Tag Archives: feminism

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.

In the bleak midwinter

I wrote things on the weekend but they were really, really sub-par. Maybe because my keyboard was not working properly or maybe because I am ill. Maybe because of how desolate I feel about the state of the world (families being divided, young women being murdered, friends in abject poverty and my own financial situation so insecure). Maybe God is sick of me always talking, talking, talking achieving nothing.

I don’t know why but my well of things to write is dry. I look at the lectionary readings and feel numb. I feel resentful of the church and its deceitful bishops and emotionally stunted and dishonest male priests. I can’t seem to get out the words of hope or even coherent criticism.

All I can do is read Micah again and again and again and draw comfort (of sorts) from a sad and wrathful God. I don’t always go to the bible for cheer, I go there to validate the deepest negative feelings and attempt to survive them. Here is a lovely chunk of Micah if anyone wants to join me (but don’t be stingy with yourself, feel free to read the whole thing. As well as Micah I am reading the gospel according to bell hooks. I find anything written by her is full of wisdom (relatively humble wisdom) and a determined hope and love which cuts through even her own incisive criticism. Read some bell hooks if you can.

And for the rest I will drink my herbal teas and gargle my salt and try to cure this stupid cold because I can’t afford not to “work”. I will thank God even for this desert time. Because even this is not as bad as the worst depression that I suffered for over a decade. I don’t feel that God is very far from me, and I feel that God is trying not to get frustrated by how stupid and slow to learn I am. Or maybe it is just me that is frustrated. God’s patience may still wait for me to work out the next step and the next.

Thank God for bell hooks and all the transformative feminists. Thank God for my social networks. Thank God for the person who just read these words and is being patient with me also.

Thank God. And let’s change the world.

A transgressive, transformative masculinity

This week’s readings are hereI only consciously used the gospel (Matthew) but I read all of them.

Joseph was a man, a tradesman- perhaps a small business owner. He was working class, though probably not poor, his son Jesus seems to have received a decent sort of an education and had the freedom to wander as a street-preacher/magician rather than being desperately needed to support the family. I guess what I am trying to portray is a man with a vested interest in the status quo, a man with some privilege but also precariously enough placed that “honour” was a concern.

It was a patriarchal world. Men’s honour especially around “their” women’s sexuality was a significant thing. For Joseph to act as a man of his time, do the “right” thing, the “rational” thing, the “common-sense” thing would be to break off his engagement to Mary. In his time and place, it may not have been seen as unusual or unduly harsh if he made a big fuss (which might have led to her being cast out of the community or stoned I suppose) but he is “righteous” and unwilling to expose her to shame. Nevertheless there is no real question within his place and time (and his role as a man, a potential head of a household) of continuing a relationship with a young woman who is pregnant with someone else’s child.

It’s easy then to view what happens simplistically, God speaks and Joseph obeys. If we go further and view God as “male” then it becomes a meeting between two males to discuss the fate of a woman and child. If we read it this way, then nothing very radical happens, though we breathe a sigh of relief that Mary and that important baby are safe.

But what does our experience tell us about God speaking? An “angel” appeared to him in a “dream”. Without wanting to keep God out of the equation, I want to bring in a more modern understanding of what dreams are. Our “subconscious” communicates our deeply held and sometimes hidden from desires and truths to us in dreams. Science around natural processes like evolution, tells us that God’s influence over the world works with the nature of what the world is, with the cause and effect (and free will) of processes, organisms, lifecycles, webs of relationality. God can only communicate to the person whose heart is open to God (otherwise we have no free will). God calls us into right ways of being with each other- yes- but never against our deepest self. Joseph’s call from God and unhesitating response to it reveals something deeply true about Joseph’s nature and inner being.

Joseph resolves on the “common sense” course of action but his sleep is troubled by his inner need for relationship, to be a nurturer of something he neither owns nor controls. God speaks into his potential for unselfish love and asks for the impossible. Lay aside your patriarchal ownership of your family and follow Mary’s vocation, nurture a child of God. Significantly the angel says “Do not be afraid” indicating that the only thing stopping Joseph from this radical course of love, was fear. God takes away the need to fear, the need to know, the need to control.

Oftentimes men who claim to be “feminist” or “pro-feminist” or “anti-sexist” expect women to be very emotionally nurturing of them, to explain everything and open up everything to them and to keep on every step coaxing, seducing and rewarding them for the slightest pro-feminist leaning. Let’s not get side-tracked into “not all men” because that sort of a debate is actually part of the pattern I am speaking about. Men then, within patriarchy often expect women to be the keepers and sorters of their emotions one way or another, to constantly reassure and encourage them and to take emotional responsibility for a relationship.

Within that context, this is a good week for me to remember that even though I often use the female pronoun for God, God is in fact NOT FEMALE just as much as I have previously asserted that God is NOT MALE. I need to underline that in preface to looking at who does the “emotional labour” of this encounter.  Initially I was suspicious of the way Mary gets talked about and does not get to speak in this story, and in fact far too much of the bible is phallocentric and features women only in semi-objectified roles. But when I remember the way Mary comes across in Luke and John’s gospel as very much having her own mind and motivations, her own feisty relationship with God and deep trust in her child. When I remember how little Joseph is featured in the gospels except as a background to Mary and the baby or in a “Mary and Joseph” sort of a scene where they both fail to fully understand Jesus then I am keen to see the value of this episode.

Then I begin to see that what we have here is a man taking emotional responsibility for himself and his own difficult feelings, sitting with the situation instead of rushing to take it out on “his” woman and letting God speak and advise him instead of expecting to be emotionally babied. Then I get to see that the angel’s “explanation” to Joseph is no sort of an explanation really, that ultimately he is still in the dark about a significant event in Mary’s life. His choice to love and trust her unconditionally remains a choice, it is not at all made easy or logical by the angel quoting scripture at him!

So Joseph takes the pregnant Mary into his home and becomes one of those heroic people who loves a child for some reason other than a desire for your own genes to continue. Jesus is born into a home that transgresses the hetero-sexual matrix (in the way his parents fail to stick to the strictest versions of their gender roles, in the loss of patriarchal “honour” by Joseph accepting him, in the unorthodox way he has been conceived- although we actually know very little about that we know it wasn’t something that happened within marriage). God as Jesus’ co-parent relates to Mary and brings Joseph into the equation too. I like to think that after all this courage, Mary and Joseph had a loving and warm relationship and I certainly am not trying to undermine the idea of a man loving a woman or a woman loving a man. It is significant though, in a time when we are as a society asking questions about whether there is one shape of family only that God has mandated to recall that Jesus’ own situation was somewhat transgressive and not entirely respectable for his place and time. His parents had to show great courage to bring up this child of God.

So add this one last miracle to the lead-up to Christ’s birth. A man follows his heart (stirred by God) to courageously love and follow what he cannot control. A family is made outside the narrowly patriarchal tradition of what counts. God is with us!

Shout for joy- daughter, sister, beloved

 

I have nothing against the Sunday readings and if I had more energy would do two blogs this week. But Tuesday was the feast of the Visitation, the one day of the year when the church lectionary passes the Bechdel test (Ruth and Naomi could be argued too I suppose), and the one Feast day of the year that actually talks about God’s work working not just through men, not even just through an individual woman, but at times also through women’s relationships and networks of support. This is such good news it ought to be on a Sunday! The reading from Luke is so rich in prophecy, in affirmations of women’s prophetic, leading, teaching and sacramental role in each other’s lives and in the lives of significant male members (Jesus and John though unborn) as well. So much richness here that writing once a year I could never find it all, and I hope each person finds even more in the readings than I can say. But let’s make a beginning.

The first reading (Zeph 3:!4-18A gives away that what is coming is unusually good news “shout for joy” and that this is specifically for women “daughter of Zion”. Even this begins a bubbling up of joy. Women we are not invisible in this Feast, we are valued by God and the silencing, dismissal of our needs and attacking us as “vain” for wanting for ourselves the basic dignity and consideration that we extend to others has been dismissed by God. God is onside with us. We “have no further misfortune to fear” and God sings joyfully because of us. This is a profoundly healing thought, the idea of being so beloved by God that we are not only vindicated but the cause of joyful singing. Here we reclaim our birthright since the opening of Genesis to be part of God’s creation, made in God’s image and assessed as “good”.

But if God is singing for joy, then we know that more good news is in store so we move on to the next reading. Once again the canticle (ie like a psalm but not in psalms) from Isaiah prophesies good things “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation”. Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures as well as the New Testament we see the drawing of water as “women’s work” and the well as a place of meeting and socialising for women (well maybe we don’t see the latter in the text so much and are indebted to historians for reconstructing the world around the text for us). So that nexus of women’s social life and relationships, the well becomes symbolically a place of “salvation” a sacramental place, a place where the truth of God is joyfully encountered. Among us is the Holy one of Israel. The ancient promises of God are fulfilled in the mysterious depths of women’s flesh, the womb.

This is NOT to return to a view of womanhood as solely being fulfilled in motherhood. Clarissa Pinkola Estes has written about “wild mothers”, the way older women sometimes support, mentor and teach younger women, the way younger women find their own role models and need more than one. Even this is only a fraction of the whole truth. The patriarchal promise that can only be fulfilled in the male body of Jesus may come into the world through the female body of Mary, but if that is all that matters then why the Visitation? Why does Jesus also need the “Auntie” or “Wild mother” Elizabeth in his life? Why does John leap for joy at the voice of Mary? The voice is about more than flesh, it is about opinion and agency. The canticle goes on to bid us to sing praise to God for “his” glorious achievement. Well that seems only fair, in the context of the first reading where God was singing on account of us. The glorious achievement here seems to be a nurturing and reciprocal relationship with us who are lovingly created and affirmed. This will be shown in the gospel to have world-changing, radical possibilities – unseating the unjustly powerful and bringing in a new reign of God.

The other first reading (which I am going to treat as a second reading as I think the Visitation ought to be a Sunday) gives instructions on the “good life”. Even though usually I am feeling a bit like saying “give me a break” when I have these long and complicated responsibilities placed on me, by allowing the other readings and the feast-day to contextualise it, it takes on a non-oppressive meaning. In fact the God who has celebrated and affirmed my existance and our relationship in the first reading and psalm has every right to ask for this respectful reciprocation of that gift. The instructions in this reading are really a call to be authentic, to honour who we are as God’s beloved and as sacramental, priestly people. We are called to be sincere, loving, committed, critical, resilient, courageously forgiving and compassionate. We are called to be “more than” those who oppress us, not to cooperate with oppression but also not to retaliate with bitterness and hatred. We are called to be humble in ourselves too, not to put ourselves down but to see our good like our imperfections within a context of God’s love and God’s call and the shared dignity and humanity of others also.

This reading, within a context of good news for “daughters” and the gospel that is coming is for me a powerful call to remain in the imperfect church and to trust in God’s ability and desire to find me there and sustain me. The grace of God in actual fact cannot be stopped or blocked by patriarchy but we must continue to bless even those who have not blessed us. We are called to a holy partnership with God where we pour out love to the world. I turn to the gospel to see what possibilities for transformation this call may hold.

In the gospel, Mary is not wise in her own estimation, that is she is not complete outside of her ability to reach out to others. Her good news needs to be reflected by Elizabeth’s good news. She has a need to support and be supported, to be in a community where each can rejoice in the other being blessed. Each has a relationship with a husband that in some Christian circles would be assumed to be the most appropriate arena of rejoicing. But each is part of a larger network of support, each needs also the ministry of women in her sacramental life (and don’t we all?). Mary, pregnant though she is goes on a journey that would possibly be dangerous and certainly be difficult. There is something in Elizabeth’s company that calls to her, something precious in the relationship or some need she sees in Elizabeth and responds to.

The great prophet John hears the voice of Mary, who is about to offer one of the great prophecies of liberation and hope. John recognises in this voice the same call that is already whispering into his baby heart the potential for a committed spirit-filled life. He leaps for joy! Elizabeth recognises this leap and knows what it means. Mary’s preaching will shake the church and the world. Elizabeth says that Mary is “blessed” for hearing and heeding the call of God. She recognises Mary’s priesthood. Elizabeth and John become church to accept Mary’s priesthood as Mary both literally and sacramentally carries Christ into their lives. Mary preaches her joy and hope in a God who reverses oppression and liberates. There are strong forces in a world where Mary’s people have been colonised by the brutal Roman army, she lives in a patriarchal society with limited opportunities. But her hope is in God’s power to be greater than the powers of the world.

Mary aligns herself with a utopian view of radical justice and voices her commitment to God’s power to bring this about. She grounds this vision in faith history. Then she stays with Elizabeth for three months. The relationship of sacrament is about more than words. She is there for practical support and shared affection. Faith and ministry are not about a ritual once a week but are about companioning and loving our fellow humans on the journey.

My heart like unborn baby John leaps for joy at the good news of the Visitation. I want to shout it aloud and sing it, this dignity and hope in the reality of God’s call to me as daughter and sister. My response needs to be loving and faithful to the dream of transformative justice. My spiritual hunger is filled with this good thing. I can look to the unofficial priests, when the official church leaves my pastoral needs unmet. No wonder these readings mentioned singing and joy so many times!