Chapter 5: Liberating The Church

Counseling For Liberation
by Charlotte Ellen

Chapter 5: Liberating The Church

Silam . . . "the inhabitant or soul (inua) of the universe," is never seen: its voice alone is heard. "All we know is that it has a gentle voice like a woman, a voice 'so fine and gentle that even children cannot become afraid.' What it says is: sila ersinarsinivdluge, 'be not afraid of the universe.' "

Najagnek, an Eskimo of North Alaska

Discontent and Discovery

For most of us women and men who have grown up in a world where men are the image makers and decision maker and where even God is male, it comes as a surprise to discover that, offstage, the figure of a woman looms large. In the first volume of The Masks of God, Joseph Campbell remarks:

For it is one of the curiosities and difficulties of our subject that its materials come to us for the most part through the agency of the male. The masters of the rites, the sages and prophets, and lastly our contemporary scholars of the subject, have usually been men; whereas, obviously, there has always been a feminine side to the picture also. The symbols have been experienced and read from the two poles; but also shaped from the force of the two poles in their antagonistic cooperation. So that even where the woman may seem to have disappeared from the scene -- as, for example, in the patriarchal Aranda and Hebrew images of the first days of creation -- we must realize that she is there, even so, and watch for the ripple of her presence behind the curtain.(1)

Ministers need to know about many women's grow awareness of their present position in the church and of their religious and cultural heritage. The pastoral counselor particular needs to be personally interested and professions concerned in order to be able to minister effectively to women who are feeling alienated from the church and seeking change, as well as to women who are resistant to or feel threatened by the changes some women are seeking. Ministers and pastoral counselors also need to be able to interpret to the men of the church what it is that many women are feeling and seeking, and to interpret to the church the importance of revaluing the "feminine" in God and in theology.

Here are some words one woman wrote following a worship service:

I sit in church today alternately smoldering with anger, fighting back tears of hurt and regret, and grasping at those elusive moments when I can truly affirm the experience of worship. Because suddenly I feel left out. "Once to Every Man and Nation," "0 Brother Man," "How Shall a Rich man . . . ," "Rise Up, 0 Men of God," and on and on and on. Lots of male words; no female ones.

Except for some women in the choir there are only men in the service -- in the pulpit, at the altar, in the aisles. There are mostly women in the pews.

We've turned to another hymn, "Open My Eyes." Here's where the tears want to come. At last I can really sing. In this one God is a spirit, not a man. And there are no words that call only the men and not the women. I wish people would open their eyes and see what I am seeing.

The sermon is talking about ethical issues for mankind. "Every man ought to have an equal chance." (Women too?) Finally the preacher mentions a woman but she is "only a midwife."

It is time for the last hymn, "Turn Back, 0 Man." Ha! There's an admonition I don't have to heed. It's not talking to me! Oddly enough as the stanzas wear on, the first significant mention of the female occurs. Earth and nature are both labeled "she." The existence of the female side of the universe is at last recognized.

This expression of one woman's feelings about the worship experience describes the feelings of a growing number of women in the church, including many who have spent a life-time there. Many of us are learning to identify the sources of our discontent.

Beyond that, however, we are also learning to translate the anger and hurt we first feel with that kind of awareness into a search for another side of the story. We are listening to feminist theologians who are calling for a new theology which will express and affirm the experience of women as well as of men. We are learning about the "feminine in divinity," a concept long missing from the traditional emphasis on God as Father, Lord, and King. We are discovering the days when God was a woman, and the "symphony of hymns . . . to the Great Goddess" which is sung in myth and religious tradition all around the earth (2) We are discovering Bible mistranslations which changed "children" into "sons," and "people" into "men." We are learning about women in history, both individual women whose contributions have been ignored or forgotten, and the masses of women in all cultures and periods of history who have had tremendous influence on the evolution of human society, from the invention of agriculture to the "keeping of the faith."

We are becoming aware of a whole body of data accumulated within the last one hundred years which has stirred the flames of controversy in religious, anthropological, and philosophical circles -- data that raises new questions about the origins of the family and of human society. We are learning about matrifocal cultures in which descent may be through the woman's family, in which the mother-child relationship is the important social unit and women have great prestige and sometimes political power. Data about such societies raise lots of fascinating questions about whether society began with patriarchy -- which has long been the prevalent assumption -- I or whether there was once a universally benevolent and egalitarian society which revolved around the mother as the human ; representative of the Mother Goddess Earth, the goddess who remains with us to this day in the figure of Mother Nature. Questions about the origin of the family and of human society are not yet answered, and may never be, but they are serious I questions now being dealt with enthusiastically in several disciplines. (2) Women who allow themselves to get in touch with the feelings that accompany such discontent in the church first get angry. But if they go on from the anger to try to discover the "other side of the story" they get excited. It is a profoundly life-affirming experience for a woman to learn that she has a historical and religious heritage heretofore largely ignored. For many of us it is as though we have discovered a whole new identity.

First we "try it on for size." How does it feel to think of God as Mother as well as or instead of Father? We try to get together with other women who are having the same feelings. Maybe we try to have the minister consider changing the church language and literature to make it more inclusive. Or we may try to get the church to include women in its life and leadership in more important ways than it has in the past. If we do not succeed, we may turn to or even organize a feminist church, where our spiritual needs can be met and we can feel ourselves an integral part of the tradition and practice. Some women struggle and even manage to survive in the traditional church on Sunday morning by changing the words in the liturgy and hymns to female words -- Father to Mother, King to Queen, Him to Her -- when speaking of God.(3) However we handle it, we are making a deep and vital change in our own sense of identity and asking the church to change as well.

Inevitable Resistance

On the other hand, many women in the church are resistant to the changing status of women.

Often they are critical of women in the professional ministry, or of women challenging the traditional roles of women in the church. Sometimes they resist because they feel that the contribution they are making to church life, and have made in the past, is being belittled. Sometimes they resist because they fear, usually unconsciously, the kind of new responsibilities they may have to take up if women should come to share equally in the wider life of church and society.

An enlightened minister or pastoral counselor can help such women to become aware that whatever they have done in the past is not. being criticized but affirmed, and that the changes called for don't necessarily mean that women are being asked to give up the roles they now hold. Women who are frightened or resistant can be helped to understand that the issue is simply one of choice, that women should be free to do whatever they want to do and are capable of doing in the church on the same basis as men. A minister can also interpret to such women the importance of the "feminine" side of God from the theological and social standpoint. Lots of men in the church are open to the issues that women are raising about church life and the reinterpretation of theology. Often they would like some help in understanding just what the changes may mean for, the church, and how to implement such changes for the sake of the men as well as the women. Other men are resistant and frightened, however, sometimes because they are worried that women want to "take over" the church, sometimes because they have a vague feeling that it just "isn't right." An enlightened minister or counselor can help interpret to men what women are saying and encourage them to see that the changes sought mean liberation for them as well as for women.

Reshaping Theology

Many women are discovering with surprise and relief that, although the Bible has often been used as the basis for limiting the participation of women in church life, Jesus believed in women as equals. His treatment of women and his remarks about them provide no basis for the subsequent attitude of the church. Women react in different ways to this new awareness! Some say, "So what! It hasn't done us any good. A religion which can lend itself to such excesses as Christianity has experienced in this regard cannot speak with the voice of God." Some of these women are leaving the church altogether.

Theologian Mary Daly is the most articulate representative of those who question whether Christianity can truly speak to women. Her deeply moving and challenging book Beyond God the Father is "must" reading for ministers and pastoral counselors.(3) Other women believe that since the original intent of the religion founded by Jesus was to include women as whole persons, the church can be saved. Such women, a number of them theologians, are struggling to reinterpret the Christian faith and construct a new theology which will express and affirm the experience of both women and men.

The rising consciousness of women and the development of a "new theology" have numerous practical consequences for ongoing church life. What are some of the changes that women are beginning to insist upon? The following list of items, developed during a consciousness raising group in a local church, was presented to the church governing body. The Women's Task Force asks that our church:

1. Use women in the pulpit from time to time and consider hiring a woman minister for our staff.

2. Ask the education committee and teachers to review the church school literature with a view to eliminating whatever sexism it contains.

3. Use women and girls equally with men and boys as ushers and acolytes.

4. Have women study-leaders and speakers at church meetings.

5. Present "women's issues" like the Equal Rights Amendment and abortion to the congregation for such individual and corporate action as money raising and letter writing.

6. Buy library books which deal with women in history and feminist theology.

7. Eliminate sexist and noninclusive language from the liturgy and hymns used in the services, either by using "feminine" as well as "masculine" terms for God or by eliminating altogether words which refer to sex.

8. Encourage and provide resources for all church groups -- administrative bodies, men's and women's groups, study groups, church school and youth groups -- to study the history and present status of women in the church and society.

9. Start some study groups specifically on Bible study from the feminist viewpoint, on feminist theology, and on human liberation.

10. In all church publications, refer to women by their own names (Mary Brown) rather than by their relationship to a man (Mrs. John Brown) or lack of it, and use Ms. instead of Miss or Mrs. 11. Start consciousness raising groups for both women and men.

12. As a consciousness raising experience, conduct a feminist worship service in which all language is female instead of male and all leaders are female.

Among the most striking and potent of the proposed changes is item 7. We are so used to speaking of God as Father, Lord, and King and to the use of the He and Him pronouns, that it is hard to feel comfortable with feminine words and concepts. But women are becoming aware that the language we use and the behavior we condone reinforce each other. So besides feeling left out, some women also realize that the concept of God as male inevitably supports both the lower status of women and a society whose dominant value is power instead of love. It's possible to eliminate the male pronouns and titles and simply refer to God as God. It's also possible to speak of God sometimes as Him and sometimes as Her, and as Mother as well as Father. Since God is androgynous (male-female) or gynandrous (female- male), from a theological point of view either of these solutions is theologically sound. At the same time, such changes serve to remind us of the need for getting the "feminine" back into our concept of God.

A Program for Pastoral Action

Ministers who are truly concerned about sexism in the church can take positive action. There is much that can be done by way of developing a "whole" or androgynous theology and church life. Specifically, pastors can do the following:

1. Use inclusive language in your sermons and elsewhere -- humankind instead of mankind, human being instead of man.

2. Use non-sexist jokes and illustrations in your speaking and conversation.

3. Use language that does not refer to women in negative terms (old maid, divorcee, witchy, woman driver).

4. Read and study feminist theology and women's history.*(4)

5. Examine your own theology and the sexist character of the terms you use for God.

6. Become familiar with the many suggestions for eliminating sexism in worship and liturgy. (5)

7. Examine your own attitude toward equality as a basic human right and an ethical issue for the church.

8. Help your church to implement the twelve suggestions listed above.

Sexism in the Church Schools

Probably the most hopeful area in the long run for bringing about change in the life of the church is that of education. Much of what happens to women (and men too) in the church begins in the nurseries of religious education. The toys we provide, the adult caretakers who relate to children, the pictures and literature we use all have a profound effect on our adult consciousness of what women and men are supposed to be like in the church and outside of it.(5) We can include men as "sitters" in the nursery and as church school teachers in the early years. We can encourage girls and boys to participate in church life according to their interests rather than according to sex.

Church school literature at all levels is inclined to be both obviously and subtly sexist. Church school teachers will note as they begin even a superficial examination of their texts and guides that women and men are nearly always portrayed in stereotypical roles. Girls are pictured watching and being helped, playing with dolls, helping mother. Boys are usually active and inventive. Women are shown wearing aprons, holding babies, wearing nurses' uniforms, typing -- rarely if ever as ministers. Men are in professional and work roles, rarely holding babies or doing dishes.

Women, except for Ruth and Mary and Martha, are generally left out of Bible study altogether.

Church school teachers are a key group in helping to eliminate sexist attitudes in religious education. It's important that both men and women act as teachers and that individually they become aware of their own attitudes about sex roles and identities. They may need to find or create non-sexist materials. That may even mean discontinuing use of the denomination's prescribed literature and letting the publishers know why. Teachers can encourage children in the church school classes to talk about the issues, to examine their own literature and pick out what is accurate or unfair. Even small children looking at pictures can note that daddies care for babies too, while mothers are also professional people and work outside the home. Teachers can be encouraged to become aware of the ways they gear their activities and materials to girls and boys on the basis of sex, like letting the boys do the active things and the girls the quiet ones or grouping the girls in the doll corner and the boys in the construction corner.

Young people's groups provide an important setting for dealing with the issues of sexism in the church. Young people can examine and evaluate their own literature. They can talk about what it means to them to be "masculine" or "feminine" and to what extent they feel those labels limit their lives. They can talk about what they expect and hope for when relating to a person of the other sex -- in dating, in marriage, at school, on the job. A sex education course led by a female- male team is an ideal place to examine the stereotypes of "feminine" passiveness and "masculine" aggressiveness. The confirmation class is another setting in which young people can focus on the issues of sexism in the Bible, in theology, and in the church. Prospective young church members need to know about the "feminine" in the Judeo-Christian tradition and about modern feminist theology. Parents hold the key to attitudes among new generations of children; thus parent education is among the most vital concerns in the church. Parents groups of any kind can examine parental attitudes to sex roles and the implications of those attitudes for the wholeness and happiness of children. Parents can look at how they feel about their own programming as women, as men, as mothers, as fathers, and at whether they are providing their children with a home setting which encourages them to grow as fully as they possibly can without the limitations of sex stereotyping. Literature about child raising for parents can be examined for its sexism.

Parents can be involved in the planning of church school curricula and in the assessment of church school literature.

Other Groups in the Church

Consciousness raising about sexism in the church can happen in all church groups. It can provide the theme and focus for staff and committee meetings, women's and men's societies, board meetings, trustees meetings, Bible study groups, prayer groups, marriage enrichment groups, even choir rehearsal. It should obviously loom large in all kinds of individual and group counseling.

Special groups in which consciousness raising is the primary focus are the most direct way of getting at the issues of sexism. Such groups are usually grass roots efforts developing out of the concerns of one or more persons who have become aware of their feelings about women in the church. The twelve recommendations listed above came from such a group after it had met for a series of six sessions. In another church, a consciousness raising group developed into a program series, open to everyone, studying the relationship of the women's movement to the other ethical concerns of the church. Men's groups and mixed groups also are frequently organized around consciousness raising, as people in churches become more aware of the issues. Where there seem not to be any interested individuals, the minister can often stimulate an interest. Specific techniques for organizing and running such consciousness raising groups are suggested in the next chapter.

Theologian Nelle Morton has remarked that "any theology developed by one sex, out of the experiences of one sex, cannot be lived out of as if it were a whole theology."(6) Women and men both are impoverished by a religious and spiritual life that does not include the full participation of both sexes in every facet of church life. A whole theology, in which the "feminine" and the

"masculine" are conjoined, would encourage the development of people who are more whole. And a more whole people is more able and more likely to foster the nurturing of a world in which the abundant life is possible for all


1. Quoted in Campbell, Masks of God, Primitive Mythology, p. 350.

1. Ibid., pp. 352-53.

2. Ibid., p.314.

2. See Bibliography section on Women's History, Religious and Secular for resources which discuss these questions.

3. For examples of some innovative feminist liturgies see in the Bibliography Swidler, and S. and T. Neufer Emswiler.

4. See the Bibliography section on Feminist Theology.

5. See the Bibliography sections on Women's History and Feminist Theology for resources,

5. See the Bibliography section on Resources for Eliminating Sexism in Church Language and Liturgy.

5. For a personal account of one young woman's stereotypical nurturing in church and society see Frieda Armstrong, To Be Fret (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1974).

6. See note for p. 2.