A feminist church
This is an edited version of a sermon preached at Leichhardt Uniting Church on 22 September 2019
Readings: John 7:53-8:11, Luke 24:1-12
We continue our series today on Who Even Are We, with the theme of ‘Leichardt Uniting Church as a Feminist Church. ’ And it’s worth noting that I stand here with a certain degree of trepidation – to put it bluntly, I really don’t want to be up here mansplaining about feminism. I imagine that many of you have had past experiences of male ministers teaching about the role and place of women, probably quite unhelpfully at times. But there are important reasons for me to be up here as a man talking about feminism, and why LUC is a feminist church. Not to speak in place of women, or on behalf of women, or even to just the women, but to speak as a man who is a feminist.
One reason for overcoming my trepidation comes from the second-last season of The West Wing, where one of the Democratic nominees for President, Matt Santos, who is a Latino man, is talking with the Anglo governor of California about their shared opposition to a bill aimed at denying drivers licences to for illegal immigrants, who would mostly be from Latino backgrounds. So, when the California Governor asks why Santos doesn’t just publicly state his opposition to the bill, his reply is. “Because people don’t need to hear it from someone who looks like me; they need to hear it from someone who looks like you.”
The importance of feminism needs to be spoken about by people who look like me. Not only by people who look like me of course. It will sound and be taken differently to if Radhika were to preach about this, as valuable as that would be.
But in contrast with the West Wing illustration, I think it’s even more important, because feminism is not just a women’s issue – it is an issue for all of us.
Perhaps now is a good time for some definitions – and this in itself is a tricky endeavour, because there are countless definitions of feminism. And quite possibly, my definitions might be different to yours. But by starting here I’m hoping that I can at least be clear about my starting point so that you’ll be able to come with me as we explore this topic – and hopefully be a prompter of ongoing conversation and discussion.
Lets start here – Caryn Riswold suggests that, “Feminism criticizes sexism and patriarchy, and advocates for the equal humanity of women. Feminism entails both a critical and a constructive component: patriarchy is criticized, and women’s equal humanity is constructed.”
I find this a helpful place to start because it makes clear that feminism is not the same as misandry. Just as misogyny is defined as the hatred of, contempt for, or prejudice against women, misandry is defined as the hatred of, contempt for, or prejudice against men. And unfortunately, critics of feminism have promoted this falsehood that feminism is about misandry. It’s not. I would go so far to suggest that if feminism ever does come into the realm of misandry, it ceases to be feminism.
And lets also be clear – misandry has no place in our church. Misogyny has no place in our church.
We also don’t want to make the mistake of suggesting that feminism is about creating conflict or competition between men and women, because it’s not.
Justine Musk says this: “The enemy of feminism isn’t men. It’s patriarchy, and patriarchy is not men. It is a system, and women can support the system of patriarchy just as men can support the fight for gender equality.”
Patriarchy – that’s the second time that word has appeared, and it’s no coincidence. I think you can, in part, define feminism as a movement to challenge and abolish patriarchy.
Anne Clifford defines patriarchy as the, “systems of legal, economic and political relations that legitimate and enforce relations of dominance in a society…To the advantage of men, women are not treated as equals.”
Some would argue that we’ve moved past the problem of patriarchy, and that men and women are now equal in society. Keep that in mind as we consider a few news headlines of this past week.
to hit wife’ jury told as man denies murdering his wife by setting her on fire
For whatever progress has been made, we cannot pretend that our society is not still immersed in patriarchy, which is often made manifest in insidious or subconscious forms.
But there’s something worse than that, and then is when patriarchy is understood as the way things should be. Worse still, is when patriarchy is maintained and supported by the church, with its primary defence being the Bible.
This is where it gets a bit tricky, because if we are honest about it, the Bible is a patriarchal book. So, if the Bible is the infallible “Word of God” that should be taken literally, then it’s no surprise that patriarchy is endorsed and supported. You know, because the Bible says so.
If you listened to Radhika’s sermon last week, you’ll know that that’s not how we understand the Bible here. Instead, we consider the Bible as a witness to the true, living Word of God – Jesus Christ. The Bible, and I’m stealing directly from her sermon now, “is a collection of narratives, poems, songs, allegory and historical accounts that bear witness to the love of God, which was ultimately shown to humanity in the incarnation, life, death and resurrection of Jesus.”
The Bible is written in the context of patriarchal societies, probably exclusively by men, so its patriarchal nature is some ways unsurprising. The question, then, is what do we do with it? This is why hermeneutics are important – hermeneutics are the interpretive strategy we use in our Bible studies and our sermons, and the first step is that we always need to consider the context of what we read in the Bible. Who wrote it, why did they write it, who did they write it for, what was happening in the world when they wrote it – these questions help us to delve deeper into scripture, to explore the content we read and help us to examine the consequences – what does it mean for us today?
If we know and understand that the Bible is patriarchal, or at the very least comes from a patriarchal context, then we are able recognise it and dig past it. And so instead of the Bible being the voice of patriarchy, we can discover other voices, different voices that move us towards liberation. For what is a patriarchal book, it is quite amazing to discover all the times when it is not, or at least the veil of patriarchy is removed, if even for a moment.
So it is in light of that, that we come to our readings today.
And our first reading from the Gospel of John is particularly relevant today for two reasons.
The inquisitive among you may have noticed something different about this passage as displayed in our church Bibles – did anyone notice it?
The passage has been bracketed out, and if you check the footnotes, you’ll see that this passage doesn’t appear in the earliest manuscripts of Johns Gospel. Now, we could spend a lot of time exploring this, going into the formation of the canon – that is, the collection of books that are agreed to form the Bible, how those books were formulated, and so on, and for those of you who are like me, you would probably be enthralled by it, and the rest would find an excuse for a quick power nap. We’re not going to do that, but for now it’s simply worth noting that this is an example of how the Bible has been crafted and collated and perhaps changed over time.
The second reason, and perhaps more important for us today, is that this passage both demonstrates the reality of patriarchy, but also challenges it. So, we have the scribes and Pharisees bringing a “woman caught in adultery” to Jesus for some form of judgement. Now this story would be off-putting enough if the scribes and Pharisees were just doing their jobs in enacting Jewish law – but this is about testing Jesus. The poor woman is just a pawn, but hey, that doesn’t matter because the exclusively male scribes and Pharisees hold the power – she doesn’t matter to them. And of course it is the women who was caught in adultery – what happened to the man? Even the often horrifying laws of ancient Israel identify a perverse equality in that both the male and female adulterers should be stoned, according to the Torah.
But this is irrelevant to the scribes and Pharisees who really just want to trap Jesus, who has been become a threat to the power of patriarchy; either by having him reject the law of Moses, or by having the blood of this woman on his hands But as happens so often in the Gospels, Jesus finds a third way. He doesn’t buy into their game, and instead forces them to play it, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”
The religious system, the patriarchy is confronted with its own hypocrisy. The superiority it claims for itself is laid bare in the simple revelation that none are without sin. So one by one, they leave without a word.
But the story isn’t done yet – because when Jesus realises that it is only him and the woman left, he asks, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” To which she replies, “No one, sir.” This could have gone another way, because Christian tradition claims that Jesus is the one who is without sin. He could have enacted the laws of Moses, and with integrity to his own words, cast the first stone at the adulterous woman.
But he doesn’t, instead he speaks the remarkable words, “Neither do I condemn you.” Jesus sees the injustice of this situation, the cruelty of this situation, and he’s having none of it. But instead, he sends the woman on her way with the gift of God’s grace, whilst at the same time giving her accountability, giving her agency to control her own actions.
Why is LUC a feminist church? Because of who we understand Jesus to be. Jesus sought to break down the barriers that separate, to challenge the systems that oppress and marginalise. And as followers of Jesus, that is what we too are called into – to truly be a resurrection people. And that brings us to our second reading – the resurrection narrative from the Gospel of Luke.
It’s kind of unfortunate that we generally only encounter the resurrection story once a year, they are so rich and so important for who we are called to be. And they’re important for another reason too. Because they remind us that it was women who were the first witnesses to the resurrection. And if we backtrack through the Gospel of Luke we see that this is not all they were witnesses to. They were there as Jesus was led to the site of his crucifixion. They were witnesses to his death. And now, here they are, the first witnesses to the greatest event in the history of the world.
And yet, even through this amazing story, we see the patriarchy raise its ugly head- because when the women speak of the incredible truth that Jesus is indeed risen, the disciples are amazed and begin to praise God…no? But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. Why would you believe a bunch of women? If nothing else, this serves as an important reminder that even the best, even the most woke among us, can fall into the embrace of patriarchy – that is the power of the system, to the point that, unless we’re careful, we won’t even notice it. Think about times you have inadvertently had different rules in your head for men as for women. Or different expectations. Or you have used common phrases and jokes that demean women and lift up men. I know that I have been guilty of this, and continue to be from time to time. Patriarchy runs deep.
But thank God for the women at the tomb, the first witnesses to the resurrection. Now, I’m not trying to put women on a pedestal here, but instead issue a challenge to any church that says that women can’t preach the Gospel – wake up! Women were the first bearers of the Good News of Jesus – that Christ is risen!
Of course, I’m not the first to issue such a challenge. Way back in the 1800’s, an African American woman by the name of Jarena Lee is authorised as the first female Methodist preacher -in her words, “If the man may preach because the Saviour died for him, why not a woman? Seeing he died for her also. Is he not a whole Saviour, instead of half a one?”
I am also grateful to be part of a tradition that recognises that women are equally as gifted to offer ministry in God’s Church.In 1990, the Uniting Church released a paper entitled “Why does the Uniting Church in Australia Ordain Women to the Ministry of the Word” – and it’s a pretty great read. The thing I love the most about it is how unapologetic it is. Where you could imagine a denomination trying to be all things to all people, and perhaps appease more conservative church traditions, instead it says:
“We express a fundamental astonishment that Christ’s Church would offend against the Saviour’s suffering love for all people, by claiming that no women are called by God to the ministry of the Word. This claim would need strong reasons to support it. Indeed it is difficult to see what could be an adequate reason to support this view. We look forward in prayer to the day when the whole Church will reject the exclusion of women from the ministry of the Word with the same vigour with which it rejects any refusal of ordination on the basis of culture, race or class.”
I have been part of the Uniting Church my whole life, and the first minister I remember was a woman. It wasn’t until I came to Sydney for university that I discovered that the whole women-in-ministry thing was even an issue.
But let’s be careful to not let the Uniting Church off the hook, because it also has to continue to wrestle with patriarchy. Often our leadership and committees are still dominated, at least in number, by white men. Many committees have required quotas to ensure at least a minimal representation of women, which is both a sign of progress and that there is still work to be done.
And so the distinction of LUC as a Feminist Church, as part of the Uniting Church, and the worldwide church, is less about looking back, and more about looking forward. In a world still dominated by patriarchy, we need to maintain a public voice. That is why we will talk about the problem of violence in our society, where:
- One in four women have experienced emotional abuse by a current or former partner since the age of 15.
- One in five women have experienced sexual violence since the age of 15.
percent of Australian women have been sexually harassed.
We will continue to defend the rights of women to have control over their own bodies.
We will continue to challenge the problem of gender roles and expectation in our society, which ultimately limit the potential of both women and men.
We will continue to challenge the patriarchal influences in the employment arena including still existent gender pay gap.
We will continue to model this in our own leadership here – Radhika has been set apart to be the Team Leader at LUC, and this is for a couple of reasons, one of which is to practice what we preach, to publicly acknowledge that she is more than as capable and qualified to lead this congregation ,over and against the religious and cultural norm that would expect me to fill the role of leader as a man.
We will continue to live out our Gospel calling, that there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, because all are one in Christ – and we will continue to work until this calling, this vision is also our reality.
Adrian Sukumar-White is one of the Ministers of the Word at Leichardt Uniting Church.