All Saints’ year of the woman
By Ellen Snortland
All Saints Episcopal in Pasadena felt like home in the 1990s. Something happened to me there that I never forgot. It’s Christmas Eve, and I am a guest at the midnight service. The majesty of the campus is serene. The splendor inside is uplifting without being intimidating. The inclusive message of a revolutionary Jesus inspires me. Candles flicker, the scent of beeswax mixed with pine boughs. I am gobsmacked by the majesty of live music.
As a mostly agnostic person during my adult life, I found that my spiritual longing is sated by singing in a choir. Almost 20 years later, that is what brought me back to ASC. I, along with my husband Ken, sing in the ASC Coventry Choir since November 2019. Of course, things are different now: virtual choir singing is weird, as has been almost everything in 2020.
I also appreciate ASC’s stance on social justice and gender, as exemplified by the work of the Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney. Intensely intellectual and glowing with genius, I listened to Dr. Gafney as she spoke at the ASC Rector’s Forum via Zoom, then guest-preached at the regular service on November 30. The occasion was ASC being the first church in America to use her “Women’s Lectionary,” starting that day.
The Women’s Lectionary is readings for an entire liturgical year that centers on the girls and women in Judeo-Christian scripture—the ones up to now who have been muted, sidelined and ignored. I get chills thinking how invisible I have almost always felt in structured religion and feel immense gratitude for this project.
“Unmute yourself” is now part of our lexicon. Many of us feminists and womanists have been passionate about unmuting the mostly hidden women of history. The women of the past may be seen but rarely heard. They rarely have been told to unmute!
There are histories we don’t even think about because, as the saying goes, “History is written by the victors.” Here’s a prime example. How many of us know there were Underground Railway “codes” for those escaping enslavement in the South sewn onto quilts? This method was ingenious because bounty hunters would never even consider that a quilt—a practical item made by insignificant women’s hands—could be used to fool them.
Dr. Gafney is adept at revealing what’s missing from mainstream religious texts and astute at explaining why an all-woman “cast” of Bible lessons and sermon subjects is vital. Many congregations, including ASC, have already stopped referring to God exclusively as He/Father. Many have already adopted gender-neutral nomenclature such as “our Creative Force” or simply “our Creator.” However, to call God “Her/Mother” begs the question: isn’t the feminizing of names just the flipside of the same thing? Buoyed by evidence, Dr. Gafney points out that to create a healthy balance, if you don’t take the further step of Her/Mother and stay with neutral terms, our unconscious bias automatically fills in a white He/Father instead.
When I first heard Bobby McFerrin’s version of the 23rd Psalm, “The Lord is my shepherd… She maketh me lie down…,” I wept with grief and joy. Not only did it feel authentic, since many shepherds in far-flung reaches of the globe are actually female, but it also pointed out how many people have been so obliterated from texts. And it’s all based on perceived inherent superiority.
When I was a college kid in 1972, I heard white feminist Gloria Steinem and Black feminist Dorothy Pitman Hughes speak in Billings, Montana. Together they warned about “culturally correct” authorities pitting women against women, as the white male-dominated press loved “catfights.” Steinem and Hughes were all about intersectionality and inclusion. And Steinem said, “However sugar coated and ambiguous, every form of authoritarianism must start with a belief in some group’s greater right to power, whether that right is justified by sex, race, class, religion or all four. However far it may expand, the progression inevitably rests on unequal power and airtight roles within the family.” Ideas about supremacy and superiority have their genesis in whatever our parents teach us through word and deed… or our rebellion against it.
When I was a little girl in my lily-white Lutheran church in South Dakota, I wish I’d seen Dr. Gafney preaching. “Glem det”—Norwegian for “Fat chance”—even though my parents were progressives and probably would have loved hearing scripture from a feminist/womanist perspective. The good news is now, in these “safer at home” times, you and your family can join us on this year-long journey! The men and boys need to experience a few of the 111 women in the Bible who have names and what their voices say to our times. A warning: some of these stories involve family violence, like rape and incest. ASC is providing an age-appropriate nontriggering alternative for those occasions.
While you may not be able to smell the candles or hear the echoes of ASC’s soaring ceilings, you can still have your spirit soar as you hear the newly created music along with the newly revealed stories of women.
Ellen Snortland has written “Consider This…” for a heckuva long time, and she also coaches first-time book authors! Contact her at email@example.com.