Feminism and the Emerging Church By Xochitl Alvizo

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. 

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Categories: Christianity, Emerging, Feminism, Feminist Theology, Foremothers, General, Women in the Church

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12 replies

  1. really fabulous blog xochitl– i so enjoyed talking with you when you were here in california last week-end for the feminist theologies panel! as a former student of mary daly myself, i couldn’t agree with you more!

  2. This is a great article Xochitl and I’m so glad for what you point out and for the work that you are doing. Sometimes Emerging Church stuff seems so far from liberation theology – but it’s quite important that we make the connection and honor the kind of work feminists in particular have been doing for decades in terms of worship, inclusivity and theology.

  3. Xochitl,
    Well stated. I see your post as an extension of yesterday’s post from Caroline–the role of women at the margins expanding discipleship within the confining boarders of our churches. And while women have been at this for centuries, I continue to find myself longing and looking for a worshiping community that is diverse theologically and demographically.

    • Thanks Marie, Monica, and Cynthie – I so appreciate your comments. And Cynthie, yes, I see the same connections too with Caroline’s post, for sure. And on your last point, I think that’s why so many people end up starting a new community…in wild and risky hope against hope :)

  4. I agree with much of this article, especially the line that what the “emerging church” is doing “will not be faithful, liberative, or just if it continues to perpetuate the erasure of women’s herstory.” However, I would also suggest that many of the themes of the emerging church were not simply “born of feminist liberation movements and theologies.”

    I speak as a fan of many of those feminist theologies, but must note that when I first began reading about the emerging church movement, I was struck by the fact that much of their themes were not new, but were also found in centuries-old (and newer) Franciscan thought. As a Franciscan for the past 23 years, I recognized the emphases on servant/shared leadership, mutuality, radical hospitality, attention to the margins, to injustice, to the excluded, etc., to be themes dating to our origins in the life of St. Francis of Assisi. Other themes, admittedly, particularly an honest look at our “patriarchal bad habits” came later, and were greatly aided by the articulation of feminist theological thinking. However, I simply can’t credit this relative recent movement with all those themes. In fact, I’d argue that they are to be found in a careful reading of the Gospel itself, and were ultimately born of Jesus.

    Still, a thoughtful and worthwhile read. I’m glad to discover this source for reflection and thought! Many thanks and blessings!

    • Yes, actually, I absolutely agree with you Fred Ball, the particular emphases mentioned above clearly have their roots in the good news itself; the beautiful parts of the gospel that keep many of us still connected to church despite its patriarchal sins. I do think that in this particular time in history, and in the history of the church, feminist and liberation theologians have been the ones to call the church’s attention back to these and to their faithful embodiment though, but they are clearly not the only ones who have done so. And all that is good and beautiful in the church, those faithful eruptions, those magical glimpses that we have encountered, I would say spring from the same divine source.

      So my concern is that as the emerging church seeks to embody the good news anew for today, it be intentional in honoring, partnering with, and building on the efforts of its most recent predecessors – and those who have so often been erased in history – those who made made a way for women when so many of us would have otherwise left. A little consciousness raising I guess because I am so grateful for my amazing, courageous, and faithful foresisters :)

  5. I think we need to add this to the colume about making women, and in this case, feminists disappear. After 40 some years of feminism, and feminism in church contexts, how many buildings do feminists own? How many church type institutions have buildings, seminaries etc. run and are owned and operated by feminists? How have women built endowments to fund these creations? How many well paid jobs have feminists created within feminist/church contexts?

    How many archives do we own? If women can’t own and control the land, the buildings and create the jobs, we will forever be erased. I am convinced that women like Hildegard survived, because she was part of a women’s community, and she helped create women’s communities. There was land that women lived on collectively, and this went on for a very long time.

    I have often wondered why, in any major city, there are 12-step groups going 24/7, but there are no easily found feminist spiritual places that all women can go to.

    We have loads of academics out there, loads of them, but the buildings, the woman controlled and woman administered institutions that are feminist are practically non-existant.

    What if all that women volunteer energy was channeled into the places where women controlled everything, where there was a feminist service in every major city 24/7? We’ve got all the books, all the theory, all the intelligence. We have women everywhere wanting these jobs, but somehow, there is always some male led movement that takes all the energy away… emergent churches… nothing more than a new generation of males emerging to take all the resources away from women yet again. Men being the instinctive thieves and erasers that they are, beware, now they are appropriating feminist insights, but not giving the credit to the source. When white people do this to blacks, we call it gentrification, and we know it when we see it. When men do this to women, it’s called heterosexuality and heteronormative christianity.

  6. FYI TW, 12-step meetings come in a variety of forms. There are many, many women only meetings, as well as mixed and men only. So there is a recognition that gender specific spaces are beneficial for all.

    I would agree with you about the power hierarchy in play in our churches, specifically the Roman Catholic Church. On the one hand, until women are equally ordained in the church they will remain on the side lines of carving out lasting change. On the other hand, do we as women really want to use the tools of the master to make change? The way of being church is completely vertical, a top down model for ministry–that is not what the figure of Jesus envisioned or demonstrated, contrary to the construct of the post-resurrection church.

  7. As a male who has engaged in various ways into the emerging conversation… I’ll say one of my main interests with it WAS it’s interest in liberation theology. People like Dorothy Day are among my personal heros of the faith, and most emerging folks love figures like her. I’ve heard liberation concerns presented from the view of minorities, the underprivileged, as well as women. All which to me seemed equally accepted… Granted I’ll admit, being male potentially leaves me ignorant to feminist observations.

    I think your point of the conversation existing prior to “emerging” is a great one. And I’m sure most emerging thinkers would love to hear more about this. I know I would!

  8. Very interesting! I had no idea that there even was an emerging church, but I sure am glad that women are emerging in it. I always thought Christianity emerged back in the days of Constantine the so-called Great and Theodosius, and then another hydra-head emerged with Luther, Calvin, Knox, and Henry VIII. It’s good to see wise and thoughtful women making statements. Good for you!

    I wish we could have met in Pasadena, but I was reading from Secret Lives at the Pagan Studies Conference in Claremont. I hope we’ll have another opportunity to meet.

  9. Things emerge again and again and again, so nothing “new” within patriarchy surprises me all that much. What mystifies me is whole new generations of women actually believing that women will get it right this time.

    That’s why I put more emphasis on women actually “owning” the worship spaces, creating jobs within women controlled places. If men own buildings… catholics, mormons… pretty much male shows that use women as auxillary slave labor, it would be groundbreaking to create an actual women’s seminary within a feminist context. I don’t like spiritual groups that aren’t strictly egalitarian, and I want to hear collective women’s voices within this context. I can’t sit in a pwe and watch a stage show patriarchy style, nor can I even listen to men when they lecture at me. I just hate that domineering voice… but the exciting thing is just how varied lesbian spiritual points of view are when you have a small group (even five) lesbians and no two women have a spiritual practice or life alike. the only thing we don’t really have are the buildings and the means of continuing 40 years of feminist activism, fully funded by feminist women. That is what we haven’t done yet, so I’m putting it out there. We need the carpenters and builders, plumbers, architects and master fundraisers to do this.

    Woman control is crucial, and than more and more women will have a way to simply stop engaging and supporting male supremacy in all its clever disguises. Or maybe women are already doing this and we could find out about it?

    Liberation theology, great awakenings, the reformation… I look at the feminist movement itslef as a spiritual event in which women awoke from a sleep of male pleasing servitude. Finally, women couldn’t stand it anymore, finally lesbian said ENOUGH of heteronormative horror… now of course, I love those moments when after 40 years, I am with the lesbians of the advanced class, the ones who worked all that time for reformation and elimination of male supremacy. That is an exciting moment to be in conversation with the women who will not tolerate slavery, conformity, or erasure, and that to me is religion… the religion by for and about women’s freedom.

    Everything else is settling in for a career within male supremacy, and that’s not good enough for me.

  10. I think there is strong evidence that the “emerging church” is anti-hip. Looking deeper at that, I believe the term “emerging” is better ascribed after the individuals as a loose label, since they question the very issue of identity by questioning its own term. With the questioning these labels/categories and by being inclusive, criticisms of ‘not including’ A B or C (this gender, that ethnicity, this colour, that economic class, etc) are debatable to me.

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