Women Find Themselves In The Church

Affirmation Of Femininity Allowsthe Soul To Blossom

October 22, 1991|By Angela Gambill | Angela Gambill,Staff writer

An egg, a bowl, a silver ring.

A handful of women sit in silence and a darkness illuminated by one flickering candle, visualizing images, reaching for peace.

For Kim Fletcher, an evening of meditation on symbols that reflect women's spirituality is more than just a social activity at St. Anne's Episcopal Church.

It is a chance to recognize the feminine side of God, she says, an aspect often downplayed in traditional Christianity.

Thursday, a handful of women came to the parish house for aWomen's Spirituality Support Group, to rest in the shadows and listen to French choral music.

A reflective tape by a Roman Catholic sister reminded them of feminine images of God in the Bible.

"As a mother comforts her son, so will I comfort you," the sister quoted from the book of Isaiah.

She talked about one translation of El Shaddai, an Old Testament name of God, as "the mountain God with breasts. If the image of God with breasts appeals to you, spend some time withHer," suggested the nun.

"Let the feminine in you become one withthat image. . . . Let yourself rest in union with Her."

At the Annapolis church, where the city's elite have worshiped for years, women have traditionally held positions of authority, says Marcia Johnston, assistant rector at the church.

In a denomination that still carries vestiges of sexism, St. Anne's has been somewhat unusual in itssupport of women's issues, says the priest.

"St. Anne's has a long history of women priests," she explains. An interim female rector ran the parish for a year, and two other women priests in the county grew up in St. Anne's and were ordained there.

"It's a very strong parish in terms of sympathy for women. I consider myself very lucky,"says Johnston.

As a woman priest, Johnston has friends from seminary who are not as fortunate. Many are the only women priests in their area of ministry, a situation that can be extremely lonely, she says.

In contrast, the diocese of Maryland is a good place to be a female priest because Johnston has feminine company in the priesthood and the bishop "is very much a supporter of women."

Not every Episcopal parish is as sympathetic to feminist causes.

At the end of next month, Episcopal parishes across the country that use bulletins put out by Morehead Publishing Co. will receive bulletins with Bible passages written in a language that uses gender-free references to people, a style favored by advocates of women's rights.

But some parishes are sticking to the traditional, male-oriented language and producing their own church bulletins. Other Episcopal churches have pulledout of the denomination this fall, citing displeasure with what theyview as the denomination's weak moral stance on issues that include women's roles and human sexuality.

And, says Johnston, no one has yet come up with a title for women priests equivalent to the male "Father."

"I'm not a Sister. I'm not a Mother," she said.

"I have a friend who is a sociologist who has commented that when they come up with a title for (women priests), then we'll be past the beginning stage" in advances for women.

But at St. Anne's, feminism really isn't a divisive issue.

The very presence of Johnston as a woman ina ministerial role is a comforting statement to women in the parish,said several women at the support group.

Fletcher pointed out a picture that she and other women in the church gave Johnston last yearat her ordination: A shepherdess in a blue apron, surrounded by woolly sheep.

In contrast to the traditional picture of Christ, a man,as the Good Shepherd, "A feminine shepherd helps us recognize the feminine in God," says Fletcher. "It helps us to remember."

For Johnston, groups like the small gathering in her study are opportunities to experience God "from our own experiences of being women."

She blows out the candle as the session ends, gathers up the coffee mugs and homemade bread.

"God's feminine quality is alive in us. It's a very real spiritual experience -- not the kind you notice in the Bookof Common Prayer, though it's there," says Johnston.

"This is a chance to share my own appreciation of being a woman who loves God, and of having a God who loves women."

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