Ministering to All of Us: A Response to Valerie Hobbs’ “Women on Trial”

The issue is whether we regard any person who exists on the outside edge of ‘normal’ as having a valid claim to be competent interpreters of their own experience?

What is it in Dr. Hobbs’s report that evokes such loud cries and such harsh criticism? Dr. Hobbs’s thesis was that the language used of the defendant’s wife throughout the trial, as well as the treatment Dr Hobbs herself experienced, underscores the Church’s refusal to consider, much less value, the unique perspective of someone whose physical, mental, and emotional experience is at variance with established norms regarding how Christian men and women ought to think and behave.

 

Today I worshiped with a feminist and a deaf kid. We were snowed in this Sunday, so we had family worship. We sang “When Peace Like a River,” and “Holy, Holy, Holy.” We read Luke’s account of the resurrection and the discourse on the road to Emmaus. I talked about the Gospel: about why Christ came, what he did, why he had to die, and what his resurrection means. Each one of us approached Christ this morning from the perspective of our own unique experiences and concerns. Each of us relinquished our claims upon ourselves, and each of us received new identities in Christ. And we were still different, having unique experiences and concerns.

An article appeared last week in The Aquila Report, titled, “Women On Trial: One Observer’s View.” The report detailed the experiences of disenfranchisement and disempowerment of a woman in attendance at an ecclesiastical trial. Since the publication of the report, the author, Dr. Valerie Hobbs, has received more than twenty emails and phone calls of support from pastors and elders, as well as countless emails and calls from lay supporters the world over.

The public reception of Dr. Hobbs’s report hints at the reasons why her supporters suffuse such appreciation and admiration. Within twenty-four hours of publishing her piece, ministers, elders, and lay members of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church have labeled Dr. Hobbs a slanderer, a gossip, biased, jaundiced, sensitive, and divisive. She has been accused of impugning motives, and she has been accused of evil report. One lay critic bizarrely accused her of being an academic.

Most interestingly, however, Dr. Hobbs stands accused of being a feminist. Some, wishing to be emphatic, call her a “rank feminist” and a “radical feminist”. One critic insinuates that her so-called feminism must stem from a failed relationship (Dr. Hobbs reports that her husband found this one to be particularly amusing). Another suggests that Dr. Hobbs intends to replace a Christocentric, biblical hermeneutic with a feminist, gynocentric one, implying that her attempt to report on her own experiences as a woman at a trial of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church is a threat to the very Lordship of Christ.

What is it in Dr. Hobbs’s report that evokes such loud cries and such harsh criticism? Dr. Hobbs’s thesis was that the language used of the defendant’s wife throughout the trial, as well as the treatment Dr Hobbs herself experienced, underscores the Church’s refusal to consider, much less value, the unique perspective of someone whose physical, mental, and emotional experience is at variance with established norms regarding how Christian men and women ought to think and behave.

Dr Hobbs’s method is recognizably academic and scientific. She wishes to gather data for the purposes of analysis. She knows that her experience is conditioned by her own unique experiences as a Christian, as a woman, and as an academic. She knows that she approaches her investigation with certain biases (an “agenda”, if you will) and she knows that it’s impossible to leave these completely behind. So she’s up front about them.

More particularly, Dr. Hobbs approaches her investigation from the perspective of a linguist, focused on the language used of her and of the defendant and his wife. She observes clues, both subtle and explicit, to the assumptions and presumptions at work in the conduct of the trial and in how she herself is treated. She analyzes for patterns and seeks to contextualize facts, some of which certainly seem benign when taken in isolation.

For example, in view of the predominance of males in attendance, it seems natural enough that the organizers of the event, many of whom were female, assigned both of the available restrooms to the men. This was done with informal provision (a woman guarding the door) for the few women present. However, the service of the women of the host church in giving up their claim to the facilities appears to have been taken for granted by the men present, who entered in and out of both restrooms without acknowledging the women waiting to enter, and without respecting or apparently considering their needs. And when Dr. Hobbs grew frustrated and desperate, and attempted to assert herself, this was met with a threat of violence (the threat of being intruded upon, having her body exposed to the gaze of a male).

Dr. Hobbs presents an exchange with an elder who asserts control over her body by taking her hand without it being offered, removing her from the public space to a private one. The exchange feels more like an interrogation than a conversation, in which the elder persistently rejects Dr. Hobbs’s attempts to assert herself in any terms other than docile, domestic, and subject to the care of a male. Dr. Hobbs concludes from these experiences that her presence at the trial was unexpected by most and resented by some, and she asks us to consider whether such behavior may suggest underlying attitudes about gender and disability.

Dr. Hobbs’s reporting of these and of other experiences with pastors and elders in attendance spotlights the issue: Who decides what is ‘normal’? Central to Dr. Hobbs’s analysis is a speech, given by a presbyter, which lauds the example of a husband who compels his sick and disabled wife to church in spite of her protests that she is not well enough to attend. In the speech, this presbyter appears to affirm his belief that a man should attend to his own and his family’s spiritual well being, and that if he is at times too heavy handed then this is excusable in light of his having the right intention to ensure the ‘good order’ of his home. If, on the other hand, a man is perceived to fail in this regard, due to the lax exercise of his authority, then this is taken as negligence worthy of censure.

But who is the arbiter of “good order” in this case? Is not much of what we consider “good order” highly contingent and variable? Does “good order” not refer back to “normal”? What of the abnormal? How many times did the defendant’s wife need to be at church in order to be a ‘normal’ church goer? How did the defendant need to conduct his household affairs in order to be a ‘normal’ Christian husband and father? How did his wife need to behave in order to be a ‘normal’ woman in public and with other members of the church and the presbytery?

How did Dr. Valerie Hobbs need to behave, to be called normal? Should she not have had a requirement to use the facilities, especially if that requirement inconvenienced the men in attendance? Should she have stayed with a pastor’s family and not at a hotel? Should she have been there with her husband? Should she have served food with the other ladies? Or should she have not been there at all?

The issue in view is not Dr. Hobbs’s so-called feminism. The issue is whether we are prepared to regard any person who exists on the outside edge of ‘normal’ as having a valid claim to be competent interpreters of their own experience, as a matter of their own conscience, before God, and whether we will give them voice to place their needs before us. Are the councils and courts of this church prepared to deal with the complexities of disability? Are they, at a bare minimum, fully aware of the provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act?

The rudeness of presbyters rolling their eyes and circling their fingers in the air at the account of the defendant’s wife’s physical condition, and the fact that so many critics of Dr. Hobbs’s interpretation of her own experience elicit cries of “feminist!”, suggest that we are not so prepared. But I would suggest that Christ himself was fully so prepared, even offering his own body to be broken for the sake of the least of these.

There are many in the OPC who seek the Lord in quiet and in suffering, on the outside edge of normal. Not all of them are easy to look at or be around. Some of them are perplexing, gross, socially awkward, and sometimes downright embarrassing. Deaf, blind, autistic, chronically ill, drug addicted, depressives, academics, feminists, postmodernists, liberals, Democrats, people with tattoos: a whole spectrum of people who live somewhere at the edge of ‘normal’, all different, all uniquely gifted to experience the world as you don’t, facing choices and having to make compromises that you could never imagine and of which you probably never will be aware, facing highly personal and complex decisions about their bodies. How will you minister to these?

I am husband to a woman who labors in academia, just like Dr. Valerie Hobbs. She has learned to be attentive to her body as well as to her mind. She cherishes that she is a woman and that she has a voice to lay her needs before her Lord and before her husband. She expresses to me often that she is sad that her voice, and the voices of other academic, so-called “feminist” women, are not heard in the church.

I am father to a deaf child. He never prayed until one day I asked him why. “I’m not sure that God will hear me if I sign to him, and I am not sure that I can talk well enough.” When I told him that God knows his heart, and that God knows all languages, even ASL, he prayed. He found that his voice was his hands, and he has prayed every night since.

Today I worshiped with a “feminist” and a deaf kid. We opened the scriptures together and we found Christ. We gave ourselves up to Him, and we received ourselves new, refreshed, and still wonderfully different. Minister to us. All of us.

Christopher Jones is a member of Merrimack Valley Presbyterian Church, a congregation of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. He lives in Stow, Massachusetts, with his wife, Jeannette, and his two young sons. Christopher is the manager of an Engineering team at a Boston based tech startup, and Jeannette is working on a Ph.D. in Musicology, specializing in early music and in disability studies.