I have just returned from the Emergence Christianity Conference in Memphis, TN. Phyllis Tickle, the founding editor of the Religion Department at Publishers Weekly, shared with us her observations of church and culture, based on her book Emergence Christianity: What It Is, Where It Is Going, and Why It Matters. Over 400 people of all different Christian traditions attended the conference. I enjoyed the opportunity to interact with people who were able to share their experiences of faith and church. Great conversation and thoughtful people.
Below is my letter to Phyllis, in response to some comments she made at the end of the conference. I hope this will lead to clarity over what was said at the conference. Here it is….
Thank you for sharing your work with us at the Emergence Christianity Conference in Memphis recently. I read The Great Emergence as I began parish ministry a few years back, and it helped me recognize the landscape in very helpful ways. My ability to navigate the particulars of ministry in the 21st century owe much to your observations of church and culture.
So I was excited to hear what you had to say.
Until you mentioned the Pill.
You observed that access to the Pill was one of the marks along the way, pointing to this Emergence in which we find ourselves. But you claimed that it wasn’t about preventing pregnancy, which you said women had already been able to do. (A simple look at birth statistics would suggest this claim does not hold up. Access to the Pill was, for many women, exactly about preventing pregnancy until they were ready to be pregnant.)
You claimed that it was about controlling menses, so that women would be more in control of their cycle, and could be more successful in the work place if they were less emotional. Did I hear you correctly at this point?
You went on to claim that since women were more successful in the work place, they were home less, and families spent less time together and the transmission of the faith—which used to take place often in the home—stopped. You claimed you weren’t making that statement with judgment, only with observation.
And that is my problem. It was full of judgment.
If it were an observation, you could have noticed that the failure of families to transmit the faith had happened. We have all observed that to one degree or another. But by linking it to access to the Pill, you blamed women. Here are some other places we could connect to the failure of families to transmit the faith.
1. Churches were growing in the post-war era, and as they grew, they hired more staff, including professional church educators. Could it be the prevalence of paid Christian Educators led families to believe that the transmission of the faith was best done at church and not at home?
2. Men. Where were the men in your scenario? If the women were working more outside the home, why didn’t the men help pick up the slack? Couldn’t you have observed, (without judgment, as you say) that women went to work and the men didn’t increase their domestic workload?
I’m sure we could observe more cultural and religious factors that contributed to the failure of domestic faith transmission.
But you didn’t. You only mentioned the Pill. I am a woman in ministry, struggling to parent my kids and shepherd the flock. Can you imagine how painful your unsupported claim about the Pill was for me and other women? Can you see how you sold men short by not inviting them to take responsibility for at least half of their family’s faith education when the woman went to work?
You also claimed, in the midst of that lecture, almost as an aside, not to be a feminist, saying “I am clearly not a feminist because all seven of my children have the same father.”
What? Are you serious? Surely you don’t mean to imply that all feminists are incapable of monogamy? Surely you don’t mean to suggest that married women can’t be feminists? Did you mean to cast aspersions on feminists on feminists’ moral standards?
I’m just guessing here, but was there a time when self-proclaimed feminists told you that you didn’t belong because you had seven children and were at home raising them? Was the stridency of the early feminists more than you wanted to be associated with? I don’t know what it was, but clearly something must have happened, at some point in your past, to make you believe you are not a feminist.
My preferred definition of feminism is “the radical notion that women are people.”
So, in that definition, you are a feminist, whether you want to claim the title or not. You raised your children. You have contributed greatly to the conversation in the church about who we are and how we might best navigate this new world. You have shown women and men, by your grace and intelligence and work ethic, how to use the gifts God has given you. You have done it on your terms. What better model of feminism could there be than the example of a life shared in the pursuit of a better world?
I come from a faith tradition with many models of women in leadership. I was about 10 years old when my childhood church called a female associate pastor back in the 70’s. I will never forget seeing her in the pulpit and thinking, “who knew? Women can be pastors too.” My call to become a pastor was never hindered by either the people or the structures of my faith tradition.
But there were women at this conference in Memphis who were seeing female clergy for the first time. I spoke to more than a few women who had never even seen women speaking at a church conference before. There were many young women at the conference from less inclusive faith traditions who have not always been told their gifts are welcome in the church. There were plenty of men from those traditions at the conference as well too.
They deserved better from you, from us all, than casual, and unsupported claims about feminism and the Pill. The language we use matters. And in this case, your language didn’t direct us toward an “emergent” future where all of God’s children have an equal place at the Table. Your language seemed to suggest we would be better served by returning to some past incarnation of domestic structures.
People who had the privilege of hearing you at Wild Goose Festival said you made your argument more clearly at that conference, and with less of your Patriarchy showing. But not all of us were at Wild Goose. Maybe you were just having a bad day in Memphis. But no matter how many reasons I try to come up with to explain your comments, the reality is, I left a great conference saddened by the reminder that the burdens of patriarchy are deep in the church and in our culture.
I do hope to hear from you. I look forward to reading your new book once I get through the pile of things waiting for me on my desk after my time in Memphis. Thank you again for using your intelligence and creativity in ways that illuminate church and culture for the rest of us. I am glad I was at the conference. Look forward to what is next.
Presby-Feministy-Mergent Pastor in Boise, Idaho
(To those of you who were at the Emergence Christianity Conference in Memphis, please add your observations in the comments. But I am not sure that comments of “Phyllis meant to say x, y, or z…” will be helpful, unless they come from her. Because we can only work with what was actually said.)