The Women-Church Movement
by Miriam Therese Winter
Miriam Therese Winter, a Medical Mission sister, is professor of liturgy, worship and spirituality at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut and author of WomanPrayer, WomanSong: Resources for Ritual (Meyer-Stone Books, 1987) and the album WomanSong. This article appeared in the Christian Century, March 1, 1989 p 227. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
In November 1983, approximately 1,400 women, most of them Roman Catholic, met in Chicago for a conference called "Woman Church Speaks." That gathering of women who together envisioned and to some extent modeled a church liberated from patriarchal bondage marked a turning point in the women’s movement in the United States. For the first time, women whose common heritage was one of disappointment and dissent collectively claimed to be church. They shared with one another their experience of spirituality, sexuality and survival in the church and in society, and went forth as an exodus community coming out of exile within and in some instances beyond the institutional church. In October 1987, over 3,000 women joined, the "Women-Church Convergence" in Cincinnati, under the theme, "Claiming Our Power." In the four years between conventions, many had found meaning in the wilderness as they wandered with companies of women of faith and sipped from nourishing springs. Some had grown skeptical of finding a promised land. Most seemed grateful for whatever manna they had found to meet their needs.
It is difficult to assess the impact of the women-church movement -- which appears to comprise only a small number of women -- on the larger church. While many more claim membership in women-church than convention statistics might imply, women-church is a modest initiative. It is a national network of feminist base communities and a coalition of feminist organizations that seek to support one another in living out of their own faith experience. Any women’s group with three or more members can, if it so desires, call itself women-church. Some (not all) of these groups choose to be listed as part of the national network. The women-church movement is not concerned with membership, growth, structure or institutionalized permanence, nor is it a separatist movement. Those who have found hope through association with women-church know it as an initiative of the Holy Spirit among those who are religiously marginalized and oppressed; it provides respite in a time of frustration and doubt. Ultimately, women-church desires to bring about genuinely inclusive communities of women and men in the ecclesia of Jesus Christ. Whether this is possible given the patriarchal and sexist history of our churches is uncertain. The extent of women’s inclusion in the full life of the church will determine the development and thrust of women-church.
Women-church includes more than those who appropriate its title; it embraces those of kindred spirit, those who seek freedom from structures that keep them subservient and deny them the possibility of living according to the liberating word of a liberating God, and those who claim allegiance to a global sisterhood committed to justice for the oppressed. In that sense its membership is legion and is growing every day.
The primary agenda of women-church is not women’s ordination, even though the spirit and some of the same women that birthed the Women’s Ordination Conference also provided the impetus for women-church. The conviction that brought 1,600 women to Detroit in 1975 to launch a nationwide effort to open the priesthood to Roman Catholic women eventually led them to question the hierarchical, patriarchal structure of ordained ministry itself, which seems contrary to the spirit of Jesus Christ. Indeed, a significant number of Protestant women who fought so hard to achieve ordination have left their ministries, burned out by the constant struggle to overcome secondary status, overt discrimination and the pressure to succeed.
Women-church ultimately aims to humanize structures in and outside the church. This concern for justice gives Christian feminism both a social and a religious agenda. The two agendas have often coincided throughout the feminist movement. The Women’s March down Fifth Avenue in New York in the summer of 1970 commemorating the 50th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th amendment granting women the right to vote was reminiscent of earlier marches of feminist suffragettes. Strangely enough, no church organization was listed among the sponsors of the 1970 event -- though the first meeting of the women’s suffrage movement in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848 took place in a church, and those who launched that movement were women of the church, such as Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. These and the many feminist reformers who labored tirelessly for social and political freedoms were sustained in their difficult ministries through mutual support, which is the essence of women-church.
While women’s liberation in America has not always maintained a religious affiliation, feminist leaders who never espoused religion, as well as those who did and then left it, are considered apart of the women-church sisterhood, and their achievements are acknowledged with satisfaction and pride. As Gloria Steinem reminded participants in Cincinnati last October: "We [women] are the one group that does not have a nation. We need to make a psychic country" to which all women can belong. Women-church is doing just that, recognizing in the process that its history extends well beyond the boundaries of its own rather recent beginnings.
Church leaders have reason to fear the women’s movement. Christian feminism has never been satisfied with a religion separated from public life, nor has it ever settled for merely incremental modifications in the religious establishment. Women-church and traditional church have contrasting understandings of God, grace and world, and of their interrelationship. True partnership and mutuality between the two forms of church will take more than a canonical pronouncement or a shift in regulations. It will require the traditional church’s learning a new way of behaving. The church will have to learn how experience can be a source of grace; learn to speak less dogmatically and act less hierarchically; learn to communicate more and excommunicate less; learn to care as much about people as it does about structures and forms. In small faith-sharing circles, the Spirit of God is leading women to shape the future church of Jesus Christ.
In carving out a new tradition, women-church is laying a solid theological foundation for its claims. There has been an explosion of feminist literature in the past two dozen years that challenges age-old assumptions on every conceivable front. Feminist philosophers, sociologists, ethicists, liturgists and those who are engaged in the arts are expanding our collective understandings of God and of ourselves.
The heart of women-church, however, is what happens in personal encounters to bring texture, color and meaning to the tangled threads of women’s lives. In her autobiographical book The Journey Is Home, Nelle Morton describes the phenomenon of women’s awakening, which is the core of feminist faith. In small, intimate gatherings, women tell their stories, moving through pain, defensiveness, anger, even rage, into an awareness that it is all right to feel the way they feel, and to be who they are. The liberating force of this realization is grace.
"Women came to new speech simply because they were being heard," Morton writes. Hearing becomes an act of receiving the woman as well as her words. In women-church women do not have to be "good" or obedient or even right. They can just be the self that God loved into being. Women-church affirms woman’s reality, affirms who women are and are becoming. Women-church must emphasize this "I’m OK, you’re OK" aspect as long as derogatory structures and situations continue to oppress women.
Associated with the women-church movement are men and many women from nearly every walk of life -- a kaleidoscope of creeds, cultures, colors and classes, of extraordinary and ordinary women, our mothers, our sisters, ourselves. It includes very angry women and women of humor and hope, radical women and traditional women, even a few who are not quite sure what all the fuss is about. For some, women-church is a way to bring new energy into congregational life; for others, it offers an occasional alternative to their regular church routine; still others find it a substitute for a church commitment that has died; and some cling to it as a lifeline in turbulent times.
Women-church gives identity to sisterhood and support for women’s difficult journey. It offers a setting where the reinterpretation, reinvention and re-creation of foundational myths is possible and legitimate.
The concept of women-church does have its limitations. Truly inclusive communities cannot be for women only, nor will women apart from men succeed in achieving true social and religious emancipation. Women-church must find ways to include caring men, while recognizing the need for women, and men, to seek nurture separately from time to time.
And though the women-church spirit is inclusive, the word "church" in its name leaves out women who espouse other religious traditions; women who practice witchcraft and celebrate goddess rites; women of no particular religion and no desire to join any kind of church; and women who are connected to an inner spirit and live religiously.
At this stage, it remains unclear exactly what women-church is. Is it an ecumenical, cross-cultural, interfaith extension of the women’s movement in America that cannot be understood by those church institutions it seeks to reform? Does it represent a strategy for reforming the church? Its members hold a variety of opinions about such questions, and most are more concerned about concrete issues than about theories or theology. Many would agree with Rosemary Radford Ruether’s comment in Women-Church: "Women-church means neither leaving the church as a sectarian group, nor continuing to fit into it on its terms. It means establishing bases for a feminist critical culture and celebrational community that have some autonomy from the established institutions."
Growth is never easy, nor is it predictable. A Methodist missionary woman earlier in this century spoke words appropriate to women-church today: "Grow we must, even if we outgrow all that we love." We may outgrow forms and functions, and some cherished relationships and situations, but we will never outgrow the love of Love -- only our ways of naming that Love and the rites we use to respond to the One who is Love in us.