There has been a delightful movement started among the clergy women of the North Texas Conference whereby they are asking all clergywomen to wear red high heels on the Monday of Annual Conference as a sign of our connection and our solidarity with one another. One quote, apocryphally attributed to Kathleen Baskin-Ball reads, “you haven’t preached until you’ve preached in a pair of red heels.” The tradition apparently dates to wonderful memories of Cathy Bingman’s ordination.
But I won’t be wearing red high heels on that day and I want to say why.
Two Reasons: The Practical and The Theological
The first reason is simply practical: I have difficult feet, never, ever wear high heels, must buy expensive shoes to keep my feet healthy and pain-free, and would prefer not to spend my limited clothing budget on a pair of shoes that I will not wear again.
But I would quickly discard the practical and spend the money were it not for a deeper issue.
The second issue is theological, and there are two prongs to this.
The Invisible Preacher
First, when I preach, my goal is to become such a powerful conduit for the Word of God that I become utterly invisible to the congregation as their attention moves fully to God. Time after time, when I read in Scripture of the Presence of God descending upon humanity, I see that such Presence deserves full attention—and is so glorious that nothing else matters anyway. The words I most prefer not to hear at the end of worship, “You did a great job today, Preacher” (or,” what color IS your hair today?”). The words I most desire to hear, “I met God today in worship.”
Over and over, I have told my worship team, everyone from the director, to the Communion stewards, to the musicians and singers, to the people who run the sound booth: “The better you are, the less people will notice you. Leading in worship is not a performance, but is a window through which glory is glimpsed.”
So the idea that I have not preached until I have preached in red shoes is a bit problematic to me. But I also understand how it works for others and I really do celebrate that and support that tradition for them.
Solidarity With Other Clergy
Second: the issue of solidarity with other clergy. If I understand rightly, the purpose behind the movement is to express the solidarity of our female clergy connection. That is a wonderful, wonderful thing. I’m deeply grateful for my female clergy colleagues. But I am also deeply and equally grateful for my male clergy colleagues.
I came to age in a theological world that is foreign to almost all other women in this clergy connection. The world I knew was the one that said that a woman hearing a call to preach is hearing a lie, for God would not call a woman. Therefore a woman who hears such a call is deceived and must be kept silent.
I know by heart all the textual arguments used to deny women a place in the pulpit or other ecclesiastical leadership roles that exercise authority over men. At one point, I could even quote the Greek and Hebrew texts to support those arguments.
Eventually, by my own diligent study of the Holy Scriptures, I began to believe that such arguments have a deep and fatal flaw: they elevate human interpretation over the very nature of God and the liberating power of the gospel.
Eventually, I became one of those who fought the fight and said, “This is wrong.”
I also became one of those who paid a horrific price for my willingness to speak out.
I know this: there are women who are serving freely because I did pay that price. I do not regret it.
What I regret is that they were willing for me to pay the price for them, but they were not willing to pay the price for others. I was eventually expelled from that world and what little I had been able to accomplish there has long since been wiped away.
When I finally found the world of The United Methodist Church, I learned that I had been a Wesleyan long before I ever read John Wesley. I also knew that doors were open here because other women AND men had fought the same fight I had been fighting, but, thanks be to God, with a different outcome.
All this brings me, finally, to the important conversation the female lead clergy had with Bishop McKee on Tuesday, April 9, 2013. I heard him voice profound theological and practical support for women in central and influential lead clergy positions. I also heard him say that at this time, he does not wish to place a woman in a position where she will most certainly fail because the ground has not yet been plowed for her, or that which had once been rich and welcoming soil has now become hard-packed and rejecting.
As the Bishop spoke, I started thinking of Ghandi’s great salt march in India. The mining and distribution of salt, that mineral essential to life particularly in a hot humid country where heavy perspiration is a way of life, was restricted to the British. And they made everyone else pay, and pay dearly, for that which was needed to stay alive.
At the culmination of the great salt march, man after man was clubbed down by British soldiers. Read these words from a live press report:
Not one of the marchers even raised an arm to fend off the blows. They went down like ten-pins. From where I stood I heard the sickening whacks of the clubs on unprotected skulls. The waiting crowd of watchers groaned and sucked in their breaths in sympathetic pain at every blow. Those struck down fell sprawling, unconscious or writhing in pain with fractured skulls or broken shoulders. In two or three minutes the ground was quilted with bodies. Great patches of blood widened on their white clothes. The survivors without breaking ranks silently and doggedly marched on until struck down….Finally the police became enraged by the non-resistance….They commenced savagely kicking the seated men in the abdomen and testicles. The injured men writhed and squealed in agony, which seemed to inflame the fury of the police….The police then began dragging the sitting men by the arms or feet, sometimes for a hundred yards, and throwing them into ditches.
That is solidarity. And such solidarity eventually led to the end of British Colonial rule in India.
We Have it Very, Very Good
Again, I want to say I appreciate red high heels. I appreciate the symbolism, the solidarity and the power expressed there. I appreciate their beauty, and the empowerment they represent. This is important.
I also say: Clergy women of the North Texas Conference, we have it very, very good. While I personally disagree with the Bishop’s decision (I think we are going to have to have more martyrs rather than already plowed ground before substantive change takes place), I also trust that this man is for us, not against us.
My own solidarity now goes to those who don’t have the kinds of privileges and support I have. I am thinking of the women who are routinely shrouded and kept silent. Who have brutal operations on their genitalia in order to destroy sexual pleasure and ensure their chastity. Who are shot when standing up for the right to educate girls. Who are forced into sexual slavery or into unwanted marriages. Who have bought into a world of generational poverty exacerbated by multiple baby-daddies who offer only sperm but nothing else.
Were I to don footwear that expresses such support, I would actually be barefoot. I would have to walk on hot sidewalks with no foot protection, none of the expensive cushioning and fine workmanship with which I pamper myself. No more pedicures, no more smooth well-cared for skin, for the calluses would be my only protection from sharp stones and pieces of piercing glass.
But I won’t. I shall stride into Annual Conference in my unfashionable shoes, grateful for every step without pain. I shall admire every single pair of red high heels I see and cheer each one on. I shall pray diligently for those who are barefoot, either in actuality or symbolically, and know our work paves the way for them.
And I will breathe a silent “thank you” for all those women and men who have already fought the fight, paid the price and made a way for me.
We are all together in this battle.