I have been reading books and articles related to women in the worldwide church, or rather, to women AS worldwide church.
What's the difference? Sometime in the 1980s a shift happened within churches and in ecumenical gatherings, both the formal ones (e.g. the World Council of Churches) and the informal and new ones (e.g. Women-Church) including feminist groups: the focus of women's language about our church participation --at the grass roots and among theologians-- shifted from a "Please, sir, may I have some more" or "Please let us in" approach to a "We are church and have always been church" approach.
I'm talking about the world church here, church across the board, not just Anglicans, but what is sometimes called the oikoumene, from the Greek and meaning "the whole inhabited earth."
And by the way, the pioneers in this new approach toward women and church have often been Roman Catholic women.
Women are church.
Which doesn't mean that all persons are, in practice, suddenly equal.
Women make up a majority of worshippers in all Christian churches. Go up the hierarchical ladder and you find fewer and fewer of us.
Not that this is the only indicator of women's lives as church; far from it.
Over the last few decades women, many calling themselves feminists, others not, have drawn attention to the destructive and interrelated institutional (as in systemic, as in structural, not individual) webs of sexism, racism, xenophobia, heterosexism, and socio-economic class - based bias (sometimes called "classism").
(Stick with me here, this is not about using ideological jargon, it's about the real lives of real people and where the churches are in relation to these people.)
The same women who have drawn attention to the reality of interlocking oppressions --and therefore the need for interwoven movements for liberation and healing-- have also noted the relation between church teaching and practice on the one hand and social practices harmful to women on the other.
Ways of interpreting the Bible or of offering (or not offering) pastoral care directly affect --and reflect-- the health and well-being of women and their dependent children.
Do you know what the major issue (one of four key issues, but the one that came up most often) was during the World Council of Churches' 1988-1998 Decade of Churches in Solidarity with Women?
Violence. Violence against women. In homes. In churches. And of course on battlefields, in migrant camps, on streets, but especially in those other places, home and church, the places that should be the safest. No socio-economic class, race, or nationality was exempt. Women from every country and every church reported this.
That was the major issue brought up by church women. As a Christian issue. As an ecumenical issue. As an issue related to who we say we are as friends and followers and disciples of Jesus and as images, icons, of the living God, the one and holy Trinity.
The other issues lifted up by "the Decade," as it became known, were:
- Women's full and creative participation in the life of the church. (Are women participating in the life of the church to the full extent of their God-given gifts? Are women as well as men of all races, cultures, and economic conditions viewed as the images of God? Do the language and the shape of the liturgy reflect this? Do women have access to theological education? If they have access to it, can they use it to the fullest extent of their abilities? Are they remunerated for it? Do we value the wisdom of church women, whether or not they have formal theological education? Do we reflect this in the way we raise our girl children in the church? )
- The global economic crisis and its effects on women in particular. (Women and their dependent children are disproportionately affected by poverty. Everywhere. U.S., Mexico, Haiti, India, Thailand, Ghana, Brazil, Fiji.)
- Racism and xenophobia and their specific impact on women. (If you are dark-skinned and a woman, you are more likely to be poor. If you are a migrant or immigrant and a woman, your chances of suffering from both poverty and violence increase. So do the risks for your children's health and well-being.)
The method of the Decade during its second half involved visits by a team of four people, usually two women and two men, to local churches around the world. It was the first time in its 50-year history that the WCC used this model of local, person to person visits. The WCC chose to call these visiting teams "Living Letters," using the language of Paul the apostle in the Second Letter to the Corinthians:"You show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts." (2 Cor. 3:3, RSV)
(The WCC is now in the middle of a Decade to Overcome Violence whose focus and methodology are in part and quite directly inspired by the Decade in Solidarity with Women. It too has a Living Letters process.)
In the years before the Decade, another WCC project involved a broad number of grass-roots women, extending even beyond the Protestant, Anglican, Pentecostal, and Orthodox members of the WCC to include Roman Catholic and other women. The project, which has become known as "the Community Study," was called the Community of Women and Men in the Church. It lasted from 1978 to 1982 but its roots grew earlier from a number of earlier places and events, including the 1974 WCC conference on "Sexism in the 1970s," the first time a World Council of Churches international gathering used the term "sexism."
The WCC staff person running that 1974 conference on sexism, was a Black South African Anglican named Brigalia Hlophe (or Ntombemhlophe) Bam. Brigalia Bam later served as the Secretary-General of the South Africa Council of Churches. She is now Chair of South Africa's Independent Electoral Commission.
Note the methods or processes by which the two projects, the Community Study and the Decade, came up with their findings: broadly based, grass-roots-involving (and involving church leaders too), ecumenical enterprises involving face to face conversation with much listening, study, and examination of the relationship between faith in Christ and daily life, and the relationship between daily life and the structures and institutions affecting it. A lot of sitting in circles, a lot of breaking or melting of silence, a lot of tension, tears, and anger but also patience, hospitality, and hope.
I know that at Lambeth the Bible study will be participatory and involve a carefully designed process that is not unlike the processes I have described above, though it will of course only involve bishops and their spouses. (With the exception of one duly elected and consecrated Bishop of New Hamphire and his spouse; but I digress.) Gerald O. West, a South African theologian (U. of KwaZulu-Natal) whom we heard speak at the Society for the Study of Anglicanism last November in San Diego, a contextual and liberation-oriented scholar who has also worked with women's concerns and examined approaches to biblical interpretation in the age of HIV/AIDS, has been coordinating the design of the sessions. This reassures me.
But --here it comes-- I confess to having almost the same feeling about Lambeth and GAFCON when I look at them through a feminist lens. Or, if the word "feminist" bothers you, through the lens of women as world church.
Of course, push me against the wall and I'm a Lambeth woman. I'm an Episcopalian --a happy one-- and an Anglican --a heartfelt one-- and Lambeth is my instrument of unity too. (Discussion about the why, what, whether and how of the Instruments of Unity --or Instruments of Communion-- some other time, or not at all.)
But that's part of my point -- the act of pushing against the wall. (Note the violent image.)
Who will be pushed against the wall? Who will push? Who will be outside the circle? Will there be true circles of listening and struggling with difference with integrity, charity, and hope? Will the relation between living Christ's resurrection and building justice be intimate, casual, clear, muddled, ignored, nonexistent?
Both GAFCON and Lambeth raise some of the same questions for me.
Who will be defining the situation?
What is church? Who is church? Where is church?
Who decides? Who interprets? Whom does this benefit?
What is unity? At what cost and over whose backs do we build unity?
What are the truly important matters for the friends of Jesus who call themselves the Body of Christ?
What are the needs of the world and the signs of the times?
Where ought our attention to be directed in these times?
And where, where will be the women and the voices of women, women as church?
I am late with my monthly column for the Episcopal Café because I have been trying to write a carefully worded piece on what ecumenical, worldwide women's questions and wisdom have to say to us in this Lambeth year, a perspective that goes more broadly and deeply than that of Lambeth yet is in some ways marginal to it.
Wherein lies the rub.
The nicely moderate words won't come out and instead I am pondering in public, or perhaps ranting, after realizing suddenly, a few hours ago, that I was having a profound experience of cognitive dissonance. That got me unblocked and writing.
The cognitive dissonance is this: the language and structure and process and concerns of one set of events (Lambeth, GAFCON) seem light years away from the language and structure and process and concerns of the other set of events (the WCC Decade and related gatherings and movements).
I know this is not entirely true. From looking over some of the Lambeth resolutions and some accounts of the last meeting, I see that it is not entirely true. I also see that it is partly true. And GAFCON, which, as most readers of this blog know, is not my thing, may have a participatory process about which I don't know. (Though I would love someone to filter it through the ecumenical experience of women for us. I doubt that any of the reporters or commentators will. Someone, please prove me wrong.)
So that's the lengthy thought for the day, and here I sit.
Can I get a witness?