The Womyn

There was a time, years ago, that I did the whole Women-in-the-Church thing.

Not with great abandon, and never, ever without my cynical, critical eye on the lookout for absurdity and hypocrisy, but nevertheless, I did it.

I studied the issue, read a lot of the right books - Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza, Rosemary Radford Ruether and so on (although I always liked the renegade, secularist Germaine Greer the best), and, finally, became part of a Diocesan Womenís Commission.

I think thatís what cured me.

I donít know what I thought this commission was going to do. All I knew was that I was honored to be invited to be a part of this august body that would be gathering every two or three months to do something important, because, well, it was part of a diocesan structure so it had to be important, right?

Weíll see. The meetings were held quarterly, at various points in the middle of this very elongated diocese, which meant it was still always a hike for me, since I lived fairly close to the edges of the elongation.

So Iíd drive for two or three hours to someoneís house or parish or (once) the chancery and meet with the other Women of the Diocese: mostly middle aged (I was in my mid-twenties at the time, by far the youngest member of the group) and mostly single, either by way of religious profession, past religious profession, choice, or divorce. Almost all employed by the Church in some capacity.

I suppose there were tasks assigned to this Commission Ė study documents, maybe. Make recommendations to the bishop on altar servers, perhaps. Design pamphlets on domestic violence to be placed in the back of churches, definitely. I remember that one clearly, and also remember wondering why we were duplicating the work of the many domestic violence groups already out there.

But to tell the truth, any slight responsibilities assumed by this group were overwhelmed by another activity: Sharing our Stories.

Oh, my word. Sharing our Stories was the built-in agenda item for the morning session of every one of these day-long meetings. Two women were asked to do this at every meeting, which means they were supposed to share their life stories, which really means they were supposed to spill their guts, weep and receive the support of the group.

This was the mid-1980ís, which was a time in which the emphasis of church leadership and ministry had taken a decidedly solipsistic turn. Every church committee and staff was buried deep in personality tests of one kind or another, from the Meyers-Briggs to the Enneagram, and then enduring workshops instructing them how all of these varied personality types could effectively work together.

(I remember after one faculty in-service that was focused on the Meyers-Briggs, a teacher grumbling to me, ďWhy do we need this to tell us how to get along? Isnít that what the Gospel is for?Ē)

What had happened was that for some strange reason, church folk decided that the key to following Christ was to analyze ourselves. Endlessly.

Somebody tell me how that was supposed to work.

So anyway, after a year or so of story-sharing, Iíd had enough. It was emotionally draining, it wasnít accomplishing anything and it bothered my conscience that these mostly group-therapy sessions were carried out on the dioceseís dime, spent on lunch for the group as well as mileage expenses for all of us. I didnít think that was what the good people of the diocese intended when they answered the bishopís yearly plea to support his programs.

What I was left with was a deep frustration that modern feminism had left women feeling like victims. It didnít seem to me that was the point. After all, my mother had staunchly maintained her own feminist credentials her entire life, but hers wasnít the feminism of victimhood Ė it was the feminism of Amelia Earhart, Clare Booth Luce and Eleanor Roosevelt Ė strong dames who were nobodyís victim.

The abortion issue factored into this as well. I've written about this elsewhere, but I think my eyes were finally opened fully the morning I said something about pro-life issues, and maybe that was a task worth our group's time, when I got a row of sympathetic eyes turned toward me and was reminded, in tones clearly implying that I needed to grow beyond "single issues" and that I was, in general, stupid, that "You know, Amy , we need to be concerned about the conditions that move women towards the choice to terminate a pregnancy."

Yeah. Like the condition of abortion being legal. But I guess that's not what they were talking about.

Itís true, of course, that Christian history is no history to misogyny. Many Christian thinkers, from John Chrysostem to John Calvin, have had interesting, depressing and laughably incorrect things to say about women. The paradox, as well as the hope, lies in the fact that these words have co-existed with a history that has done more for womenís advancement, and celebrates more strong women, than any other culture thatís ever existed.

And thatís so for one simple reason: Women like Theresa of Avila and countless other strong, holy women, have known not to root their ultimate hopes in the words of men. Their strength comes from Christ himself, whose grace gives not self-pity but joy, and not imprisonment in victimhood, but freedom in grace-filled love.

A note on ordination: I was never an activist for women's ordination, but I did (and still do) see it as a reality in some far-off, ideal Church. So sue me. St. Therese wrote, "I feel in me the vocation of the Priest." Anyway. When did I get over the sense that it was a pressing issue? The night I sat in the audience at a Catholic high school graduation and saw the left front of the stage fill with two rows of black-suited, white-collared men. I was seized with one thought, "Let them have it." And I was relieved.

I have a friend who is a rather strong feminist, but who has no problem with the present state of affairs re/women's ordination. I asked her once how she worked it out in her head. This is what she said, and it's very wise: "The Church has two thousand years of experience, plus the Holy Spirit. Who am I to place myself and my one little opinion above that?" Well said, and for a host of other "issues" as well.

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