Dear Phyllis…

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….

Dear Phyllis,

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.”

feminism
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.

Blessings,

Marci Glass
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.)

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31 thoughts on “Dear Phyllis…

  1. Marci – thanks for sharing your letter and reflections – as one unable to be there I look forward to reading the observations of those who were there. I am flummoxed by PT’s comments as well – jawdroppingly so.

  2. I am so saddened by all that I’m reading about that last day…it actually makes me NOT want to read her book (which is in the “unread” pile still.) :-(

  3. I’ve got a few thoughts:
    1) thanks for writing this, and keeping the conversation going
    2) She did make the argument more clearly at Wild Goose. I’ve heard this talk a few times now.
    3) Yes, the seven kids comment was meant as a joke.
    4) Phyllis was fighting the flu on Saturday, and it has laid her low yesterday and today. I’ll make this post known to her when she’s feeling better.

  4. I don’t think the 7 kids comment was supposed to be about promiscuity. I think it was supposed to be…something else. I didn’t hear the “from the same father” part, but I may be mistaken. Either way, I was equally baffled by that section of the speech.

  5. I don’t think she meant the 7 kids comment as a means of saying that feminists are promiscuous. I think she intended…something else. Then again I didn’t hear the “from the same father” part of that statement, so I may be mistaken. Either way, I was equally baffled by that section of the speech.

    • Let me get this straight: she delivers this “joke” regulary and the point it is somehow supposed to be that most feminists don’t have 7 kids and that the “same man” part is not a point she is making? And she wouldn’t make a point like this to begin with…why? Her words about the pill and women’s emotiveness and performance in the workplace and subsequent defect from home would somehow absolve her of making a joke on par with this? Are you going to continue to justify this also?

  6. Tied to Phyllis’s comment about the effect of the Pill on the family was also an observation about men returning from the Second World War with what we now call “PTSD” and thus being unable to participated in faith-transmission to their children. She unfortunately focused more (more than necessary) on changes in the role of women and insufficiently on changes in the role of men in the faith-nurturing of their kids. I don’t think Phyllis was being “anti-feminist” or blaming women, but her presentation was certainly not balanced.

  7. I didn’t hear the ‘not a feminist because…’ comment at all. It’s not that I doubt something like it was said, just that I didn’t hear it. However, I did hear all of The PIll conversation and has a totally different take away. I heard her talk about an increase of freedom from prior constraints.

  8. Well stated, Marci. I was in attendance only by Twitter, and on #EC13 there was quite the “wtf?” buzz during and following PT’s final talk. That’s what led me to twask, “Has any printed agenda been distributed stating the objective of the conference?” And also, “Was Phyllis’ talk just now a potentially ecclesiastical moment for the conference?”

    A healthy element in “Emergence” is the insistence on accountability from those whose voices presently hold the floor.

    The stated objective of the conference was this: “[A] national conversation on the emergence of our faith … as we chart a course for the future of Christianity.”

    There’s a presumptuousness in the “WE chart a course” part of that statement that gives me great pause. As a result of experience, I am suspicious of new religious “movements” which at first have the appearance of reform and liberality. Such movements have a long and woeful history of evolving into destructive institutions. I grew up in a tradition that reflected that very history.

    So where “Emergence” is concerned, I am content to remain in the comfort and safety of looking from the outside in.

    But please keep insisting on accountability. It’s encouraging.

  9. Who are you to make the judgment that Phillis was judging others?
    Can’t she be allowed to have her opinions and be respected for them?

    • Certainly she is invited to have and share her own opinions, as are you. But when she shares them in a room of 400 people who have gathered to hear her opinions, she ought to make sure she is careful in her argument. (As we all should).
      It was not just my experience of her lecture that found it judgmental toward the role of women in the church. Many people in the room were distressed by her comments.
      As I mentioned in the post, I don’t disagree with the conclusion that faith formation in the family has gone away, largely, in the last 50 yrs.
      Part of the reason I posted this is because I’m hoping I am wrong. I’m hoping she doesn’t actually mean what she said in Memphis. I would love to have a conversation with her about this. I find her writing to be interesting, her style engaging, and her experience very helpful. I’m sorry she has the flu and hope she is on the mend soon.
      Thank you for your comment.

  10. Marci,
    Thank you for this letter. I have been forming my own in my mind. Here’s what I want to add at this point in the conversation:

    1. The argument that the pill changed passing on the faith simply does not make sense. Was it a significant part of the paradigm shifts occurring at that time? No doubt. I think the statements in “The Great Emergence” skew a reading of sociological and religious indicators to make the point. I also have not yet found a quote by Martin Marty making the same statement (which Phyllis alluded to). These statements also ignore issues of class and race embedded in the access to the pill and the notion of a “working or non-working” mother.

    2. This claim, as well as the off- hand comments on feminism and her stated concern (Without further elaboration) that the percentage of women having children “out of wedlock” represents an essentialized construction of gender. Women simply are _______. Men simply are_______. It is also a binary construction of gender— with no room for those who are neither male or female identified. The message in these comments—intentional or not—support a patriarchal construction of order, further devaluing all women, gay men, transgender, transsexual persons.

    3. As s newcomer to the Emergence conversation, I had understood this to be a community that embraces faithfulness to living the Gospel while resisting institutional oppressive codes and structures. I find many of Phyllis’ comments on family and gender to reinscribe rather than resist such structures. I also wonder what happened to the notion that there would be conversation at this event or a “shaping together”? Interestingly it was a fairly hierarchical structure for learning.

    My hope is that this conversation will continue to move toward a sincere and helpful critique of the gender/class/race/ability issues we identify in the manifestation of Emergence Christianity so that we will consider how our new forms may betray the very ethos hoped for.

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  12. Marci, I have not heard Phyllis speak but I have read The Great Emergence. I do not come from that evangelical tradition that she did so I valued her comments. And while I have been willing to accept some of her comments on the history of past Christian eras, I am not sure that the wide ranging eras into which she shows her 500 year sea changes really hold up. I take Tickel’s commentary on society with a large pinch of salt. I do enjoy her fresh approach to what is happening in “Church” with a capital C, but I am not sure that it is grounded in good scholarship.

  13. I think you have great points here. I also believe that the Rosie the Riveter is a middle class myth, for I am aware that there were women working in the working class prior to the war and with the myth, many were let go after the war to make jobs for soldiers. History is complex. As I am also very concerned about the disabled, and wrote on that at Opengathering.org (and Links to Julie’s as well on disability) Thanks.

  14. As always, for me, context is key. For almost all of Phyllis and Sam’s marriage, Phyllis worked outside the home. She worked to support them while Sam finished Medical School, and over the course of her lifetime she often held two jobs at a time, primarily out of the home. She and Sam also had a small working farm while they both commuted to Memphis for work and raised those 7 kids. My discovery of Phyllis was through her autobiographical works – The Shaping of a Life and The Farm in Lucy series-which are rich with her experiences as she juggled work, family, marriage, faith and her own inner self (separate from those identities.) I would strongly encourage anyone who is having a hard time with the last session to read those books. You may not change your mind about what Phyllis said, but you may understand her better, and I find that understanding people’s stories is always helpful.

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