Women in the church

This is an old talk I did back in 2013. i found it when I was sorting computer files. I would not narrow my identity to “woman” these days this was a sort of last gasp of that while calling myself “queer/lesbian” was still new and unfamiliar.

I’ve only been given a very few minutes to talk about gender which upsets me because I have an awful lot to say about it and I would like to do it in a fair and balanced way. But given the shortness of the time I won’t try to look at all points of view, or be polite or nice or sugar-coat what I need to say. I will narrow gender to speak almost exclusively of women, and I will construct a very biased woman’s point of view which can’t possibly speak for all women, however is a beginning and part of a lot of things that may need to be said by a lot of different women. I give myself permission in it to be as angry and abused and broken as I in fact am and I am going to name and blame the patriarchy of the church for my anger and experience of abuse and brokenness, for my estrangement from God and for my lack of a sacramental home. I would like to say an awful lot about that because the church does it to a lot of women and unlike me not all of them still even have one foot in the church or play along, lie back and think of England or stay for the children. Some are lost completely. Others stay and smile and lack my ambivalence. Are they happy and whole? Well they will have to speak for themselves sometime.

But in so little time that is all I can say of myself and my identity as a woman broken by the patriarchy of the church. So I will move on to show specifically one example of unhelpful theology and how I have moved to more liberative possibilities that if we dare to treat seriously would destabilise quite a lot of our church and how we view wider society. Would God ever want to destabilise society? Whose interests does society serve? Where are God’s interests?

The first problem for me has always been the problem of Mary and her Virgin birth. She is always presented as the woman who has it all, when in fact we treat her more as the woman who is allowed to have neither. I am coming from a Roman Catholic background here bear with me if the cap doesn’t fit a modern Anglican “rational” point of view perfectly because I will move on as soon as I can. Mary, while not allowed to have had sex, presented as a passionless and obedient sort of an automaton is also not allowed to be free from men either. She is raped by a sleazily constructed and male appearing holy spirit, told to deal with it by a male (arguably, even if he is a pretty male) angel and then married off to Joseph (who she may or may not have sex with but we all like to argue about that as though it makes a lot of difference) and ultimately bossed around by her son. What a role model that was to grow up with! Well I have done some of those things, all bar the virginity bit or the bit where God claims ownership for the abuse and possession of what is after all a human being.

What a God that is. A God who gets a young woman pregnant in a patriarchal society. Yeah well done mate! So we feel a bit uncomfortable with that idea so we ditch it, we go all rationalist. She wasn’t a virgin, of course not. She didn’t see an actual angel. She was raped by a roman centurion and made up the rest as a sort of narrative of survival. Well actually in some ways I like that explanation better because the idea of an awful rape and Mary having to pull her wits together and survive tells us a lot more about how the real world is for women. Then Joseph does her a favour by marrying her and they all live happily ever after and raise a critically thinking son who goes and gets himself crucified. So I could be tempted to subscribe to that theory, however the problem with that is it doesn’t really have any spiritual implications. To have spirituality there needs to be mystery. Also then I become really ambivalent about celebration the whole idea of Christ when it took a rape for that baby to be conceived and born. So while I would be saying “well done” to the cute little family we are saying survived it I don’t want to be part of a religion which rests on two such awful violent acts – a rape that causes a conception and then of course the crucifixion which I do believe we over-focus on in all sorts of unhealthy ways (but I won’t go there today).

More recently a few different changes in my life converged in a way where I have begun to see things very differently, to begin to break out of the self-loathing that has always dogged me, that I thought was a not-negotiable part of who I was as a Christian woman. Like Paul I was riding off madly to persecute a Christian (in my case the one I was persecuting was myself and my ugliness and shame and stupidity as a woman) although I called myself a feminist I was always doing this and there was in fact a bright light a very frightening event that struck me off my horse and told me I was blind and needed to heal that before I would be good for anything else.

So I put a stop to a few things I had been doing, and I let myself move blindly, gravitating to what I thought was healing and away from what was not. And I wouldn’t say I became a great apostle, I was a petty persecutor and I guess I will be a petty apostle too but I have rediscovered a sense of calling, but this time I see some obstacles whereas in the past I simply wondered what was tripping me up.

And out of that new headspace of not hating myself for being a woman, and not hiding behind a man or an attempt to be joined to and validated by a man or men or by any authority at all I now turn again with post-enlightenment naivety to examine the idea of the virgin birth.

And now, in a different headspace the virgin birth becomes a liberative idea (for all that it is not one that sits comfortably in rationalism). Depending how we view God, the virgin birth could become a conception without a man. I am not trying to man bash. But as a woman I deeply need a way to be things and do things and become things without the control always being from a man, or a group of men.

As a church we are really bad at ever having a space or a story or a moment like that.

I am not proposing a historically accurate “true facts” of the story. I don’t know what “actually” happened in any part of scripture and I think that asking those questions too much sometimes takes us away from the spiritual and sociological implications of what IS happening in the church and in the believer’s heart when a story is told. We have to live in the now and relate to God and let Mary’s story inform our own faith journey and for me I have been able to refocus on her as a woman who is radically undefined by men (except in so far as the church colonised her after the event). She hadn’t “known” a man, I listen from my place in a patriarchal culture, in a women de-affirming church and my heart leaps.

 I have been taught that I am meant to have this heterosexual gravitational pull toward a man, to need to have him in the picture, for him to define my femininity, my motherhood, my self-concept and God help me I have tried to play that game by the rules even when it sat uneasily with the feminism that comes more naturally (and that has ever more impact if I allow myself to think or to read anything).

That need for a man, when I reference my actual emotional and spiritual needs is a false need, like the need we have in our consumer society for pretty things and fashionable things and cool things. It’s a need that can take over from all other concerns but when I examine who I am in God it is in fact almost the opposite of my true needs.

But if the particularly feminine call to Mary, is not constrained within a narrow hetero-patriarchal idea of her place in the world then what implications does that have for God’s call to and acceptance of women in the centre of the church? I am no longer just talking about ordination as I used to, and we are all pretty aware that these days women priests exist. But who is a woman in church? What is there in the language of church that affirms, recognises or allows women to participate? Very little if any really.

We get to consider male traditions and male stories in male parameters and then go home and cook Sunday lunch. The mainly male bishops have put collars on some of the more troublesome women to try to clergify them in the hope that they will behave (and be an example to the rest of us). I am saying that, but I don’t wish to trivialise women priests. They have achieved some changes, and if not silenced might keep changing what the church is, but this alone has not changed the church enough and will not serve to make the church women-friendly. It’s sort of a liberal feminism approach to the real problem of deep, deep misogyny all through our tradition and culture. It would be like saying all women in australia are liberated because our prime minister is female. Sorry I am not so easily appeased.

Then I return to the idea of the virgin birth and the way it undermines men’s power and the heterosexuality used as a weapon of women’s subjugation. This is not to say women shouldn’t desire men sexually (some women anyway), it is pointing out what heterosexuality IS used for, not implying that it has to be that way.

It is easy to dismiss the idea of “virgin birth” because the idea of virginity was used to try to erase women’s sexuality and make us all feel dirty. However we now live in a very different society. Women are objectified, sexualised, trivialised in the media and all around us every day. We seek and need sexual agency and instead we get pornography and are told that it will liberate our sexuality. Well it doesn’t. Existing just to be penetrated, how depressing. And how untrue for so many women and in so many ways!

Then it stops being oppressive to think of Mary’s virginity as the idea that of course she must have been penetrated by someone is just the same old story of powerlessness. Perhaps there was a completely open, hopefully blissful and affirming moment in time where she encountered the Holy Spirit and the generative possiblity of God within that. Let’s not assume then that God in that moment is a powerful male inscribing something upon Mary’s weaker femaleness. Let’s assume that that moment was transformative and respectful. Let’s not assume maleness into one part of the gospel that is blessedly free of it. Could it be that the Holy Spirit called forth something from Mary, something that was already there rather than planted an alien seed in an obedient and passive soil?

Vocation is like that, deeply respectful, frighteningly intimate and immensely patient. We say it is a call, perhaps it is a wooing. God does not force, threaten or impregnate us: God works with who we are, in our place and our time and in our bodies. And some of those bodies are female and God is in that female place and that female consciousness with us. As much as God is male, God is also female. As much as God is not female, God is also not male.

I am seeing things differently not to be difficult but because I deeply need to. A religion which rests on a woman being magically impregnated by a colonising male god is no sort of a place for me to live or breathe or bring up children in.

I want to talk about Mary while pregnant travelling to see Elizabeth, her pregnant cousin and the way the women share secrets, support each other and even the child in the womb of one leaps at the voice of the other. I want to talk about the deep needs that Mary and Elizabeth can only fill in each other although both have a partner.

I haven’t even really begun to unpick the complexity of what women are and want and need in the church and who we may not be reaching, or worse who we may be blocking from God. The church needs to stop patting itself on the back for having ordained a few women and look at how the culture of the church may shape and support or undermine their ministry. This isn’t just sour grapes because I didn’t have what it takes to make it through the ministry process. With all my heart I celebrate the contributions of the women who did get through and the way their presence in the church has been part of the liberation I can glean even in my more than half-outside place in the church.

But every woman is walking with God – dancing, or running, tiptoeing in fear or resistantly fleeing. High heels or fluffy slippers or bare feet with nail polish. We don’t need protection, we don’t need a tokenistic acknowledgement that we exist. We demand a voice and a language and a constant presence representing ourselves. We are not fallen women or love interests, missus somebody or hidden under umbrella terms like “mankind”. We are complex and agentic and we too are Christ!

Questions

How comfortable are you in the church as a woman/man?

How does God relate to you within your gendered life and identity?

Who is not in our church? Where are they and why not here?

Who is Mary to you as a christian? What was she like? How do you know?

Why was Jesus male? How does his maleness contribute to or inhibit his ministry?

Name a woman (real or fictional) you look up to (not just admire but look up to). If that is difficult see if it is any easier to think of a man you look up to.

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