I 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.