There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus –Galatians 3:28
What does a feminist church look like?
This past week I was at a conference with young (ish) clergy in the church and was surprised to find myself asking that question. I write about gender in this space all the time, it’s one of my own primary categories of thought. I spend my life in “the church” and have been at my parish for almost 11 years. Still, I don’t think I had ever phrased the question in quite that way. A church is just a church. It can be inclusive or exclusive at any given time, receiving the ministries of all of God’s people with beauty and grace or not. But what makes a feminist church?
My peers and I grew up in a church where women’s ordination was taken for granted. I’m 37. It’s been forty two years since the first women in Philadelphia and Washington DC were ordained “irregularly.” 40 years since the wider church voted officially to ordain women as priests. We’ve had a female presiding bishop—the head of the whole Episcopal Church. We are reckoning with human sexuality, recognizing the gifts of the ministries of transgender people who help the church to understand how gender is neither binary nor biologically determined. We are making some progress! Still, from California to Cuba, women are still paid less, still occupy fewer senior roles, and still have difficulty advancing in their careers. (See my post about Leaning In/Falling Over in this space for all of my questions about what it means to “advance.”) For women of color and LGBTQ folks the journey is even more difficult.
At the conference I attended many of the women present met on our own. We went around the room to share our stories. Woman after woman shared their own experiences: ministries dismissed, sexual harassment experiences swept under the rug, belittling by colleagues. Everyone had a story. It felt like a fault line of pain and trauma had cracked open. It settled over all of us and it had to go somewhere. The wider group took up the conversation and the Holy Spirit whirled among us. Voices were heard.
One of our members has observed about how our official polity channels are where “change goes to die.” We have commissioned reports about parity in compensation, and there’s some data: at the level of solo clergy, women make 90% of men. The problem? Only 34% of solo clergy are women. The number goes way down for senior female clergy on multi staff parishes. There is something to think through, though, in how we actually create churches where change can happen. Sexual harassment and discrimination are common to women in every institution. The church isn’t different there. I’m also curious about how parish clergy create cultures in our own places where that happens for our congregations. I also think it’s important to recognize that feminism is not a female project. My heart belongs to Hillary, but I make no assumptions that having women in power will make things better for all women. Having more women priests or more women bishops won’t immediately help.
The Rev. Gay Jennings , President of the House of Deputies, just shared her remarks in 40 Years On: Thoughts on Gender Equality in the Episcopal Church at Executive Council. She says it better than I:
Too often I hear us measuring gender equality in the church by counting how many educated, privileged women sit in positions of hierarchical authority. I fear that we may believe that the best the church can do for women is to be sure that more of us are bishops, deans, and cardinal rectors.
Patriarchal authority deforms everyone—even those who can make it at the top, men or women. We can do better than just being successful in the institution! From the ground, in our parishes and schools and chaplaincies, men and women are equally able to make church feminist. And make feminist church. This Sunday we’ll hear a story of Jesus upholding the ministry of the “wrong” kind of woman. She’s out of bounds and has a terrible reputation, and he loves her. That’s the Gospel we’re called to.
Otherwise, I don’t have any clear answers, but here are the questions I’m thinking about asking… My own parish is also on its own journey. I make no claims about being the success story!
1. Are there unspoken expectations about the “kind of person” who is drawn into different ministries? Are men asked to join altar guild? Do they teach Sunday School?
2. If and when single gender communities develop by chance, is that phenomenon named?
2. How are intentionally single gendered communities nurtured? Are there places where people can find refuge for themselves to heal? To talk honestly? Can people affiliate with those spaces according to their own gender identification and wishes for community?
3. How is gender-expansive language used for God? Are inclusive language resources like the ELLC Nicene Creed and prayer books of other communions or Enriching Our Worship and the St Helena Psalter used?
4. How are “safe church” policies implemented and discussed? Is preventing abuse of children and other vulnerable populations discussed and respected?
5. How are staff hired and leadership selected? Is there an effort to seriously consider the gifts of those who are women, people of color, and LGBTQ persons? How do ministry teams reflect on and explore their own implicit bias?
6. How are families of leaders and staff respected? Is there an equal policy in place for men as well as women to take parental leave? Are employees judged for taking advantage of these benefits or are their personal commitments honored?
That’s my list so far, friends…add your own!