alastair said, but more a reflection of my response to it.


I consider Alastair to be a friend. I respect him and his enormous brain a lot.  A couple of years ago both of us were part of a group who read the whole Bible online over 6 months.  He is humble, gracious and thoughtful.  I’ve known him online since not long after I joined Twitter and last year he knitted me the most AMAZING arm warmers.  So I think he is a particular great person.


Though it may have been apparent to people that he held a none-egalitarian view of Scripture, I only realised a couple of months ago. I had assumed that as he had such a big brain it was inevitable he would know that we should have a gifts based approach to calling, not a gender based approach.  In recent months his reflections on priesthood and the gender of God left me surprised to realise he was one of “those people” (cue pantomime boos).  Leaving me with what shall be forever known as THE ARMWARMER DILEMMA.


How could someone who makes amazing arm warmers believe that women were called differently to men? How could someone who has such a big brain read the Bible and not see that God can legitimately be called Mother?  And I guess more personally, I wondered whether his assertions that women muddy the waters with their emotionality and vulnerability applied to me.  Had I reinforced his views that strength and power sit with men?  Reading quotes from Alastair saying that equality is an empty term and talking about the soft nature of feminist activism deeply saddened me.  Could I have better communicated the feminist work that saves the lives of women and children?  Could I have better shown that I’m not emotional?  Did my words or actions contribute to his view that women are emotional and weak?


Now, don’t feel you need to rush to the comments to reassure me, I recognise people’s views are much more complex than my quite self-centred perspective. It’s not simply whether one person reinforces their prejudices and often people’s perceptions become a self-fulfilling prophecy.


It’s easy to be annoyed when someone I don’t know say things I find offensive, but when It’s someone I consider to be a friend, it’s much harder to brush it off as nonsense. Especially when the person saying it is so thoughtful and kind.  Yet, his comments have now been posted by Andrew Wilson and used as ammunition for the complementarian cause.  No longer is it just Alastair’s thoughts, shared in comments or on his blog, but used to evidence female weakness and the perceived emptiness of feminism.


While I was still grappling with my thoughts on this I became part of a Twitter discussion about swearing. One of the people involved in the conversation was adamant that swearing was wrong, the rest of us were trying to explain that it was about context.  At first I felt really frustrated with this person.  Eventually the conversation ended with sharing of kitten pictures and much joviality, to which this person exited the conversation seemingly quite hurt and othered by the rest of us.


Somewhere in the midst of this conversation I started to see the person as a human being, bringing all his baggage (as was I, and everyone else in the conversation) and humanity with him. I started to think about where Jesus was in the midst of the conversation.  Everything seemed to shift.


I’m still trying to work through what this means. Alastair’s comments prop up misconceptions and generalisations that are harmful to building bridges between complementarian and egalitarian people and churches (even if that wasn’t the intention of his communications), yet I still see him as a friend.  Maybe this blog in itself reinforces his point, that women are interested in feelings, preventing men getting on with hard theological work.


And so the Arm Warmer Dilemma continues, how to disagree while still being friends. How to value someone’s gifts while holding that in tension with the damage they may be doing to the cause.  I don’t really have any answers, just more ponderings.