Faith and Reason: A woman's place in the Church: The Church of England Synod will vote on the ordination of women in November. Carolyn Butler assesses the changing role of feminism in Christian theology and spirituality

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The Independent Online
A priest I know has just returned from seven weeks in Romania. He went there to deliver clothes, books, toys and other supplies so desperately needed by that country as it emerges from its years of ordeal. I found myself complaining to him. 'Oh,' I said, 'I've got no time any more to pray - no time for peace and quiet, no 'inner life' to speak of at all. Life is an endless round of work and children. . .' He sympathised, but did comment that, of course, a Catholic woman in Romania would simply not understand the question 'How can I fit religion into my life?' For her, bringing up her children in her own Christian culture would itself constitute her religious life.

There are still parts of the world where the backlash against feminism hasn't happened, because feminism hasn't. But in the West, religious, independent-minded women face a twofold crisis. The plain sense of feminism has been eaten away from within by post- structuralist doubt, until it seems that there is no such person as a woman to be liberated. At the same time, there is a clear backlash against feminism in the churches, focusing on the question of women's ordination.

Two main types of feminism have emerged: the liberal stream of thought aims for intellectual and professional equality with men while the radical stream would rather separate from men, preferring to see women as innately and biologically superior. But both start from a concept of 'woman'.

Against this, the basic premiss of the post-structuralists or post- moderns is that human beings acquire their sexual identity through the various 'discourses' (to use the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan's term) or influences that work on them from the moment they are born. We do not have 'woman' and 'man'; we have human beings who become women and men, thus fulfilling Simone de Beauvoir's famous comment: 'One is not born, but rather becomes a woman. It is civilisation as a whole that produces this creature which is described as feminine.'

If this is true, the problem for feminism is obvious: there is no essential 'womanhood' at the heart of the female individual; there is simply a human subject who acts as a 'site' for whatever influence or 'discourse' happens to it. Femininity becomes an artefact of feminism.

This nihilist philosophy has swept through feminist thinking like a hurricane, destroying everything in its wake, and shattering the faith tenets of many. After all, what can one say about women if they don't actually exist? Some women take an ingenious way out by accepting that even if 'woman' does not exist, the female individual can still take on the 'woman' identity when it suits her: for example, in campaigning to change rape or abortion laws.

Even if womanhood has gone, there is still motherhood. This, the post-structuralist philosopher Julia Kristeva says, does exist. One may be forgiven for feeling relieved. But feminists have generally ignored it. Apart from issues such as child care and abortion on demand, motherhood remains a largely unexplored minefield of emotions.

This is where post-structuralist philosophy finds itself coming full circle against conservative Catholic Marian theology.

Motherhood and the Madonna give Catholicism so much of its meaning - and its ammunition against feminists in the Church. The War against Women is on - and, in the run-up to the Synod vote in November on the ordination of women, will become more aggressive and more strident on both sides.

Feminist spirituality and theology stir a gamut of negative emotions in many Christian women. These negative emotions, such as rage, anger and pride are increasingly seen as 'empowering', while traditionally Christian virtues, such as humility, compassion and selflessness are seen as sinful. This overturning of values is difficult to sustain, and leaves many women with a sense of loss, confusion and utter disorientation. What is seen as a life-enhancing challenge by some is a faith-shattering experience for others.

Another unpalatable area concerns liturgy. Feminist spirituality has taken up the task of creating alternative forms of worship with a vengeance. 'Womanchurch', the brainchild of Rosemary Radford Ruether, best encompasses these new ways of worshiping God. Josephine Robinson describes with some distaste various women's rights such as menstrual baths, exorcisms from patriarchy and 'roly-poly sessions' in which women gave each other bear- hugs, 'rolling over and over with much wild shrieking and giggling'. 'Women on their hands and knees side by side with another woman lying on their gently swaying backs . . . women swaying backward, caught and tenderly held, then lifted high and lowered again - learning to let go and trust.'

It does not take too much imagination to see that this kind of 'therapeutic' spirituality alienates many women (especially the reserved British kind) and bears only a tenuous resemblance to Christianity.

However, one must understand the tension between the tradition upon which we all occasionally fall back with relief, and the urgency of the Holy Spirit calling us to a new and fresh relationship with God. Worship, after all, has always been a slightly bizarre and primarily symbolic or supernatural activity. The fact that one group of Christians is more colourful than another does not necessarily alter the body of Christ.

What does affect the body of Christ is language. To call God 'father' is one thing. To call the Goddess 'mother' is quite another.

In the words of William Oddie, 'to say that 'God is our father' is not a mere human metaphor: it is the same kind of statement as Christ's 'This is my body': a symbolic statement but one which is not merely symbolic. For the Christian disciple, there is in the vocative 'Our Father' such an identity between the word and the reality that the two cannot be sundered. When a Christian prays the Lord's Prayer, there is (to quote Luther) such 'a unity of word and deed, of picture and thing', that it can only be broken in the Christian mind by a real loss of contact with a fundamental reality of faith.'

But to insist on the absolute authority of the term 'father' is to overlook the development of that term throughout the Christian tradition. The metaphor has moved from a biological paternity which literally saw the gods as the divine fathers to a metaphysical paternity whereby the 'Word' breathed life into man and Creation.

From the Old Testament 'God of our Fathers' we move to the 'Our Father' of the Gospel and the familiar term 'Abba'. The development of the metaphor indicates a more intimate understanding of man's relationship with God until in the New Testament God is 'Abba', the very essence of the good news of Jesus. The metaphor may be given, but it is not fixed. The challenge and hope for Christian women lies in its interpretation.

Feminism will unite fruitfully with Christianity only if the two can merge in daily life as successfully as patriarchy and Christianity do in the lives of the Romanian women my friend had visited.