Mission – ‘to work for equality’

Equality is a necessary, relevant, and desirable goal

The Women’s Center has a mission statement. It comes in longer and shorter versions, something it has in common with the Westminster Catechism. In its briefer, condensed form, it reads:

The Women’s Center at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary exists to work for equality and dignity of women in all communities, including religious professions, for the unveiling of the continuing oppression of women of all races and nations, and for the building of community locally, nationally and globally. To this end we seek to:

  1. Discern new ways of being and living into these realities by support and advocacy for women and other disenfranchised groups;
  2. Supplement the academic program of the Seminary and provide a prophetic voice on the Seminary campus;
  3. Celebrate and affirm the gifts and contributions of women in all spheres of life in past and present;
  4. Provide a safe space to discuss and hear one another’s stories and supply resources for information and edification.

[Read the longer Statement of the Purpose and Mission of the Women’s Center at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary]

Periodically reviewing and reflecting on that mission, which articulates the reasons we do what we do, seems helpful. It reminds us of our historical roots, and helps us recognize the persistent relevance of this work in the present. Just as important, it acquaints or reacquaints members of the communities we serve with the Women’s Center’s vision and goals, and with their connections to the common enterprise of reconciliation in the church and the world. Summer, when the work of the Women’s Center focuses on planning for the coming academic year, seems like a good time for this review and reflection. Devoting some close attention to this mission, which drives the activities and events we are so absorbed in planning, seems likely to focus our efforts on what matters most. To this end, during the coming weeks Wimminwise will devote a series of entries to reflecting on key elements of the Women’s Center’s mission statement.

“The Women’s Center at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary exists to work for equality and dignity of women in all communities, including religious professions . . .”

The word “equality” in the context of the Women’s Center’s mission statement is a sign of the Women’s Center’s historic roots in the women’s movement of the 1970s and 80s. The women who made that movement move used the language of women’s rights unselfconsciously. They diagnosed the persistent problems women faced, and had faced historically, in every society as those of profound inequities around gender. Inequalities in division of labor, income and wealth, education, mobility, access to critical resources like health care and nutrition, power and privilege, formed a vicious cycle with an entrenched ideology of women’s inferiority and men’s superiority. That pervasive ideology of male superiority allowed most people most places to take for granted that women were “for” a restricted set of social functions, typically silent ones; that women were, “just saying,” deficient in key areas (strength, intelligence, competence — all, one might note, legitimators of the power women were reaching for in society); that not only was it “a man’s world,” but that the world was going to stay that way, either because it could not or should not change.

The face of that world has changed, to a degree, in the intervening three or four decades. One index of that change is available in looking at media from the 1960s, in which the classified ads list help wanted – men and help wanted – women, and images of the public world — a press conference, a political convention, a business meeting, a seminary graduating class — reflect a world without women.

Some of those changes raise the question of whether working for equality is still necessary. It is now easier for some women, in some places, to take for granted that all the equality people need or desire has been achieved. Some women, in some areas of social life, in some groups, in some countries of the world, are on visibly more equal footing with men. The mission of working for equality now includes articulating the continuing necessity of that work, reminding those of us who might be tempted to privileged denial not to focus exclusively on the areas of greatest achievement while ignoring the manifestations of perduring inequality elsewhere.

Some may wonder whether work for equality is relevant to the demands of the present. Sexual difference theorists, for instance, have argued that liberal egalitarian language obscures the important and under-theorized dimension of sexual difference. Womanist thinkers and other intersectional theorists point out that multiple determinants of structural patterns of domination — race, class, and sexuality pre-eminent among them — complicate accounts of and demands for equality. The language of “women’s experience” is an over-simplification, and calls for “non-discrimination” or “equal opportunity” are inattentive to the asymmetries inscribed in male and female embodied subjectivity. But against those who might jettison the language of equality, we would maintain that the word “equality” always pointed towards and is now capable of accommodating these more complex, nuanced, and attentive accounts of human happiness and flourishing.

Because, as has been said repeatedly, “equality” in this context does not mean “identical” or “the same.” The concern that it does is a perennial red herring, raising the diversionary question of whether equality is really desirable. The problem of sameness is really more the problem of the persistent androcentrism that is challenged by work for equality. The androcentric understanding of “man” as the human norm is profoundly unaware of the gendered particularity of the word “he;” it accepts without question the premise that “humanity” has one essential and fully acceptable way of appearing and being in the world, a male way, and that difference from that way represents a falling-away from ideal humanity. This androcentrism contributes to resistance to inclusive and expansive language in liturgy, hymnody, and scriptural translation, since it cannot fail to register “Father” as a more honorific title than “Mother,” or “Lord” as a more authoritative position than “Teacher.”

What equality means, among other things, is that when we say “a person,” we can mean “a woman” fully as well as “a man,” and that when we say “people,” we consciously understand ourselves to include both men and women, of all descriptions, in that designation. It means that we do not in fact presuppose that “the real prople” are all men, or that women are deficient, “lite” or honorary people. It means that we do not imagine women to be people insofar as they are like men, but something different from people — women, actually — in all the ways women differ from men. Work for equality anticipates a day when that consciousness is simply and actually practical common sense, because it is consciousness formed in a world in which equality is a reality.

The mission of the Women’s Center is to work for equality for all people. That means that we advocate for the difficult, necessary, relevant, and desirable goal of coming to terms with the meaning of a humanity created in the image of God in its diversity. We believe this is consonant with a scriptural and religious tradition that looks forward to a time when God’s spirit is poured out equally liberally on all flesh, and sons and daughters alike prophesy with equal voice.


March is Women’s History Month

March is upon us, and that means . . . Women’s History Month!

This year, the Women’s Center plans to celebrate Women’s History Month with some reflections on significant women in church history, and some exploration of women’s activities and initiatives that have been part of the history of the church down through the ages.

It seems appropriate — perhaps — to begin with Mary Magdalene.

Appropriate because Mary Magdalene, first among the “myrrh-bearing women” commemorated by the Orthodox church on the second Sunday after Easter, was traditionally identified as the first apostle, or “apostle to the apostles.” Because of her role in the proclamation of the resurrection, and legends of her subsequent proclamation of the gospel, she was initially an image of women’s preaching and leadership in the church. Thus the consideration of Mary of Magdala may also be an appropriate beginning point for a celebration of Women’s History Month, because of the way this prominent woman of the early church also fell victim to dramatic revisionist recollection that tended to erase her leadership role and equate her with her sexuality, as she was conflated with other women mentioned in Scripture, and was ultimately identified — now, it is thought, wrongly — as a prostitute. [See Heidi Schlumpf, “Who Framed Mary Magdalene?” U.S. Catholic, April 1, 2000]

[Perhaps ironically, recent preoccupation with Mary Magdalene, a consequence of her role in The Da Vinci Code, also emphasizes her sexuality — this time, reproductive — to the exclusion of her roles as a disciple or devotee of Christ, or her leadership in the early Christian community.]

While many of the details of Mary Magdalene’s personal history are disputed, or attributed to legend, the impact of the figure of Mary Magdalene on western art history is indisputable. She appears in every major visual art form (fresco, painting in every medium, sculpture – both freestanding and architectural decoration, mosaic . . .) across the full sweep of the western artistic tradition, and is an icon of the eastern tradition as well. The depiction of Mary Magdalene, a more sexualized counterpart to the Virgin Mother of God, thus acts as a window into the shifting imagination of femininity as it articulates with theology and piety. For a lengthy discussion of historic and contemporary representations, linked to theological content, see the reflection on the exhibition “Mary Magdalene: One Woman, Many Images” at http://www.kuleuven.be/thomas/secundair_onderwijs/in_de_kijker/44_mmEng.php; for a sampling of Magdalenic art, see Mary Magdalene: History, Legend, and Art

Those who want to “read more about it” might want to check out:
evidence for Mary’s connection with the ancient city of Magdala, at The Magdala Project

archaeological evidence associated with the veneration of Mary Magdalene’s relics, in Bruce Chilton, “Three Graves of Mary Magdalene,” Museum International, August 2010

an analysis of the changing fortunes of Mary Magdalene in western representation, in Ingrid Maisch, Mary Magdalene: the image of a woman through the centuries (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1998)

Finally, a classy video version of the legend of the red egg and the conversion of the court of Roman Emperor Tiberius through Mary Magdalene’s preaching, with cello accompaniment and graphics by Nicholas Roerig, is accessible on Youtube.

Lisa Larges Proposes “Politics of Prefigurement”

Lisa Larges, of That All May Freely Serve

The Seminary community had the pleasure and privilege of visiting with Lisa Larges, Ministry Coordinator for That All May Freely Serve, at two on-campus events during the last week: a talk “Humor, Hospitality and the Politics of Prefigurement” on Thursday evening in Caldwell Chapel, and a follow-up conversation over lunch in the Women’s Center on Friday. The Women’s Center in particular was glad to be able to make space for the lunch hour conversation on Friday, in solidarity with More Light at LPTS and That All May Freely Serve. These conversations with Lisa have us thinking deeply and hopefully about what it would mean to, as she says, “be the community we want to be and then invite the church to join us.”

This vision is in the context of the long-standing debate about the full inclusion of LGBTQ Christians in the life of the Presbyterian Church — a debate which, as Lisa notes, is in some ways a refusal to reach agreement on a minor issue, perhaps because the almost comfortably predictable moves, countermoves and frustrations of this debate keep us all from having to face up to the far more overwhelming challenges of the major issues facing the church. Environmental issues. Poverty. Violence. The future of the church. It is almost comforting to be able to remain stuck in the questions of ordination and marriage equality, these questions that for a generation or two of Christians and non-Christians alike have already become non-issues.

In this context, says Larges, it can sometimes seem that the attitude of asking the church for permission to participate is an act of “giving away some of my power,” and that there is more integrity in going ahead and doing what one is called to do, and then with humor and hospitality and (hopefully) grace inviting the church to come along. Not, as might happen, “inviting” in an arrogant way, in which the message would be “OK, now you’ve got a chance to join us and be on the right side of things.” Rather, “inviting” in a way that makes clear that we — whoever we are, the marginalized, the would-be disciples, the undesirables from some points of view — are trying to live towards and into a vision of community, of church, that we get from Jesus, from Scripture, from the church itself, and the more the merrier.

“Prefigurement” is Lisa’s term for this prospective, provisional, proactive ecclesial project. It’s a word that tries to get across the idea of a way of being that is doing what it is talking about, a way of being that involves trying to put into practice the principles and the commitments it is advocating and asking the wider church to adopt. Humor seems to be essential to that way of life — aside from the fact that it can help maintain sanity and equilibrium. Hospitality — openness, a making space for people and for life, through listening and conversation, through engagement — is also part of it. Hospitality would exclude some of the prejudices that beset the ongoing debate, and in particular the way this debate revolves around the struggle to negotiate attitudes towards and readings of Scripture. Larges names the prejudices as the opposed convictions that “liberals don’t love Scripture, and conservatives are stupid.” The practitioners of a politics of prefigurement would be working to set these prejudices aside, and to notice the intelligence and the love at work in the language and the practice of their conversation partners.

This vision of prefigurement that Lisa outlined on Thursday night is catching, in a good way.

But how does it work? That is, what would it mean for us to “be the community” we are longing to be part of? This was one of the big questions that occupied the conversation at lunch on Friday among a dozen or so students, faculty and staff members, along with Lisa, over soup and cookies in the Women’s Center. How do we be a community with an expansive understanding of God, for instance, when the mention of inclusive language in connection with the Trinity is enough to close doors to further conversation, for instance? Where in an existing congregation would this community take place? Or could it? Or would new congregational space need to be made?

Those of us connected with the Women’s Center like to think of the Women’s Center as a space where something like this visionary and envisioned community could practice its walking and talking — maybe those thoughts need more lunches and more sharing and inviting.

But there is also the persistent sense that the world around us is going through a time of “retrenchment” as some call it, or pulling back, or shrinking back from inclusion, diversity, questioning. It seems that calls to return to old orthodoxies that reinforce familiar patterns of power, privilege, domination, and control are louder than ever in recent years, and have a lot of support. One conversation partner named this phenomenon — hopefully, we thought! — as the last gasp of the demonic: that old oppressive order is about to be overturned, and its violent convulsion and lashing out is the sign of its imminent demise. Not to say that things are not about to get a lot worse before they get better.

And what would invitational, delightful practice look like, when, as another conversation partner noted, this longed-for community is one that practices a lot of hard work, and sitting with discomfort: recognizing our own racism, for instance, or coming face to face with the fact that we will need to give up some enjoyable habits for the sake of the planet’s well-being? How do you make that kind of embrace of dis-comfort appealing? Someone else noted that people have been enchanted into parenting for a long time, and that is a practice with lots of discomfort, too. [lots of nods and “oh,yeahs” to that] So maybe we can learn a lesson or two from what makes parenting attractive . . . ?

So we didn’t reach even one resolution. But the mood as the conversation wound down and people drifted off to other appointments and finally we bid Lisa farewell for now was changed, nevertheless. How? Maybe more thoughtful, and yes, somehow more hopeful. Thinking the possibilities is itself, it seems, one of the practices that makes space for those possibilities.

We thank Lisa Larges for reminding us of this, for sharing her wisdom and her humor in doing so, and for helping us turn the space of Caldwell Chapel and the Women’s Center, if only for some significant moments, into places of prefigurement.

[Edited for spelling 12-08-10]

Worship in the Words of the Tradition

Still thinking about V is for Venite . . .

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.