Who Is at Whose Table?

I recently had the opportunity to represent the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women (GCSRW) at the Northeast Jurisdiction’s Transformational Leadership Conference. This involved spending some time at the GCSRW display table where I engaged people in conversation about the mission and ministries of the Commission. I had some rather lovely and meaningful interactions, but over the course of those hours at the table, I was also surprised and troubled by a recurring refrain: “It’s a bit ironic for a man to be at the women’s table, don’t you think?” 

This was always said in passing, never with the intent to engage in further dialogue.

The first time such a remark was directed towards me, I am fairly certain I simply sat there with a dumbfounded look on my face. I hadn’t even considered that my presence at the GCSRW table might be strange. I suppose this was primarily a function of the ways I have been welcomed and encouraged as a valued and equal member of the GCSRW board, as well as of my own commitment  to the mission of the organization in working toward the full and equal participation of women at all levels of The United Methodist Church.

The more I thought about it, the more troubled I became.

Referring to GCSRW’s space as “the women’s table” perpetuates the notion that women’s issues are for women alone. Moreover, it ignores the ways that GCSRW is partnering with a wide spectrum of people and agencies, in the U.S. and globally, to ensure that all have equal access to resources, opportunities, and fair process.

Even more importantly, it reveals that we have not as a whole church taken responsibility for fostering communities where women are able to participate fully and equally. For it to be ironic that a man would be at the “women’s table” suggests that men, and by extension the global church made up of women and men alike, do not need to be specially concerned with issues facing women.

The foundational mandate for the Commission states that GCSRW’s specific commitment “will confirm anew recognition of the fact that The United Methodist Church is part of the universal church, rooted in the liberating message of Jesus Christ, that recognizes every person, woman or man, as a full and equal part of God’s human family” (Book of Discipline ¶ 2102). We ensure equitable access not by simply declaring it universally to be so but by making it so through care for each constitutive part of the body of Christ. (This is why it matters also to be able to say specifically #BlackLivesMatter. And #BlackWomensLivesMatter. And to #SayHerName.)

We may wish to skip ahead to a time when there is no need for independent commissions devoted to particular concerns being that the whole church would already incorporate these perspectives and interests. But if a man’s commitment to the struggle for justice for women is still ironic, then we have not yet reached the day when we can say that the church has taken responsibility as a whole for equity, fairness, and the flourishing of all.

And so the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women, with women and men together, presses onward toward that vision of a church where all are valued in the fullness of their particular gifts and unique embodiments of the Spirit and God’s love.

Tyler Schwaller is an ordained deacon in the Iowa Conference and a doctoral candidate in New Testament and Early Christianity at the Divinity School of Harvard University. He has been a member of the board of the General Commission of the Status and Role of Women since 2008, during which time he has also served as the chairperson of GCSRW’s legislative task force. To read more on why this work matters to Tyler, see his earlier post celebrating Women’s History Month.

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