The Women’s Church
The Women’s Church is an independent group within the Icelandic National Evangelical Lutheran Church. Founded on 14 February 1993, the Women’s Church bases its work on feminist theology. It preaches what the Bible tells us women about the freedom that we were created to enjoy, talks about God in the feminine gender, encourages the distribution of power, considers new possibilities in service ritual, and uses inclusive language in all its work.
The Women’s Church holds its monthly worship service by turns in the churches put at its disposal by the congregations of the National Church. A new liturgy is created for each service. We sing both traditional as well as new hymns, and women members compose and translate hymns that contain elements feminist-theologic. All in inclusive language. Frequently, professional singers and musicians take part in the services.
Courses on feminist theology are offered in connection with various topics, as for example, the joy of life, the Bible, and ways to overcome the hurt caused by divorce.
The day-to-day work is led by a steering group which prepares the services in cooperation with the minister, the organist and choir leader.
The Women’s Church publishes a newsletter which is sent out before each service.
The Women’s Church has brought out two books, Vinátta Guðs (The Friendship of God), on feminist theology, and Vinkonur og vinir Jesú (Women and Men and the Friendship of Jesus), selected texts from the New Testament in inclusive language.
The hymns of the Women’s Church have been published by the publishing house of the National Church, as selected and arranged by the choir leader of the Women´s Church.
A chapter on the Women’s Church figures in a recent book: Dissident Daughters, Feminist Liturgies in Global Context, edited by Teresa Berger and published by: Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky – London 2001.
Feminist theology is theology formulated by women about the friendship of God in their lives and in all the world at all times. It is about our desire and possibilities of using our Christian faith in our daily life in order to be happy with ourselves as we are, so we can see what wonderful human beings we really are and that we can therefore change all that we want to change, both in our life and our surroundings. We want to have influence through the ideas of feminist theology so they will obtain headway. Therefore we practice and strengthen our theology and also because it is the foundation of our joy and our strength.
The need to change is not because we are impossible as we are, we can change because of how wonderful we are. We can use the many talents we have and there is no need to feel ashamed of not having some talent. Some of the others have it and we enjoy each others talents as we are both alike and different. We understand each other because we share the same experience in so many ways and we give each other space and possibility to be different. We teach each other to say WE, and by saying that we learn to say I more often and with pleasant self-confidence.
The friendship of God in which we enwrap each other, teaches us to find our own vision of life and own lifestyle and to expend our time and strength and enjoy life. It is not the same as being self-centered, we are just using our faith in God to have faith in ourselves, other human beings and life itself.
For a long time women, and some men too, have been writing feminist theology. The emphases vary and the subjects as well. Some women write biblical references, others write about the patriarchy, the structure of the church, salvation and the freedom of women, about the solidarity of women and women as managers, about jobs for women, women’s history and much, much more. Feminist theology is being deveolped all around the world and that makes it multifarious. It was first written in North America and Europe, but soon Africa, Asia and South America followed.
Feminist theology tells us about women who fought for the abolition of slavery in the 19th century and against the affliction of alcohol, poverty and lack of education and about women who fought for the propagation of Christianity around the world. Many of the champions of feminism sought their strength in the Christian faith.
THE LONG ROOTS OF FEMINIST THEOLOGY
The history of feminist theology reaches back to the times when women lived by ideas of feminist theology that weren’t formulated until much later. The reformation in the 16th century robbed women of many possibilities but gave them other, even better options. Women who had had possibilities of independence and education at convents now left the convents and for some of them it meant they had to go back to the very same situation that they had fled; to be locked inside their homes under the dominance of their husbands. But some of them became great entrepreneurs like Catherine of Bora, who left the convent and later became the wife of Martin Luther. But the greatest gift of the Reformation was that all Christians were important persons because of the baptism that made every Christian a priest. That made it possible for women to have influence inside the congregation, to become preachers and leaders. Many of the strongest women of the first surge of feminism came from new congregations that were established because of the Reformation.
Revivalism in America strengthened women and gave them new options. In the 19th century the living standards had changed, so many opportunities were now open for white males that were closed for women and blacks. Men had better possibilities of earnings, they controlled the community and because of that the women were dependent of them. But women found other ways to gain influence. Some priests preached of course that women should be subservient, but because of the revivalism a strong Christian faith was preached in many congregations. The revivalists did not speak of God as a patricarh, but as a God that also was like a strong, encouraging mother. Women found strength and solidarity at meetings held on their own initiative, they founded organisations and Sunday schools and made clothes and collected donations for those in need.
One of these women was Dorothy Dix who left her position as a teacher to establish a sunday school in a prison in Massachusetts. She saw that mentally ill and insane women were kept in cells with hardened criminals, and several women’s organisations supported her in demanding that female wardens should guard the female prisoners. In 1848 The Women’s Organisation of New York asked for laws protecting women against the obtrusiveness of men. Women everywhere found strength in their faith to work at improving their community.
Let us also mention the sisters Angelina and Sara Grimké as representatives of the many women who combined the feminist movement and the figth against slavery. They were Quakers and among the first women who spoke publicly against slavery and, therefore, had to flee from their homes.
In 1840 American women went to London to attend an international conference on slavery. They went there as independent participants, although many came accompanied by their husbands who also were attending. But, because of their sex, the women were forbidden to attend the conference. Amongst those women were Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, and they decided to form an organization for women back home, and in 1948 they founded the first women’s organization in America. Later on Susan B. Anthony became one of Elizabeth’s main collaborators, and for half a century they were close friends and invaluable for the feminist movement.
THE FIRST SURGE OF FEMINISM
When the new organization was founded the first surge of feminism began, aiming at gaining women the right to vote. Elizabeth and many others wanted the goal to be much broader, they wanted to fight for women’s right to get divorce and control their own property and finances, but the majority of the movement limited the fight to the right to vote.
The struggle in Europe was different from the struggle in America, but with reciprocal effect. In England there were two different movements, a militant one and a low-keyed one. The militant movement was directed by Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters, Christabel and Sylvia, and her husband, Richard, who also fought for women’s rights. They, amongst others, were thrown in jail and the struggle had terrible effect on their health. When women had obtained the right to vote, in Iceland in 1915 and other countries at similiar time, it became clear that women were not ready to use this new right and the fight stopped for years. It would have been wiser to support the opinion of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the others from the beginning.
THE SECOND SURGE OF FEMINISM
The women’s movement was dormant until 1949 when the French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir wrote Le deuxieme sexe (The Second Sex). She said that everything was modeled on men and that women were the others, those that were not significant. It was right to be male, wrong to be female. Women read Le deuxieme sexe and cried of joy over this new, strong truth, but then cried again in sadness because the truth had been forgotten and everything had to start again from the beginning.
Some say that the second surge of the women’s movement began with the publication of Simon de Beauvoir’s Le deuxieme sexe in 1949 and others that it began with Betty Friedan and her book, The Feminine Mystique, published 1963. But we can also say that it began with a significant article about feminist theology, by a young American student of theology, Valerie Saving, published in 1960 in a prestigious magazine. She said that up until then theology had been written by men and for men and wasn’t at all about women, who therefore had to write their own.
In her book Betty Friedan said that women were smitten with a mysterious, nameless disease that doctors couldn’t define. But, she said, this desease was neither mysterious nor nameless – it was boredom. Women were bored with staying at home all day, polishing floors and doing laundry, waiting for their husbands to return from work.
FORMAL ORGANIZATION AND INFORMAL GROUPS
And now the revolution began, the second surge of the women’s movement became the most influential movement of the 20th century. Betty Friedan established the NOW organization (National Organization for Women), a formal organization with elected board members. But at the same time another movement was born, an informal one and without any overseers. Women met and discussed matters all over America, in many places and many cities. Those were the CR-groups, conciousness-raising. Usually ten or fifteen women met once a week for six moths or up to two years. Absence from meetings was not allowed unless absolutely unavoidable. The topics were usually decided in advance and some groups had a set moderator but in some groups the women shared the moderatorship. The women told about themselves and were supposed to show each other understanding instead of advice or criticism, and all experience was equally important. The object of the groups were to help women to use their collective experience to change society. This method became known and much used in the women’s movement and these groups became characteristic for the second surge.
Opinions were many and some women were tied to their husbands and fiancés or had to be loyal to other groups. Some thought that the movement should fight imperialism and believed that capitalism was the root of all evil. Still others found it terrible that only white women participated in the movement. But black women had two kinds of shackles, they were black and they were women. And when lesbians founded their own groups some of them had three kinds of shackles.
The work that awaited the women’s movement was enormous, it united women and made theim fight for a new and multiform lifestyle, for their right to abortion, against sexual violence, pornography and prostitution. And they succeeded in everything except the fight against prostitution. There was great commotion as it conto establish groups, to belong to a group, to be expelled from a group, or to go out in the streets and to meetings with a message that people didn’t want to listen to. And the objects had to be studied, papers and books had to be written and published. All this was a great tussle, the competition was bad for the women and disunited them. It was difficult to work together and decide what and who to support. But they had to work together and they somehow managed to do so. The media began to listen to the movement, it had been ignored and women didn’t know how to promote it, but they learned.
Independent groups were born, The Withces, The Red Sox, The Lesbians, Black Women and Women Theologians. In every group there were many great women who all needed support for their projects, but couldn’t afford the time to be of support to others. The conflict was great, and again and again the movement attacked their own members. But it also supported them by giving them a forum where to express themselves, possibilities to think problems over and tell others about them, to change the world. And everywhere women were listening and thanking for the information, without knowing about the conflict inside the movement.
There was also fermentation in Betty Friedan’s half of the movement. Also there, women were expelled and also there, women fought for progress which other women will always be thankful for.
The Women’s Movement published magazines and books, learned books written in difficult language and learned books written in simple language that everybody can understand. Feminist theology is an important part of those books.
THE FEMINIST THEOLOGIANS
The feminist theology that was written concurrently with the second surge of the women’s movement has its roots in the feminist theology of the first surge. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and a group of other women developed an important theology that was published in The Women’s Bible in 1895 and 1898. They chose texts about women, translated them from the original language and published them with their own commentary.
Among those first feminist theologians of the second surge were Mary Daly and Rosemary Radford Reuther in America and Dorothee Sölle and Elisabeth Moltmann-Wendell in Europe, and of course there were more. Their books occupied shelf after shelf in bookstores, women entered and came out filled with ideas that thrilled them and changed their life. The discussed the Bible, the church, the contempt against women, and about the hope they had in the Bible, in the church and in life itself. They had to criticise, protest and tear down and because of that they also had to build up and create a new kind of theology – feminist theology. It is not a new version of the male theology but independent theology of women, about them and written by them.
Some spoke of God in the feminine gender, others of decentralisation of power which should belong to everybody. Some spoke of the self-image. Some spoke of the worship services and built up new kinds of services. And countless other things.
They did not want to speak of a mighty God that put men in power. Men wrote theology on overbearing and whimsical God that makes convenants with men but not women. The feminist theologians said it was dangerous to present God in that way, to say that he is a king and conqueror in total control. This would fill us with submissiveness and fear of this almighty, controlling God. Christian faith cannot prosper if it doesn’t abandon this interpretations of God.
And women did abandon this god. They wrote about God that is amongst us, one of us. Not a king or a judge, but God that works side by side with us. God that created the world and needs our help to protect it. She needs us the same way that we need her. She needs us to be independent human beings and she helps us to live in the forgiveness that she provides us with, so we can find our strength, our flexibility and our joy.
We shall and must keep on writing feminist theology. We have access to what is already written, to ideas that made so many women so overjoyed and has had leverage in many congregations all over the world. The union of protestant churches supports those writings and catholic women have founded their own groups. Some churches have protested and women have protested, but we shall keep on going. We shall write and live our own feminist theology, a theology that suits us in our life and our desire to have effect on our surroundings. In our belief that we can do our utmost to change the world and make it better, and we can be God’s friends whom she trusts.
Feminist theology has always been developed at all kinds of tables. At desks in universities or homes, at kitchen tables and workbenches. We do not all write feminist theology in notebooks or on computers, most of us write it in life itself with our words and doings. Everything springs from our thoughts, our thoughts spring from our faith and our faith is how we work with God. We exert influence on each others and therefore we meet at the Women’s Church again and again. And each one of us gets a big and wonderful piece of the feminist theology we develope and experience together, and each one of us brings it with her to work or home or wherever she goes to meet others. And bit by bit we write feminist theology into the days of those who have been waiting and longing for and finally finding it because someone brought it to them. Thank you all and let’s keep on going.