Faith, feminism and women’s work

A conversation with Phoebe Griswold and Katharine Jefferts Schori
March 6, 2007

Editor’s note:  In advance of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women gathering, Associate Editor Nan Cobbey talked with these two church leaders about women’s work.

EPISCOPAL LIFE:  Phoebe, every year you bring more women here … You hear more stories. What have you learned that you think other women, and men, need to know?
And how did your experience with these Anglican women alter your thinking, alter, maybe, your roles in life?

PHOEBE GRISWOLD:  The issues that women care passionately about around the world have to do with life, from its conception all the way through – keeping, nurturing life. 
This experience has increased my capacity to love, my capacity to see difference and then see the humanity in difference all over the world. It gave me a real, real taste, a real firsthand experience of the tremendous injustice as it comes to women’s roles at the councils of our church. And that really fired me up to see that that couldn’t change in some way.
My role is to try to find the courage to speak honestly and publicly. And that hasn’t always been easy. There are times when I wish I could have spoken more clearly.

EPISCOPAL LIFE:  Bishop Katharine, what in your life caused you to think about women’s roles? What triggered your own growth and empowerment?

PRESIDING BISHOP KATHARINE JEFFERTS SCHORI:   I grew up in a family where girls were invited to think about any role being open to them. There weren’t clear gender distinctions. I think the first kind of conscious and theoretical investigating I did was after I got my doctorate, I took a class at Oregon State in feminist theology. It was a revelation to me to read some of the early feminist theologians, including some of the ones who were pretty edgy still, to talk about ways in which religion had oppressed women or kept women in only certain convenient roles. I think that was my big awakening. I grew up in a season when, legally, all options were open to women in most fields. In my early adult life, you know, women could be soldiers – they could join the military, they could be pilots in the military.

EPISCOPAL LIFE:   Can you name the women who have most inspired you over your lifetimes, and tell me what their example taught or provoked or compelled in you?

GRISWOLD:  Eleanor Roosevelt is a huge hero of mine because she seemed to have such courage in the public arena. To step out, having a very powerful husband, and at the same time claiming an agenda that she wanted to claim. So how she did that and who she gathered around her and the way she wrote to get her voice out -- it must’ve taken a lot of courage.

JEFFERTS SCHORI:  I think when I was growing up Amelia Earhart certainly was one -- an obvious one, an adventurer. You know, somebody who was willing to go exploring in undiscovered places and to go on her own, in her own right. I think Rachel Carson, who began to speak openly and publicly about environmental degradation, was a person who happened to be a woman, who was talking publicly about ways in which human activity was affecting the rest of creation in a negative way.

EPISCOPAL LIFE:   Do you both think of yourselves as feminists? Is it a term you use? And how do you unpack its meaning for those who feel a bit threatened by it?

GRISWOLD:  That’s a wonderful question. And I think it’s one of the main stumbling blocks for moving ahead for women. The word feminist has connotations which many women do not buy into anymore. I think there’s a new feminism. Feminism today has to do with an inclusiveness of women at the table – not an exclusion of men. It has – this is the piece that excites me – a huge global energy, this feminism today.

JEFFERTS SCHORI: I see it as one of the lenses of Liberation Theology in the broadest sense of the understanding – that it is about a gospel opening of opportunity for all human beings to live abundant life. It comes out of the lens of oppression, of women’s experience. But in that sense, it’s not radically different from the lens that African Americans bring in Black Liberation Theology or that Central and South Americans bring in Latino Liberation Theology. It is a voice of people who have been prevented and kept away from living the abundant life that God calls each of us to.

EPISCOPAL LIFE:  A new website attempting to start a dialogue about the suppression of the feminine within institutional religion poses a question: Tell us your stories of struggle and triumph as a woman in your faith community. Can you tell me of one struggle and one triumph you’ve experienced in the Episcopal Church?

GRISWOLD:  To get the work of women seen as – I don’t use the word equal – as real as the work of men is very, very hard. To get people to hear that the presence and voices of women are as real as the other voices at the table is a very hard thing to do, and I don’t think that we’re there yet. Women are a marginal voice, as a group, to the public dialogues that happen.

EPISCOPAL LIFE:  So that’s your struggle. How about your triumph?

GRISWOLD:  It’s almost a spiritual triumph. To be in the presence of these women as they come from around the world is as joy-filled and as much a Christian witness as anything else I’ve ever been in. It’s just, in its reality, a very powerful God-centered experience.

JEFFERTS SCHORI: Struggles and triumphs. I have struggles about language and image for God – God language. That’s the place where it touches people most deeply, I think. A long history of trying to invite people into broader understandings and to recognizing that language is only a limited director toward God; that it can’t ever embrace the whole; that it’s an invitation to look more deeply and explore more deeply. But human beings want to have this nice, neat package that says, “Well, this is what God is.” So it’s been an ongoing struggle to invite people to open up their perceptions.

And my sermon at the convention [General Convention 2006] is probably a great example of that. It was instantly misunderstood by many people as heretical, even though it comes out of the center of our tradition. I spoke about Jesus, who gives birth to us as Mother Jesus. It’s an image that was used by mystics in the Middle Ages for hundreds of years. People including Anselm, who was archbishop of Canterbury in the 11th century, Julian of Norwich, Augustine of Canterbury and on and on and on. But it was instantly perceived by a few people as speaking about a God they didn’t want to claim. It’s biblical. In the Old Testament there are images of God as a mother bear, a mother bird. Jesus speaks of himself as mother hen, gathering children under her wings. But it’s threatening, it’s threatening to some people.

That’s the struggle.

EPISCOPAL LIFE:  The roots of women’s disempowerment in our culture are certainly deep in the soil of Judeo-Christian history and institution. Many women today experience feminism as in conflict with faith. I know you don’t. What can you say to those women who do not share your conviction?

JEFFERTS SCHORI:  What do you mean by feminism? That’s the question I would ask those women who disagree. What do you mean by feminism? What is it about your understanding that conflicts with your faith? That’s a place to start the conversation.

GRISWOLD:  My experience, being in the Episcopal Church, [is that] I had never found feminism in conflict with faith because the women that I have admired the most and [who] have been the most feminist have been intimate friends and [are] powerfully motivated by their faith.

JEFFERTS SCHORI: I think our faith is about human flourishing. And feminism is a lens, a tack, on what it takes to have women flourish, to become all that they were created to be, to grow up into the full stature of Christ, to use church language. They’re not antithetical, they don’t have to be seen as antithetical. Even though there is a piece of our tradition, sometimes a big piece of our tradition, that speaks patriarchally, that uses only masculine imagery, that has said at times in its past that only men can do certain things – there’s this wonderful strand of our tradition that’s incredibly subversive of that limitation.

EPISCOPAL LIFE:  Does the church locally, nationally, internationally have a responsibility now to aid in the empowerment of women, and how should it be doing that?

GRISWOLD:  That’s what Anglican Women’s Empowerment is trying to do by bringing women to have a personal experience with other women, form relationships with other women, find out what’s in the hearts and minds of other women … Rwanda has 48 percent of her legislators women. Wow. We have to know that, we have to learn about that. So to me that’s a tremendous responsibility.

JEFFERTS SCHORI: It’s abundantly clear from sociological and demographic studies that when women are educated and empowered, their families flourish, their communities flourish. And even if people don’t want to do it for feminist reasons, they ought to be able to do it for humanitarian reasons.

EPISCOPAL LIFE:  Your experience with women from around the communion has shown you just what the needs are. On what do you think it is most important to focus? Where do you want to focus?

GRISWOLD:  Personally, I want to focus on seeing how it is that women in the Anglican Communion can be present at the decision-making, structural tables of our church. It’s going to take a critical mass of women at the table, it’s going to take 50 percent of the table being women, in order to balance it and make it whole. So I’m very interested in the structures, the specific leadership structures, of the church, and how women can bring their own unique voice to those tables. It’s not so much a social issue as it is a systemic, structural issue.

JEFFERTS SCHORI: I see education as absolutely foundational. We see evidence in Afghanistan. The Taliban is again trying to shut down women’s schools, executing women teachers. It’s threatening. When women are educated they understand how to change things. They raise families who have a different understanding of how the world ought to be put together and run. It is a very subversive and effective way to change society.

EPISCOPAL LIFE:  How should the church fund this work? Are our current structures and channels adequate to the task, based as they are in most nations and provinces on a male-dominated hierarchy? Are women-to-women efforts a possibility or is that problematic?

JEFFERTS SCHORI: If you read the early history of the church in this country, it’s just mind-boggling. It’s women’s groups who keep the roof on the church and pay the priest ...

GRISWOLD:  But not now ...

JEFFERTS SCHORI: Still.  They have greater economic means than they did then, relatively.

GRISWOLD:  It’s been my experience in this structure here that the Office of Women’s Ministries … I see them limping along. Limping along.

EPISCOPAL LIFE:  Who causes that? That’s why my question is: Are women-to-women efforts a possibility? Could it happen?

JEFFERTS SCHORI:  One of the most important things I learned from the monks at Mount Angel was that it’s much easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission.
I think people can be creative. The one caution I think we have to pay attention to is that it’s very easy, we know, for women’s activity to be ghettoized, to say, “Oh, that’s just women’s ministry, just women’s whatever.” I think it’s a matter of organizing, and I mean that in a technical sense, like community organizing effectively with people who share the passion whether they are women or men. And find the roots that will be effective. They’re probably not in the formal structures, because the nature of institutions is that they slow things down. That’s their job.

EPISCOPAL LIFE:  In your mind what do we as a wealthy church within the richest nation in the world owe to our sister churches in the Anglican Communion and to the poor in general? Are the goals, the Millennium Development Goals, really sufficient: reducing by half those in extreme poverty, by two-thirds the mortality rate among children? Or do we owe more than that? What inspires this question is Peter Singer’s article in The New York Times a couple of weeks ago, about what the wealthy owe. It was fascinating.

JEFFERTS SCHORI: Yes, yes, yes.

EPISCOPAL LIFE:  And just as challenging as can be. He explained that if you just took the top financial 10 percent, which, excuse me, includes you both -- and that top 10 percent gave between one-third and 10 percent of their income, the Millennium Development Goals would be accomplished within three years. So what do we as a wealthy church in a wealthy nation owe in your minds?

JEFFERTS SCHORI:  There are some wonderful examples in the Book of Acts: People sharing in common the goods that have been given by God. In the West, we’re so consumed by “me-ism” -- it’s mine, it’s mine, it’s mine. I don’t think that’s the vision that we are brought up within. It really is about the flourishing of all humanity, not just people like us or the people in our own family, or the people in our own church or diocese. It’s about all of humanity. And, yeah, it’s going to hurt at first – it’s going to hurt.

GRISWOLD:  Somehow, for me, the question isn’t quite right. I hope I’m not dodging the very heart of it, which is the right heart – it is going to hurt, it should hurt. But it’s what can we all do together? It’s not what we do for other people, because that’s a sort of a one-up, one-down … The work is for us all to do. The work is beyond what we’re going to do for other people. It’s how are we going to do it together.

EPISCOPAL LIFE:  Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” Was she right?

GRISWOLD:  Yes. I think 12 men did a pretty fabulous job way back then under Jesus – the disciples -- and I’d call that a small group of people. Do I think that this small group of Episcopal women can affect change? Yeah. Along with others.

JEFFERTS SCHORI: It wasn’t just 12 men. Mary Magdalene started it.

GRISWOLD:  Thank you! Thank you, Katharine Jefferts Schori.

JEFFERTS SCHORI: Oh, absolutely. Passion and commitment that are empowered in community can change the world. And do change the world.