Tuesday 23 October 2012

Rough Guide to Feminism 1: What is Christian Feminism?

Today I have been annoyed by reports of the Forward in Faith conference. This may not surprise you! But what has annoyed me is not their heartfelt opposition to women bishops, but a throwaway comment that the opposition to clause 5.1.c came from 'unreconstructed sixties feminists'. 

On Friday, I gave a talk at Romsey Abbey on 'Feminism and Faith'. I'd like to reclaim feminism from this sort of criticism. Feminism has achieved a great deal for our society over the years, and should not be used as a disposable insult.

So to begin with, lets go back to the basics. What is Christian feminism?

For me, the heart of Christian feminism is that it is a form of liberation theology. Like other liberation theologies it assumes that God’s intention for the world in its creation and redemption is good news for all people. It takes very seriously the call of the prophets for justice and equity between all peoples, as being more important to God than fidelity to a particular worshipping tradition for its own sake. It assumes that, where inequalities and injustices are to be seen in the world, this is a result of human sinfulness and is not God’s plan in creation. 

As a result, liberation theology believes that a key aspect of the Christian response to such inequalities and injustices is to challenge them. It understands a key aspect of Christian discipleship as being to seek to make this world somewhere more closely approximating to the vision of God’s kingdom: ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven’. 

Liberation theologies practice what is known as a hermeneutic of suspicion when considering sacred texts, traditions and practices. They ask of any text or practice, whose interests is this fostering? In whose interests is it to continue doing things this way? And whose interests might be being marginalized or dismissed by the way this text or tradition is being used?

Liberation theologies each have their own particular focus, but the family likeness between them is that the focus is one of perceived inequity and injustice between two groups of people. Classical liberation theology focuses on the poor and the rich, or more specifically the disenfranchised and oppressed and the rich and powerful. Black theology focuses on issues of racial and cultural discrimination. 

And feminist theology, of course, focuses particularly on issues of sex and gender discrimination. Christian feminism takes as its starting point the belief that God created both men and women in God’s own image, and that the gospel is good news for both men and women equally. It then attempts to shine a light on areas where this has not been followed through in Christian tradition and practice, and seeks reformation.

 There are still people out there who caricature feminism, either out of ignorance or to try to discredit it. They see 'feminism’ as being about trying to privilege women above men, or about women hating or despising or wanting to ‘get back’ at men. It also gets confused at times with the term ‘feminisation’. People sometimes accuse Christian feminists of ‘feminising’ the church, making it all pink and fluffy and putting off men from coming. Of course, when we unpack the accusation of ‘feminisation’ we uncover all sorts of cultural assumptions that women and women’s values are of less importance than men and men’s values, and that men are of more importance than women. 

Making the church female, or privileging women over men, is not what Christian feminism means or wants. I suspect it is too late to try to change the name now, and in fact to do so might be colluding with the view that female is bad, but in some ways ‘genderism’ would be a better description. Because the aim of Christian feminism is to make the world a better place, in line with what we think God intends for God’s people. We believe that will be better for both men and women. 

Sometimes people worry that this will be bad news for men, because if power is shared more equally men will get less of it. However, as Christians we believe that all of us are better able to flourish when power is given up to be shared with others, rather than used to lord it over other people. So we believe that the redistribution of power between men and women is not, in mathematical terms, a zero sum game, in which as some gain an advantage others lose out. Rather, we believe that by sharing power more equally, all people will be better able to flourish as the human beings God calls us to be.

In common with other liberation theologies, Christian feminism believes that, by working together in partnership without giving value judgements to the distinctions that so often divide us, all of God’s people are given their true dignity. By valuing all people equally regardless of (for example) colour, wealth, sex or gender, we are all freed from the limitations of cultural expectations, to flourish and grow as disciples of Christ.

So Christian feminism believes that God created both men and women in God’s own image, and that the gospel is good news for both men and women equally. It then attempts to shine a light on areas where this has not been followed through in Christian tradition and practice, and seeks reformation in our churches as a result.


  1. Is the problem that most FiF people will have an unreconstructed view of feminism, based on what it might once have been, rather than what it has become? How many have read any recent Christian feminist writing, I wonder.

    As an example of what's changed, I would describe myself (cautiously) as a feminist theologically. I think I can do that now. That would have been anathema to the sixties generation of feminists.

  2. I am a Christian, and I am a feminist, and I was born in the sixties. I believe that women, men, and those people whose gender is not so easily pigeonholed, are equally precious, equally loved and are each of infinite value to God. Each one of us deserves the same level of love and respect. I believe that discrimination and denial of opportunity on the grounds of gender are immoral. It is this feminism which has worked tirelessly to bring about equal pay for equal work, the opportunity to work in environments which are not plastered with pornography, parental leave, the return of decision-making in childbirth to the women giving birth and many other things. It is beginning to bring about a society where sexual harassment and assault are not tolerated. I am at a loss to understand what part of this belief system could be 'reconstructed' and still be defined as feminist, or why feminism is somehow less than acceptable in the church.

  3. I think we have a tendency to turn what scares us into an insult to render it harmless and to insert our superiority without having to think too much or to be challenged.
    It's not just feminism that suffers from this phenomenon, it also affects words like "political correctness", "racism", "liberal"... and on the other side "homophobe", "mysogynist", "fundamentalist", "literalist"....

    It says more about our own fears than it does about the concepts we smugly turn into swearwords.

  4. Our world seems more and more to be polarized into "us vs. them," "us," of course, being the good folks. What I appreciate about liberation theology in all its flavors is it's embrace of ALL. Amen that radical feminism is not about male bashing but seeing all in the equal light of God. I recommend the work of the Satyana Institute in Gender Reconciliation as a means of subversively guiding this rare phenomenon, one small group at a time (http://www.genderreconciliationinternational.org/). Carolyn Metzler+, Albuquerque

  5. Thank you for this post. Such a clear, simple explanation of Christian Feminism, (for want of a better term). I'm of the generation that grew up thinking that the '60s feminists were faintly embarrassing in their actions and words and overly-focused on one issue, to the exclusion of all else. I'm learning - I still hate some of the connotations attached to the 'f' word, but I can heartily agree with your analysis of it.

  6. I echo Liz H's comment which explains what I should automatically be now I am an ordinand of the female persuasion.

    I have never been particularly aware of or sensitive to sexism in any form although I am aware of the need to take the cultural nuances of Biblical texts into consideration when preparing to preach or speak.

    As a new ordinand however, I am finding that other female clergy/students sometimes don't feel I am alert enough to the sexism that they feel is apparent in some sectors of the CofE (as elsewhere), as would appear to be exemplified by the comment you saw in the FiF conference. However, what I'm wondering is if we rise to the bait every time people say something contentious are we in fact making the problem worse, by giving more opportunities for people to mount their soapboxes?