Creativity at the grass roots: Women-Church Convergence models religious community.
Although the news from the Vatican appears to be endlessly backward looking, from continual warnings against "relativism" to the reinstatement of the Tridentine Mass, there is astonishing creativity at the grass roots. Indeed the more the hierarchy of the Catholic church appears in stasis or backward retreat, the more freewheeling the creative initiatives that pop up on the ground. One forum for these alternative ministries is the Women-Church Convergence.
Women-Church Convergence is an outgrowth of the Women's Ordination Conference. In response to the ordination of Episcopal women in 1974, Catholics organized the first Women's Ordination Conference in Detroit in 1975. Support groups for the Women's Ordination Conference developed around the country. The conference always defined its goals not simply as the ordination of women, but the "renewal of priestly ministry." By that it meant a more egalitarian and communal model of ministry. But by the 1980s, some began to doubt whether the goal was the reproduction of any separation of clergy and laity.
In 1983 at the third national conference, the Women-Church movement was born. This movement called for women and men to gather in communities for liturgy, study, reflection and social justice work in which all members participate as equals, with no separation of an ordained leader from the other members. A vast variety of Catholic feminist ministries and liturgical gatherings developed over the next 25 years, some of them connected to each other through the network called Women-Church Convergence.
The member groups of the convergence are diverse. Several are feminist task forces of religious orders. Others are regional or national social justice organizations. This includes the Washington-based Women's Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual, which helps interested people form women-church communities. A major component of the convergence is local women-church communities in different cities or regions.
The question of women's ordination versus the community as a whole as celebrants of the Eucharist has reappeared in new form in Catholic feminist circles with the development of the Roman Catholic Womenpriest movement. This movement began with the ordination of seven Catholic women in Austria in June 2002. It has now developed into an international movement in Europe, Canada and the United States, with an organized structure to prepare women for priestly ordination (see www.romancatholicwomenpriests.org). Several of the women ordained priests in 2002 were later ordained bishops and travel internationally ordaining other women.
Some of the leaders of the women-church movement, such as Mary Hunt, Elisabeth Fiorenza and myself, expressed doubts about this development as one that imitated the clerical structure and depended on the myth of apostolic succession. But this movement has continued to flourish, with 18 women ordained priests and seven deacons in the North American region by May 2007. Many of these women have long been involved in religious education and ministry. For example, Marie David and her husband, Jim David, direct Evensong by the Sea Retreat and Spirituality Center in Harwich Port, Mass. Jean Marie Marchant and her husband Ron Hindelang are co-ministers of Spirit of Life Community in the Boston area. Victoria Rue convenes two weekly Eucharists at San Jose State University where she teaches religious studies and women's studies. Despite initial tensions, the Women-Church Convergence has embraced both styles of developing religious community.
The Women-Church Convergence held a national meeting in Chicago Aug. 17-19 with about 250 participants. Keynote speakers included womanist theologian Diana Hayes, who teaches theology at Georgetown University; Mary Hunt, cofounder of WATER; and Elisabeth Fiorenza, New Testament professor at the Harvard Divinity School. The opening address was given by Donna Quinn, longtime leader of Chicago Women-Church, reflecting on the 25 years of the movement. Much of the conference was devoted to workshops on different areas of women's ministries, including work in immigration, racism and reproductive rights, liturgy, theological education, spiritual companionship and retreats.
Although many participants at the conference were longtime members of the convergence, about half were new to the movement. This included a group of about 40 members of the Young Feminist Network, Catholic women in their 20s and 30s who challenged the convergence to be attentive to the issues of younger women. The Young Feminist Network is a ministry of the Women's Ordination Conference. The network pushed the convergence to develop a conference in 2009.
Clearly, if one wants to know what is going on among Catholics, listening to the Vatican and national episcopacies is a small part of the story. One needs to look at the grass roots.
[Rosemary Ruether is the Carpenter Professor of Feminist Theology at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif.]