#metoo at the General Convention of the Episcopal Church

#metoo at the General Convention of the Episcopal Church July 7, 2018

I love a church meeting. Especially when we decide to take on the things that seem intractable, the hardest things.

This year the 79th General Convention of the Episcopal Church is meeting in Austin, Texas, for 10 balmy days beginning July 4.

There’s a lot of good to do together: a service on the lawn outside of a detention center Sunday. What does #metoo mean for The Episcopal Church?

We kicked it off with a listening session the evening of July 4 hosted by the House of Bishops. On the first day of convention, we were invited to a service in which heard a curated selection of stories read by bishops, of harassment, abuse, humiliation reported by women, lay and ordained, in the Episcopal Church.

I heard recently that the last thing to fly out of Pandora’s box was hope. I have no if that’s true, but I like that idea.

For the next few days on this blog, you will hear from voices in our church bringing resolutions and other actions to the Episcopal Church at this Convention in response to #metoo and #churchtoo. I know. I’m #excitedtoo. These resolutions come from committees of women, 47 women in all, set up by the President of the House of Deputies of the General Convention The Rev. Gay Jennings to think through the ways our structures and systems allow the kind of abuse we will soon hear about, and to propose some changes for the good of the body.

The Episcopalians are having a church meeting to talk about the hardest things.

Kathleen Moore, Guest Blogger

In my home state of Vermont, I often meet people with no experience of religion, for whom the word “God” conjures up images drawn from television, movies, and art. It has been eye-opening to come to understand that many people assume Michelangelo’s white, male, bearded figure is the image of the God we worship in our Episcopal Church every Sunday morning. In working specifically with young women searching for “something more,” I have found some of the most moving moments come when I propose that God need not be thought of this way – that God is much bigger than all of our human constructs, including gender. Indeed, when I talk to young people (for example, the teenage campers I worked with this summer and young Episcopalians I have gotten to spend time with at General Convention and other church events), I notice they reject the concept of applying strict, exclusive and static gender binaries to human beings. In other words, these young people understand gender as a construct, and see the imposition of gender identity as potentially oppressive. Through this lens, a God presented as exclusively gendered is both nonsensical and inauthentic. From the perspective of someone seeking to evangelize new seekers, it can be difficult to reconcile what we as Episcopalians say we believe about God and what the language in our liturgy implies we believe about God.

A few years ago, a young woman in early 30s who I am going to call Monique had been going through a difficult time, following a period of sexual exploitation by an older man in a position of authority. She started asking me questions about “spirituality” after an experience she had during her yoga practice. Toward the end of a class, she was lying still on her yoga mat, and she reported feeling “a presence.” This presence was “all good” and seemed to be “made of love.” It seemed to “hold her hand.” She thought she was “going crazy,” and asked me what I thought was going on. I wanted to tread carefully, knowing that her experience is not mine, but I said that if that happened to me, the word for it would be “God.” Monique rejected this idea, explaining that this felt like a “spirit.” I asked her what she thought I meant when I said “God.” She said something like, “you know, an old man with a beard and robes appearing.” I asked her what would happen if she adjusted her “picture” of God. I said that in my church, we don’t talk about God as a “man” – one I disturbingly imagined in that moment in the image of her abuser.

And, this was almost universally true in my parish – in coffee hour discussions, in Bible studies, and in adult education classes, parishioners were careful to use inclusive language for God. Monique was intrigued, so I invited her to church. Afterward, she rightly called me out on a promise I didn’t realize I had made. “God was a ‘he’ in that service,” she said. “You told me your church doesn’t talk about God as ‘he.’” She was right, and I had been careless. I felt responsible for a “bait and switch.” I had made a sweeping statement about our language for God that revealed I was so proud of how we talked about God in our Bible studies and discussions, I had given a pass to how we talk about God in our liturgies. I wondered why we had so carefully cultivated this culture of inclusive God-talk everywhere but during our principle worship services. For Monique, this mattered. Not because God had to be “she” any more than God had to be “he,” but because God had to be something more than one or the other exclusively in order for her to start making sense of this “all good,” “made of love” presence she felt.

I worked with a woman in her late 20s who I am going to call Sarah, who had recently been drugged and assaulted, leaving her with emotional and physical injuries. This woman was a part of a small group of seekers that had decided they wanted to cook a free meal for the community. We met to prepare the dinner in the parish kitchen, using Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” album as our soundtrack. One track includes the line, “Love God herself.” “That’s funny,” Sarah said as she chuckled. “God herself.” I realized up to that point, I had been using neutral language for God around this group – never gendered in any way. So I said, “you know it’s perfectly okay to call God ‘her’ – I think that’s one way to help us talk about God – using ‘him’ and ‘her’ at different times.” To my surprise, both Sarah and another woman in the group began to cry. It opened up for them the possibility that the God in whom all power and glory resides is not a man, which not only allowed them to fall deeper in love with God, but framed the oppression they felt in their everyday lives as decidedly not of God. As we gathered around a table that night to share in our own meal before serving others, I was already thinking about the “problem” of exclusively male gendered language in our liturgy. I knew I needed to do two things. First, to begin advocating for the same kind of non-exclusive God language to be used in our parish liturgies as we use in conversation and second, to have an honest conversation with this group about how our church is still figuring out so many things, including the language we use to describe God.

Bible studies and formation groups are not going to be the typical “entry point” to parish life for these young people or for seekers like Sarah and Monique – more often than not, they will experience our liturgies first, and our language choices can make a profound difference. In some cases, those who are feeling profoundly, unexplainably and deeply drawn to God, language choices could send a message that this God of love, who has “lifted up the lowly,” cannot be found in our churches.

Kathleen Moore is a third-year MDiv student at Church Divinity School of the Pacific, a candidate for holy orders in the Diocese of Vermont, and the communications manager at Canticle Communications. She tweets at @_thleen.

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