Thursday, September 29, 2016

What's a feminist spiritual rambler doing in the church? Part 1.

As a feminist who identifies as Christian and , on top of that, as a clergy person,   I often find myself in very strange terrain- sometimes rather lonely, I must admit.

I was raised in the church, even spending 6 years in the extremely churchy environment of an Anglican convent school, which felt like pre-Vatican 2,  even though I attended it in the early , hopeful years of that opening-up of the Roman Catholic church.  

I gave up on church in my teen years.  Why?  The language meant nothing to me.   I heard nothing about social justice- this in the years of Vietnam,  of developing civil rights, of a growing peace movement , of the beginnings of second-wave feminism.    I could not believe what I thought we were supposed to believe, for example about the virgin birth , or the bodily resurrection of Jesus.   I could not endure hearing week after week how bad I was- when I was already receiving those messages in my daily life.    And I saw no place for my questions.

I nourished my spirit in other ways  - though I did not know that was what I was doing.   Poetry.  Music. Nature.  Friendship. Creative conversation.   Communing with other people's companion animals.    Concern for social justice . My  mother was part of the beginning of the  Canadian New Democratic party.  I don't automatically think or act as my parents do, but I have been a social democrat/democratic socialist all my life.

People tried to convert me occasionally: if I would accept Jesus, my problems would all vanish and I would be happy.  I didn't think it was that simple.  I could not shut down my mind.  Nor could I  place my hope in a male authority figure- or indeed an authority figure of any gender.

In my postgraduate years in North Oxford,  my love of music drew me into a church choir and so into participation in a small and friendly Anglican congregation, where there was room for deep conversation and for eccentric people.    I realized I didn't have to believe everything literally.   I also realized I needed a spiritual community in order to keep myself grounded, and offset the isolation of an academic life.

In those days , I was engaged in the nuclear disarmament movement, in the National Council of Civil Liberties,  in a woman's conscious-raising group , the Christian feminist movement and in the Movement for the Ordination of Women.  These too were part of my spiritual life, as were late-night conversations and potluck parties with friends.

By a series of coincidences -  you might ask if it was the working of Spirit, but that will have to wait for another posting- I found myself teaching at a United Church of Canada seminary in beautiful Saskatoon on the Canadian prairies.   My spirit  found nourishment in the strong community  and cooperative movement in Saskatchewan,  connection with land and small towns,   and in the vibrant Christian Feminist network.  

 As I taught church history,  my students asked me  : where were the women?   And just then I encountered  brilliant Christian feminist scholars in print- and sometimes in person-: Rosemary Radford Ruether, Carter Heyward,  Elisabeth Schuessler Fiorenza,   Dorothee Soelle,    Beverly Wildung Harrison, Letty Russell,  to name but a few.    Joan Morris and others were investigating early church history, along with Ruether and Schuessler Fiorenza.     It was clear that women had indeed been an active part of the beginnings of the church but had been marginalized and often erased in the increasingly patriarchal church.

I often felt  angry- almost uncontrollably so- that my whole theological and spiritual being had been moulded within a church run by men - as the Anglican church was in my younger years- and within a whole body of theology based only on the experience of privileged  and powerful males.  Add to this: if those in the pew hear, pray and sing only male language about God, and often male language about humanity too,  this is not mere semantics.   Such language reinforces the perception of God as a powerful male, it enhances the status of powerful males, and it suggests that women as a whole are indeed far from being made in the image of God.  Such language , for example, supported the thinking of those opposed to women's ordination.  How could women ever bear the image and likeness of Jesus?  After all , wasn't Jesus male?

I do not mean- and I never did mean- that I am hostile to men and to men's experience.     I have through the years known men who understood that this was wrong and unjust.  To this day I know men who care that I use gender-inclusive language in my worship,  who are supportive of women being visible and active in leadership roles, and who show up when we have our annual hour of remembrance for the killing of 14 Montreal women [in 1989] and our prayers for the ending of violence against all women everywhere.  

And of course I know women who cannot see what the fuss is about.    I know of women who insist that they are not feminist, even while partaking in the benefits and opportunities won by previous generations of feminist women and men.

But I am , and always will be , a proud feminist.   Pride is supposedly a deadly sin.  But there is a good kind of pride , as our GLBTQ community reminds us: pride in finding one's voice, naming one's truth, taking one's place.   [ I will say more another day about a feminist perspective of sin.  ]

This is not about being better than anyone else.  In that respect , I resonate with the egalitarian Quakers- who would not use titles,  who saw everyone as offering a ministry , everyone as bearing the inner light, having that of God within themselves.   And I would say I am also resonating with Jesus as I understand Jesus.

Understanding Jesus- as a feminist- that's a whole other question, and I'll come back to that.
I will say that Carter Heyward and Rita Nakishima Brock were a great help in this undertaking, as were all the feminist and liberation theologies I had occasion to study over the years.

There is  a song by Carole Etzler which begins, " Sometimes I wish my eyes hadn't been opened/ sometimes I wish I just couldn't see". You can read the rest of it here.  She's referring partly to her experience as a lesbian- but when I first encountered this song, it was sacred text for many of us newly self-declared feminists.

I can't say that I wish my eyes hadn't been opened.   My passion and energy arise from open eyes, open mind and open heart- not that eyes, mind or heart are fully open.   I know there is much I still don't "get".  

I acquiesced for years- as many women have- in a church- indeed a society- where our experience and our stories were invisible.  My mission is to listen, write and advocate in a way that gives voice to the voiceless, that values lives and stories often discounted in the wider world, and that builds a more authentic and inclusive spiritual language and practice.  

I believe women and others recently empowered are in danger of acquiescing in the misuse of power and the stifling of dissent.   We may not even know we are doing it.  We may simply be trying to fit in, to please the people around us, being nice and likeable.   Or we may be feeling vulnerable and trying to ensure our own survival.

How can we be sure that we will not ourselves be stifled and silenced?  How can we persist in finding and using our voices,  naming our truth, and taking our place?  How can we persist in opening up a safe space for others , those marginalized and silenced, to do the same?  

To be continued....  

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