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.
On the flip side, what do you agree about?
Anyabwile: We’ve found that, in spite of our real (and important!) differences, we also share similar beliefs and desires. We want rigorous theological debate, but we also want more civility and kindness online. We want women to know Christian doctrine and know why it matters, and we want to obliterate any false dichotomy between Christian orthodoxy and justice. We want female leaders to be more overt about their beliefs, traditions, and structures of accountability.
We’re following the apostle Paul’s appeal to the Philippians to complete his joy “by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind” (Phil. 2:2). He’s not urging them to a blind uniformity but toward the kind of unity that agrees, in the words of John Calvin, to “accommodate themselves to each other.” Paul goes on to point out that their humility and sacrificial love for one another is Christlike. Jesus, too, tells us clearly the world will know that we are his disciples by our love for one another (John 13:35). Love is not convenient. It’s messy, beautiful, difficult, and slow, but worth it.
Can other women get involved?
Anyabwile: Yes! If you’re looking for good resources for discipling others (especially women) in your local context, you may want to check out our website. If you’re a woman seeking orthodox discipleship, you can affirm our faith statement and commitments, and you want to engage in civil conversations, even in the midst of disagreement, then you may want to join our Facebook group. As others come alongside and share the vision, we’ll develop new projects in line with our mission and commitments and then invite project leaders to join us.
In terms of discipleship, what’s currently on offer to women?
Prior: Many of us are uncomfortable with the place that consumerism, branding, platform, and marketing have taken within evangelicalism. Sometimes leaders prey on women’s feelings of loneliness and inadequacy—very often in forms that appear to offer spiritual nourishment but instead offer the snake oil of self-fulfillment. Booksellers and bloggers vie for our attention, hawking the idea that we’re all beautiful and brave and messy and unique and “enough,” except not quite enough, which is why we need to buy a book or pay for a conference that will offer us endless assurances that we can, in fact, “reach our goals,” “be enough,” and “make all our dreams come true.”
Anyabwile: There are some wonderful discipleship resources available to women, but they’re often hidden in the back recesses of the bookstores and not promoted broadly, because big names seem to sell better than big, robust theology.
How are you pushing back against this commodified discipleship? What do you offer that’s new?
Warren: In some sense, we don’t think we’re offering anything new—that’s part of the point. Orthodoxy, in the words of C. S. Lewis, is “the same old thing.” But we believe that this old (even ancient) “thing” is the truth of the universe, the reality on which we all stand, and the place in which women flourish. These old-yet-always-new truths can be lost, diluted, or twisted by the shenanigans and sin of both the church and the broader culture.
Anyabwile: What we’re offering is not commodified discipleship but embodied discipleship. We hope to provide resources that help women in the church to center their discipleship more deeply in accountability with one another, more deeply in the Word of God—our source of comfort and hope in a troubling social and political climate—and more deeply in the gospel and all that the gospel requires of us as we worship and serve together.
If your goal is to serve the church, what specific, felt needs are you meeting?
Prior: We want to be a resource for these churches as well as living examples of the idea that women can and should have robust spiritual lives—ones nourished in and by their local churches.
Warren: Esau McCaulley, a New Testament professor and one of our advisors, told us that he “can’t think of a better thing for the church right now than a multi-ethnic gathering of women committed to the local church and a generous but clear orthodoxy.” I agree with him. And there are a few specific conversations that come to mind when I think about how important his observation is.
I had a friend, a professor at a Christian college, call me and say, “I am actively trying to have more female Christian speakers and leaders address our students, but I want to know what these women believe and will teach. I want them to be thoughtful and rooted in the ‘Great Tradition’ of the church. And I want to make sure they are not going to deny a core part of orthodoxy or biblical teaching the week after I bring them in to speak.” I understood his desires but didn’t have any one place to point him. I’ve also had women leaders and pastors ask me, “Is there any place where diverse women who care about doctrine and practice are coming together?”
Anyabwile: I’m often asked by women of color for resources that are theologically sound and written from a minority cultural viewpoint. Many of my white friends want to learn from women of color and often ask where they might find doctrinally compatible, diverse resources, as well. The Pelican Project is a great place that I can point them to.
What about the needs of women in the African American church? How are they different, and how does the group hope to meet those distinct needs?
Anyabwile: Let’s face it. For many Christians, the current cultural environment feels like a spiritual famine. For women, spiritual famine comes in unique forms. Sometimes it looks like the marginalization and devaluing of women due to sexism. For African American women, in particular, spiritual famine comes in the form of both racism and sexism that makes us among the most spiritually alienated people in the church. We are the least preferred and least protected. Both our strengths and weaknesses are often used against us.
For some of us, the famine is something we’ve endured over centuries of slavery, oppression, and indignities at the hands of those who claim kinship in Christ. For others, the famine is a slow drip of microaggressions, misunderstandings, and fears. African American women need the church to see us as true co-laborers whose strengths are celebrated and encouraged. I think The Pelican Project provides a safe space for African American women (and other women of color) to be real and raw about our vulnerabilities, to be seen and sought after for godly wisdom, to be built up in the faith, to build others up in faith, and to have our arms held up in our weakness, so that we might continue the fight for visibility and voice in Christian spaces.
Tell us about the name. Where did it come from?
Warren: According to ancient legend, during times of famine, a mother pelican would pierce her breast with her own beak in order to feed her young with her blood. Early Christians adopted the pelican as a symbol of Christ’s sacrificial love for the church. You can see references to this symbol in Christian literature as early as the second century. It’s in a 13th-century hymn written by Thomas Aquinas. In The Divine Comedy, Dante refers to Christ as “our Pelican.” You’ll find images of the pelican on the stained glass and woodwork of churches across the world.
Anyabwile: The image is both Christological and feminine. It captures the imaginations of those who want to encourage others toward biblical orthodoxy in the local church. We affirm that our sustenance and strength is in Christ alone. And we affirm that the church is the place where that strength and sustenance is served.
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