Women as global church

By Jane Carol Redmont

A few months after the last Lambeth Conference, in 1998, the World Council of Churches held its General Assembly in Harare, Zimbabwe.

The Assembly was preceded by a festival celebrating the completion of the 1988-1998 Ecumenical Decade of Churches in Solidarity with Women.

These days, with Lambeth looming, we Anglicans tend to filter the word “church” through a particular lens. Like all lenses, it affects our vision, focusing on some realities and leaving others blurred.

I want to talk about church and about women as church.

Think of this as taking the camera we have been training on the Anglican muddle and performing two actions with it: zooming it outward and around to include the church universal, and examining the whole view through the lens of women’s experience and insight.

Church: not just the Anglican Communion, but the church in its fullness and multiplicity: the oikoumene, the word for the world church also meaning “the whole inhabited earth” — this fragile earth, our island home, where God dwells among us.

Women as church: not just women in the worldwide church, but women AS church.

Why women as church? Sometime in the 1980s a shift happened within churches and in ecumenical gatherings, both formal and informal. (Pioneers in this shift were Roman Catholic women, including those associated with Women-Church.) The focus of women’s language about church participation, both at the grass roots and among professional theologians, shifted from a “Please, sir, may I have some more” approach –“Please make room for us,” “Please let us in”– to a different angle: “We are church and have always been church.”

Some of those who began speaking of women as church understood themselves as feminists. Some did not. Whatever they called themselves, they reflected and continue to reflect on what it means to be church all over the world, in and across a multiplicity of Christian communions and confessions.

Women are church.

This naming marked a shift in the theology of church.

It did not mean that all persons, in practice, suddenly became equal.

Women make up a majority of worshippers in all Christian churches. Go up the hierarchical ladder and you find fewer and fewer of us.

This is not the only indicator of women’s lives as church; far from it. It is one among many.

Over the last few decades, both before and after the shift in understanding from “women in the church” to “women as church,” women have drawn attention to destructive and interrelated realities. These realities are systemic and institutional, not simply individual. They exist outside and inside the church. They weave and bind together sexism, racism, xenophobia, heterosexism, and socio-economic class bias, sometimes called “classism.” (Stay with me. This is not about throwing around ideological jargon, but about the real lives of real people who are church, and about what church is in their lives.)

Women in the worldwide church have noted the relation between church teaching and practice on the one hand and social practices harmful to women on the other. The ways we interpret the Bible, offer or neglect pastoral care, structure leadership and liturgy, directly affect the health and well-being of women and their dependent children.

Do you know the major issue women identified during the WCC Decade of Churches in Solidarity with Women?

Violence. Violence against women.

In homes. In churches. And of course on battlefields, in migrant camps, on streets, but especially in those other places, home and church, the places that should be the safest. No socio-economic class, race, or nationality was exempt. Women from every country and every church reported this violence.

Violence was the major issue brought up by church women. As a Christian issue. As an ecumenical issue. As an issue directly and intimately related to who we say we are as friends and disciples of Jesus and as images, icons, of the living God, the one and holy Trinity.

The three other key issues lifted up by “the Decade,” as it became known, were:

– Women’s full and creative participation in the life of the church. (Are women participating in the life of the church to the full extent of their God-given gifts? Are women as well as men of all races, cultures, and economic conditions viewed as the images of God? Do the language and the shape of the liturgy reflect this? Do women have access to theological education? If they have access to it, can they use it to the fullest extent of their abilities? Are they justly remunerated for it? Do we value the wisdom of church women, whether or not they have formal theological education? Do we reflect this in the way we raise our girl children in the church?)

– The global economic crisis and its effects on women in particular. (Women and their dependent children are disproportionately affected by poverty. Everywhere. In the U.S. Mexico, Haiti, India, Thailand, Ghana, Brazil, Fiji.)

– Racism and xenophobia and their specific impact on women. (If you are dark-skinned and a woman, you are more likely to be poor. If you are a migrant or immigrant and a woman, your chances of suffering from both poverty and violence increase. So do the risks for your children’s health and well-being.)

During the second half of the Decade, the WCC inaugurated a new method. Teams of four people, usually two women and two men, visited local churches around the world. It was the first time in its 50-year history that the WCC used this model of local, person to person visits. The WCC chose to call these visiting teams “Living Letters,” using the language of Paul in the Second Letter to the Corinthians: “You show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.” (2 Cor. 3:3, RSV)

(The WCC is now in the middle of a Decade to Overcome Violence whose focus and methodology are in part inspired by the Decade in Solidarity with Women. It too has a Living Letters process.)

In the years before the Decade, another WCC project involved tens of thousands of women, extending beyond the Orthodox, Anglican, Protestant, Pentecostal, and other members of the WCC to include Roman Catholic and other Christian women. The project was called the Community of Women and Men in the Church and has become known as “the Community Study.”

Placed within the Faith and Order secretariat, a sign of its significance for the very understanding of the church (not only for “women in the church”), the Community Study lasted from 1978 to 1982. Its roots predated even the founding Assembly of the WCC in 1948. They also included the more recent WCC conference on “Sexism in the 1970s” held in 1974, the first time a World Council of Churches international gathering used the term “sexism.”

That year, the first women were ordained priests in the Episcopal Church. The WCC staff member coordinating the 1974 conference on sexism was a Black South African Anglican named Brigalia Hlophe (Ntombemhlophe) Bam. Brigalia Bam later served as the Secretary-General of the South Africa Council of Churches. She is now Chair of South Africa’s Independent Electoral Commission.

The 1988-98 Decade inaugurated the Living Letters visits. The 1978-82 Community Study was innovative as well: it reached the grassroots to an unprecedented extent, more broadly than any other WCC project. Its study booklet on church and community life, originally published in three languages, was translated into thirteen more, inviting women to offer their visions and hopes for a renewed community of women and men. Consultations large and small took place on every continent.

Note the processes by which the two projects, the Community Study and the Decade, came up with their findings. They were broadly based, involving church members at the base as well as leaders, with a focus on the base. They were ecumenical enterprises. They involved face to face conversation with much listening. They examined the relationship between faith in Christ and daily life, and the relationship between women’s daily lives and the institutional structures affecting them. Women’s voices predominated. In both projects, there were few speeches. A great deal of sitting in circles took place, with much breaking and melting of silence, a lot of tension, tears, and anger, but also patience, hospitality, and hope.

At Lambeth the Bible study will be participatory and involve a carefully designed process, though it will of course involve only the invited bishops and their spouses. Gerald O. West, a South African theologian who spoke at the Society for the Study of Anglicanism last November in San Diego, a contextual and liberation-oriented scholar who has also worked with women’s concerns and examined approaches to biblical interpretation in the age of HIV/AIDS, has been coordinating the design of the sessions. This reassures me, as does my bishop’s prayer that he and his brother and sister bishops at Lambeth will open their hearts to God and to each other.

Still, I wonder. Will there be true circles of listening, of struggling with difference with integrity, charity, and hope? Will they call upon the Holy Spirit with a longing for justice? Whose voices will never reach the circle?

Still more, I confess: Lambeth and GAFCON raise the same questions for me when I look at them through a feminist lens, which is the lens of women as global church.

Who is defining the situation?

What is church? Who is church? Where is church?

Who decides? Who interprets? Whom does this benefit?

What is unity? At what cost and over whose backs do we build unity?

What are the truly important matters for the friends of Jesus who call themselves the Body of Christ?

What are the needs of the world and the signs of the times?

Where ought our attention to be directed in these times?

And where, where will be the women and the voices of women, of women as church?

Jane Carol Redmont chairs the Anti-Racism Committee of the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina. She blogs at Acts of Hope and has begun another blog as a resource for the committee’s work at Race, Justice, and Love. She is a faculty member in Religious Studies and Women’s Studies at Guilford College and theologian for the diocesan Deacon Formation Program.

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