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Pray, Sisters and Brothers from 'Woman in a Man's Church' by Arlene Swidler

Pray, Sisters and Brothers

from Woman in a Man's Church pp. 45-61
by Arlene Swidler
Published by Paulist Press, New York, 1972.
Republished on our website with the necessary permissions

Worship involves offering something special to God-the first fruits of the earth, an unblemished heart, a pure Victim. To the traditional mind the very word suggests descriptions like order, perfection, cleanliness, purity.

The word sex has too often suggested the opposite to religious minds-unpredictability, the irrational, and a kind of general messiness. As a result the two have been separated. And as women have had the menstrual periods, the babies, and the post-partum drainage, they have been the ones made to personify sex and impurity.

The ancient Jews had strong laws on uncleanliness. “When a woman has a discharge of blood, and blood flows from her body, this uncleanness of her monthly periods shall last for seven days (after cessation). Anyone who touches her will be unclean until evening. Any bed she lies on in this state will be unclean; any seat she sits on will be unclean. Anyone who touches her bed must wash his clothing and wash himself and will be unclean until evening" and so on (Lev. 15, 19-21). St. Matthew tells us that after the birth of Jesus his mother went to the temple to be purified.

Jesus himself apparently rejected this idea of ritual impurity. Luke, among others, tells of the woman who had had a discharge for twelve years. The self-image of that poor creature living under the taboo of Leviticus must have been almost unbearable. No wonder she tried to avoid any attention and merely touched the Master’s cloak. Jesus however insisted on calling attention to her case, cured her, and went on his way with no indication of displeasure at having been made unclean!

Unfortunately later Christians returned to the idea of menstrual uncleanness, and women were not only forbidden to say Mass but also kept a certain safe distance from the altar (the distance is much smaller today, but it’s still there) and prohibited from touching the sacred vessels. When the laity were permitted to receive the consecrated bread in their hands, women had to cover their hands with a white cloth. Menstruating women were sometimes directed or urged to stay away from worship services. These taboos still exist more strongly in the Orthodox traditions than in Western Christianity, though in 1965 a Swiss lawyer wrote, “In hospitals run by religious even now some Sisters refuse to touch women during or after childbirth.”

This sort of feeling against having women involved at all in the liturgy exists at such a deep-down irrational level that it’s pretty difficult to argue over. It’s also considerably less prevalent today than it used to be, and even those people who still believe in ritual uncleanness hesitate to bring the subject up.

What’s more likely to be expressed is a feeling that it just isn’t right for women to be up there in the sanctuary-and often the attitude is just that vague. Sometimes there’s talk of men’s being more dignified (though women would certainly look at least as dignified in liturgical garments as men do) or authoritative. “Authoritative” probably comes the closest to representing the problem in the contemporary traditional mind.

In parishes where the liturgy is cool, impersonal, formal, and very traditional there is less likely to be much participation by women. And there is very likely to be a concept of the priest as the ruler, the authority figure, the spiritual patriarch. In this kind of outlook authority resides only in the Father, never the Mother.

In other situations, where the Mass is seen as a gathering together of the Christian community in love, women seem naturally to be taking on new roles. This fits in with the traditional emphasis on the liturgy as a teaching device. If our being together in Christ is to teach us the unity of his Body, we must all function together without jealousy, pride or competitiveness. Each of us has a gift, or competency, and each must use it for our common good.

So we find women beginning to act as ushers, lectors, commentators, instrumentalists, leaders of song, extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist, and even occasionally as preachers-but never as acolytes. Women need no longer be silent in the Church, but there’s still the ancient fear of pollution.

The noted liturgist Father Joseph Champlin suggests that there are even more important tasks for women. He is a strong advocate of parish worship committees, which he hopes will eventually plan every Sunday worship service, with special plans for each separate Massperhaps one with organ, one with contemporary music, one without music, etc. Such parish committees would plan themes, music, readings, commentaries, prayers of the faithful, and even suggest sermon topics and keep the congregation informed via the parish bulletin.

All of these roles and the work of a parish worship committee add up to a lot of participation for women, and in most cases they would also mean a substantial increase of male lay participation as well. But most of these things are merely talked about. A study made in 1970 by the National Council of Catholic Women came up with disappointing results.

The NCCW had set up a task force to investigate the possibilities for women to participate in the liturgy with the purpose of making suggestions to the American bishops of creative opportunities for a wider scope for women. After sending out copies of one questionnaire to every diocese in the country and copies of a second questionnaire to hundreds of parishes where the NCCW had affiliated groups, the task force discovered that women-or parishes, to be exactwere not making use of the opportunities for participation which do exist. And so the task was discovered not to be primarily the education of the bishops-although they still need consciousness raising too-but education of the parish priests and laity.

Even the diocesan liturgical commissions, usually heavily clerical and made up of establishment types, were found in many ways to be more open to women’s participation than were the parish liturgy committees. Very often the local levels responded that they did not use women in the liturgy because they were following the laws of the Church, when in fact the negative laws did not exist or had been changed.

This suggested that there had not been enough interest on the local parish level to prompt inquiries or requests to the diocesan or even national level, where some of these ideas would have been corrected. Not many of the parish committees had even discussed the question of women’s participation, and the questionnaires on the diocesan level showed that when diocesan commissions had discussed the question it had been introduced by women 5 times and men 17 times.

The NCCW results must be seen in context: the laity in general has not been jumping up to volunteer with enthusiasm, for example; and even in the short time since the survey was made women’s attitude toward themselves has changed. Nevertheless it’s clear that women are reluctant to push themselves or even their fellow females into the liturgy.

The days of the very formal liturgy, with the priest talking Latin with his back to the people and the visible wall between the priest’s area and the people’s area, are not so far in the past that even very young adults cannot remember them quite clearly. Some of the same formal feeling, though without the Latin and the altar to the wall, is still prevalent in many churches today. The whole mood was deliberately arranged to represent timelessness and changelessness. People who lived and worshipped in that environment for many years were understandably shaken by innovations. Yet the introduction of lay men into the service has taken place without much ado, and it is now only lay women who for the most part must remain silent and anonymous members of the worshipping community.

Here is one of the most disconcertingand one of the most insulting-problems for Catholic women, according to many leaders. Women are allowed to squeeze into the liturgy only after lay men have paved the way. Right now the same strategy is being used for the diaconate: “Let’s see how our male deacons are accepted and then if it all gets worked out we can let women in too.” But to anyone who believes that women are innately psychologically different from men (and this includes most of the clergy) or those who believe women bring different experiences (this includes almost everybody) it should be obvious that women have to be involved in forming new liturgical roles, not just shoved into the molds that men have made in their own image.

Why then do women remain reluctant to break the barrier? Many denominations report that their women are more adamant in holding the old sex barriers in the churches than men are. And letters to editors on the popular level often show an attitude that women should not be up in front reading or performing in church because their job is to make a good Christian home, as though the pew were any closer to home than the lectern.

The use of women in the liturgy is clearly highly symbolic and charged with meaning for many people. And many women find it threatening, an indication that women have a task far beyond bearing and raising children and keeping house. The more traditional churches especially find that the words “Women’s Liberation” automatically flash “ungodly” to many of their members, and women in any sort of officiating capacity in the liturgy represent a personal affront. There are deep psychological fears involved.

An understanding and kindly woman who has spent decades working with Protestant women’s groups put it thoughtfully, “We have to be very careful in talking about women’s responsibility today to our women who have devoted their lives to taking care of their families and doing volunteer work for the church, because it raises the problem for them that perhaps they didn’t choose wisely.”

Problems like this arise often for groups that act, or tell their people to act, upon moral or ethical judgments. One of the objections to withdrawal from Vietnam was that we couldn’t admit that all those American boys had died in vain. Father Hans Kung makes clear that one of the big -or perhaps the biggest-objections to changing the Church’s position on contraception was that tradition had already been established and many Catholics had made tremendous sacrifices. The Catholic Church faces this problem periodically: it’s one of the reasons we are strong on the idea of “development of doctrine.” It’s typical of the whole set of tensions behind a good many of the credibility gaps in this world. Somewhere and sometime a practical judgment based on available experience has been presented as an eternal truth in order to “save the simple people from confusion.” Catholicism was at one time opposed to lending money for interest, too. Over the years economic situations and social and secular structures change, and we find it difficult to change our ethical judgments of the prudent and sensible way to interpret the signs of the times.

This is the case with our attitude toward women and even sex in general. Not too long ago there was Christian opposition to pain-relievers in childbirth because of the statement in Genesis, “I shall multiply your pains in childbearing, you shall give birth to your children in pain.” Up until almost the present some people were concerned if women appeared in Church without a head covering. Today it is often the sight of a woman in a public liturgical role which raises too many questions for some minds. It will take the combined efforts of priests and people to make the move to a liturgy consonant with today’s sociological and theological understandings of woman as smooth as possible.

Men tend to underestimate their own role in giving women freedom to develop. In almost all cases women have been brought up to depend more upon the approval of the opposite sex than have men; the fact that women are more likely to be judged on their appearance and personality than on their attainments or job performance leaves them much more vulnerable to personal criticism-or compliments!

That means women need men in supportive roles, to encourage them, give them advice and help, pitch in with the work. Women are constantly doing the same for men-busying themselves with most of the dirty work of typing and envelope stuffing in political campaigns, taking care of the details so that the businessman or scholar can get on with his project. Now it’s time for paying back a little of the debt.

Our ecumenical group working on problems of women in organized religion in Philadelphia has specialized in putting on dozens of ecumenical panels on college campuses, in churches and synagogues, and at club meetings. Whenever possible the group likes to include a man on the panel, partly to show that many men are just as concerned as women about sexual injustice, that this mustn’t be a war between the sexes, and also to prove that this isn’t a “woman’s problem,” but a human problem. What we are concerned with ultimately is not feminine development but human development.

Liturgy might be a good place to begin some male-female cooperation. It’s hard to think of an area in which women are more in need of a helping hand. And a good liturgy can’t be onehalf male and one-half female: it has to be the result of the two halves working and creating together.

Although things like reading the Scriptures at Mass or helping to distribute Communion have nothing to do with ordination to the priesthood or even the diaconate, they are important because the opponents of women in the priesthood are talking less and less about theological objections and more about sociological or psychological considerations. And here the objections to women in any sort of office are similar: it is contrary to custom and the people do not wish it. Both sides are quite aware that a woman in the pulpit has her foot in the clerical door.

One of the best ways to learn how we ourselves react to women at the altar or in the pulpit is to test ourselves. There are quite a few Protestant groups which ordain women, and a visit to a church where a woman is officiating is usually fairly simple to manage

One Catholic woman invited a few years back to be part of an ecumenical retreat team for a Protestant group was extremely impressed to discover that the lay president of the women’s group also presided at the Eucharist, although there were several ordained women present. Having the natural, elected leader of the organization also distributing the Eucharist seemed so right and logical that it was only in talking about it later that the Catholic woman stopped to think that this was the first time she had seen a woman at the altar. Sex didn’t seem significant at all.

Women preachers come in all styles and levels, just as women teachers or men preachers do. Too often they don’t have as much experience as their male counterparts, but they have just as much to say. One ordained Protestant woman who recently got a position teaching homiletics (preaching) in her denomination’s seminary found that many of her friends were amazed-"I just can’t imagine their letting a woman teach homiletics!" But why not, she asked? It’s women who have had to sit in the pew and listen to all those sermons over the years!

In the past there have been a good many reasons given as to why women could not be priests in the Catholic Church. Some were scriptural, but none of the passages in the New Testament is really relevant to the question of ordination. Some arguments were rather peripheral at best, like the fact that Mary was not a priest. Some dealt with the order of creation, but Paul’s statement that in Christ there is neither male nor female makes a pretty strong refutation. Perhaps the most usual argument on the popular level today is that Jesus did not choose women for Apostles. Of course he did not choose Gentiles either, so the argument is not convincing. There is rather general agreement that Jesus chose twelve-Jewish-males to represent the twelve tribes of the New Israel.

Theologians are still arguing the question, and church historians are still researching the past, but the consensus is now that there are no theological impediments to women priests. That leaves the question of tradition-or history -and the problem of general acceptance.

Recently the number of women seeking ordination in the Catholic Church or at least asking for a change in the legislation which forbids women priests has increased at a fast rate. During the Second Vatican Council the question was first raised publicly, and St. Joan’s International Alliance began its annual petition for consideration of women priests. One of St. Joan’s members, Mary B. Lynch, later became the first woman accepted as a student in a Catholic seminary.

Protestant groups are studying the question too. Those who do ordain women are now being accused of injustice in giving the women only those posts men do not want, such as working with children or supplying the tiny rural parishes. Those who did not ordain women are reconsidering their positions: most of the Lutheran groups in this country are now ordaining women, and even the Episcopal Church has moved in that direction. In the Catholic Church there have been recommendations for opening the diaconate to women. Only the Eastern Orthodox Churches remain completely closed to the question.

If women had full access to the decisionmaking levels in the Church, what kind of changes could we expect? Well, there would be a few changes of a negative kind-eliminating some of the misogynist phraseology, like the “defiled like a menstruous woman” section of the Easter vigil. And there’d be somewhat less of the “Pray, brothers” approach and more of the “Pray, brothers and sisters.” We wouldn’t all be “sons of God,” nor would the Beatitudes come out as “Happy the man.”

We could expect some positive additions as well. The wedding rite might be the first to be rewritten, for it is incredible that only celibates can decide what married people will vow. There is a good deal of freedom allowed in putting the ceremony together now, but the rules are still made by priests.

The baptismal rite might be improved if married women were given some voice in the matter. Why must it be a cleric who performs the baptism? Why isn’t the opportunity used to educate the parents on their rights and duties toward the child? The old churching ceremony, which reminded too many women of the rite of purification, has been done away with, but nothing has been substituted. (Baptism is itself an improvement over circumcision, of course, which is automatically limited to males.)

The big questions bothering us now in the liturgy are social ones. How do we make people feel part of a worshipping group? How do we express this unity to one another and in our communal prayer? How do we make people feel at home? How do we combine people of various backgrounds and ages in one celebration? In our society it is women who do the social tasks of making people welcome, introducing them to one another, making members of the group comfortable and worrying about fitting the odd ones in.

It’s also women for the most part who have discovered how to communicate truths to children and women who take the time to work with tots. Women have a lot of what our liturgy needs.

The other basic ingredient we are seeking today is new ways, contemporary forms and styles, for expressing our relationship to God, our neighbor, and the universe. As these forms must also be expressive of the feminine experience and the feminine search, it is important that women be able to contribute their insights and talents.

There’s a saying that the only things women can do better than men are bearing children and singing soprano, but Catholics have been pointing out that the Church disputes even this; some of our people still feel that any selfrespecting cathedral choir should use little boys rather than female sopranos. In the less traditional church music, however, women have been using their creative talents along with the men; some of the most popular contemporary church music is written by women, like Sister Miriam Therese of the Medical Mission Sisters In the areas of posters and banners women artists are even more prominent. On the other hand, the only art form which still frightens most church people is also the only one dominated by women-the dance.

Not too many years ago quite a few Catholics were questioning whether we weren’t putting far too much emphasis on the liturgy. Today we see it as the real unifying factor of the Catholic community, but the task of unifying the male and female halves-and expressing that unityis still mostly before us.

Dr. Lois Gunden Clemens, a Mennonite woman who has served her church for many years, be. lieves strongly in the differences between men and women. These very differences, she says, make it necessary to give women an equal voice in the church.

“From many directions authorities in various fields are suggesting that in the present state of affairs when the world is suffering from too much male assertiveness, what is needed above all else is a realization of the importance of interdependence and social cohesion in all human affairs. This calls for understanding in human relations, social poise, and the skill of persuasion, which are precisely the skills too often lacking in men’s relationships with others. The women, for whom these interests and skills come naturally, should be having a more important role at all levels in the formulating of policy.

Woman, who stands for the significance of individual life, will be searching for what gives meaning and significance to life. While men establish laws and create philosophical systems, women will question their validity and challenge their authority. She is the one in the human partnership who could change into a home for humanity the society which has become depersonalized by man’s techniques ....

It must be recognized that from God’s point of view it is much more important to be concerned about what is happening in the lives of human beings than to be concentrating on man’s great achievements in the physical world. In the church there lurks the same danger. The excitement and satisfaction of achievement in programs and structured activity can be diverting attention from the real mission of the church to change lives. It is the quality of life and its expression in meaningful relationshipsthe love one for another-that should be the distinguishing marks of the Christian community. If it is woman’s natural concern to make possible a more abundant life, then she should be expressing her views in ways that count in the church." (Woman Liberated, Herald Press, 1971, pp. 82-83.)

What traits and talents do women especially have, either by their nature or through their experiences?

How does the Church manifest itself as a male-dominated community?

In what ways do women have a specific contribution to make?

A noted Catholic theologian writes about the different ways in which women may react to the public image of woman today.

“Many women seem to collapse psychically under the sheer weight of the stereotypes dumped upon them. They lose their nerve and cannot believe in the truth of their own experience as persons. They settle for a pre-fabricated destiny and proceed to try to fulfill the stereotype, in the vain hope of gaining acceptance and approval. So they set out to be manageable accessories-shapeless, brainless, helpless, but efficient instruments for someone else’s purpose. Anyone who resorts to this type of role-playing has to suppress frightening amounts of conflict and hostility, because she is utterly alienated from her true self and cannot afford to admit it. She may find free women a direct and intolerable threat to herself. She may need to be catty and underhanded to try to pull them down and destroy them.” (Monika Hellwig, “Hope and Liberation,” Liturgy, Oct. 1970, p. 14.)

How do women today experience themselves as persons?

Can they experience themselves as persons in the traditional role in the liturgy?

Why do some women prefer to retain and limit themselves to this traditional passive role?

Why do some women feel threatened by other women going beyond the traditional role?

Rev. Elsie Gibson of the United Church of Christ has written a book about women ministers based on interviews and questionnaires sent to several hundred ordained women.

“Opinions as to whether or not ordination is a right for which women should contend differ among female clergy themselves. Marie Hubbel, who has been a pastor in California and is now doing graduate work, tells ordained women, ‘Never, for whatever provocation, take up the cause of women’s rights. For us to espouse this cause is to lose friends and influence.’ . . .

Militancy on the part of a woman minister places men on the defensive. Their reaction may be a combination of semi-guilt over an unfair situation they feel personally powerless to remedy and irritation with the woman for making a fuss about what cannot be helped. The issue is similar to that of civil rights; there is an additional difficulty in that relationships between men and women are even more complicated and delicate than those between races ....

It seems to me that men can do more for women in this regard than women can do for themselves. If, for example, a man believes he has received a real call to ministry, how can he face God in prayer and deny a woman the privilege of responding to the same invitation? I believe that the great majority of Christian men will defend women in their desire to serve God, once they grasp the spiritual import of what is being asked." (When the Minister is a Woman Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970, pp. 70-71.)

A good many ordained women, especially younger ministers, have reacted negatively to passages like this. Do you think their irritation is justified?

How can Catholic men-lay and priests-help women? Will they do so? How can women enlist their aid?

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