Some Thoughts on Feminism in the Emerging Church

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Introduction

When we are asked to interpret to ourselves the stories of the bible we often interpret them in metaphorical terms of what it means to be human. The great example is, of course, Job. It is a story about theodicy, about the struggle to be faithful when we feel cursed. The story of Jacob is about the wrestling we do with God, our attempts to understand her and, sometimes, to gain mastery of her. David’s is the story of the imperfect man who is somehow singled out for greatness and struggles to live up to his great destiny. What these stories all have in common is that they are generally interpreted, even if subconsciously, in androcentric terms. Job could never be a woman because most of the women in the bible are either absolutely degenerate or completely passive to God and circumstance. Jacob, as a woman, would never dare to wrestle with God or demand God’s name. If David was a woman, there would have been no great destiny as she would have been stoned to death for adultery and murder. The point is that a woman reading the bible does not get a firsthand sense of what it means to be human, only what it means to be a human male. Though we are often told from the pulpit that the experiences of Jobs and Jacobs and Davids are emblematic of human experience, the truth is that women hear something different in these stories. Even the official interpretive framework is different for men and women. Stories about men are meant to be taken as metaphorical or at least as pointing to some greater truth, while stories about women are meant to be taken literally.

Of course, times are changing as they generally will. Social and political changes have made women call these discrepancies to attention and even demand a change in how women are received by the official church. Feminism is necessarily a prophetic movement and thus has found a place for itself within the movement toward a renewed church. The question is, will this emerging church heed that prophetic call? Or will it, like so many movements, co-opt the language and trappings of feminism while denying actual women their dignity as imago Dei?

Women Emerging

As everyone knows, the bible has a lot to say about women without having many actual women’s voices in it. For centuries, we have interpreted literally verses pertaining to women while those relating to men have changed with the times or are given a more metaphorical gloss. Consider these passages from scripture, one dealing with male behavior and the other with female:

If brothers dwell together, and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the dead shall not be married outside the family to a stranger; her husband’s brother shall go in to her, and take her as his wife, and perform the duty of a husband’s brother to her.” Deuteronomy 25:5

               “Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its savior. As the church is subject to Christ, so let wives also be subject to their husbands.” Ephesians 5:22-24[1]

Which of these verses is still considered authoritative by a substantial number of Christians? The reader can see the utility of both passages in the abstract. The first is meant to keep property within the family or tribe and the second is to bring Christian culture into normative Roman social structures. We can argue that when we abstract women and think only of survival, both verses make sense. However, the first loses its authority once society has moved out of tribal structures, freeing men from having to marry their sisters-in-law. The second, however, is still needed in a religion that has retained many of the features of Roman social organization (features that are now nearly inseparable from specific doctrine) which include the control of women and their bodies. The truth is that when it comes to women, we are still subject to a literal Christianity that men have long outgrown.

Luckily, there has been a resurgence of feminist theological scholarship in recent decades which has slowly been trickling down into the pews. In the 90s, many churches began to use gender-inclusive language for liturgies and prayer books. Women’s retreats, long seen only as catering to gender stereotypes, now offer feminist programming. Women in most mainstream protestant churches can now be ordained. It would seem to the casual observer that women are finally taking their rightful place in church life.

“Where, Now, Is the Authority?”[2]

But along with advancement comes reaction. How are we to decide what innovations are valid? Tradition has always been an incredible force in religion and tradition has usually meant policing women, their lives, and their bodies. How has the church dealt with the disruption of feminism? In some cases, as we’ve seen, the church has embraced (but only after a long struggle) the women in their pews. But often the embrace is a tentative one, one that seeks to protect both the embraced and the embracer. While gender inclusive language has become the norm in many churches, feminist language has not. We may be comfortable changing the word “Father” or “Lord” to simply “God” because that still allows us to envision God as male[3]. Imagine the consternation if a priest were to address God as “Lady Mother”! The same sort of hedging happens with ordination. Women may now be ordained but it is usually only into a top-down patriarchal hierarchy. And when it comes to being Christ’s witnesses for issues that affect women, such as abortion, Christian churches, by and large, come down on the side of paternalism. In short, we’re perhaps only part way there. A true feminist reimagining of church has yet to take place and its full birth will be incredibly painful, rending patriarchal tradition and upsetting hierarchies long cherished.

Our era, however, is not the first to experiment with language or authority. Even a casual acquaintance with the writings of the female mystics of the medieval period shows us that some had the courage to follow the prompting of the spirit beyond the dogma or practice of the institutional Church. Julian of Norwich, in her attempt to articulate God’s perfect love, often spoke of her as a mother;

“As verily as God is our father, so verily is God our mother.”[4]

“And thus is Jesus our very mother in kind of our first making; and he is our very mother in grace, by taking our kind made…We wit that all our mother’s bearing is us to pain and to dying: and what is this but that our very mother, Jesus, he – all love – beareth us to joy and to endless living?”[5]

Marguerite Porete, burned for heresy in 1310, imagined that one could reach a state of such unity with God that the hierarchical chain of command was unnecessary. As a beguine, she already flouted the church’s preference that women be either cloistered or married. To live as a beguine was to live within the suspicion of the institution and, in many cases, to exist without male headship.

These are just two examples of medieval women who, listening to that “still, small voice”, allowed themselves to be led beyond dogma and androcentric interpretation into the mystery of true being in God. For the mystics, the authority was almost entirely found in the holy spirit, informed by scripture. And though the words of these women were lost for centuries, they are being rediscovered by feminist theologians and others who are interested in resurrecting and reigniting a mystical and metaphorical tradition no longer concerned with hard dogma and certainty. A new church is struggling to be born from the authority of the holy spirit.

Feminism and the Emerging Church

There are many new feminist movements in the amorphous mist of what is being called the Emergent or Emerging Church. What makes them different from previous attempts to be more inclusive of women is that these movements are holistic. Not content simply with ordaining women or using feminist or inclusive language, these movements question the entire structure of the patriarchal church. For example, Roman Catholic Womenpriests, a group of excommunicated Roman Catholic women who have been ordained via legitimate apostolic succession, make it clear that you can’t just “add women and stir”[6]. In other words, what the Womenpriests want is not simply to be ordained into a maleview system and hierarchy but rather into a new way of being church. All one has to do is attend a Womenpriest mass to see this long view at work. The priest does not do the consecration of the eucharist alone, it is often done by the entire congregation in unison. Decisions are made by consensus and, in many groups, participants take turns planning and leading the liturgy. In the world of the Roman Catholic Womenpriests, bishops are not the boss but instead mentors and spokeswomen. The office of the papacy itself comes under scrutiny. Theology is fluid (at times decidedly not Roman Catholic) and no one is called to account for following their conscience.

This democratic and egalitarian model of worship and fellowship is not restricted to women but it is a product of feminist struggles. Sharing, storytelling, and prophetic action have always been the way women have struggled to network and stay centered in a patriarchal world. Having seen what hierarchy does to the oppressed women are often inspired to create new ways of being in community. I believe we are seeing these same kinds of experiments occur within many emergent faith communities.

Conclusion: Problems for Feminism and the Emerging Church

One of the biggest challenges for feminism and the emerging church will be staying true to itself. History shows that marginalized and small movements are much better at staying authentic than are larger ones. Mainstream culture and, in this case, the institutional churches, if they are smart, will attempt to co-op these movements before they can make substantial changes. This is exactly what Constantine did by his conversion and the result was the cementing of dogma and the creation of the councils that decided who and what was in and who and what was out. The danger is all the closer when we realize that feminism has already been exposed to this exploitation for at least thirty years.  Mary Daly in Beyond God the Father explains this phenomenon when she writes that patriarchal institutions that co-opt the language and superficial mannerisms of feminism can create a society where women are content to call themselves feminists without having to do any of the hard work of reimagining society. It is by this way that many visionary movements are brought right back into the fold of mainstream culture with their old hierarchies.

Do we know how to stay authentic without digressing into old ways of leadership? This is a question that I think we need to very honestly and openly examine. It is human nature to turn to what we already know. It is also easy to be lulled back to sleep by forces calling for us to be “rational” and “pragmatic” which inevitably leads back to abstracting women rather than hearing their individual voices. It seems to me that the only way around this problem is to create a lasting culture of emergence, one that is always open to the spirit as well as the experiences of the everyday people living within it. Hierarchy has left us a legacy of elitism and stale tradition divorced from the lives of the laity. I am reminded of Joshua Monk’s letter to Phineas Finn in the novel of that same name. “They think that we must be what we were,—at any rate, what we were thirty years since. They have not, perhaps, gone into the houses of artisans, or, if there, they have not looked into the breasts of the men.”[7] What Monk says to Phineas about the opposition to fully representational government is also true of the opposition to truly representational religion. They may have visited the houses of women but, as of yet, they have not sat at our tables and asked us what matters most in our hearts.

 

[1] Herbert G. May and Bruce Manning. Metzger, The new Oxford annotated Bible with the Apocrypha: containing the second edition of the New Testament and an expanded edition of the Apocrypha (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977).

[2] Phyllis Tickle and Danielle Shroyer, The great emergence: how Christianity is changing and why (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2012). I found Tickle’s argument about the great question of authority to be right on when describing the problems inherent in early emergence. This is especially true for feminist movements which not only do not find support in much traditional authoritative structures and works but often go explicitly against them. We are often at pains to identify the usual sources of our authority.

[3] While I would not advocate for an exclusive use of feminine imagery, I have personally found that doing so occasionally liberates the mind and allows women to fully experience God as part of themselves and their lives. It also avoids the problem of assigning gender traits to God, for instance, female imagery for nurturing aspects only and male imagery for aggression and action.

[4] Julian of Norwich, Revelations of divine love (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2006), 121.

[5] Lbid., 124.

[6] This was the rather delightful turn of phrase used by Jane Kryzanowski, priest from Regina, Saskatchewan in a conversation with me in January 2017.

[7] Anthony Trollope, Phineas Finn (E-artnow, 2015), E-Book, loc 17085

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