Women have a place in Christianity, but is it the place they want? Traditionally leaders of the church have been male, with females in the background. But times are changing, and for the last 40 years the Anglican church has ordained both men and women. Elizabeth Thomson and Harry Poland explore three young women's differing experiences with Christianity.



Twenty-year-old Christchurch student Isobel Wilson recalls being just 14 when she was first exposed to sexism and purity culture within the church.

“I remember a lot of the times being told, ‘You can’t wear that. You have to think of how the boys will react’… I remember being told this when I went to youth group when I was about 14, you know when you’re first starting to experiment with make-up and I wore red lipstick and they were like ‘Oh, you can’t wear that’. It’s just like, ‘I’m 14!”

For her, it was the start of what she believes was being held to a different standard than men.

“I felt like the things that I had to say had less value because I was a girl.”

Growing up, Isobel says she had a “pretty standard experience” for Christians in New Zealand.

“You’d go to church on a Sunday, and for me I was at a Christian school my whole life as well, so it was kind of like a regular thing for me to have Christianity in every aspect of my childhood.”


Growing up in Christianity, some of the teachings around women can have a big influence on young people’s lives.

University of Auckland senior lecturer in religion Dr Caroline Blyth explains.

“The role that seems to be prioritised for women in a lot of texts is wife and mother. That’s seen as the ideal sort of roles for women to take on, but then again as I say there are some texts where women can do other things.

“ We do see women taking on leadership roles or becoming prophets, or in the New Testament they take on the role of companions to Jesus, or helping Paul start up the early church.”


Honor Clement sits confidently and comfortably on a black couch, talking about her upbringing with a mother who made her realise the importance of faith.

“She is an incredible woman. My mum has always had quite a realistic view on life, and a realistic view on God, and her need for God.”

Growing up, Honor was raised as a Christian by her parents and attended church with her five siblings. A passionate ballerina, she had dreams of becoming a professional ballet dancer, however when she was 18 years old a series of events forced her to abandon that dream and pursue that same level of meaning somewhere else.

“My faith really became crucial during that time because I actually didn’t know what I was supposed to do.”

Eventually, her faith journey led her to Christchurch, where she is a personal assistant to the pastors at Majestic Church - a position that sees her involved in a number of leadership roles within the church.

“Only over the last two years have I started leading stuff properly. I love it, though it’s very hard.”


New Zealand Anglican Women's Association president Judith Mackenzie says the number of women in leadership roles within the church has increased over time, and she says it’s a good thing.

“Women have been ordained for 40 years in New Zealand, so they’ve grown up and stepped into leadership roles. Our first woman bishop was in Dunedin, and probably that was about 10 years ago. And we had a woman bishop here, Victoria, at the time of the earthquakes. She was our bishop for 10 years.”

She believes the church is changing some of its principles with the times, but there is some resistance from within.

“I think the church is trying to keep up with changes in society, but not everybody is accepting those changes. Not everybody likes what the church has to say.”


Nineteen-year-old student Abi Oxley believes there is unnecessary shame from within the church being put on women’s personal decisions.

“I would say it’s quite a big issue. I would say from my personal experience what I found from that whole purity culture and things to do with Christianity, is a lot of shame, and a lot of shame on people that might have made mistakes or experienced something that isn’t their fault.”

She believes there’s a judgemental culture within the church, which is impacting how people feel about their decisions.

“I think that abstinence, and saving yourself for marriage is something that should be completely individual. I think it should depend completely on the person, and other people’s perspectives, and other people's thoughts or opinions on somebody who might not have maintained that abstinence perspective shouldn’t impact how they feel.

“It makes me angry how people shame other people according to their religion because of what they’ve done, or what they’ve experienced before. And I think that’s quite a dangerous part of Christianity because it ends up turning a lot of people away from the church… It creates a very judgemental image, especially surrounding purity culture and as a woman it creates a judgemental image and it puts pressure on yourself. It’s a bit detrimental I think.”


Caroline Blyth agrees.

“I think it depends on how these teachings are used. I think that some church and Christian communities do use Biblical teachings to relegate women to a more subservient place.

She said it could be used to bring “shame” on women.

“We talk about the Bible being held up as a cultural prop - is held up to prop up patriarchal or misogynistic ideologies whether or not the Bible says that in the text.

“ I think it does have the potential to be used harmfully, to sort of keep women in their place. Women of all ages, but I think it can impact young women in particular.”

She thinks this may be part of the reason people are leaving Christianity.

She said the idea of the value of a woman being related to her sexual purity is something that she thought could be “quite damaging”.

“I think the Bible is far more concerned about women's virginity than men - I mean, it’s just not even an issue.

“ A woman is expected to be a virgin when she’s married, if she's found not to be a virgin, one of the Biblical laws says she can be put to death. These are very ancient texts, obviously churches aren’t advocating that today.”


Honor Clement says it’s empowering to be a woman in the church, and she believes women should dress in ways that make them confident for the right reasons.

“At the end of the day, for me personally I think that modesty and purity a lot of the time comes down to what your intentions behind it are… if it’s to get attention, to be someone you’re not, then you should have an issue with that yourself… We’re all blessed with beautiful bodies, so we should own that.”

Life Church worship leader Jessica Tull agrees.

“I think we all have a responsibility, male and female, to represent ourselves in the best way. For example, as a worship leader, I always think about what I wear and I want it to be something that’s not distracting to other people but I think we all have a responsibility to look out for each other.

“I think us as women have a duty to dress well, that can mean different things to different people but for me personally I would choose to wear something slightly less revealing. It’s also a man's responsibility to respect women, and I guess it just comes down to that. Respect each other, put others first - it comes from both sides. If you can put everything through that filter I think it works.”

She believes there’s still work to be done.

“I think there’s always work to be done no matter where you’re at, no matter how far along you are. I think the overall topic of treating everyone equally and without prejudice is always something that anyone can work on including the church, because we’re all just individuals just trying to do our best.

“Women have something original to give. God created man and female different for a reason, and I think that we should be proud of who we are, and be our best selves and have that freedom to be our best selves and not to strive to be something but just be authentic and if we can encourage everyone around us that this life has a lot to give, and we have a lot to contribute.”


Caroline Blyth says although the church has made progress, there’s still a long way to go for young women in the church,

“I think there’s been huge progress in the way that many church communities now include women in much more, that they give them leadership roles and women can take a much more active part but at the same time, I wouldn’t want to paint the picture too bright.

“The Christian church, like many religious traditions, is sort of founded on patriarchy and male leadership, and women sort of subservient roles and that’s certainly still a big part of Christianity and as I say, it is being challenged, and some churches and Christian communities are really working hard to challenge that, but there’s still a lot of work to be done.”

Abi Oxley says at the end of the day, Christianity is about love.

“Christianity should be about love, not love but or love and, just love.”



Written by: Harry Poland Videos and images by: Elizabeth Thomson Created with images by Ben White - "Contemplating woman" • Liv Bruce - "untitled image" • Ian Espinosa - "As a Jehovah’s Witness, I am part of a world-wide loving brotherhood full of people of every nation with the same beliefs of love, peace and high moral standards. All thanks to what Jehovah God has taught us through the Bible. It really saddens me to hear that my brothers in Russia have been officially banned and classified as extremists. The truth is quite the opposite. I made this photograph with love for my brothers in Russia and around the world, and for everyone to know this story." • Priscilla Du Preez - "untitled image" • Joel Muniz - "untitled image" • Siora Photography - "Like our work? Visit our profile to find lots more photos that you are sure to love.... https://unsplash.com/@siora18 ...... Thank You Xx" • Samantha Gades - "untitled image" • Rosie Fraser - "Rosie Fraser" • Alexis Brown - "Students learning together"