Tag Archives: lesbian

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.

Lips, life and liberation

“…this has touched your lips” said the angel.

As a sociologist I find the first reading tantalising. It’s not possible to be purged of the “unclean” discourses of your context in time or space. I think the cultural errors of any age boil down to what “original sin” is, the way that some grace-filled possibilities are shut off, rendered unsayable or drowned in a mire of the “inevitable”, we cannot even see our error because out language sets up binaries and misleading questions with closed off answers.

But the desire to rise above our context and to liberate others from it, this is utterly relatable and I like to think of God as the one who burns through the crap that bogs us down and sends us out to make sense of things after all. “My eyes have seen” something, some beautiful reflection of God’s presence, some possibility for liberation for us all…this is what it means to have “faith” perhaps. The eyes of our spirit yearn not to be enslaved to sin and the overbearing meaningless of the consumerist “life”. We want life to mean something, but meanings elude us.

The drive to speak is familiar, I first felt the need to be a voice, first heard the call I suppose when I was a little girl. “Here I am, send me” or when I try to be humble and not say that, then things fall apart into greyness and fear. Perhaps at times my motives have been mixed with the less than ideal, I have craved status, wanted to be “special” but over the years I learn what hard work it is to be a truth speaker, how easy it is to get it all wrong and how alone you can feel. I learn (with joy) that God has never called only me, not even mainly me. And then I can reclaim pride not as an individualising sin “I am better than the others” but as a virtue “I am made in God’s image like you, and you, and you, and our sister”.

The apparent pride that put me off in the first reading, has served instead to interrogate and redeem me as still called (among others).

I am feeling that psalm today, partly as I reflect on my call and my co-travellers with their calls too. God has answered my prayer and whenever I think of God listening to me and bringing me out of despair it brings me back to the huge transformation of my life when I realised the obvious (that I was a lesbian) and the way this identity has increasingly been a blessing in my life. I haven’t had lovers but I don’t want to make a virtue of that or pretend that “celibacy” is the only or best option for queer folk. I will be honest there is nothing celibate about my mindset I just have not found someone I can share and celebrate this with in that way.

Ironically the “uncleanness” that I needed a coal set to, to burn away, was not my lesbian identity at all but my inability to see God’s grace and act of co-creation in who I was. My being PRAISES God in a way that my self-hate never did. As the psalm rejoices at God “you built up strength within me” oh yes she did and she has not finished. Through the grace of God and the grace of everyone I travel with I am getting STRONGER. I can depend on Wisdom within and outside of myself (in both places for balance). God has placed gentle hands on me, like a sort of spiritual chiropractor or masseur, repairing and working with what is there to bring out the best in me. As the psalm tells me I will not be abandoned, I am not yet my perfect being but God is still working on that with me.

Some of this may sound arrogant but it is as true for an ant or a blade of grass as it is for me. We are extremely significant and “special” but not more so than each other. We have the responsibility to respond authentically and to grow with God into the gentle movements of God’s healing hands on us. Someone smiled at me this week and God was absolutely in her smile and I saw my own goodness and beauty in this wonderful person’s face. Everything reminds me of that moment. I saw God in a person, who is objectively probably as flawed as me. But who wants to be objective when they see God?

I won’t spend long on the second reading (read it) but I feel it is paraphrasing the same thing I am trying to say. Paul (or someone) is finding his place in the community of transformation, he is trying to articulate the pride and joy of that without coming across as arrogant. He is working to show that God is behind all these feelings of belonging and hope, God’s beautiful face shines out at us in the communities that accept us (and sometimes one person).

In the gospel Jesus uses the identities of Simon and the sons of Zebedee as the places where they can encounter God. He makes following God about being a fisherman (just as Wisdom makes following God for me about motherhood, writing, being queer or caring). In a way there is a “leaving behind” that happens, after the encounter with Jesus the fishermen are transformed but they are “fishing for people” their vocation is still a continuation and celebration of the way they know themselves.

I have always found this reading terrifying and mysterious because there is no flesh-and-blood Jesus I can unambiguously follow down the coast and away…I have to always find my way and strain to hear an ambiguous call. Perhaps I underestimate the leap of faith (and questioning and at times depression) of the apostles, who are portrayed as just “knowing” Jesus, recognising him in a flash. Perhaps it was not so easy (it is not so easy for any of us except the sociopaths who end up doing untold harm). What is the “everything” that I have to leave? I cannot speak to people if I make myself too alien to them. I cannot set myself apart from the world I must live in for practical reasons (I need to feed and home myself or die) and for spiritual reasons (separateness leads to vanity and irrelevance). The question of faith is the same as the question of politics. How do we authentically be with others (a splintered individualist approach achieves nothing) but do not become “sell outs”? When do lines need to be drawn? Where is the most honest place to draw them? How do we leave everything and yet bring everything with us?

The fact that all my spiritual “insights” lead to unanswered questions is frustrating but simply means I am not dead yet. This week I am a person who was smiled at. I want to curl up in a little ball and do nothing ever again and simply save that moment to myself…that is not how it works. Within the full net is not solace forever but a call further. God provides for us so that we can grow to be the ones who bring it. The moment of grace is always that, always the moment of having to stretch ourselves and follow more deeply.

I can only try.

I can only try.

Lip service or life? Called to courageous loving

Preached today to my wonderful community that give me all the support and love and really are a family in faith to me…

As I prayed and reflected on today’s readings, it was very hard for me to separate out the escalating feelings of fear, grief and hurt I have felt over the last week from some of the homophobic comments and lies that are circulating at the moment. As a queer woman, some people would say that I am “going to hell” or am locked out of God’s community, yet I experience God as knowing me better than I know myself and loving me deeply- allowing for my slowness to learn how best to live and encouraging my good intention. I have tried to resist the temptation to make my journey with this week’s readings nothing more than an expression of the pain I feel in this time. Yet I will name the pain because it is there. And then I will try to move on…

The first reading is the last part of a longer discussion about the way that each person owns their own conscience. Within it, a person is not judged by their family, culture or community nor by how others around them choose to live but insofar as they themselves respond to God and do what is right their path will be always into life. This is both a liberating and a troubling concept in our historical context, where we are increasingly facing the reality of climate change that will take more than the actions of a handful of well-meaning individuals to reverse.

And yet this is the reality we live in, things are happening around us that we have limited control to halt or change and we must somehow keep finding hope and meaning. Perhaps what we can find here is an antidote to the sorts of thinking that see decreasing compassion and rising inequality as inevitable. God does not desire our death, the call is always into life. We must embrace hope so that seeing the fallenness, imperfection or powerlessness of ourselves or those around us we must look for the potential for liberation and healing.

In the psalm we cry out to God to be compassionate and to teach us, this echoes both the awareness that things may be wrong and the determination to hope of the first reading. In the verses, God’s nature is revealed to be goodness and kindness, love and compassion. We can and must depend upon that whatever else we are emboldened to do.

The second reading is a sort of counterpoint to the first. Just as in the first reading, each of us was asked to think for ourselves, and to do good even if we are surrounded by wrong-doing, the second reading calls us to be community, to seek harmony and connection with others and to work for the good of others, not just selfishness. Hope then, is no longer a lonely place and we do not stand and judge from a moral high-ground but seek to know and serve whatever is vulnerable in each other.

Thus we come to the gospel, and the difference between giving lip-service to faith and living it. The first son is foolish and rebellious, he does not like to be told. I relate to him a lot and I see my own children in him too. And yet, once he has given his tokenistic resistance to the authority of his “father” he realises that the vineyard is something he is involved in and responsible for and he quietly gets in and works for the harvest. The second son is all performative obedience and moral superiority but when it comes down to it does not contribute to getting the harvest in.

This is a theology that Jesus points out even the religiously impure ones, even the tax collectors and prostitutes, instinctively understand. So what of us? Are we brave and honest enough to argue with the “father” when we do not feel as committed or engaged as we are told we ought to be? Would we dare to refuse to do what we are told…and then give ourselves the chance to rethink what we are really being asked to do, and what our role may be in the vineyard of God.

Or would we opt to look “respectable”, to follow from as great a distance as possible, paying lip-service but avoiding getting our hands dirty? Do we only go along with the call to love and accept the vulnerable so far as they don’t challenge or disgust us? Is there a limit to our ability to transmit God’s grace, or is it simply that we are busy and there are higher priorities than loving? But the first son’s apparently sullen attitude masks a deep love. Sometimes things may be better than they seem at first sight.

All three of the readings seem very sure in telling us that we need to risk being authentic before God. God’s desire is to always keep the option open for us to return and return and return into the heart of the community, into the work of the harvest, into life.

If we are called today, then what is our direction? Let us become aware of God’s love and allow ourselves to be authentic before it. Let us reflect on the readings for a short time and then as is our custom you might share your thoughts with the people sitting near you.