Worship in the Words of the Tradition

Still thinking about V is for Venite . . .

candle_bible
Thursday, February 12, turned out to be a day of examining the ambiguous legacy and role of the church in relation to violence against women.

The V-Week Planning Group had planned from its earliest meetings to include a lunch-hour faculty panel on this day, and had early identified “The Role of the Church in Violence Against Women” as the desired topic. The idea was to find a way to consider the positive contributions of the Christian tradition alongside its complicity in patterns of violence against women. We wanted to celebrate the way themes of, e.g., human worth and dignity, equality before God, love and belovedness, healing, “setting the captives free,” empower women who have been touched by violence, remind them that this violence is wrong and is not the last word on them and their lives, and give them the strength and healing to persevere, survive, overcome, experience resurrection. At the same time, we wanted to be especially cognizant of the undeniable negative contributions of the Christian tradition, especially in its historic role as western cultural hegemon. (Sometimes difficult to remember in these post-Constantinian, post-Protestant-consensus, post-etc. times is that Christianity was an integral part of the dominant cultural paradigm in Europe for 14 or 15 centuries — at least, according to the last western civ text I checked). We wanted to hold those two legacies in tension, consider what that dual legacy might mean for members of the church today, what we might need to be critical of or re-evaluate, what we need or might need to repent of, what action it might call us to, and so on.

With this in mind, it was a short step to a decision to plan an opening worship service for the day that made this ambiguous legacy explicit, and that called attention to some of the connections between what we say we worship, how we say it, what we counsel members of the church, what we require of women and men within the body of the church . . . and the violence that women suffer in many forms all around the world.

Sad fact: It didn’t take long to bring together texts from scripture that have historically been used against women, statements from the Church Fathers that reinforced attitudes that women ought to submit to, and may well deserve, violent treatment on the part of husbands and other authorities, and militant or self-sacrificial metaphors that contribute to a normalization and acceptance of violence. (Here is a draft of the order of service.)

What we had not anticipated was the way this worship service would make people feel. As liturgists Brianne Jurs, Marie McCanless and Christine Coy-Fohr read, and as the congregation responded in song — led by Mary Beth McCandless — the sense of shock and speechlessness was almost palpable. As Mary Beth remarked after the service ended, “it makes you realize how much translating you’ve been doing all along.” Usually these messages — a constantly available strand of the tradition — are diffused in the context of other worship. In this service, brought together as they were, there was little opportunity to ignore or deny the insistent message of the unwholesomeness of women, and the acceptability of violence in the right cause.

One clear conclusion from that painful experience is that many of the church’s habitual tropes, images, and slogans deserve considerably more thought and qualification than we usually give them, and that some — if they survive scrutiny at all — call for frankly critical analysis and far more judicious deployment in the life of the worshipping community.

As the service progressed, members of the congregation wrote down some of the things we’ve learned about women and girls from our participation in this tradition and posted them around the worship space, an action that concretized this day’s worship and prepared for that of the next. The deep pink cards constituted visible reminders that the space in which we worship is not empty. It always already contains — for us, and our neighbors — many echoing voices, words, messages, many indelible images, unforgettable experiences. Not all of those invite, welcome, affirm . . .

Sometimes, indeed, as we saw and felt on this morning, it takes courage and determination simply to enter a worship space and to pursue what is vital and nourishing there, while fending off and blocking out what is poisonous.

It should take less. Remembering and speaking the words of the tradition that make worship hospitable to women is one of the concrete things the church and its members can do in the effort to end violence against women.

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