Friday, January 25, 2013

My new church is less sexist than my old church, but...

I shared an essay I wrote for Main Street Plaza called "Is sweetness next to Goddessliness?" on my Facebook page, where it generated some interesting comments. The essay discusses some of the sexism in Mormon culture, and one of my friends commented that unfortunately things weren't all that different in the non-Mormon world. I disagree, and I replied:

Patriarchy is not unique to Mormonism. The non-Mormon world is not perfect. There are still inequalities and conscious and subconscious tactics employed to keep women in their place, but there's a hell of a lot more breathing room out here than I ever experienced in the Church. Having experienced both worlds, I have to say unequivocally that yes, it's different.

My primary "out here" is as a student and an employee at a U.S. university with an anti-discrimination code that protects my right to be treated with respect, and affords me recourse if that right is violated. I do still encounter sexist attitudes from individuals from time to time, but overall, I have it pretty good in my secular "out here."

What about in my new church? Well... it's definitely better than what I came from. Women can be ordained, preach and celebrate the Mass. The presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church is a woman. Women routinely wear pants to church, with nary a death threat in sight. Many parishes, mine among them, offer services where the liturgy uses gender-neutral language. There are other efforts at making the language inclusive. I remember the first Sunday I attended the parish I belong to now. During one section of the Eucharistic prayer, I heard the priest behind the altar say, "Lord God of our Fathers and Mothers." I jerked my head up from the back pew. What? Did I just hear that? He continued, "God of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Rachel." My jaw dropped, breath involuntarily left my lungs, my eyes moistened a bit, and I know I muttered a vocalized, "Thank you," though I couldn't articulate in that instance for what I was giving thanks. It was an instinctive reaction. A vital part of myself was responding to validation and inclusion that I had never before received in a church. And no, naming the patriarchs' wives does not instantly rectify every inequality (what of the other women with whom the patriarchs fathered children, wives and otherwise?), but it's an acknowledgement that an inequality exists, which was more than I'd ever gotten before.

These are all excellent steps in the right direction. But they are not enough.

Here's the real rub: Until our religious services include feminine representations of the Divine, women will never truly be equal in our culture.

There's a beautiful line from Sue Monk Kidd's The Secret Life of Bees where August tells Lily, "Everyone needs a God who looks like them." Absolutely true, and women have been deprived of seeing themselves in images of the divine for centuries, but restoring feminine imagery to our liturgies is just as important for men as it is for women.

There's a great post over at Feministing suggesting that one factor that leads to rape is that many men do not easily empathize with women. Some men see women as objects rather than people partly because our culture gives them few opportunities to identify with women. Maya writes:

[W]omen are socialized to [empathize with the opposite gender] simply because it’s kinda required to live in a male-dominated culture. As I’ve written before, if you don’t learn to identify with the men who populate the movies you watch, the books you read, the media you consume, well, this is a pretty alienating world, to say the least. Men, on the other hand, are taught the opposite. As Jackson Katz wrote recently, "We socialize empathy out of boys all the time." And identifying with a girl? Well, that’s, like, actually the worst thing you could ever do.

Where could it possibly be more important to ask a man to relate to a woman than in our understanding of Divinity? Sometimes when I’m reading the Psalms, I’ll change the masculine pronouns to feminine and “the Lord” to “the Lady,” because, sure, I can do that. And that’s an empowering feeling to be able to do that for myself. But what would it be like to be able to relate to a God who looks like me at my actual, sanctioned house of worship, with the rest of my religious community? Sarah Sentilles quotes Roxann MtJoy’s criticism of sexist book marketing:
Somehow, no matter in what genre a woman understands herself to be writing, her words will often be packaged "for women" because the assumption is that "[b]ooks about women are supposedly for women, but books about men are for everyone."
Similarly, there seems to be an assumption that relating to feminine images of God is for women, while relating to masculine images of God is for everyone. I’ve heard men who say that they agree with the ideal of equality, but they’re uncomfortable with the term “feminist” and they suggest we instead use a word like “equalist.” Well, maybe in a few generations, but first we have to correct the imbalance that we’ve inherited. First we need a concerted effort to give visibility to women holding authority and roles traditionally held by men (including God!), and to women being valued for doing what they have traditionally done. We need an “in your face” approach to this kind of visibility until the idea of equality becomes normalized and is taken for granted within the culture. I think the gender-neutral service is a nice thing, but it does not escape my attention that at my parish, the gender-neutral language is relegated to the lower profile Wednesday evening Mass, while the traditional male Father God language remains the standard at the main Sunday morning Mass. Unless there is also a service that uses affirmatively feminine language, the gender-neutral service does not really create equality.

I think the lack of female imagery is less about our conscious beliefs about God than about our subconscious assumptions about humanity. Most theologians acknowledge that God is formless and therefore genderless, yet God is represented by a male Father, a male Son, and a Spirit who is also named as a "he" in the Nicene Creed. We do need forms. There are reasons why I am not a Unitarian, though so much of what UUs stand for lines up exactly with my own convictions. I need the metaphors, because I find the Thing Itself incomprehensible, and the Thing Itself is just as validly represented in female forms as male forms. I have said before that I am Christian, but not exclusively so. Polytheism may be an effective way to guard against idolatry; maintaing multiple images of God lessens the likelihood of becoming too attached to any one of those images, which are, after all, all graven, all the work of our own hands and minds.

Ascribe to the Lady, you gods,
   ascribe to the Lady glory and strength.

Ascribe to the Lady the glory due her Name;
   worship the Lady in the beauty of holiness.

The voice of the Lady is upon the waters;
the Goddess of glory thunders;
   The Lady is upon the mighty waters.

The voice of the Lady is a powerful voice;
   the voice of the Lady is a voice of splendor.

The voice of the Lady breaks the cedar trees;
   The Lady breaks the cedars of Lebanon.

She makes Lebanon skip like a calf,
   and Mount Hermon like a wild ox.

The voice of the Lady splits the flames of fire;
The voice of the Lady shakes the wilderness;
   The lady shakes the wilderness of Kadesh.

The voice of the Lady makes the oak trees writhe
   and strips the forests bare.

And in the temple of the Lady
   all are crying, "Glory!"

The Lady sites enthroned above the flood;
   the Lady sits enthroned as Queen for evermore.

The Lady shall give strength to her people;
   the Lady shall give her people the blessing of peace. 


  1. You're right that Mormonism isn't the only sexist faith. Recent comments from politicians of the Religious Right have certainly demonstrated that recently. (A national discussion on "legitimate rape????")

    We attended a UU church for several years. It was a nice community, as is the Episcopal and other progressive Christian churches. It's hard to find an organized religion that lines up exactly with an individual's belief.

    I suppose another way of putting that would be to say that there is no one and only true church. :)

  2. Donna, you're very right about the difficulty--dare I say impossibility--of finding an organized religion that's going to fit you exactly. That was one of the factors I weighed when I was considering, Should I or shouldn't I join this church? I personally felt like I needed a church, and there aren't any perfect ones, though I think the Episcopal Church is a pretty good one. There are Catholics who are pro-choice and Mormons who support LGBT equality. We all have to make choices about how much we find of value and how much that we disagree with that we're willing to tolerate.