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What’s happening in feminist liberation theology?

What’s happening in feminist liberation theology?

A report from the Feminist Liberation Theologians’ Network:

The Feminist Liberation Theologians’ Network met for its annual gathering in conjunction with the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meetings in San Francisco, CA, on Friday, November 18, 2011. Introductions by the more than fifty colleagues present revealed a very diverse group from many countries (including Brazil, Germany, Japan, New Zealand, Philippines, Sweden, Canada and the United States). A good number of students and activists joined the scholars and professors in a discussion of a few of the successes and many of the struggles that colleagues have had in feminist liberation theological efforts.

The group heard from four colleagues:

Shannon Clarkson is affiliated with San Francisco Theological Seminary (SFTS) and Yale Divinity School (YDS). She collaborated with Letty Russell in founding and directing the SFTS Feminist Liberation Theology Doctorate in Ministry program. Also with Letty, she was co-editor of the Dictionary of Feminist Theologies (1996).

She detailed the Feminist Liberation Theology Doctorate in Ministry program at SFTS as follows: 104 participants (equal numbers of clergy and lay) from 37 countries including 16 women from 8 African countries, 34 women from 8 Asian counties, 29 from the US, Canada and Puerto Rico, 14 participants from 10 Central and South American countries, 3 from Europe, and 8 women from 5 South Pacific countries. Most of the participants were Protestant with 10 Roman Catholics identified. They were pastors, social workers, seminary leaders, and the like. Of these, 47 finished the program; two also earned Ph.D.s. Nine women had their theses published as books.

The program’s success was evident in many ways; the many women present at this meeting who had participated were a strong witness. They offered insights into its impact on their lives. Some women have gone on to teaching and/or church bureaucracy jobs that would have been closed to them without the credential.

There are significant barriers to the program’s continuation, including the difficulty of obtaining visas for women to study abroad, the lack of a DMin. director at SFTS at the moment, and the lack of financial resources to make such a program viable.

Nonetheless, Shannon reported that the network of participants is helpful on many levels, not the least of which is finding jobs. The program is currently on hold pending personnel additions at SFTS.

Margaret R. Miles is professor emerita at the Graduate Theological Union (GTU) from which she received her Ph.D. in 1977 and where she was dean from 1996-2001. She spent 18 years at Harvard Divinity School (HDS), the first woman to receive tenure there in 1985. She has published widely on church history, art, and film. Her latest book is a memoir, Augustine and the Fundamentalist’s Daughter. After retiring from academia, Margaret has turned a great deal of her attention to the arts.

Margaret observed that we have made a lot of progress but that there is much more work to do. She spoke about the Religion, Gender and Culture program at Harvard Divinity School that began in the late 1980s.

She described the early years when the question was whether feminist and gender studies could be considered an academic field. The Doctoral program was first approved only as a Th.D. program, later as a Ph.D. program. Some feminist colleagues in the university were not hospitable to work in religion, and some feminists in religion did not read secular feminist theology. That has changed. Claims of objectivity have been put to rest. The program continues to date.

HiRho Park is Director of Continuing Formation for Ministry, Division of Ordained Ministry, The General Board of Higher Education and Ministry of the United Methodist Church in Nashville, TN. She has both a Ph.D. and a DMin. so she is prepared as a minister and as a scholar for the work she is engaged in with women in the Methodist Church.

The study of Lead Women Pastors ran from 2008-2011 in an effort to see how women are faring in ministry. The stained glass ceiling is a reality with 82 women in 2004 and 94 women in 2010 in large church leadership compared with 1100 men. Several findings stand out:

—women tend to have a 27% lower salary than men

—90% of the lead women pastors are the first woman in such a position in their congregation

—69% of the women are married compared with 99% of the male pastors

—25% of the lead women pastors report some form of physical threat.

Much more needs to be learned about this cohort. But coaching and retreats help to nurture these women as they continue in their pioneering roles. Likewise, large churches are getting some training before a woman takes the pulpit so as to facilitate the process.

Sharon Welch is a Senior Fellow of the Institute for Humanist Studies, a member of the International Steering Committee of Global Action to Prevent War, and a member of the Unitarian Universalist Peace Ministry Network. She is the author of five books, including A Feminist Ethic of Risk. Sharon currently serves as Provost and Professor of Religion and Society at Meadville Lombard Theological School where she is pioneering interfaith theological education.

Sharon focused on women in the theological academy. She remarked on the underrepresentation of women in leadership. At Meadville, she described feminist liberation theological work being done by the faculty as it relates to the larger curricular project. Students include successful businesspeople, therapists, and engineers who have come back to school to prepare for ministry. The goal of the work as she sees it is to free the oppressed from their oppression and free the oppressors from their alienation.

Learning modules are set up accordingly to help students act their way into new ways of thinking. There is a big emphasis on hands-on learning with internships and other direct service experiences.

She discussed the need for cultural competence to deal with diversity. She observed the importance of developing the spiritual resources necessary to cope with contemporary complexity. She spoke of the skill needed to observe when a group is ready to cross boundaries and move to the next phase of its work.

An outline of the Congregational Studies Signature Sequence Seminar indicates that the site of ministry is the actual “text” for the class with academic learning and structured reflection on preaching, pastoral care, etc. making up the curriculum. Meadville also offers an M.A. in Leadership Studies in conjunction with the M.Div. degree.

Animated small group discussion flowed from the input. Plenary conversation included comments on backlash as a common phenomenon as illustrated by the lack of inclusive/expansive language used in worship and teaching. Other comments involved the role of undergraduate institutions in the teaching/learning of feminist liberation theology. Geographical limits were raised as the situations vary so widely around the world that, for instance, a Meadville-type program could not work everywhere.

Discussion moved to the need to look at feminist principles as they inform the practical efforts to overcome racism, for example. Epistemological issues included how we learn and from whom we learn (including our students). Another issue raised was the move beyond identity politics to individual and collective identities; most of us claim more than one identity. Still another comment focused on activism ala the Occupy Movement and how people from religious starting points can be part of that.

The next meeting of the Feminist Liberation Theologians’ Network will be on Friday, November 16, 2012, 4-6 PM in Chicago where the AAR/SBL meetings will be held. The exact location remains to be determined, but it will likely be in one of the conference hotels. The focus will be on the role of feminist liberation theological thinking as it informs concrete work for justice such as Occupy, government service, peace-making and the like. Please feel free to suggest speakers who might contribute to our analysis and discussion.

For an interesting reflection on the FLTN by longtime participant Dorothy Jensen Rupert interviewed by Mary C. Churchill, see the current issue of the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion. “Religion and Politics: A Feminist In the House and Senate, An interview with Dorothy Jensen Rupert,” JFSR 27.2(2011), pp. 109-117.

Report shared with permission from WATER


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Lois Keen

Well said, Rod. I was just thinking the same thing after I clicked “submit” on my previous comment – about my mentor after my priesting, a woman who had been in seminary during the ordination of the Philadelphia eleven and helped plan and take part in the ordination service. I believe, by the way, that Barbara Harris, not yet ordained, was the crucifer for that service. We stand on mighty shoulders. May I never forget those who made this possible.

I also remember that a book, “New Wine”, that recalls the process of women toward ordination in TEC, made the connection early on between the attitudes toward women and those toward LGBT women and men. We still have a long way to go, and now I am becoming the shoulders on which others are standing – I just met an eleven year old girl who wants to become a pastor.

Rod Gillis

Lois Keen, thanks for the detailed info with regard to the historical trajectory in TEC. The ordination of the Philadelphia eleven took place in my junior year as an under grad. My second year of seminary the first women were ordained priests in Canada. I recall our liturgical lecturer at that time hoping mad about the Church now being “out of communion with

him” The next year, the first female postulant entered that same seminary and together with women postulants/priests over the next decade faced major hurdles getting ordained, getting placements, contending with open harassment by “colleagues”. So, that was an era of activism. Those entering the priesthood or episcopate a generation or two later, really underestimate how the activism undertaken, and the abuse endured ( or witnessed) by an earlier generation has made possible the current status quo. Watching what is taking place at mother corp. in England right now gives one an incredible flashback. Additionally, given the struggles with discrimination against and violence toward women on the planet, and the role of religion in the same, one must remain activist and vigilant–men and women both. Additionally, the campaign against full inclusion of GLBT persons is really a continuation of the same battle i.e. the use of power to control what one fears in the sexuality of others (and perhaps in one’s self?).

Until the church(es) stand up clearly for gender equality, they will have little credibility as a voice for social justice.

Lois Keen

Thank you, Rod. The original statement about Canada was not so clear about, specifically, the part of women and their failure in feminist theology as this latest comment, which gives chapter and verse, so to speak. Again, thank you for your patience.

In 1976 the 72nd General Convention of TEC passed a resolution stating that “no one shall be denied access” to ordination in any of the three orders of bishop, priest or deacon on the basis of their sex. At the same time, a second resolution refused to cut off from the life and governance of the church anyone because of their sex, or their theological beliefs concerning the ordination of women. In 1977, the women ordained “irregularly” in Philadelphia were “regularized. According to one report, by the end of that year there were 100 women ordained in TEC.

24 years later, there were still four dissenting dioceses to the ordination of women. Convention’s sense was that the time had come to end this, and to send visitations to these dioceses, the purpose of which was to “visit, interview, assess and assist” the dioceses in moving toward ordination of women.

As reported on “”, a substitute motion by the Bishop of SW Florida (this would have been in the House of Bishops, not the Deputies) asked for a less adversarial approach, and this was supported by several women bishops. It was defeated, narrowly, but passed as a “mind of the house” resolution later. So, yes, as you see the women in Canada who continue to show up in places that oppose women as failing to advance feminine theology, so did those few women bishops.

However, Barbara Harris, then Bishop in Boston, successfully led a defeat of an amendment that would allow the four dissenting bishops to continue in their opposition so long as they still held office.

If I have gotten any of this wrong, I hope someone will set it right.

The intent of the Convention of 2000 was to make it clear: women are fit for ordination. What we do with it, men and women alike, is another matter. Because of your original comment, I shall continue to examine my conscience with regard to whether or not I am being true to my beliefs. In the end, I uphold the feminist theologians I studied, and found, at the same time, a theologian I greatly admire: Jurgan Moltmann, who leads me in my arguments with God about suffering.

Again, thank you, Mr. Gillis.

Rod Gillis

re Q. from Lois, I’ve given you a large example (twice), the one I’m immediately familiar with–the Canadian Church. As I’ve already pointed out, we have parishes here that refuse to allow women priests, or female bishops to come into the parish and celebrate the Eucharist. This continues and female clergy in all three orders seem willing to accept the situation. The rationale offered up for tolerating this situation is that it is a matter of “conscience”–even though this provision does not now, nor has it ever been applicable to parishes in Canada nationally.

You note “The women clergy are not solely responsible for the continued ascendency of patriarchalism nor for the continuing grandfathering of systemic opposition to women in orders.” I agree completely. I’ve told successive bishops that I will no longer participate in sacramental events in parishes that openly engage in this kind of thing. However, many of my female colleagues continue to show up in these places ,and rationalize their participation by suggesting that we have to be “pastoral”–whatever that means.

Every time a priest, male or female, “goes along to get along” then the integrity of gender equality is compromised. The problem is systemic. You will not find a clear statement on gender equality at any official level in the Anglican Church of Canada. Does TEC have one?

Lois Keen

Sorry, Rod Gillis, that I was apparently not clear. I studied the feminist theologians listed, and others. McFague and Trible were among those we read in intro to theology at my seminary, and Rosemary Radford Reuther was one of my professors. I also convinced my advisor to accept Reuther’s obviously systematic theology as satisfaction for the systematics requirement for my degree.

I was looking for specific examples of “so few ordained women [advancing] a feminist theology, opting instead to placate proponents of gender bias.” Maybe I fall in that category without realizing it and it would help to have that blind spot pointed out. Examples of women in ministry quickly distancing themselves from feminism would also be helpful. The women clergy are not solely responsible for the continued ascendency of patriarchalism nor for the continuing grandfathering of systemic opposition to women in orders.

To give an example of what I’m looking for, although it is in the realm of the laity: my late mother in law was a “chalice assistant”, now called eucharistic ministers in some places in TEC, at the early, traditional service in her church. In that early gathering was one woman who was always there for Eucharist and always received, except on those occasions when she looked toward the altar to see that my mother in law, the sole woman chalicer in that service, was on duty, at which point she would make sure everyone knew she was walking out and why.

Another example, an imaginary one, would be me studying feminist theology and then remaining silent when women’s leadership is put down or ignored or belittled, or failing to expand the many possible names for God.

Specific examples from your experience, Rod, would be helpful to me. Thanks for your patience, and that of the readers here.

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