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Women-Church: a way to stay while patriarchy wears away.

During the recent Women-Church Conference in Albuquerque, media pundits, such as Peter Steinfels of The New York Times, seemed obsessed with pressing the question whether this movement had "left the church" or was "still in the church." Mary Hunt, codirector of WATER, Women's Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual, patiently replied that Women-Church is not about either leaving the church or staying in the church, but in being church. This I believe is the heart of the matter theologically, but it doesn't answer the question of how this movement understands its relation to institutional Christianity or specifically to Catholicism.

The source of the Women-Church movement is quite simply the deep alienation many Christian (not just Catholic) women feel toward Christianity as a religion that fails to affirm them as women, both their leadership talents and their female humanity as "image of God." Such women seek feminist spiritual communities to fulfill this hunger. Yet, generally these women do not break with historical Christianity and found a new feminist church. Instead, they combine attendance at a women's support group with some relation to a historical church.

What is the meaning of this "defecting in place," as Sr. Miriam Therese Winters has called it? Is it simply a temporary or transitional solution until a compelling feminist church arises that such people can join? Or is it a more long-term pattern in which some women (and men) will shape new forms of community to have the freedom to live a new vision now, while continuing to witness to the institutional church, thereby eventually creating sufficiently transformed churches that most of the demands of feminist communities can be satisfied in regular parishes?

One cannot know at this point how this movement will develop. The willingness of institutional churches to respond to women's demands; the churches' refusal to respond, possibly even turning reactionary and repressive toward these demands; or some combination of the two may shape the future.

The Women-Church movement not only supports formation of local groups, but also has constructed a national network. This network has rubrics for affiliating with it and has a 10-year history of assembling national conferences at roughly five-year intervals. Some affiliates, such as Women-Church Massachusetts, exist on a regional basis and have yearly assemblies, a newsletter and a fund for supporting women's ministries.

So Women-Church has taken on some of the apparatus of a feminist church organization. But it refuses to be a distinct "church." It has rejected the creation of a central office or staff in favor of being a network of movements that may range from being simply a single local group, to being an umbrella organization of groups in a region, to being a feminist caucus within a national movement, to being a national organization. By not merging these distinct groups in a superstructure, Women-Church avoids being an institution in itself.

Women-Church also avoids defining itself in terms of polarized options. It does not direct its members to stay within their local churches or leave them. It does not demand they be only Catholic or always ecumenical. It does not limit its members to being Christian or demand that they be post-Christian. Rather, it allows a variety of options. Some groups are all Catholic and even all members of one parish. Other groups are composed of Catholics from several neighborhoods. Others are ecumenical but distinctly Christian and others span Christian and post-Christian.

Many Women-Church groups adopt a worship style which, while predominantly Christian, does not feel the need to be exclusively so. It may draw prayers or rituals from goddess groups, American Indian and other religious traditions. It may be ecumenical both within and beyond Christianity, rejecting the schismatic insistence that one must be exclusively Christian or reject Christianity as hopeless and inimical to women.

Much of historical Christianity is judged as deeply patriarchal and alienating, but this judgment is not extended to its founder, Jesus, who is claimed as an advocate of justice, including justice for women. Thus Women-Church remains in a reforming stance, although a radical one. It claims the original foundations of Christianity as in line with a feminist transformation and calls on the historical churches to reform themselves in order to be authentically faithful to the one they call their founder.

This both/and strategy of Women-Church groups - both in and beyond the church, both in and beyond a particular denomination, both in and beyond Christianity - is jeopardized by polarizing forces in and outside the churches that reject this bridging process as inconsistent or wrong. Within both Catholicism and conservative Protestantism, there are groups, claiming to be representatives of an immutable orthodoxy, that reject in principle inclusive language, understandings of God and spirituality that include female - particularly bodily - experiences and women's ordination.

These "orthodox" groups insist that any group that goes beyond these limits is heretical and "pagan." Since paganism in Christian rhetoric is associated with devil worship, they label Women-Church groups "witches," the language of demonizing a religious enemy as evil ones who deserve to be purged from the church, if not killed.

Such demonizing rhetoric could be the force that impels some feminist spiritual groups to despair of church reforms and to side with those who claim Christianity is not only deformed historically by patriarchy, but in its very essence is patriarchal. They may be forced to conclude that women, in order to find a spiritual home, must desert Christianity for a women's religion, either one that is to be created now or one that revives an ancient women's religion that supposedly was crushed thousands of years ago with the rise of patriarchy.

Feminist spiritual groups on the inside and outside edge of the churches face polarizers on the left also. On the left the post-Christian polarizers identify with all that the "orthodox" vilify; with "paganism," "witches" and "nature religion." Only for them, this has nothing to do with devils, but is the true healing religion for humans and all nature that was repressed by religions that reflect patriarchal social systems. For them it is Christianity that is bad and paganism that is the good "old time" religion.

Feminist spiritual communities who defect in place, thus, are faced with polarizing groups who insist on an either/or; either totally in a particular historical Christian tradition or totally out of it. The one group wishes to push them out of their remaining claims on Christianity and the other group wishes to pull them out by demanding they recognize their "inconsistencies" and the hopelessness of their hopes for reform.

The outcome of this process is undetermined. In my opinion, the option of the defectors-in-place is more creative and authentic than that of the polarizers of either right or left, for they remain faithful to the dialectical, transformative process and affirm both the good elements and the ambiguity in all our human traditions. To sustain their both/and option, the defectors-in-place will have to become much more mature in their understanding of this option, much more able to face their accusers on both right and left without fear or guilt, and much more able to give good reasons for rejecting their mutually exclusive alternatives.
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Title Annotation:Women-Church Conference, Albuquerque, New Mexico
Author:Ruether, Rosemary Radford
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Column
Date:Aug 13, 1993
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