So a feminist walks into a church

056I had my first ever, official media interview last week. It felt major. I mean, I’ve been practicing for this moment since I was seven and figured out that hair brushes were the universal stand-in for microphones. I propped myself in front of the mirror for hours, practicing my Julia Roberts-horse laugh whilst answering questions about my professional goals (to star alongside Christian Slater in Kuffs 2) and giving advice to other little girls about how to make it in the biz (lots of practice and a premature perm). So it caught me off guard to be stumped by a question I’ve thought about for years: “What can the Church do to better address gender in its day-to-day life?”

Earlier in the interview, I had mentioned the upcoming anthology I’m co-editing, Talking Taboo (White Cloud Press, Oct 2013) and how it was hard for many contributors to even admit that sexism is still an issue in our churches. When I told an older colleague some of the subject matter tackled – the challenges of women in leadership, the pressure to be both virginal and sexy, the decision to have or not have kids – she let out a big, melodramatic groan, “Ugh. Still? Those are the same old issues we were talking about when I was your age.”

So it felt passé to say what’s already been said but seldom practiced, that the Church can start addressing gender in the places where it has the most freedom to improvise: in the liturgy, in the sermon, and the life of the congregation.

The point has been made by those more articulate than I that using only masculine language in the liturgy is not just oppressive but inaccurate, especially when so many of us are quick to admit God isn’t male or female. One feminist friend recently shared, “It’s the biggest roadblock to worship.” If liturgy means the work of the people, than why aren’t we making damn sure it represents all of us, each and every blessed time? Just go ahead and change the lyrics to that old hymn already. Write the prayer of confession to include imagery in Scripture oft left-behind. And address what you’re doing with a note in the bulletin to quell the fears of all those folks who’ll think you’ve turned liberal. Tell them you’re trying to be truer to tradition.

It’s already been argued that who is in the pulpit is as important as what is said there. Would you believe that the first time I heard a female pastor mention US Weekly in a sermon illustration I started bawling? This is how rare it is to see and hear myself in the pulpit, whether the pastor is a woman or not. Most Sundays I’m doing the busywork of translation – sports analogies, odes to fatherhood, and militaristic triumphalism are filtered out as I mine for the gem of the Gospel. Sometimes I leave only with dirty diamonds weighing me down. It’s not hard if you’re a man to get a woman’s opinion before you preach, and vice versa. It’s a small step but it can make all the bleary-eyed difference.

Perhaps the one new sentiment I had to offer my interviewer, one that I don’t often hear articulated, is the need to reorganize congregational life so it isn’t split so starkly between things women do together (meet on weekdays mornings to make prayer shawls) and things men do together (gather on weekend mornings for financial seminars). I’m not saying we need to get rid of gender groups altogether, but why can’t men come to knit and women learn how to invest? I even saw one church invite “anyone who identified as a  woman” to its women’s group. You don’t have to make a decision on the morality of those folks who aren’t strictly male or female (and really, few of us are), but you may as well reflect the reality that they already exist in most churches, maybe even yours.

With research coming to light that women are leaving the Church faster than men, I’m at risk of losing some great women of faith in the pews beside me if we don’t start getting a little more creative and a lot more persistent. It’s hard for a feminist to walk into a church. To be fair, we have our own inner work to do. But  I’m not asking anyone to rewrite Scripture. I’m asking that we believe that it breathes new words on us even now.


9 responses to “So a feminist walks into a church

  1. Reblogged this on katyandtheword and commented:
    Reflections of females in ministry, church and life—

  2. Erin, I am especially intrigued by your thoughts in the last paragraph about men’s and women’s groups. I think often of the tension between the need to “just live” within the faulty constructs we have inherited, and to press, transgress and subvert them. I ask myself, “what makes a women’s craft group a beautiful source of strength–daughters working within the traditions of mothers, aunts, and grandmothers–and what makes it a sign of a proscribed existence, patriarchy, and of being locked out of the gatherings of power?” The separation of spheres that have men’s interests located around “management,” and women’s around “nurture,” is problematic but so is the idea that the problem can be solved with a simple migration of bodies from one circle (money management) to another (knitting). I’m not sure a man entering into the knitting circle is necessarily a step towards any one’s liberation. (I guess one question would be, does he like knitting?) I want to say that an awareness of choice in the appropriation of tradition has something to do with answering the question, but worry that it could equate consumption with freedom. In thinking about this, I am reminded of a tiny Indian lady, who was a professor of mine a long time ago. In her squeaky, powerful voice she would smile and say, “Feminism is women and men working together to create a world in which gender is not destiny.” First I feel inspired to remember the quote, then I feel like it doesn’t help much… Thanks for your post!


    • Hi Dave,

      Thanks for taking the time to comment. I’m not suggesting that gender groups in the Church need to be subverted for the sake of subversion. Only that I know men – my father-in-law the seamstress – and women – myself the budgeter – who could more fully embody the gifts of the Spirit given to them outside the context of what’s been proscribed. I’m also honestly not that interested in solving problems either, as you say, only hoping to better embody the kingdom to come in the here and now. While pressing towards a genderless society is no more helpful than pressing toward a colorblind one, I do hope the work of feminism (and the Gospel, for that matter) is to promote an appreciation of “otherness” and a spirit of unity.


  3. Yeah, good thoughts. We used to have a craft group and the best knitter by far was a guy named Chris. He could knit a hat in the same amount of time it took me to eat a sandwhich (which wasn’t all that long). Anyhow, I gave up knitting and played guitar instead.

    I think your line about men and women “who could more fully embody the gifts of the Spirit given to them outside the context of what’s been proscribed” is right on and answers the question of why your dad’s sewing circle, and your budgeting conclave are good. But it does not help me figure out why I think the old ladies’ quilting circle is awesome, or why I’m bad at budgeting and good at guitar (I assume its all genetic)!


  4. I find it hard to believe that liberal churches still are using antiquated language in services these days.

  5. or what the issue of this is, really. As a radical feminist, I just wouldn’t bother with church at all, unless it was to go with my Mom, for example. It is always an insulting experience to me to be in the pews, because again, it’s the language (bill clinton quote here). As for sex specific groups, I work in a mlae dominated company, very male very sexist very clueless, and thes are youn

  6. g men not old. So I get to see the real deal. I’ve decided that i want to continue working for the liberation of women, and that I don’t care to educate or deal with men who are slowing the process down. no i don’t want to be in mixed sex groups on my free time, and certainly i’m not interested in knitting, and i do like high finance and serious debate but I want to have thse didiscsuuon with women and not men

  7. I actually think women waste a lot of time in churches that show so little change, let’s just leave them to the men and they can preach in male language to each other, as a feminist, i have better things to do with my time. like protest in the streets, like make sure rapists are put in jail, and that i have safety and freedom from rapists, porn viewing men etc., and this is a serious issue–what women need to say to each other and how we organize with each other.

  8. Hi Audrey,

    It sounds like you’ve had some profound experiences with single-gender groups, both male and female, that have shaped your calling to radical feminism. My particular calling is to be in environments, like the church, that are different than me, challenge me, and press me to find Christ in the “other.” There is definitely some value in paying more attention to how we women organize on our own behalf, but I would hate to cut off altogether the good men in the world from walking along side of us.


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