WIT welcomes Shelli M. Poe as a guest poster. She earned a Ph.D. In Theology, Ethics, and Culture at the University of Virginia; a M. Div. at Princeton Theological Seminary; and a B.A. in Biblical and Theological Studies and also Philosophy at Bethel University (St. Paul, MN). She is currently an Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Millsaps College. Her research focuses on the theology of Friedrich Schleiermacher, and contemporary theologies concerned with social justice.
I currently attend two churches—a United Methodist Church on Sunday mornings and a United Church of Christ on Sunday evenings. I attend the Methodist church in the morning primarily because it has youth opportunities for my teenage stepchildren that the other, much smaller congregation, does not have. I attend the UCC congregation in the evening because it is my home denomination. When my child recently approached six months old, it was time to have her baptized. My spouse and I needed to make a decision: to baptize her with our Methodist friends, or my UCC family.
Feminists have long reflected on the ways in which “Mother Church,” with its historically male clergy, has taken up the tasks historically related to women. Priests don women’s clothing as they replace women in authority, baptize children as they co-opt the acts of giving birth to and bathing children, offer eucharist as they appropriate women’s task of breastfeeding. Rather than bringing these tasks and those who perform them more honor and respect, ordination, baptism, and eucharist have provided what it was historically believed that women could never provide: authority in matters of doctrine, salvation for their children, and the true bread of life. In her landmark 1973 text, Beyond God the Father, Mary Daly writes, “Graciously, they lifted from women the onerous power of childbirth, christening it ‘baptism.’ Thus they brought the lowly material function of birth, incompetently and even grudgingly performed by females, to a higher and more spiritual level” (195). Likewise, “Feeding was elevated to become Holy Communion. Washing achieved dignity in Baptism and Penance. Strengthening became known as Confirmation and the function of consolation, which the unstable nature of females caused them to perform so inadequately, was raised to a spiritual level and called Extreme Unction” (195). These tasks were performed wearing “silk hose, pointed hats, crimson dresses and ermine capes, thereby stressing detachment from lowly material things and dedication to the exercise of spiritual talent. They thus became revered models of spiritual transsexualism” (195). There’s nothing quite like the early Mary Daly’s sarcastic prose. It has stuck with feminist theologians like me ever since the first reading.
It should come as no surprise, then, that the occasion of my child’s recent baptism elicited much reflection on my part. Would I allow the church to co-opt the birthing process when I would be asked to hand her over to the minister for the sacred rite? Would I want the church to take up the ritual my spouse and I perform nightly during bath time when the minister pours water over her head? And later, would I desire that the church feed her the way she has been nourished from my own body in her first year of life? As the questions are constructed here, the answer would be no. I object to a gendered appropriation of my tasks of birthing, feeding, and leading my child. And yet, I want the church to welcome my child into its arms. I want the church to show her how to choose life. I want the church to nourish her. What I object to is not the Church itself, giving life to, feeding, and leading my child, but the Church as led and represented by the “Sacred Men’s Club,” to use Daly’s phrase.
Further, the issue is not confined to the interests of women. Feminists and queer theologians know that women’s ordination is logically connected to the ordination of LGBTQ people. If one is willing to ordain women because one recognizes that women are able to exhibit characteristics stereotypically attributed to men that are needed for effective ministry—for example, leadership, trustworthiness, confidence, competence—then by that recognition one is also committed to the notion that sex-gender stereotypes are not based in reality. In other words, one need not be male to exhibit masculine traits, and one need not be female to exhibit feminine traits. Further, if one grants that sex-gender stereotypes are not based in reality, then it stands to reason that a multitude of gender identities and gender expressions should also be welcomed in the church, as well as various sexual orientations, at least insofar as sex-gender stereotypes define masculinity and femininity in relation to sexual orientation. As Marcella Althaus-Reid, whom I would bill as today’s Mary Daly in terms of theological passion and tone, notes in her Indecent Theology (Routledge, 2000), “Some understanding of heterosexuality is always in the origin of patriarchy. It is an understanding based on hierarchy and submission by processes of affirmation by subtraction: I am what I am not (a woman and not a man; a bisexual and not a ‘woman’); and what gets subtracted is also annulled: I am what I am not, a woman, therefore I am not” (13). If feminists are to agitate for women’s ordination, then they ought to struggle with LGBTQ people for their ordination as well.
For a pertinent and concrete example of the ways that the interests of feminists and LGBTQ persons tend to go hand in hand, one might look at the recent decision of the United Methodist Church to condemn the ordination of LGBTQ persons. This decision is inconsistent with the UMC’s current practice of ordaining women, because anti-LGBTQ policies reinforce the entangled ideas of patriarchy and heteronormativity. It should not be surprising, then, that United Methodists also recently failed to pass two amendments on gender equality. The intersectional interests of women and LGBTQ persons should not be overlooked.
Fortunately, the UCC ordains women and LGBTQ people, and my home church is led by a woman in ministry. Because of that, the gendered contrast between church and family, which would co-opt my relationship to my child, is absent both locally and in the wider denomination. In its place, much to the contrary, is a liberating enlargement of the tasks of birthing, feeding, and raising children. If the church, which embodies Christ’s Spirit in multitudinous genders and sexes, imitates in its sacraments the tasks of birthing and breastfeeding, which only women can perform, then the church honors and respects those tasks in the very imitation. Further, if the many-bodied, many-gendered Church imitates the tasks of birthing, breastfeeding, and raising children, then it proclaims the ways in which “women’s work,” historically conceived, is not exclusively and comprehensively women’s work, but can and should be performed by people of any gender and sexuality.
These liberating features of the Church are only available, however, on the condition that local churches ordain and actually hire women and LGBTQ people. It has often been said that the Church should ordain women and LGBTQ people because it baptizes such people. I’m suggesting that we should only baptize our children where the Church would later be willing to ordain them. Needless to say, we decided to baptize our child in my home denomination rather than the UMC. Nevertheless, we continue to attend worship with our UMC congregation while getting involved in its Reconciling Ministries Network, which seeks the full inclusion and celebration of LGBTQ persons in the UMC. And this is the tension that many of us live with, especially as women in theology (whether feminist, queer, mujerista, womanist, or other kinds of theologians): we want to be fully involved in and committed to a church home, while at the same time we must resist the forces of injustice that we want our children never to have to encounter.