Voices of a New Theology
from Women and Spirituality, Ursula King, Macmillan 1989, ch. 6, pp. 160-205.
Feminist spirituality has to grow out of a feminist theology as a critical theology of liberation. The task of such a theology is to uncover Christian theological traditions and myths that perpetuate sexist ideologies, violence, and alienation.
The Church has publicly to confess that it has wronged women. As the Christian community has officially rejected national and racial exploitation and publicly repented of its tradition of anti-Semitic theology, so it is still called to abandon all forms of sexism.
An analysis of Christian tradition and history, however, indicates that Church and theology will transcend their own sexist ideologies only when women are granted full spiritual, theological, and ecclesial equality . . . Only if we, women and men, are able to live in nonsexist Christian communities, to celebrate nonsexist Christian liturgies, and to think in nonsexist theological terms and imagery will we be able to formulate a genuine Christian feminist spirituality.'Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, 'Feminist Spirituality, Christian Identity, and Catholic Vision', pp.146, 147.
Christian feminist spirituality is closely connected with feminist theology which has appeared as a new theology created and voiced by women, although men now also write about it occasionally. Characterised by strong commitment and fervour, this theology has been described as an 'advocacy theology', and as such it has attracted ardent supporters and vehement critics alike largely from among men, but also from some women. The new subject of feminist theology is represented in many North American, but few European, universities and in Britain it is still being snubbed at or ignored by much of the official theological establishment. When I once mentioned to the editor of a widely read theological journal that I was interested in reviewing good books on feminist theology, he replied 'Do feminists ever write good theological books?' Such is the reputation of feminist theology among its despisers.
But what is feminist theology? How does it differ from theology as traditionally understood and practised? And in what way does it affect the practice of spirituality? Let us look at the meaning of feminist theology, its major positions and practitioners, the controversies they have created and, most importantly, let us consider the spirituality celebrated and advocated by feminist theologians and their followers.
The term 'feminist theology' is used in both a wider and more narrow sense among women who share a deep commitment and concern for both religion and feminism. Feminist theology is 'reflected in the sizable literature which represents the women's movement in the synagogue, the Christian Church, and the feminist spirituality movement, and . . . has already developed into a tradition which is ecumenical, pluralist, and academically serious' (Carr, 1982, p. 279). The essential challenge for women interested in theological issues is summed up in questions such as: does traditional theology still speak to women's experience today or do women need to create a new religious and spiritual tradition? Do feminists need to reconstruct their religious tradition by reinterpreting its insights in the light of new experience? These issues are squarely faced in the book of essays edited by Carol Christ and Judith Plaskow, Womanspirit Rising (1979) and from a Christian point of view they are more fully explored in the methodological and critical sections of Rosemary Radford Ruether's Sexism and God-Talk (1983) and Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza's In Memory of Her (1983).
In a wider sense, then, feminist theology can refer to the perspectives of Jewish and Christian feminists and to those practising new forms of feminist spirituality. In its narrower sense the term is often understood to relate to feminist writings closely connected with or at least arising out of Christian theological concerns, and I shall use the term from now on mainly in this more specific sense. In the previous chapter we explored some of the ways in which contemporary women try to create a new tradition by connecting elements and insights of earlier symbols, myths and stories with their experience and religious practice today. Now we shall investigate how Christian feminists reconstruct and reinterpret the elements of their faith and thereby try to make theology meaningful for women today. But their vision is larger than that; it includes women and men and reaches out to the whole community. As its best and most dynamic feminist theology and spirituality contain a transformative potential for a profound restructuring of both church and society.
What is feminist theology?
Theology can simply be defined as the intellectual reflection on the experience of faith. Members of every religious tradition develop intellectual formulations and abstract concepts about their experience, whether it is personal or communal, original and new, or follows the established pattern of a historical tradition. In this general sense theology exists in every religion but it can develop in very different ways. In monotheistic religions theology, as the original meaning of the word implies, concerns particularly ideas about God. But one can understand theology more universally as a quest for ultimate meaning and as a concern with transcendence, however thought of. The traditional subject matter of Christian theology is often summed up as consisting of an enquiry into 'God, man, and the world' or to put it differently, an enquiry into the nature of ultimate reality, of human life in its individual and collective forms, and of the natural world of which human beings form a part.
This brief description indicates that there can be different kinds of theology, different ways or models of understanding 'God, man, and the world'. Different religions can be seen as different symbolic maps or models of what ultimate reality and human life are understood to be about. These maps present us with visions of different countries which can be quite dissimilar although they also share many common features. Sara Maitland (1983) sees feminism as providing a map of a new country for Christianity and she emphasises that we need women as map-makers of the 'interior country', of that area of inwardness so important for spirituality which provides the matrix for much of our experience and action,
It is important to remember that all theology is originally grounded in experience, an experience of faith as a transforming vision, a revelatory experience that transcends ordinary common sense experience. Throughout history women and men have had such experiences, and have had them in abundance. But from a contemporary woman's point of view the question arises how far the experience of women has remained in the past an untapped source for traditional theology. Theological formulations which found official, institutional sanction and were handed down in the codified teachings of established theological schools were entirely the creation of men. This is true of the theologies of all religions. One must therefore ask how the creation and formulations of one sex alone can possibly be universally valid for all people, women and men? In the past it was always male theologians who wrote about the image, nature and place of woman in church and society, thus articulating and defining what a woman was to be. Today women write about themselves, about their own experience and interpretation of faith, their ministry in the churches, their self-understanding as women. In feminist theology women have become the subject of a new theological approach rather than simply being the object of theology, for feminist theology is rooted in the religious experience of women themselves. Thus feminist theology has an experiential as well as an experimental quality about it, and perceptive observers recognise in the feminist movement in the churches a new prophetic dimension of great importance for the future of Christianity.
It is perhaps too early yet to write a history of feminist theology although this new subject or, more correctly stated, this new critical theory and practice have been in the making for over twenty years now. Feminist theology developed in the USA before it came to Europe where it is found since about 1975. By now several North American colleges and universities have given some institutional backing to feminist theology whereas in Europe it has on the whole been given little official acknowledgement in educational institutions. It largely flourishes in loose networks in a non-institutional, non-hierarchical, informal way among women interested in theological ideas and research. A unique development occurred in the Netherlands where the Roman Catholic University of Nijmegen created a Chair in Feminism and Christianity to which Professor Catharina J. M. Halkes was appointed in 1983. Holland is unique in that every theological faculty, whether Protestant or Catholic, has now some teaching on feminist theology. A two year research project has already produced a substantial report on ten years of feminist theology in the Netherlands (Bekkenkamp, Droes and Korte, 1986). However, feminist theology is by no means restricted to North America and western Europe but, like feminism itself, it possesses a global dimension. Feminist theological thinking can be found among women in Australia, Asia (Christian Conference of Asia 1985/86; Chatterji, 1979, 1982, 1986; Katoppo, 1979; Faria, Alexander and Tellis Nayak, 1984), South Africa (Vorster, 1984), and elsewhere around the world (Thompson, 1982; Webster, 1985). It is sometimes said that Valerie Saiving's article The Human Situation: A Feminine View', originally published in 1960 (reprinted in Christ and Plaskow, 1979, pp. 25-42), was the first landmark in feminist theology without being recognised as such at the time. As a student of theology, especially of the theological works of Niebuhr and Nygren, Valerie Saiving became aware that the universal human condition discussed by theologians did not take into account the difference between the experience of women and men. She had the courage to see that the sexual identity of a theologian has much to do with how the proper role of theology is perceived and thus makes a difference to the process of theologising. For example, such theological topics as sin and grace, much debated in the works of Niebuhr and Nygren, may well need to be approached differently when examined from the perspective of women.
Saiving did not use the term 'feminist' but called her analysis simply 'a feminine view' and argued that as our society is moving from a masculine to a feminine orientation, theology needs to reconsider its estimate of the human condition and redefine its categories. An explicitly feminist stance was articulated in Mary Daly's book The Church and the Second Sex (1968), a widely publicised work on the role of women in the church. Daly maintained that the church had encouraged the view of women as inferior, and that it had become a leading instrument of oppression. Following the publication of Daly's work a flood of books appeared on feminist theology, whether written from mainstream Christian or Jewish perspectives or whether representing mother goddess worship, witchcraft and the new spirituality movement. The names of Sheila Collins, Letty Russell, Rosemary Radford Ruether, Naomi Goldenberg, Judith Plaskow, Carol Christ, Starhawk and others became well known in America and abroad. Harvard Divinity School, after admitting its first women students only in 1955, saw the development of a Women's Caucus by 1970 (Hageman, 1974). Its work led to the foundation of the 'Women's Studies in Religion' programme in 1973, which now publishes 'The Harvard Women Studies in Religion Series' (Atkinson, Buchanan and Miles, 1985). The annual conference of the American Academy of Religion has organised a regular section on 'Women and Religion' since 1972. In Europe, feminist theology became first known through American publications but now there are quite a few women writing and researching in this field in different European countries. In May 1986, over 70 women from different parts of Europe met for a consultation in Switzerland and founded the 'European Society of Women for Theological Research' which publishes a regular newsletter and organises an annual conference.
One of the earliest systematic outlines of feminist theology in book form was provided by Catharina Halkes' publication Met Mirjam is het begonnen (It all began with Miriam) which was translated into German (Halkes 1980a, Gott hat nicht nur starke Sohne, Grundzuge einer feministischen Theologie) but not into English. Major themes of feminist theology were widely publicised in England through the publication of Susan Dowell's and Linda Hurcombe's Dispossessed Daughters of Eve (1983) and Sara Maitland's A Map of the New Country (1983). A substantial introduction to the sources and norms of feminist theology and its implications for different theological subjects is provided by Rosemary Radford Ruether's Sexism and God-Talk, Toward a Feminist Theology (1983). More recently the introduction to feminist theology by the German theologican Elisabeth Moltmann-Wendel, A Land Flowing with Milk and Honey, Perspectives on Feminist Theology (1986) has became available in English, It is particularly stimulating as it includes illustrations of female figures in religious art, both ancient and modern, on which the author draws in her discussion.
It has been said that the 'themes and perspectives of "feminist theology" are as broad as the women's movement itself. Furthermore, this theological genre has had no single organizing theme, no obvious focus, no sharply identifiable set of objectives. To be sure, it is unified in its opposition to the maleness of God and tradition, and the consequent subordination of women. But it has lacked a clear-cut model for dealing with these issues' (Quebedeaux, 1987, pp. 132f.). However, feminist theology should not be primarily characterised by what it is not, but rather by what it aims to achieve. It has both a negative and a positive task. Its negative task is the radical critique of all forms of sexisrn and androcentrism inherent in the language and thought forms of previous theologies (Ruether, 1987), a task calling into question and dismantling all exclusive, onesided presuppositions based on male norms and views alone. Its positive task is one of reform and reconstruction, of a reinterpretation of tradition in the light of women's experience, a reflection on faith in the light of feminism. The positive task of construction is always more difficult than criticism and feminist theology has still got a long way to go before it has made its full contribution to theological thought and expression.
Susan Dowell and Linda Hurcombe have said: 'The overwhelming task of feminist theology is, in our view, to face the fact that Christian theology is guilty of sexism, as it has been guilty of racism and classism, but also to affirm that this faith, this theology, is not irredeemably sexist. This is a critical mission within all organized religion' (1981, p.67). Basically, feminist theology is strongly holistic in intention. It criticises all dualistic separations, whether of body and spirit, heaven and earth, woman and man, man and God. It is born out of a certain women-togetherness, a community wherein women can ask their own questions about ultimate values, where they can work and think together to search for answers, for disclosure of meaning and for the divine presence within and around them. Feminist theology has been likened to process theology because it is about change and movement, about perceiving a new unfolding of God's revelation in time and history, Or it can be seen as liberation theology, for it was born out of women's historical experience of suffering, out of the subordination and oppression created by the structural violence of church and society. It embodies a new vision of reality founded on an ardent wish for liberation, for freedom and reconciliation, not only for women, but for people of all classes, races and nations.
Feminist theology can be described as inductive in its method, as 'pneumatological, Utopian-prophetic, even Dionysian' in nature (Halkes, 1980b). Its experimental character is evident even in its language and style (Gerber, 1984). The traditional subjects of theology are mediated through new concepts, through a less abstract, more contextual language woven around stories, experiences and events set within a new perspective. And yet feminist theology is theology in the fullest and most fundamental sense of the word: it is centrally concerned with the encounter, experience and revelation of God or the Divine, and with human images and concepts relating to this ultimate mystery and to our abiding fascination with it. In its critical stance feminist theology highlights and makes explicit the pervasively androcentric and often misogynist character of much traditional Christian theology (Aubert, 1975).
Feminist theology is concerned with examining language about God and human beings, the language of the Bible and that used in the liturgy. It critically reflects on traditional topics such as the teaching about Christ and the Spirit as well as questions of Christian ethics, Christian ministry and community (Carr, 1980, 1982; Gerber, 1984; Sorge, 1985; Siegele-Wenschkewitz and Schottroff, 1986). Feminist theologians criticise the false abstractions and overly rationalistic conceptualisations of traditional theologies. Women, out of their experience of oppression, are suspicious of the suppression of experience in so much theological thinking with its abstract speculations. Whilst feminist theologians base themselves on scripture and the living tradition of the church as their primary sources, their thinking is at the same time deeply grounded in women's experience and consciousness as well as in feminist action for liberation. Thus action is closely linked to thought. Feminist theology does not develop in isolation but grows out of interconnections, through bonds with other women which provide an important community dimension. Perhaps one of the most significant aspects of feminist theology is its character as a non-hierarchical, non-clerical lay movement indicative of profound social change and capable of bringing much change into the church as community. One can truly speak of a 'feminist transformation of theology' (Plaskow, 1977) or more cautiously about a 'feminist reconsideration of Christian theology' which according to an outline produced by the British group 'Women in Theology' includes such questions as: Where we stand as women; The 'patriarchal system' and women's critique of it; What is theology and how can we do it? The way the Bible has been used; Wherein lies the Bible's authority? Women's approach to the text; How can we use God language today? God-language in the Old and New Testament, in the history of doctrine, in other religions; Women's participation in the history and literature of the people of Israel; Women's participation in New Testament times and in the early Christian communities; The discipleship and priesthood of women today; The community of the church and the feminist community; Mariology; Women's spirituality (see also the different themes in Weidmann, 1984, and Weaver, 1985).
Much of this is exploratory and breaking new ground. Feminist theology offers a new vision; it rediscovers and reinterprets old symbols and shapes new ones. It creates a new sense of community among women and gives them a new empowerment which many experience as a confirmation of the Spirit, the breath of life and creative source of all energy. Feminist theology also creates a new spirituality whose great themes are liberation, celebration and community. There is much life and positive strength in feminist theology, there is much that is shared through common characteristics and methods, but there is also much diversity and debate. The critical sifting of past inheritance is undertaken in very different and sometimes opposite ways. Far from speaking with one voice, feminist theology is profoundly pluralistic. It contains a number of different strands and orientations and has led to several controversies. Some maintain that this diversity within feminist theology and spirituality is its very strength. Let us explore these differences in some detail.
Basic orientations in feminist theology
The major orientations which have emerged in feminist theology so far are characterised by either a reformist or a radical, revolutionary stance. Profound disagreement reigns over the question of whether traditional religious beliefs and symbols can be reinterpreted and transformed in the light of new experience, or whether they have to be abandoned in order to be replaced by new ones. There is also the problem of experience. If one distinguishes between woman's traditional experience and feminist experience, what place is assigned to each of these in feminist theology? For the feminist theologian woman's experience in all its particularity becomes a source of theological insight and is used as a new theological norm. But how does this work in conjunction with other theological norms such as scripture, tradition and the Christian experience of faith? The critical principle of feminist theology has been described by Rosemary Ruether as 'the promotion of the full humanity of women'. She writes:
Whatever denies, diminishes, or distorts the full humanity of women is, therefore, appraised as not redemptive. Theologically speaking, whatever diminishes or denies the full humanity of women must be presumed not to reflect the divine or an authentic relation to the divine, or to reflect the authentic nature of things, or to be the message or work of an authentic redeemer or a community of redemption.
This negative principle also implies the positive principle: what does promote the full humanity of women is of the Holy . . .But the meaning of this positive principle - namely, the full humanity of women - is not fully known. It has not existed in history. (1983, pp.l8f.)
This is a much wider definition than the experience of women. Ultimately feminist theology must envisage the full humanity of all people, women and men. Applying a critical principle to feminist theology itself will mean the recognition that too often a particular dimension of women's experience is equated with women's experience as a whole and that the genuine diversity of women's experience is not sufficiently taken into account. Feminist theology must avoid the pitfall of universalising from particular experience. It is difficult to group feminist theologians together for each has her own definite emphasis and individual approach, but the basic division between either a reformist or a radical stance cuts across denominational differences. One of the best known and most radical feminist theologians is the American Mary Daly, a former Roman Catholic, She was not only the first to fully articulate a feminist stance in theology, but she also repudiated her earlier reformist position taken in The Church and the Second Sex (1968) by developing an extreme radicalism in her subsequent publications. In her 'New Feminist Postchristian Introduction' to the 1975 edition of her book Beyond God the Father (first published in 1973) she argues that it is not sexism alone which makes Christianity oppressive, but its very core symbolism of God the Father and the male Christ. Whilst her earlier work manifested some anger, she later greatly shifted her focus and radicalised her perspective, succinctly summarised in such articles as 'Theology after the Demise of God the Father: Call for the Castration of Sexist Religion' (1974) and 'After the Death of God the Father: Women's Liberation and the Transformation of Christian Consciousness' (1979b). Her radical, separatist stance is writ large in her fierce and highly original books full of new word creations, Gyn/Ecology (1978) and Pure Lust (1984).
The first radical step was already taken in 1971. Daly was then invited to be the first woman preacher in Harvard Memorial Church and chose as the theme of her sermon 'The Women's Movement: An Exodus Community' (reprinted in Clark and Richardson, 1977, pp. 265-71). The sermon concluded with the symbolic act of women leaving the church together, an event of profound significance for many participants. Daly described the feminist community of sisterhood as a community with a mission whose first priority is the liberation of women and the positive refusal to be co-opted any more. For her the sisterhood of women opens out to universal horizons pointing toward the sisterhood of man. She concluded with the words:
The sisterhood of man cannot happen without a real exodus. We have to go out from the land of our fathers into an unknown place. We can this morning demonstrate our exodus from sexist religion - a break which for many of us has already taken place spiritually. We can give physical expression to our exodus community, to the fact that we must go away.
We cannot really belong to institutional religion as it exists. It isn't good enough to be token preachers. It isn't good enough to have our energies drained and co-opted. Singing sexist hymns, praying to a male god breaks our spirit, makes us less than human. The crushing weight of this tradition, of this power structure, tells us that we do not even exist. Let us affirm our faith in ourselves and our will to transcendence by rising and walking out together. (Clark and Richardson, 1977, pp. 270f.)
Daly's early theological thought was much influenced by Paul Tillich (Stenger 1982). In her later works she identifies woman's Voices of a new theology 171 experience with religious meaning itself, but the two are not identical and she does not pay sufficient attention to the ambiguity of experience. Sometimes she even equates experience with the Ultimate and one can criticise her for having made the experience of woman becoming into a new absolute which carries with it an affirmation, especially in Gyn/Ecology, which can justifiably be described as 'idolatrous' (Stenger).
Daly has consciously moved out of the church and found a new community in the feminist movement which, in radical separation, constitutes for her a new messianic community alone able to challenge the oppressive tendencies of traditional religion. She identifies with the radical strand of feminism and recasts religion in a radical mode. In fact, her thought does not belong to feminist theology in the narrow understanding of that term any more but has become 'post-Christian'.
This term, now widely used in the United States, is sometimes also found among religious feminists in Britain, yet its meaning remains undefined and is far from clear. Does it imply moving beyond Christianity in the sense of developing it further or simply going outside it? Does it imply the tacit claim of having reached a more inclusive universal position or is it, on the contrary, far more exclusive than Christianity itself? Is the term equivalent to being 'non-Christian' or does it mean being religious in a new sense? If the latter, why not drop the 'Christian' altogether? Or do particular women still have a continuing need to refer back to Christianity in order to maintain their identity, an identity so tied to a past framework that they have not really moved beyond it and therefore they cannot conceive of theologising in an altogether new intellectual and existential context?
Some of these issues were explored from almost opposite standpoints in a public discussion 'Is there a Place for Feminists in a Christian Church?' held in London in May 1986 between Daphne Hampson and Rosemary Ruether. Hampson argued for 'the ultimate incompatibility between feminism and Christianity', a position not much different from that of many secular and non-Christian religious feminists. Hampson maintained 'that in feminism Christianity has met with a challenge to which it cannot accommodate itself (Hampson and Ruether, 1987, p. 14). But why then hold on to being a 'post-Christian'? Ruther criticised Hampson for seeing Christianity as statically enclosed in a past revelation whereas, according to her, it is open to development and thus open to feminist restatement. Christianity is not simply a culture of domination but it 'is also deeply rooted in a culture of liberation . . . Prophetic faith included the critique of religion'. The past contains many partial insights which can spark the imagination so that Ruether could affirm 'As a Christian, I am engaged in restating the insights of Christianity in feminist terms because I am concerned that the churches become vehicles of hope, rather than of oppression, for women. But I do this, finally, not to vindicate the church or to remain enclosed in a Christian future, but to reach out to a new human future, a new future for all earth's beings' (1987, pp. 20 & 21).
A sound measure of radicalism may be required in many areas of Christian life, especially when one thinks of the inflexibility of the male bureaucracy of the churches, but it does not necessarily mean abandoning Christianity altogether. There are still many Christian women who believe with Ruether that we can move further within the church, transforming it from within without having to adopt the radical stance of Mary Daly and other 'post-Christians'. If extreme feminist radicalism, whether of the theological, cultural or sociopolitical variety, became the general norm - which seems unlikely at present - it would be a source for a potentially vaster conflict between the sexes than any other racial, cultural or social tension. But perhaps it is necessary at our present stage of development to experience the extreme limits of possible female being-in-the-world to achieve a truly new breakthrough. To create new structures for church and society, harmonious integration may have to be won by passing temporarily through a stage of separation.
Compared with Mary Daly's extremism, Rosemary Ruether's voice is one of balance and moderation. Its strength lies in blending the best of Christian tradition with feminist vision and restating Christian insights in the context of women's experience today. Whilst Daly has been called a 'revolutionary', Ruether is often seen as a 'radical reformist'. However, Daly's 'revolution' is mainly grounded in the power of her ideas which in the end remain based in philosophical idealism. In some ways Ruether is 'revolutionary' in a more realistic sense as she links her ideas much more closely to social praxis as is also the case with South American liberation theologians and other Christian feminists such as Sheila Collins, Letty Russell and Dorothee Soelle. It has been said that Daly and Ruether represent 'two kinds of prophecy' which in a way complement each other:
Daly's perception of the depth of the historical problem of patriarchy and sexism is more unequivocal than Ruether's. She names the systemic demon, not as a theological construct, but rather as a human agent - i.e., men, creators and rulers of the patriarchal world. But she then flees inward, for a personal exorcism of the mind. Ruether does not name the demon with the same unmistakable clarity; she suggests that it is a theological concept (e.g., 'dualism'). Ruether, however, does not flee inward; rather she joins her sisters and brothers in the world for the corporate task of exorcising a historic, systemic demon whose human name and face remain elusive.
It may be that Ruether's strong and valuable sense of commitment to her people, her community- especially Christian women - is militating against her assumption of a more revolutionary prophetic role within the community - the role of one who speaks as an individual to the community instead of as a member of the community for the community. Daly's voice is prophetic, but she has chosen to stand outside the very community (Christianity) to whom she could most forcefully speak prophetically . . . Ruether stands within the community that needs the prophecy, but she is not 'sparking' quite the same terrifying and devastating warning. (Heyward, 1979, pp.71f.)
Ruether's early work was concerned with Liberation Theology (1972) and the theological roots of antisemitism (Faith and Fratricide, 1974a). This was followed by two collections of essays -Religion and Sexism (1974b) and New Woman, New Earth (1975) dealing with sexist ideologies and human liberation. After a brief study on Mary - The Feminine Face of the Church (1979a) she edited with Eleanor McLaughlin Women of Spirit (1979) which explores the lives and insights of several women leaders in Judaism and Christianity. Ruether's important introduction to feminist theology, Sexism and God-Talk (1983), has already been mentioned and this has recently been supplemented by Womanguides. Readings Toward a Feminist Theology (1985) and Women-Church. The Theology and Practice of Feminist Liturgical Communities (1986). Ruether's feminist theology is based on a vision of a world without sexism, a world truly transformed by divine redemption. Over the years, her perspective has widened considerably and she now lists among the sources of her theologising not only the Bible and the dominant theological tradition of the major Christian churches, but also countercultural movements in early Christianity and church history, pagan veneration of nature and the Goddess, and modern resources found in liberalism, Marxism and romanticism. In order to express a fuller, more comprehensive meaning of the Divine than that conveyed by the traditional word 'God' or by the new 'Goddess' of the feminist movement, Ruether has developed a new written symbol 'God/ess'. It combines words of male and female linguistic form whilst preserving the fundamental affirmation that divinity is One. But she concedes that this term 'is unpronounceable and inadequate. It is not intended as language for worship, where one might prefer a more evocative term, such as Holy One or Holy Wisdom. Rather it serves here as an analytic sign to point toward that yet unnameable understanding of the divine that would transcend patriarchal limitations and signal redemptive experience for women as well as men' (Ruether, 1983, p. 46).
The readings in Womanguides take up the same themes by providing historical source material with commentaries and reflections which open with a chapter on 'Gender Imagery for God/ess'. Other themes explored are the Divine Pleroma, male and female saviour figures, foremothers of the womanchurch, and visions of a new earth in terms of a redeemed society and nature, and a new understanding of heaven.
Feminist theologians, whether sharing the radical orientation of Mary Daly or the reformist one of Rosemary Ruether and such writers as Collins, Halkes, Moltmann-Wendel, Russell, Soelle and Schüssler Fiorenza, have had a wide influence across Christian denominational boundaries. Feminist theology is truly ecumenical in that it brings together Christian women from different churches. It is also ecumenical in a wider sense since both Jewish and Christian feminists are engaged in challenging the patriarchal language and culture of their traditions which hold many symbols and stories in common. Well known Jewish feminists writers on theological issues are Naomi Goldenberg, Carol Ochs and Judith Plaskow. Rita Gross, now deeply committed to Tibetan Buddhism, was at one time also connected with Judaism and devoted some earlier work to Jewish theological issues.
Each feminist theologian has a somewhat different perspective and approach by bringing her own insight, courage and vision to bear on theology. Feminism has even taken root in Christian evangelicalism, especially among graduate women in the United States. The evangelical bi-monthly Daughters of Sarah has been published since 1974 and the Evangelical Women's Caucus (EWC) has had its own newsletter since 1977 which has since grown into a full-scale quarterly journal called EWC Update. Virginia Ramey Mollenkott and Letha Scanzoni are among the best known evangelical writers on feminism in the United States, The rise and significance of feminism among American evangelicals has been discussed by Richard Quebedeaux who writes:
Evangelical feminism as a movement has distinguished itself from secular feminism . . . and even from mainstream Christian feminism, by its insistence on the centrality of biblical authority on the issue of women in church and society. Its adherents often call themselves 'biblical feminists'. (The movement can also be distinguished from the more radical feminist sentiments, secular and Christian, by its conciliatory attitude toward men - stressing the mutual submission of all Christians to each other.) Yet despite their commitment to the full authority of the Bible, evangelical feminists share a traditional 'liberal' methodology in dealing with that authority. (1987, p. 141)
This brings us to some of the theological controversies in feminist theology of which that surrounding the Bible is especially important but by no means the only one.
Controversies in feminist theology
Feminist theology challenges the customary understanding of Bible and tradition in Christianity and calls for a radical re-examination of the presuppositions and expressions of Christian faith. Members of different Christian denominations respond differently to the challenge of feminist thinking but there is little doubt that feminist thought has by now influenced individual people in all Christian churches. However, the emergence and growth of feminist theology has created considerable controversy relating to both internal and external aspects. Debate about matters internal to Christian theology concern such issues as the understanding of God, the teaching and role of the Bible in the Christian community, the nature of the ministry and the sacraments, and the place of Mary in the church. Other controversies concern the relationship between feminist theology and external matters such as ecumenical dialogue between different Christian churches, Christian attitudes to Judaism, and the link between feminist and black theology.
We can only briefly touch upon these issues some of which are discussed in detail by Dowell and Hurcombe (1981), Maitland (1983), and in the essays edited by Monica Furlong on the Feminine in the Church (1984a) The controversies surrounding the interpretation of biblical texts and the understanding of divine reality described as 'God' have already been mentioned when we discussed the place of women in religious language and thought in Chapter 2. The image of God the father has been so dominant in Christianity that it has been absolutised and become an almost exclusive model for our perception of God (McFague, 1983). Yet at the same time there exist many resources for alternative models of God drawing on matriarchal and feminine elements in the Judaeo-Christian tradition (Mulack, 1983).
The reformist wing of feminist theology seeks new models through which to express the always newly experienced encounter with the divine and the nature of divine-human relationships, whilst revolutionary feminist theology breaks the traditional models completely and rejects them as idolatrous. Mary Daly cannot use the word 'God' any more because she thinks there is no way in which we can remove the male imagery traditionally associated with 'God', a term which represents for her 'the necrophilia of patriarchy, whereas Goddess affirms the life-loving being of women and nature' (1979a, p. xi). Others might argue that the term 'Goddess' absolutises female imagery to the exclusion of male models and thus leads to a dominance in reverse rather than to a harmonious balance.
The symbols of God and Goddess have been widely explored in feminist theology (Christ 1983) and Rosemary Ruether's decision to use 'God/ess', at least in written form, has already been mentioned. Whether God symbolism needs to be expressed in both female and male linguistic terms or whether one should transcend both and find other forms, as Ochs (1977) has argued, is difficult to decide. It may well be that different people feel the need to settle this issue for themselves in different ways. Whilst a large measure of consensus is necessary to create and maintain community life, we none the less come to realise that here as elsewhere a pluralism of views can exist side by side. Rosemary Ruether has suggested that it is not the maleness of God and Christ as such which gave rise to sexist attitudes, but rather their association with our patriarchal models of maleness as dominance and of femaleness as subjugation. But how to disentangle the two until we have acquired new modes of thinking and being? The feminist attempt to introduce or recover female God symbolism in Christianity and Judaism (Ochshorn, 1981; Gross, 1981) is of great importance, not only for women, but for the vitality and comprehensiveness of theological thinking. Considerable resources exist in both religious traditions which can be drawn upon for inspiration. In early Christianity a greater pluralism of symbols prevailed than was later officially acknowledged once the church became institutionalised (Schüssler Fiorenza, 1979b, 1983). Evidence exists that both father and mother symbolism were used, but the latter was particularly associated with gnostic groups who were soon declared heretical by the mainstream church (Pagels, 1979).
The relativisation of the absolutised symbol of the fatherhood of God is the least contemporary feminists can ask for. However, whilst the image of God's motherhood may provide a corrective balance, one must not absolutise it either, for we must not forget that the mother image can be ambivalent and misleading too. Besides the image of the wrathful, overbearing father we all know of the image of the stern, reproaching and oppressive mother who never allows her children to grow into true independence. Thus the mother image is not necessarily always all good and comforting but can be negative too, whereas the father image need not always be negative either. We must in fact ask ourselves which are the elements in the fatherhood symbolism used for God we cannot do without (Soelle, 1981b).
It is interesting to reflect on some research findings in the psychology of religion published in Belgium in 1968 (quoted in Wulff, 1982) which investigated the correlation between parental images and the image of God found in a group of men and women. The investigations showed that concepts about the deity were often more closely related to mother than father images. This could be more reliably predicted for males than females, but for both sexes the image of God was likely to be more strongly associated with the image of one's preferred parent, whether mother or father. The study indicated that the God image found among a group of western Christians appeared on the whole to be more maternal than paternal - something not widely known.
It is clear that feminist theology contains strong themes of protest against God the father (Halkes, 1981,1985), but discerning feminist theologians know that speaking about the female nature of God presents numerous problems too (Ruether, 1981b). Yet the debate about God symbolism has considerable importance for both theology and spirituality. Theologically it highlights the relative nature of any symbol for expressing the Ultimate which remains ultimately inexpressible. At the spiritual level it shows that the psychological perception of divine reality within each individual can take many different forms and that symbols used in prayer and worship may vary widely according to personal and group preferences. Feminist thinking profoundly affects and reshapes spirituality but its challenge is initially perhaps more provocative towards public language and symbolism because the dominant God model has influenced our institutions in terms of hierarchy, inequality and submission. If one wishes to maintain these institutions in their traditional form, one can easily feel threatened by the force of the feminist challenge. A concerned conservative critic of feminism such as William Oddie (1984) sees the church as threatened by the 'revolt against God the father' and seems profoundly disturbed when he asks 'What will happen to God?' (as he does in the title of his critical study on feminist theology which carries the subtitle 'Feminism and the Reconstruction of Christian Belief). Is this reconstruction too bold, too imaginative, or simply too fanciful? Is feminism really bent on destroying the Christian church and putting a matriarchal religion in its place, or is this only the wish of some feminists but not of others? In her countercritique Monica Furlong (1984b) rightly asked 'What is Dr Oddie afraid of?'. She sees his anger and stern criticism of feminist theological concerns as basically grounded in a male sense of fear, the fear of being consumed, emasculated and destroyed, the sense of losing the long established grasp of power. 'It is this fear which women are now asking men to examine, in or out of the Church, if we are to get on to a more realistic understanding of the complementary roles of the sexes within the Church' (1984b, p. 1046).
It may be neither wise nor desirable to abandon the image of God the father nor any of the other biblical images deeply rooted in the Judaeo-Christian tradition. But the challenge of a living faith also demands not to merely hand down symbols which do not speak easily to us any more. We have to respond creatively to the images and symbols of the past and ask what they mean for us today. Thus we can see the horizon of their meaning expanded in new ways rarely suspected before. This has been shown again and again in the feminist interpretation of the Bible which attempts to reinterpret the androcentric passages of the Bible and thus liberate the text from the sexist interpretations which continue to dominate Christian and Jewish teachings (Trible, 1978a, 1978b). Many women and also men seek to liberate the word of the Bible so that it can become truly liberating for people today. Feminist and liberation theologians are working on this process but, as in other fields of enquiry, women scholars in biblical studies have long been marginalised and the exegesis of feminist scholars is only slowly beginning to make an impact. We certainly have come a long way since Elizabeth Cady Stanton first published The Woman's Bible in the late 1890s. Letty Russell has edited a book of papers by Christian and Jewish feminist scholars on the Feminist Interpretation of the Bible (1985) wherein she argues that
the Bible needs to be liberated from its captivity to one-sided white, middle-class, male interpretation. It needs liberation from privatized and spiritualized interpretations that avoid God's concern for justice, human wholeness, and ecological responsibility; it needs liberation from abstract, doctrinal interpretations that remove biblical narrative from its concrete social and political context in order to change it into timeless truth. (1985, p. 12).
Fresh insights derived from feminist consciousness and experience have produced substantial scholarly studies on particular biblical passages and books (Trible, 1984), as well as popular works for use in women's groups (Chatterji, 1979, 1982, 1986; WCC, 1985). What a feminist reinterpretation of biblical passages can yield in terms of understanding the growth of the early Christian community from within Judaism has been shown with much sensitivity in Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza's study In Memory of Her (1983), a most stimulating book which has raised much discussion but has not remained without criticism from other feminists (Setta, 1984).
Reading the Bible makes us aware of the need to reinterpret many of its passages in the light of new experience. It is not only a question of what the Bible says, but how its message has been translated from an androcentric perspective into an androcentric language. The revolt against a patriarchal image of God extends also to much of the traditional presentation of Jesus and his message. Christology, the theological teaching about Jesus Christ and his redemptive work, has often been presented through symbols that have made it an instrument of patriarchal domination (Ruether, 1981a). Here again we have to look for alternative models, for different expression of christology which liberate it from its encapsulation in patriarchal structures and androcentric modes of thought. If Jesus is seen as the redeemer of all of humanity in whom 'there is neither male nor female' (Gal. 3.28), then his person and work must be inclusive of all people, of women and men, to have truly universal significance (Wilson-Kastner, 1983). In her discussion of feminist theology Catherina Halkes speaks of the 'Menschwerdung' of woman which means literally the 'becoming human' or full hominisation of woman. However, in theological language the German term 'Menschwerdung' is traditionally applied to Jesus Christ; it is the word by which we express that 'he became man' in the sense of becoming human. This has an inclusive meaning as the word 'Mensch' is applied to both sexes and carries no exclusively male connotation with it.
For God to have become human - rather than simply male - is the profoundest truth about the Christian belief in the incarnation. From a contemporary feminist point of view it seems important to speak and think about a female Christ or the female part of Christ which must be an integral part of the incarnation. But one might also speak about a female Christ in the sense that Christ's suffering stands for all the suffering, all the oppression, all the silent surrender and sacrifice that women as victims have undergone through the ages. Christian feminists have both drawn and sculpted the cross with a naked female body hanging on it, a female 'Christa' which has outraged many traditionalists (an image of such a sculpture of a crucified woman is found on the cover of Oddie's book, 1984, and in Ruether, 1985, p. 104). But such an image of a female Christ is not just the fancy or figment of an aberrant feminist imagination, as some might think, but it is the recovery of an ancient insight which recognises the divine in both male and female form. It expresses at a symbolic level what we can all deeply feel within us, the need for a visualisation, for a form and shape with which we can identify because it expresses something of ourselves.
It is important to draw here on the rich resources of the religious imagination as expressed in art and iconography. Popular piety and imaginative artists through the ages have often envisaged alternatives to the dominant tradition of their time and held a vision of the divine and holy far larger and more accommodating than our own. This is evident from the diversity of their symbols and images whose rediscovery can be a source of profound surprise. In an exhibition on romanesque art I found a small gold cross from the early eleventh century, the 'Herimannkreuz' from Cologne, on which the body of Christ is crowned with the lapis lazuli head of a woman. This head has been identified as a carved Roman gem, the head of empress Livia, wife of Augustus - perhaps the most precious thing the artist could find to complete his creation of Christ in gold. Here male and female are fused into one to express the unity and completeness found in Christ.
Another extraordinary example is found in the expression of popular piety which often depicts various aspects of faith quite differently from the way they are treated in the doctrinal manuals of theological literature. One such example is the medieval legend of St Uncumber or Wilgefortis (St Kummernis in German - she who frees from sorrow) which, like the widely popular legend of St Ursula, has no historical basis. The legend of St Uncumber tells of a Portuguese Christian princess who refused to marry the pagan king of Sicily because she had undertaken a vow of virginity and was betrothed to Christ. To be freed from her suitor she prayed to become unattractive and as a result a beard and moustache grew on her face. In punishment her father had her crucified and while on the cross, she prayed that all who remembered her passion should be liberated from all encumbrances and troubles. St Uncumber is depicted as a fully clothed woman hanging on the cross. Her image was widely venerated from the 14th century onwards, first perhaps in Flanders, but it is found in many place in South Germany, Italy and Switzerland and examples of it exist even in Sweden, England and Spain. It is thought that this extraordinary icon, particularly venerated by women who wanted to be freed from their husbands, may have originated from 12th century crucifixes on which Christ was fully clothed, the most famous being at Lucca (Italy). The cult of St Wilgefortis was particularly popular during the Baroque period but it is extinct today, although examples of her painting still exist in some churches on the Continent and apparently there survives a statue of her in Henry VII Chapel, Westminster Abbey. Although the cult as such may not appeal to us today, the encounter with a large Baroque painting of a fully dressed woman hanging on the cross can be quite a discovery which makes one reflect on the extraordinary richness of the religious imagination of the past. Far from being all male, the divine and the realms of the holy, of saintly perfection, were visualised in both male and female form, particularly in the rich cult of the saints in Catholicism.
Elisabeth Moltmann-Wendel (1985, p. 104) includes another example showing a female image of the Trinity. A painting for an altarpiece executed according to the wishes of a German Protestant princess in 1673 shows three women as Father, Son and Holy Spirit arranged in triangular form. The painting forms part of a larger altar whose pictures are a provocation to traditional conceptions of the Christian faith presenting a non-patriarchal view of salvation. Inspired by Jewish Kabbalah mysticism, the princess had the courage to express her own experience of God pictorially in the church of her spa. Elisabeth Moltmann-Wendel comments:
It is not just the case that here a female person has been added to the male Trinity - a development that one can often find. Here there has been a matriarchal transformation of an experience of God which was tolerated and kept intact.
If we are to discover the history of women it is not enough to point to female elements in a religion which has been taken over by patriarchy . . . Nor is it enough just to discover the counterculture ... It seems to me that in addition there is a tendency to overlook the matriarchal sub-culture that has been preserved, reflecting women's own independent experience of freedom which was neither integrated and thus absorbed, nor destroyed, and which found expression in images and symbols - silently but eloquently. (1985, p. 114)
Much of the experience of the divine feminine in Christianity has been projected on the figure of Mary and it is no surprise that both secular and religious feminists have shown an interest in the thought and cult associated with her. Mary has also been described as 'the feminine face of the church' (Ruether, 1979a) and is often seen as the theological counter-image to Eve, as a 'new Eve'. Both Mary and Eve have often performed an oppressive function in the lives of Christian women, although this may not always have been realised.
The cult of the Virgin Mary became widely popular in the West from the twelfth century onwards but it has a long history before that. It provided a feminising element in an otherwise wholly masculine religion and yet one must ask in what way the veneration of Mary was actually related to the real status of women in church and society. Here, as in other religions, the function of the symbolic realm of myth and image may well have been to provide a compensation for women's lack of influence and position in the real world. The intensification of interest in Mary in the medieval church is not necessarily a proof of a more positive evaluation of women. Writing on 'Woman in Medieval Theology' Eleanor McLaughlin has suggested that
the medieval cult of the Virgin at every level, theological and popular, displayed an androcentric bias that, rather than deepening an appreciation of the bipolarity of God's creation or female equivalence, underlined the weakness, inferiority, and subordination of real females. The reasons for this suggestion are in essence two. The first is Mary's theological isolation from human femaleness, which by implication, degrades the real woman and which often prevented Mary from functioning psychologically as a model for female personhood even in the medieval context. The second lies in the roles given to Mary in the divine plan by theologians and popular myth: her actions, reactions, her personality, all of which can be seen to reflect the theologically supported popular misogynism of the medieval period. (1974, p.246)
Given this ambivalent heritage Mary is a controversial figure today. Even people with a strong religious commitment often find her unattractive. The rich symbolism and contradictions of the figure of Mary in Christian art and worship have been profusely documented by Marina Warner's study Alone of All her Sex. The myth and cult of the Virgin Mary (1976'; 1985), but for a theological elucidation one has to look elsewhere. Warner's judgement that as 'an acknowledged creation of Christian mythology, the Virgin's legend will endure in its splendour and lyricism, but it will be emptied of moral significance, and thus lose its present real power to heal and to harm' (1985, p. 339) is a harsh conclusion which needs to be questioned. For Warner, Mary cannot be a model for the new woman today; she is merely an instrument in the hands of the Catholic Church to perpetuate an unequal, unjust structure of society. Whilst there is some truth in Warner's assessment and critique, she none the less underrates the real significance of Mary in the lives of millions of Christians, not only in the lives of women, but of whole countries. One only has to think of Poland or Latin America, or of the intense Marian devotion associated with many pilgrimages and the apparitions of Mary which have occurred in several countries, most recently in communist Yugoslavia.
Mary's power in the contemporary world cannot easily be denied, and much of it is positive rather than negative, relating to much more than the image of woman. But Mary presents a problem for feminists with which feminist theology has not yet come to terms. Many women who have lost their faith can no longer relate to Mary except in protest. Others who remain Christian also object to her because of the false sentimentality and infantilism associated with much of her cult (Halkes 1980a). Their anger is directed at the stereotype of a serving, passive woman associated with Mary, 'the servant of the Lord'. Her exaltation has so often enforced the subordination of Christian women. This is what feminist theologians criticise, but they also attempt to develop new perspectives on Mary, especially as we meet her in the New Testament in her association with the mission of Jesus. From a feminist perspective Mary can be seen as the first among the faithful, actively responding to Jesus and showing courage in doing so. Mary is also presented in a challenging, prophetic role linked to the theme of liberation, especially as expressed in the Magnificat. It is not the traditional role of comfort and solace which is stressed but one of challenge and independence, an image of autonomy rather than subjection.
The reduction of Marian devotion, first brought about by the Protestant Reformation, diminished the role of the feminine in the church and led to a marked loss of the place of affectivity in religious life, a loss which has grown larger still in our own time. Rosemary Ruether has argued that the disappearance of an independent female image in Protestantism was compensated for by a feminisation of Christ, especially in the pietistic strands of Protestantism. Mary, as traditionally understood, presents a problem for contemporary women if she continues to be unduly exalted and distanced from the life of ordinary women or if she is solely identified with self-negation and a subservient role characterised by receptivity and passivity. But Mary can also become a new model which may help to humanise the church if her example is reciprocally related to both men and women. If activity and receptivity are interdependent and characteristic of each person, then a ministry of service which comprises both active and passive moments can be equally undertaken by both sexes. Thus Rosemary Ruether thinks that Mary may help to develop the church as a true community of equals responsive to the message of Jesus concerning the freely given gift of God and the freeing power of the spirit. Whilst a new interest in Mary is developing in some Protestant churches today, such an understanding also raises further questions about the nature of Christian ministry. This is one of the most widely debated subjects among Christian feminists and their opponents, as an appropriate understanding of the ministry is central to the struggle for the ordination of women. This is the most contentious issue of all which divides the Christian churches and has assumed much importance in Christian ecumenical dialogue. For feminists it is the very test case of the churches' attitude to women. But what is the debate and struggle all about?
The ordination of women, ecumenism and dialogue
Ever since the General Synod of the Church of England put the ordination of women on its agenda, there has rarely been a week when there is no reference to this issue somewhere in the British press or media. For many years now the worldwide Anglican Communion has had ordained women ministers in other parts of the world, but not in Britain. Yet for many years groups such as the Society for the Ministry of Women in the Church and, more recently, the Movement for the Ordination of Women have mounted campaigns to get women ordained in Britain. Although the ordination of women is emphatically rejected by official authorities in the Vatican, there has been a considerable public debate about this issue in the Roman Catholic Church worldwide ever since Vatican Council II (see the many articles listed in Asen, 1981), and even the Catholic press in England has considered this issue from every possible angle (Kennally 1986). A catholic women's group, St Joan's International Alliance, with roots in the earlier suffragette movement, has worked for the ordination of women for well over twenty years now and found support among several well-known male theologians.
The arguments in the wide-ranging debates concern the nature of ministry and priesthood, the nature of woman, and the many stereotypes related to the role of the two sexes as traditionally understood. Historical and theological arguments from scripture and tradition, right from the beginning of the early Christian communities, can be mustered to back positions for or against the ordination of women. In her study The New Eve in Christ Mary Hayter (1987) has carefully examined the use and abuse of biblical passages in this debate and comes to the conclusion that the Bible, contrary to many opinions, does not provide a manual for or against the issue of women's ministry. For one thing, biblical writers were not concerned with this question in the form in which it needs to be considered today. The Bible has to be discovered as a truly life-giving word which sets people free and makes Eve a new creation. In Hayter's view 'The liberty of the new Eve in Christ is a freedom which is neither self-assertive nor careless of others' needs.... It is a freedom which facilitates the priestly service of all God's people - to his greater glory' (1987, p. 171).
Historical arguments against the ordination of women are based on evidence drawn from the tradition of the Christian church, but refined historical-critical methods have revealed much of this evidence as onesided. One must also remember that the hierarchically structured Christian priesthood evolved as an institution through several centuries, and its later understanding was projected back onto early scriptural texts born out of a very different and much more pluralistic situation.
Theological arguments against the ordination of women are based on the interpretation of the nature of woman as created by God, the nature of ministry and offices in the church, the role and symbolic function of Christ in relation to the ministry, and even the nature of God. The irrationality of many arguments against the ordination of women can be shown through examining points of detail in this debate (Badham, 1984). It is also worth pointing out, as Daphne Hampson (1986) has done, that the debate about the ordination of women is really misnamed, for at the heart of the issue lies the ordination of persons without respect to sex and gender. Many writers have explored the rich dimensions of and need for a greater participation of the 'feminine in the church' (Furlong, 1984a). The need for the ministry of women has even been argued by a woman rabbi who wrote in The Times:
It is not adequate to argue that the current campaign for the ordination of women has not properly comprehended the role of the minister of God. The argument seems, to this outsider at least, to be both about fear of women's advancement and about stereotyped roles for both sexes.
Let it be understood that women will no longer be silent. We wish to minister, alongside men, to the needs of Jews and Christians irrespective of sex. In the non-conformist churches it has happened for years. In progressive Judaism we have been around for 15 years. The earth has not opened up nor the heavens caved in. Our congregations have not diminished nor have those in our care perished. Perhaps we have something of value to offer, which the Church of England would do well to use. (Neuberger, 1987)
The diversity of ministries and women's crucial participation in the life of the early Christian communities is evident from New Testament studies and early church history (Fiorenza, 1983). New archaeological evidence about the role of women as leaders of synagogues (Brooten, 1982) and of church gatherings in the first century CE has increasingly come to light (Irvin, 1980). There is much debate about the various forms of service and the distinctions which developed subsequently between charismatic and cultic ministry. How is the priestly office, as practised today, related to the priesthood of the whole people of God and to the priestly office of Christ himself? Distinguished scholars of the early church, such as the Anglican Canon G.W.H. Lampe (1974) and the Roman Catholic Fr Jean Danielou SJ (1974) wrote long ago supportively on the question of the ordination of women in relation to the development of the historic ministry. Danielou concluded a brief essay by saying 'We have thus three possible ways of ordering the Ministry of Women: lay, clerical, religious. It can be said that all three are equally traditional' (1974, p. 31). Lampe emphasized the great movement of the spirit giving us guidance in a new understanding of the relation between the sexes and of the place of women in the priesthood of the whole people of God. What God is saying to the Church today through this radical change in the human situation and the greatly altered nature of our society demands a change in this part of the Church's tradition. (1974, p. 6)
This is not so unlike what is stated in one of the brochures of the Movement for the Ordination of Women (MOW):
Many people believe that the Holy Spirit is leading the Church towards a fuller understanding of the relationship between men and women, and their relationship to God who created them, male and female in His image. This understanding needs to be expressed in a whole shared priesthood of men and women.
MOW believes itself to be part of a movement towards a reunited ecumenical Church. In such a reunited Church, women priests and ministers, those already ordained and many of those, in all denominations, who are experiencing the call to ordination, will be able to share fully with men in the joys and sufferings of Christian ministry.
Many arguments depend on whether the Christian ministry is primarily seen as that of preacher or priest (Ruether, 1980b). Many women taught and preached in the early Christian communities but when the priesthood emerged as a hierarchical office, much influenced by the old Roman model of priesthood, then women were excluded. During medieval times there existed more polemic against women as preachers than priests, perhaps because teaching was more of a live option than being a priest. However, when one looks at iconographic evidence, one is again surprised to find paintings such as 'The Preaching of Mary Magdalene' in the Marseilles Museum. There is of course a long tradition of Mary Magdalene coming to the South of France and being buried there. But the fifteenth century painting showing Mary Magdalene preaching in the harbour of Marseilles depicts her as speaking with authority to a crowd of medieval men and women present in about equal numbers. What did Mary Magdalene's preaching express to the medieval mind? Was she as a woman, especially as a privileged woman disciple of Jesus, able to speak out in public and proclaim the gospel in a way later women were not, with the authority of her experience and witness recognised in a way which women today are trying to recover?
Preaching is linked with prophecy, with the gift of the spirit to speak to the community, a gift which the church cannot bestow on individuals but which it has to recognise as given by the spirit. Ruether thinks that the charismatic view of the preaching office was of central importance in opening the pulpit to women from the time of the Reformation onwards (for examples of female preaching in England see Valenze 1985). Later the development of liberal Protestant theology and a more liberal interpretation of the Bible opened up the possibility of the ordination of women. During the nineteenth century women occupied pulpits in liberal churches such as those of the Congregationalists (who ordained the first women minister, the Reverend Antoinette Brown, in 1853) and Unitarians as well as among Evangelical and Pentecostal revivalists where the charisma of the spirit was more important that institutional office. At that time Evangelical revivalism was close to reform and to such movements as abolitionism and feminism, whereas today it has espoused an antiliberal theology and insists on male headship of society. Ruether thinks that the acceptance or rejection of liberal theology and exegesis are ultimately more important in deciding whether one supports or rejects the ordination of women today than the fact whether one views the ministry primarily in terms of preacher or priest. The Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches still reject the ordination of women and so do the fundamentalist churches. However, those theologians who accept a more liberal interpretation of the Bible and historical criticism tend to support the arguments in favour of women's ordination, and no institutional church has formally ordained women unless it has also adopted the arguments of liberal theology in some form.
Throughout the history of the church, but especially during the Middle Ages, women have held powers of jurisdiction and of certain high offices in the church (Morris, 1974; Pernoud, 1980). Yet the opponents of women's ordination are fond of using again and again arguments from medieval theologians stressing woman's subordination and defective nature without looking at other statements expressing the equivalence between women and men. Critical women scholars have not only re-examined the history of canon law relating to women's exclusion from priestly office (Raming, 1976), but their detailed studies of theological sources also indicate that medieval theologians often argued with greater subtlety than some of their contemporary heirs. Duns Scotus, for example, argued that the ordination of women might have considerable pastoral benefits and could not possibly be ignored by the church, except on the explicit instruction of Christ himself (Card-man, 1978).
Whilst considerable differences of opinion exist today regarding Christ's instruction about the ministry, the argument about pastoral needs and benefits is certainly an important one too. Women have long wished to be ordained to care for people's spiritual needs in a ministerial and sacramental way, and a considerable number of women in different churches have experienced a vocation to the ministerial priesthood. In the Church of England arguments about the ministry of women first centred from the mid-nineteenth century onwards around the female diaconate (Canham, 1983; Prelinger, 1986). In 1862 an Anglican bishop ordained a woman as deaconess and the Anglican Deaconess Community of St Andrew emerged, but the debate continued and women have only been admitted to the full order of deacon in 1987.
The member churches of the worldwide Anglican Communion are autonomous. Although progress is extraordinarily slow in the Church of England itself, other Anglican churches have ordained women as priests. The very first was a Chinese Christian, the deaconess Florence Tim Oi Li, made an Anglican priest when the Bishop of Hong Kong ordained her in 1944. The fortieth anniversary of her ordination was celebrated in 1984 in a service at Westminster Abbey and her story has been told in detail in the book Much Beloved Daughter (Li and Harrison, 1985). However, it took another thirty years before women were ordained elsewhere. In 1974, three bishops of the Episcopal Church in the USA irregularly ordained eleven women as priests in Philadelphia, followed by four more ordinations in Washington D.C. These irregular ordinations were regularised in 1976 when the ordination of women to the priesthood was voted for and accepted by the General Convention of the Episcopal Church. The Anglican Church in Canada ordains women since 1976; the Church in New Zealand since 1977; and the Anglican Church in Kenya as well as in Uganda since 1983. Several other Churches or Provinces of the Anglican Communion have agreed in principle to the ordination of women, and so has the Church of England, without having put this into practice so far. Some British women have gone for training and ordination abroad, as for example Elizabeth Canham who in Pilgrimage to Priesthood (1983) has described her personal journey from RE teaching and lecturing to being ordained in the USA. In 1984 Christian Howard prepared a detailed report on 'The Ordination of Women to the Priesthood' for the General Synod in which she documented the developments in the Anglican Communion up to that date. The Report gives much valuable information on the present state of the debate among Anglicans and also includes ecumenical evidence about the ordination of women.
Whilst the debate about the ordination of women seems to be essentially settled in much of Protestantism, it is almost new in the international ecumenical movement (Bührig 1985). How often is the ordination of women to full priestly ministry still presented as an obstacle to a greater unity among different Christian churches! Yet about half the member churches of the World Council of Churches now ordain women. The difficulty is that in terms of sheer numbers these do not balance the three major church bodies that do not ordain, namely the Orthodox Church, most churches of the Anglican Communion, and the Roman Catholic Church. Are women merely pawns in the ecumenical debate? Are their legitimate aspirations and hopes to live the Christian life to the full and bear witness to the spirit in all ministries of the church simply ignored in order to achieve the unity of men and of male-dominated institutions?
The ecumenical movement of the Christian churches represents perhaps one of the most dynamic developments of institutionalised religion, but where are the women? The spokesmen of Christian ecumenism - and of global, interfaith ecumenism - are quite literally only men, mostly white and middle-aged. Women rightly question the marginality and invisibility of women in official Christian ecumenism knowing full well that in a less obvious and visible way women at the grassroots level make a most important contribution to ecumenical and interfaith dialogue (King, 1985a). The great exception to this generally depressing situation is the World Council of Churches (WCC) itself which since its inception in 1948, through the inspiring vision and leadership of several women, has actively promoted the fuller participation of women in the life of the churches, especially through what is called its Subunit on Women in Church and Society (for the fascinating history of this unit see Susannah Herzel, A Voice for Women, 1981). Not only was the question of sexism in the churches examined at an early date (WCC, 1975), but the question of the ordination of women and their wider participation in the life of the churches came up again and again. This is evident from such consultations as the Ordination of Women in Ecumenical Perspective (Parvey, 1980) or on Orthodox Women: Their Role and Participation in the Orthodox Church (WCC 1977) or the important Sheffield Report on The Community of Women and Men in the Church (Parvey, 1983).
In the World Council of Churches at least women are now plainly visible. During the 1968 WCC General Assembly only 9 per cent of delegates were women whereas at the 1983 Assembly in Vancouver this number had risen to almost 30 per cent. The aim to elect on all committees one-third of women was not fully reached. But at least there are now 26.1 per cent women committee members and women are really visible in the Presidium of the WCC where three women share office with four men (Bührig, 1985, p. 96). As a matter of equality and justice women should ideally be represented by fifty per cent on all committees and institutions in the world, but this is rarely ever the case at present. The WCC has perhaps gone further in taking practical steps towards realising this ideal than most other religious, political, educational or industrial institutions except for the Norwegian government which aims at a representation of 40 per cent women. Looking ahead in 1983, at the WCC Assembly in Vancouver, the Subunit on Woman in Church and Society stated that its work needed to be continued and intensified. The process of developing women's participation involves:
(1) developing the female voice of the church further, to enable women to speak out on the issues of theology and doctrine and to bring their new experiences in spirituality and action into the church life . . .
(2) strengthening the global sisterhood, giving further emphasis to mutual support and enablement of women . . .
(3) continuing to pursue the concerns of the community of women and men in the church study, securing a fuller participation of men in this dialogue, and helping the churches to appropriate the insights of the study. (WCC, 1983, p. 209)
Much remains to be done, even in the WCC where the participation of women has developed far ahead of situations in ecumenical dialogue elsewhere. Numbers alone are not important, whether they concern the number of women ordained or the number of churches which ordain women. What is important is the growing participation of women themselves - that their presence has become visible and that their impact is felt, that their voices are expressed and heard and their experiences shared with others.
Now that women are speaking out in ever growing numbers the question of the ordination of women will not go away again but assumes an ever greater urgency. The churches which have remained hostile to the participation of women must learn to recognise that the ordination of women does not only raise obstacles in ecumenical negotiations but, as stated in another WCC document, that this development requires not hostility but openness to each other which 'holds the possibility that the Spirit may well speak to one church through the insights of another. Ecumenical considerations, therefore, should encourage, not restrain the facing of this question' (quoted in Bührig, 1985, p. 93).
The ordination of women certainly provides a focal point in the debates of Christian feminists. Feminists are in full support of this issue whilst opposition comes largely from elsewhere, from official church institutions and their spokesmen, and sometimes from other Christian women who are still shaped by traditional role models and teachings which remain unaffected by the new consciousness of women. They are more likely to be found among older rather than younger women who have already internalised much of the new consciousness even if they do not see themselves explicitly as feminists.
Other controversies arising out of feminist theology concern its relationship to black theology as well as its dialogue with Judaism, Critical voices have asked whether Christian feminist theology is perhaps too elitist or even anti-female by not including the experience of black women. But it is not only feminist theology which is criticised, but also black theology. Whilst the latter developed as a form of liberation theology in the USA to overcome the oppression of blacks, the experience of black women has not been integrated into this theology either, as both black and white feminists have pointed out (see the section on 'Black Theology and Black Women' in Wilmore and Cone, 1979, pp. 363-443; also Ruether, 1979c). To be black and female is a double jeopardy, but black women in the churches labour under an even greater jeopardy (Hoover, 1974). Yet so many black women make important contributions to the life of the churches, as was acknowledged in Britain in the Archbishop of Canterbury's report 'Faith in the City' (1985).
It is not only important to recognise certain historical similarities in the subjugation of blacks and women, but also that certain themes are common to black theology and feminist theology. Both are strongly critical of the churches, and both are committed to radical political and social change. Both offer critical reflections on the Christian faith in the light of particular experiences of suffering and oppression. Both seek clearer self-definition, try to recover their own history and traditions, and search for alternatives to culture-bound theological images which have supported oppressive attitudes and institutions. The dialogue between feminist theology and black theology can be mutually enriching and broaden out the concerns of both (Murray, 1978).
Quite different issues are raised in the debate between Christian feminists and Judaism. A whole number of the journal Christian Jewish Relations (no. 19/2, June 1986), published by the Institute of Jewish Affairs in London, explored the relationship between Christian-Jewish dialogue and the women's movement. Several contributors pointed to the anti-Judaism and implicit antisemitism of some statements made by Christian feminists (see Eckardt, 1986: Heschel, 1986; von Kellenbach, 1986), and this charge has also been made by Jewish writers elsewhere. Two examples may be given here. Judith Plaskow said in a debate
that one of the obstacles to dialogue between Jewish and Christian feminists is a tendency on the part of some Christian feminists to try to isolate a pure, non-patriarchal core to Christianity by blaming patriarchal elements in Christianity on Judaism. For example, the argument that Jesus was a feminist often depends on contrasting Jesus' openness to women with the supposed misogyny of ancient Judaism, a misogyny which reasserts itself in Paul and in later New Testament epistles. (Quoted in Setta, 1984, p. 98).
Another example concerns the effort to re-establish the worship of the Goddess which, from a Jewish perspective, leaves some troubling implications, as Susannah Heschel has pointed out:
Whether or not an ancient matriarchy which worshipped the Goddess actually existed, the myth raises the question of what happened to this society. Who killed the Goddess and why did she allow herself to be dethroned and forgotten and replaced by an evil patriarchy? While the Goddess myth may promote women's power, her dethronement bears with it a myth of women's loss of power. The motif repeats the theme of an original state of Eden, followed by a fall after which human beings live in a state of sin, waiting for a redemption. In this case, it is not a woman but the Jews, who often function as similar perpetrators of evil in such myths, who are responsible. Moreover, the suggestion that Israelite religion dethroned the Goddess and introduced a patriarchal society worshipping a male deity reminds us of similar charge of deicide levelled against the Jews. (Heschel, 1986, pp.30f.)
The debate between Christian feminist theology and Judaism has only just begun and will require a great many further clarifications. A. Roy Eckhardt has offered the daring thesis 'that in the long run today's women's movement may prove to have as much significance for the Christian-Jewish relation as the Holocaust and the refounding of the State of Israel - or larger significance' (Eckhardt, 1986, p. 13). Whether this can be the case will also depend on the further development of Jewish feminist theology which has its own possibilities and problems (Umansky, 1984). But it also shares a number of similar topics with Christian feminist theology, especially with regard to a critical examination of God language and the search for feminine imagery of the Divine (Gross, 1979, 1981).
We have surveyed the main orientations and controversies in feminist theology and must now turn to the question of spirituality. If Christian feminists seek to liberate the church from sexism and androcentrism, if they seek to celebrate non-sexist liturgies, to create non-sexist Christian communities in the churches, and help to develop a new kind of ecumenical and interfaith dialogue, this will lead to a new kind of spirituality, to a different vision of world and self and different connections between inner and outer life. Let us now look more closely at this connection between feminist theology and spirituality.
Feminist theology and the quest for spirituality
For religiously committed feminists faith and feminism are two important parts of their experience. But how relate the two? Christian women around the world experience a change in consciousness, choices and life-styles; they understand their newly experienced sense of self and the togetherness of women as a 'chance to change' (Thompson, 1982) for women and men in the churches. As faith is a challenge for secular feminism, feminism is a strong challenge for the communities of faith. 'Feminists of faith do provide something of a bridge between alienated women and the sexist religious structures from which they are alienated - the churches and the synagogues that have blessed women's repression through history and called it God's will' (Papa, 1981, p. 123).
All feminists share the recognition of the sexist structures of religion, but they hold widely different views on what to do about this. Christian feminists are holding out in the hope that a church they love will listen to their voices, share their experiences and become more open, understanding and compassionate, as well as more just and truthful to its own calling. Christian, and Jewish feminists for that matter, do not support a radical woman-centred religion but are committed to discovering and developing their own spirituality from within the root-experience of their faith. The general dilemma of the feminist movement whether to emphasise the otherness of women and build autonomous women's institutions, or whether to work for absolute equality between women and men and seek women's integration into existing structures and institutions is also a profound dilemma for Christian feminists. Should they leave the church or radically reform it? Can women find their own space in existing church institutions so that their spiritual development can flower to the full and be under their own control?
These questions are urgent ones and recur again and again in discussion. More and more women voice them and thus express their deep malaise, their unease with existing churches as structured at present. Women's spirituality must be developed as a deep inner resource which shapes and sustains outward action - first for women themselves, then for others, for community-building. The question of spirituality has not only come to the fore in feminism in general, but it is also explicitly expressed and implicitly present in many works on feminist theology. Feminist reflections on spirituality from a perspective of faith, both Christian and Jewish, are found in the collections Walking on the Water. Women Talk About Spirituality (Jo Garcia & Sara Maitland (eds), 1983), The Feminist Mystic and Other Essays on Women and Spirituality (Mary E. Giles (ed.), 1982) and in the two books by Carol Ochs, Women and Spirituality (1983) and An Ascent to Joy. Transforming Deadness of Spirit (1986). Examples of women theologians who have explicitly addressed the question of spirituality are Elga Sorge, Religion und Frau. Weibliche Spiritualität im Christentum (1985) and Catherina J. M. Halkes, Feminism en Spiritualiteit (1986). As was pointed out in an earlier chapter, spirituality expresses itself in many different ways, not as something separate and apart from life, but as deeper, more richly lived and reflected experience, what is often called insight - insight into the meaning of our experience and its illumination from within through something greater and deeper than ourselves. Feminist theology is not only about controversies and issues, not primarily about subtle conceptual distinctions (although it has a powerful intellectual dimension to it), but it is ultimately about the life of the spirit, experienced as a gracious gift of transformation and renewal, celebrated, shared and communicated to others. Here experience, thought and action come together.
The experience of spirituality is contained and cradled, rooted and wrapped in our experience of God, a reality which centres and focuses our life both within and without. But this reality is not something abstract and separate set over against and apart from us, but it breathes and pulsates in everything we experience, encounter, suffer and do - it transcends every boundary and defies all definition. It is the Divine as power within human beings in all of creation. Alice Walker has described this all-embracing God-experience through one of her woman characters in The Color Purple:
I believe God is everything . . . Everything that is or ever was or ever will be. And when you can feel that, and be happy to feel that, you've found It.
. . . My first step from the old white man was trees. Then air. Then birds. Then other people. But one day when I was sitting quiet and feeling like a motherless child, which 1 was, it come to me: that feeling of being part of everything, not separate at all. I knew that if I cut a tree, my arm would bleed. And I laughed and I cried and I run all round the house. I knew just what it was. In fact, when it happen, you can't miss it. (1983, p. 167)
Women seek and find the Ultimate within the midst of life. They also experience a profound desire to discover something of what is most precious in their own experience in that great Reality we call by many names. Women thus long to find God as 'immanent Mother'. As Meinrad Craighead has written in a reflection on this theme:
A woman's spiritual quest in God the Mother awakens her to forces of energy within herself, yet larger than self, transcending self, deeply connecting her with the cyclic movements of creating and personally with her foremothers whose energies still surge through her body . . .
In solitude our deepest intuitions of an indwelling personal God Spirit are confirmed, the Mothergod who never withdraws from us and whose presence is our existence and the life of all that is. Her unveiled glory is too great for us to behold; she hides her face. But we find her face in reflection, in sacred guises, mediated through the natural elemental symbols.
And apart from the multifarious marvels of natural creation there is sufficient poetry in any well-made article of human craftmanship to engage our attention for a lifetime. Or in the innocent presentations of human traditions - a handful of grain, a basket of blackberries, a vase of flowers, a clutch of hen's eggs, a board of cheese, a family photograph, a table laid for a meal. These are the symbols for a woman's spirituality and their importance cannot be overestimated . . . Each is but a fragment of the 'world' body (as each of us is), yet through it we may apprehend the incarnate presence of the holy in all creation. Through them God our Mother communicates with us through her body, within her own mysterious creation. (1982, pp. 78-81)
Such a spirituality is life-affirming and in love with all created life; it is a sense a true 'creation spirituality'. It leads to self-acceptance and self-affirmation, to being grounded in the self as centre, a self that opens up and radiates outwards in love, and a self that feels connected and responsibly linked to all else. This process of growth and maturation can be seen as different dimensions of women's spirituality (Koppers, 1986) - in fact of all genuine spirituality in human beings - but women especially have to learn true self-love and self-affirmation as they are so often maimed and moulded by subjection, self-effacement and rejection. Empowered by divine love, they have to learn to love themselves and come to say: 'I am good, I am whole. I am beautiful' (Moltmann-Wendel, 1986, p. 151).
This also includes the full affirmation of the body, of the goodness and beauty of sexuality. As Dody H. Donnelly has said, we have to love with a radical love, with a love rooted in cosmos, nature and body, ultimately grounded in the experience of God's loving touch:
Radical love ... is a profound way to live our sexual spirituality by mutual sharing of our lives. Love has to do with a feeling response, with self-giving, and with presence. Love is actually being in the loved one; it is also the gift of self, for the lover is in the beloved as a gift.
No matter how we name God, She operates deeply, constantly within us. All that's true, beautiful, loving, and good in us is the shining out of our innate desire for God. This radar yearning for God, the homeland of our souls, was installed long ago in the journey of our spirit.
When we hear the good news that God has first loved us, the spark of yearning within us bursts into flame. We now have permission to respond, to expand that love forever, because we are loved and by such a One! (Donnelly, 1984, pp. 31 & 40)
The passages quoted in this and previous sections demonstrate perhaps that feminist theologians may best be characterised as 'affective existentialist thinkers', to use one of Karl Rahner's terms. They reflect from the depth of their existence as concretely lived through their experiences and feelings, as do all women, and men for that matter, who are attuned to inner realities and the dynamic of the spirit. The passages also show that the whole God-debate so central to feminist theology - and the consequent battle for inclusive, gender-free language in worship and prayer - is of great importance for the understanding and practice of spirituality and is itself an important expression of the search for a life-affirming and life-sustaining spirituality appropriate to our time.
There are other important themes too in feminist theology which relate to the spiritual quest, though more indirectly. These are especially the themes of liberation, community, and celebration. In the churches the struggle for the liberation of women is linked to the removal of sexist practices present in church life, language and organisation. In exploring a theology of human liberation from a feminist perspective Letty M. Russell (1974) has shown that this struggle for women's liberation is rooted in experience and fraught with risk and peril. It is also a discovery and journey towards freedom, towards the full humanisation of all people, women and men.
Liberation is then an ongoing process to find greater freedom. But freedom from what and for what? Feminists give different answers to these questions which are as old as humanity itself but have assumed a new meaning for us today. For Russell 'Freedom is a journey with others and for others towards God's future . . . liberation helps us to think of a process, a struggle with ourselves and others towards a more open future for humanity. The exact description of that struggle varies for each women, and for each human being in each situation' (Russell 1979, pp.234 f.). She speaks of the ferment of freedom in the women's liberation movement, and of the cost of freedom as freedom is not given without struggle and pain. Women have to pay this cost in order to discover what it means to be fully human, to risk the responsibility and share the task of building a better world for all women and men. Ultimately each woman must liberate herself, and yet raising our own consciousness is not enough: 'We must learn to act together with others to transform the societies in which we live ... to work for the revealing of what real live children of God might look like . . . The horizon of freedom is hope: hope that God's promised future will become reality' (1979, p. 240).
This hope is an impulse to change the world in the perspective of God's promise, to create a new community, a 'different heaven and earth' (Collins 1974). This requires mutual dialogue in a relationship of equality and trust. Women who seek liberation have as their goal
first to become feminists themselves, second to help men become feminists; and last to carry on genuine dialogue so that the world will be transformed to the point where no feminists (male or female) are needed because there is social, economic, and political equality of the sexes who become equally human.
Women form the vast majority of those who find themselves oppressed in Christian communities. Yet hope for change and renewal of the church for the world can come only as new forms of human community, new life-styles are developed which eliminated domination and submission and express cooperation. As this begins to happen, women will be set free to use their God-given gifts in the service of ministry for others. (Russell, 1974, p. 70)
Is this a vain hope, or a hope unfulfilled or even betrayed? Do women need their own communities within the church, an 'ekklēsia of women', as Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza has called it? Women's religious communities have of course always existed in the Catholic tradition, but they were practically all under male hierarchical control. The continued existence of nuns raises some interesting questions (Bernstein, 1976), but under the impact of feminism and other forces of social change, not least the influence of Vatican II, these communities are experiencing serious problems of identity, coherence and decline. In the USA, where this trend has gone furthest, 55000 women left congregations of sisters between 1965 and 1980, and many congregations have no or few new entrants. However, it is among the women religious that some of the strongest supporters for feminist demands regarding fundamental structural and spiritual changes in the church are found. It comes as no surprise that male church authorities and traditional faithful declare the radically innovative stance of some religious sisters as 'counter-cultural'.
Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza argues, as others have done before here, that by abolishing the religious communities of women the Protestant Reformation strengthened patriarchal church structures. She writes:
A Christian feminist spirituality claims these communities of women and their history as our heritage and history and seeks to transform them into the ekklēsia of women by claiming our own spiritual powers and gifts, by deciding our own welfare, by standing accountable for our decisions, in short, by rejecting the patriarchal structures of laywomen and nun-women, of lay-women and clergywomen, which deeply divide us along patriarchal lines. (Fiorenza, 1983, pp. 346f.)
Fiorenza applies the term 'ekklēsia of women' or 'women-church', as she subsequently called it, to early Christian beginnings as a discipleship community of equals. By moving from a reading of the androcentric texts of the New Testament to a reconstruction of the history of women in early Christianity, we discover the 'vision and praxis of our foresisters who heard the call to coequal discipleship and who acted in the power of the Spirit'. This vision must 'become a transformative power that can open up a feminist future for women in biblical religion' (Fiorenza, 1983, p. 343).
This vision of a 'women-church' has become a focus for action now and for a new experience and celebration of community within the church. In November 1983, 1400 Catholic women from the USA, Mexico, Canada, Central America and Latin America declared themselves to be a 'Woman Church' (later renamed 'Women-Church') and refused 'to return to the land of slavery to serve as altar girls in the temples of patriarchy' (quoted in Bührig 1985, p. 97; for women-church and Roman Catholic feminist spirituality see also Weaver 1985). This is not an exodus from the existing church, as practised by Mary Daly and her followers, but it is the development of subcommunities within the church, where women can create their own liturgies and ritual to nourish their spirit, heal their wounds and celebrate the joy of divine life within and around them.
This is a growing movement as more and more Christian women seek 'bread not stone' (Fiorenza, 1984) to nourish their inner and outer life. Fiorenza insists that 'to speak of the church of women does not mean to advocate a separatist strategy but to underline the visibility of women in biblical religion and to safeguard our freedom from spiritual male control' (1984, p. 7). Women are becoming more radical as their patience has been eroded. As current church authorities will only rarely listen to their voices, women have to initiate action themselves. They cannot wait for the Christian churches to reform themselves sufficiently to provide the life of faith and worship women need today. For Rosemary Ruether, who has published a book on the theology and practice of the Women-Church (1985), the women-church movement encompasses nothing less than the shaping of an entirely new symbolic universe of meaning:
Women in contemporary churches are suffering from linguistic deprivation and eucharistic famine. They can no longer nurture their souls in alienating words that ignore or systematically deny their existence . . . The call for new communities of faith and ritual assumes that existing institutional churches do not have a monopoly on the words of truth or the power of salvation, indeed that their words for women are so ambivalent, their power so negative, that attendance at their fonts poisons our souls. (Ruether, 1985, pp.4, 5)
Christian women across the different churches are seeing more and more clearly that the struggle for change within their present church must be supplemented by an autonomous feminist movement in order to retain a critical perspective on patriarchy. Women who have gained a foothold in the ministry and are struggling to change the churches from within need to join together with those who press for radical changes from outside the existing power structures. Women are trusting their inner spirit and are acting on this inspiration from within. As a Catholic laywoman who conducts retreats for women wrote to me:
I develop. . . the concept of creative ministry, which means that we do not wait for ministries to be formed and opened to us but we discern our gifts, be attentive to the moment, and create our own ministries. I believe that this kind of creative moving is more promising, more exciting, more challenging, and more life-giving than trying to squeeze into existent models - or pleading with structures to let us come in. Why waste our energy on old models when each of us is called to create our own mode of loving God?
Women are experiencing community in a new form, as an exodus-community within the churches. Half of Rosemary Ruether's book on Women-Church is devoted to new liturgies and rituals for celebration by women. Women everywhere are creating their own materials for worship to celebrate in a way that recognises and voices their experience instead of making them invisible, silent and hidden, as is often the case in both churches and synagogues. Women need 'sister-celebrations' to express their own community and togetherness, their shared experience of suffering from which they seek liberation, their own joy and affirmation of life. (For texts see the publications Celebrating Women Janet Morley and Hannah Ward, eds, 1986; Psalms of a Laywoman Edwina Gateley, 1986; and for Jewish rituals The Jewish Woman Elizabeth Koltun, ed., 1978). The 'women-church' movement expresses women's need for meaningful, spiritually empowering community. Their growing support is evident from the 3200 participants who came to the women-church conference in Cincinnati (Ohio) in October 1987. Women in their spiritual struggle for wholeness, for interconnections, for change, renewal and affirmation experience risk and isolation. They experience being in the wilderness from which the seek the promised land - a community where non-sexist liturgies are celebrated and where women and men will eventually come to share in giving and taking the bread of life.
Rosemary Ruether has described feminism as the most important prophetic movement in contemporary culture and society. The new dynamic movement of the 'women-church' speaks prophetic words from within the church to the whole Christian community. Ruether (1985) explains that the separation of women is not absolute; rather, it is a temporary stage in a process which seeks the full liberation of women and a new community of equality through which the church can be seen as the true people of God.
Will the prophetic promise come true? Will feminist theology and spirituality have a future in the church? An increasing number of women in the churches experience Christian feminism as a source of transformation, regeneration and hope, a voice of prophecy which bears witness to the working of the spirit in our midst. The feminist vision proclaims the full humanity of women, their freedom and liberation from all forms of oppression. This vision has its roots deep in history and in the message of the gospel itself. Women through the ages have perceived the outline of this vision and have worked, hoped and prayed for its realisation. Women's continued search, suffering and longing may be linked to a vision quest which, as in the vision quest of the North American Indians, is inseparable from initiation and ordeal which eventually lead to profound transformation and new life. This vision has only become fully visible in our own time and women around the globe now strive and struggle to give it full embodiment. It is a powerful and inspiring vision of great spiritual significance in the global process of hominisation, of the growth of all of humankind to greater maturity, responsibility, critical self-awareness and unifying love. In religious terms one can see in this process the further revelation of the face of the Divine in and through history and human life.
We have no way of knowing whether this promise will fail or succeed, but the more women everywhere work for its realisation, the more the transformation will become real. The future of the churches may much depend on the radical vision and compassionate outreach of Christian women moved by a new spirit, just as the future of the world will much depend on the strongly voiced self-determination and active participation of women in all areas of public life.
If the best of women's experience and insight - care, concern, compassion for others and reverence for life - enter all spheres of human activity, then the world will become truly transformed in both a spiritual and political sense. The previous chapters have indicated several times how the themes of spirituality and politics are often interwoven in contemporary feminist thought and action. To conclude this study, the next chapter will especially examine some feminist political concerns and consider how feminism, though beset by many dilemmas, powerfully transforms the consciousness of contemporary women and men, thereby pointing the way to an integral, holistic spirituality so much needed in our deeply divided world.
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