Could feminists save the Anglican Church?

The Anglican Church is experiencing internal angst – again. For those looking in, the endless debates about gender and human sexuality seem unreasonable, outmoded and downright unjust.

Challenges that rattle the “divine order” are difficult for the church. For centuries doctrine has been fixed on notions of a “natural” order; God made man, then woman as the second sex, and he made them heterosexual.

As Rosemary Radford Ruether, a brilliant theologian of the feminist movement, reminded us, Christianity has always absorbed cultural change to match people’s real lives – thankfully. Yet Christian doctrine seems to be continually out of step with social progress.

On the other hand, feminist theologians of the 1970s and 1980s have a message that is still relevant today. If religious symbols or doctrines do not match people’s experiences and identities, the symbols and doctrines need to change. The more fundamental the change, however, the more painful it appears to be.

Diverse theologies are, no doubt, part of the training for the priestly caste, but both the hierarchy and the lay population of the worldwide Anglican Church may well be missing out on the discussion of feminist theology happening at the margins.

Changing what seemed fixed

Feminism has produced some startling and radical theologies over the years, making it possible for women to claim their place in the Anglican Church hierarchy as priests and bishops.

Christian feminists are working to subvert the patriarchal dogma of Christianity from within, dealing with some awkward, misogynist biblical passages and some awkward traditionalists. Read Mary Daly or Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza and it becomes possible to imagine Christian symbols in ways that are not oppressive.

Feminist theology attempts to re-frame Christianity to allow oppressed groups access to God, who, it turns out, does not privilege the male, white, middle class and heterosexual humans after all. Queer theology, like feminist theology, operates at the boundaries of the Church, though there is much more hope, acceptance and optimism at the grassroots.

Feminism started a theological ball rolling. As a result the worldwide Anglican Church has seen dramatic, if uneven, change. In the 1960s, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, said with confidence that it would take “millions and millions of years” for women to be ordained in the Church of England. Those millions of years turned out to be just 30.

Libby Lane became the first woman bishop in the Church of England in 2015. Reuters/Phil Noble

In that time, feminists worked tirelessly to talk the church out of its most blatant sexist dogma. The same process is happening for the LGBTQ Christian community. Of course, sexual identity is much more than being able to be married in church, but it would be an outward sign of theological transformation.

For those who identify as Christian and are part of any group that could be considered marginal, the importance of feminist theology cannot be overstated. We now have ways of seeing religious myths and symbols separately from the dominant masculine heterosexual perspective. Christ can be imagined as female, lesbian, gay, queer, black – blowing the symbol wide open.

In 1975, Mary Daly gave feminists the task of challenging all religious symbols that result in discrimination and oppression. For her, the women’s movement is in the business of raising consciousness so that religious beliefs negating a person’s identity can (and must) be changed.

This is important, as Mary Daly puts it, because:

Christian theology widely asserted that women were inferior, weak, depraved, and vicious. The logical consequences of this opinion were worked out in a brutal set of social arrangements that shortened and crushed the lives of women.

People who are not heterosexual, living in communities where traditional Christian dogma influences socially oppressive views, may well relate to this statement.

Feminist theology has the capacity to change Christian spirituality into a liberating force. Daly spoke loudly from the revolutionary atmosphere of second wave feminism in the 1970s, believing the women’s movement was “the greatest single hope for survival of spiritual consciousness on this planet”. Feminism, she said, would be the saviour of the human species. Perhaps feminism could, at the very least, be the antidote to schism over same-sex marriage?

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