Two years ago, Karen Swallow Prior started fielding phone calls from women who all expressed the same desire: to find community among women united in their orthodox belief. “I kept hearing the same kinds of things from women—whether egalitarian or complementarian or otherwise—who wanted a space that was theologically rooted and rigorous but that was also robustly pro-female,” says Prior, “a space where they could be honest about what they believed, where women of different ethnicities and denominations could come together around common beliefs and commitments.”
A few months later, about 20 women from across the country met together to talk and pray about how to practice orthodoxy in the public square and how to equip the church to better disciple women in their midst. The group launched publicly this week as The Pelican Project.
Along with Kristen Anyabwile and Tish Harrison Warren, Prior spoke recently with CT about the formation of their group and why it matters to the cultural moment.
Does the church need yet another collective, group, guild, or parachurch ministry?
Prior: That really is an important question, isn’t it? A couple of years ago, when this idea began to germinate, I wouldn’t have thought so. But then I got an email from a stranger, a conservative pastor leading a conservative congregation. He reached out to me because he sensed that the women in his congregation were withering because of a lack of robust theological training and engagement. He recognized that in his conservative circles (which are mine, as well) the de-emphasis or watering down of women’s discipleship isn’t the result of our theology but rather the failure to properly apply it in whole. Our conversation pointed to a need for more unity around the essentials of the faith. And then I kept hearing from more pastors and leaders expressing similar concerns.
Warren: The world needs a lot of things and, ultimately, I don’t think another guild is at the top of the list. (I have no delusions of grandeur here.) But modest good is still good, and I think all any of us can do is work in small, meaningful, and institutional ways to try to build something that might serve the church and the world beautifully.
Before the group started, many of us were getting inquiries from other women and men; they were asking for resources or struggling to find female voices to read or to listen to. Often, they didn’t know what particular female leaders believed or stood for. They felt that the version of Christianity marketed to women (by both the Right and the Left) tended to be anti-doctrinal and shallow.
There are some great and needed writers’ guilds in the world. Some of us in The Pelican Project are part of them. But, as far as I know, there isn’t one that has an overt, public belief statement with specific ethical and ecclesial commitments. The Pelican Project is not a guild particularly focused on writing or speaking as a craft; instead, we gather around the craft, if you will, of truth and faith, orthodoxy and orthopraxis.
How would you describe the mission and vision of the Pelican Project?
Anyabwile: We’re a guild of Christian women who seek to advance a shared commitment to orthodox belief and practice across cultural, denominational, and racial lines. We want to foster commitment to the common life of the church. We also want to offer biblically faithful resources—and other forms of support—to women, as well as to the pastors and leaders who disciple women.
Is the Pelican Project just for writers?
Prior: Many of our members are writers, but not all. This is not a group focused primarily on publishing or platform. It’s a group that seeks to be a resource for the church, particularly women. We want to strengthen women within their local church communities and also out in the world, where Christians are becoming increasingly combative and polarized. Whether we are writers or speakers or educators or ministry leaders in the church, we want to model a different way, a way of “hospitable orthodoxy” that is uncompromising but also compassionate and kind.
Tell us more about your ministerial goals. How, exactly, do you hope to equip local churches and believers?
Warren: We are all working and active in our local churches. That’s one of the stated commitments of the group. Part of our work is to put good resources and books by women into the hands of local pastors and leaders. Part of our work is to help women have a biblical and robust ecclesiology, so they can be rooted in their local church and tradition, and understand why that matters. Evangelicalism can be so focused on individual discipleship and prone to celebrity worship. We’ve lost a really rich understanding of the church as the primary place for our formation and discipleship.
But there are women whose local church has no female leaders or voices, so we hope to serve as a kind of lifeline for women in those spaces—and for men who want to amplify female voices that are orthodox and have a robust ecclesiology. My hope is that in 30 years, we wouldn’t need anything like the Pelican Project, because local churches would be full to the brim with theologically rooted, theologically trained, institutionally credentialed, orthodox women leaders.
I hope that my own two girls (who are five and eight) will simply have an expectation that their church has dynamic and mature, orthodox, generous, female Christian leaders in it, because that will be so very common. But we’re not there now, so I hope The Pelican Project can help the church in that direction.
What ideological differences define the group? What do you disagree about?
Anyabwile: One of the things I love about the group is that our ideological differences don’t define us. They do matter, but we work hard to understand each other’s perspectives and to either find common ground or disagree charitably.
Warren: I’m a female priest and (obviously) strongly for women’s ordination. Others in the group think women’s ordination is unbiblical. We have different views of the sacraments, baptism and the Eucharist, and differences in ecclesiology.
Then, there are some of us who are more conservative, theologically and politically, and some not so much. Some vote Republican and some have never voted Republican. We inhabit somewhat different theological, ecclesiological, and, at times, ideological worlds. But rather than ignoring those differences, we find that, as each of us brings them to the table honestly, we’re enriched and challenged, even as we disagree.
As a group, we’re trying to be, in the words of one of the members of our advisory council, “not quite as theologically conservative as our most conservative member, but not quite as theologically progressive as our most progressive member.” But we aren’t trying to be some kind of monolith of “moderates.” We want to embody an actual alternative, a group where politics isn’t our ultimate value; where we can disagree about the Scriptures or tradition but still all come around the Bible and believe, deeply and completely, that it’s true and right; where we can debate, charitably but rigorously. We want to be as honest about our disagreements as our agreements.
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Source: Christianity Today