Tanya Riches

About Tanya Riches

Tanya Riches is doing her PhD in Development studies, but is also a well-known Pentecostal singer/songwriter. She is committed to ending stereotypes by examining lived religion.

S&M: Can you be an intelligent feminist and attend…Hillsong Church?

Despite being enrolled in a PhD, I’ve never thought I was “intelligent”.

In fact, I thought the opposite for years. Schools make it hard to work out where you actually stand. I’ll never forget my final three-unit-English comment: “Like reading hieroglyphics, 98 percent”.

Maybe it’s Aussie equality, or maybe we don’t want girls to believe they are smart, I don’t know.

I have to admit, I had other reasons for suspicion regarding my mental capacity. Namely, that I was, and still am, a practising Pentecostal Christian.

Maybe that’s why I didn’t connect the word intelligent to myself. When I got to university, I realised religious people are often deemed to have questionable logic. But Pentecostals seemed most dubious. Believing in miracles despite scientific evidence is ignorant. Objecting that there seems to also be definitive proof that life breaks out in unprecedented ways is primitive. But, admitting you’ve spoken in tongues is freaky enough to make people slide along their cafeteria seats.

Being a Pentecostal woman in Australia?

Ridiculous.

Everybody knows religion is oppressive to women. So a woman who chooses it is beyond hope of intellectual salvation.

At least that’s the picture I get when reading some religious scholars, such as Marion Maddox, who describes Hillsong’s conference Colour Your World (where Sydney’s Entertainment centre will be filled with religious women) as “theological gloss” that pressures women to appear perfect while encouraging them to play submissive roles and restricting their choices.

I think “Princess Theology” annoys academics the most. This logic goes that God is King, and you are his daughter, therefore you are a princess. Apparently people even wear pink crowns to celebrate this.

Fair enough. Look, it’s been a while since I needed to hear I was “a princess”. But if ordinary women have any resonance with princess imagery nowadays surely it’s because of women’s magazines. I regret the small fortune I spent building this ever-expanding empire in my teens. My entire generation poured over “heroin chic” in the playground, wishing we could be that thin, the very definition of beauty. Oh, to be a shadow that could barely be seen. To stand sideways and almost disappear when taking a selfie in the mirror.

What were we practising when we did this? We weren’t practising feminism, that’s for sure.

With these messages it was almost impossible to describe myself as “beautiful”. But a word I did connect to myself early was “competent”. It took a while to figure out my giftings – but that happened at church. I know it may seem strange, but it’s true, so I don’t mind saying it. It’s hard not to call Hillsong feminist. Women at Hillsong write and lead chart-topping music, preach the sermons and do pastoral care. Women are involved in every level of the organisation, from Senior Pastor Bobbie Houston to the joyous cleaner, Ruth. I quickly “got” that I could work in any career I wanted to, if I worked hard.

This is something I am incredibly grateful for.

Hillsong women are of all ages, political persuasions and socio-economic realities. As women we’ve grappled with the actual limitations and possibilities of having a female body. Sex. Childbearing. Or maybe not in both cases. I’ve watched friends at church decide to pursue movie-making ambitions, while others decide to quit to rear their children. I love hugging little ones each Sunday and sharing the pains of teething online – but it’s not definitive of Christian womanhood.

Every Sunday a community of women negotiate the expectations society places upon them, seeking to find a better balance between personal health, family and public life. Strong women. In fact, I suggest this community is very intelligent in negotiating all of the voices making demands.

Thousands of women will head out to Colour Your World this weekend. My professor mother is attending with my aunt, a Pacific women’s rights activist and artist.

As far as the men at Hillsong go, they are pretty “womanist”. There are a range of biblical and theological interpretations, not all “complementarian”.

So, if you see me with a newly released Colour Your World Conference #2 T-shirt that screams “GET YOUR BRAVE ON”, then just know I wear it as a feminist.

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