What is emerging in the emerging church will not be faithful, liberative, or just if it continues to perpetuate the erasure of women’s herstory.
There has been on ongoing conversation among Christian identified people for about 20-30 years now. It originally started in the U.K. and Australia before making its impact in the U.S. It has its roots in evangelical Christianity but has since extended more broadly to Christians of all stripes including Catholic ones. This conversation is often referred to as the Emerging Church, the emerging church movement, or, as preferred by many, the Emerging Conversation. Phyllis Tickle has written a book, The Great Emergence, suggesting that this movement represents a much larger historical transformation of Christianity that occurs about every 500 years prompting a kind of house cleaning and rummage sale of the church.
Early on, the ‘face’ of the emerging conversation seemed to be younger white middle-class males, but that no longer seems to be the case and whether that was ever really the case is still up for debate. Nadia Bolz –Weber in Denver’s House for All Sinners and Saints and Stephanie Spellers in Boston’s The Crossing are just two examples of women engaged in the emerging church, but there are many others. I have suggested that perhaps the “face” of the emerging conversation has been such because younger white males are the ones who seek out the publicity. Some of them seem to go out of their way to put their work and ministry in the limelight thereby becoming the de facto representatives of the emerging church movement. But this does not mean that they are actually all of who make up the emerging conversation, just the ones who are getting the general public’s attention. This is not to say that that is necessarily their intent, but, I do think short-term memory and patriarchal bad-habits are some of the cause to blame – but before I go there, let me stick with the emerging church for a minute.
The emerging conversation has broadly been about rethinking church and Christianity in light of a new context and a new generation – a postmodern context in a generally post-Christian (Western) world. It has been described and summarized by many already, but what I am interested in is raising the question of the emerging conversation’s relationship with feminism. What is the role of feminists in the emerging church?
First, the rundown: One of the earliest and most solid attempts to describe or define the emerging conversation is provided by Eddie Gibbs and Ryan Bolger. Grounded by qualitative research that involves a significant number of emerging church communities and extensive interviews and document analysis, Gibbs and Bolger identified three core commitments and six resulting practices in these churches. At their core, these churches 1) identify with the life of Jesus (as opposed to creeds or denominations) 2) transform secular space (don’t hold to a sacred/secular dualism), and 3) are committed to community as a way of life (the church as ‘a people’ or family, not an institution). The practices that follow include, welcoming the stranger, serving with generosity, participating as producers, creating as created beings, leading as a body, and taking part in spiritual activities. And that is just one summary of the characteristics of emerging churches, but others capture similar patterns and practices.
Here is the thing though, most people who talk and write about the emerging church almost never acknowledge the fact that feminist Christians and feminist theologians have been saying and doing these very things for decades before them! The ways in which the emerging church is supposedly rethinking church and Christianity ‘anew’ emerged among feminists long ago –> shared leadership, mutuality, inclusive co-creation of liturgy, ritual and prayer, radical hospitality, holistic spirituality, attention to the margins, to injustice, to the excluded. Hear the echoes of my sisters: Mary Daly (early), Rosemary Radford Ruether, Letty Russell, Nell Morton, Mary Hunt, Ruth Duck, Miriam Therese Winter, Marjorie Procter-Smith, Janet R. Walton. They are the ones who broke this ground and laid the foundation for this transformation to begin to take place in churches – a labor of love accomplished despite great resistance and often at exorbitant costs. Christianity has indeed been distorted by patriarchal systems of thought and action, but all these foresisters recognized that it need not be so and did something about it. Blessed be!
My point in bringing together the topic of Feminism and the Emerging Church is that those who participate in the emerging conversation must recognize, honor, and thank our feminist foresisters for their leading role in paving the way for the transformation that is now taking place and gaining momentum in progressive Christianity. What is emerging in the emerging church will not be faithful, liberative, or just if it continues to perpetuate the erasure of women’s herstory. It will fail to be an embodiment of life-giving good news (which many churches aim to be) if it does not repent of this patriarchal bad habit they have inherited and if it fails to honor the work of the women who have gone before them.
Perhaps it is catchier or more hip to be emerging in response to postmodernism or post-Christendom than to do so in response to and in partnership with their feminist foresisters and the work they have already done in and for the church. However, all the women above named and many more have devoted their hard work toward the transformation of the church so that it may be a community of love and justice for women; an emerging church that fails to recognize their reforming and generative work has not emerged far enough.
And so, in the spirit of herstory, I want to recognize and give a shout-out to Stephanie Spellers. When “Rev. Steph” talks about the emerging conversation, she talks about four aspects of it – contextual worship, collaborative leadership, radical community, and serious discipleship – and then says, “all of these marks were present and alive in liberation theologies – feminist theologies, black theology, mujerista theology.” Indeed! In all the research I have done about emerging churches and their leaders, Rev. Steph is the only one (I have encountered) who recognizes the fact that what is emerging is a continuation of the work born of feminist liberation movements and theologies. But I do expect that more of our emerging friends will soon follow suit…
Xochitl Alvizo is a feminist Christian-identified woman and theologian currently completing her PhD at Boston University School of Theology in practical theology with a focus on ecclesiology. Finding herself on the boundary of different social and cultural contexts, she works hard to develop her voice and to hear and encourage the voice of others. Her work is inspired by the conviction that all people are inextricably interconnected and the good one can do in any one area inevitably and positively impacts all others.