Sandra Beardsall, feminism and the church: Freethinker meeting part 2

Last post has part one of this. Yesterday the Saskatoon Freethinkers met for their monthly get-together and this time around we’d invited Pastor Sandra Beardsall to talk to us about, well, feminism and its history in a church setting. The background’s been very fascinating but I’ll repeat what I said yesterday: if any Freethinkers who were there want to add comments, please do. I don’t think I’ll remember everything she said, even with all my notes. Parts three and four will be added later today. (It was a good meeting.) Links to relevant websites might happen if I get around to hunting, too.

Sandra is currently a professor of Church History and Ecumenics at St. Andrew’s College on the U of Saskatchewan campus. She participates in research related to Christian history and the development of interfaith/interchurch dialogue. The first part of her talk focused on the beginnings of Enlightenment and the effect that had on the Church and religious groups that developed on account of it, specifically the deists, the growth of orthodox churches, pietism, Evangelical movements and Spiritualists as well. Other groups grew out of those branches.

“Christian liberalism” was one she mentioned. They were the freethinkers of the church mindset in terms of believing in the freedom of thought, progress and the relevance of history. I scribbled Charles Darwin’s name at this section because she mentioned he was writing around the time this was developing. The liberalism movement allowed people to critically examine the bible and was not anti-science by any stretch. They were also the ones most ecumenical — and if you’re like me you need a definition of that: open to other Christian groups and communities. Since they supported progress, they understood that progress requires expanding your world of beliefs sometimes. You can’t get very far if you’re reluctant to encounter the new or different and engage with it on some level.

Revivalism and Fundamentalism found their footing around this time, too. Not progressive, linked in mindset to the pietism in terms of keeping God as a personal pal, and the idea that one’s experience with that trumps everything. The “Fundamentals” pamphlets had their run between 1910 and 1915 where all the proper fundamental beliefs were set down for believers, none of which were going to give a nod to Darwin’s work at all. Core bible or nothing. It’s where the “inerrent word of God” idea got started. Liberalists were willing to concede the likelihood that men had gone in and edited bible sections at a far later date and that could account for some of the odd inconsistencies; for Fundamentalists, the books were set down just the way God first intended them and had never been altered. Every confusion was meant to be there by God, as a personal challenge to believers, I suppose. And good luck to them…

The Roman Catholics dealt with this mess by closing in on themselves, pushing “ultramonitism”, or “return to the mountain” meaning a return to the original Roman roots of their faith in all its old traditional glory. “Retrenchment” was another word she used for it. More history gaps, alas, but the Roman Catholic Church used to command a lot of land in Italy and over time it got whittled away and bought out until all they had left was what makes up the rinkydink “nation” they call Vatican City.

She mentioned the French Revolution here and also the Plains of Abraham where the New France rebels got totally trounced by the British forces led by Wolfe and company. According to Sandra, many Quebecquers were actually glad the English won that because the result was a deal with the losers to let them keep their own language, culture, and religion so long as they didn’t try to rebel anymore. Sold! This helped the Roman Catholic Church stay relevant longer there, as they continued to have a say in how the culture operated, unlike Protestant groups that allowed for more local leeway. It allowed them to hold off modernism for as long as possible. Until the 1960s, apparently, when Pope John XXIII got in, threw up his hands and encouraged everyone to embrace the 20th century with him.

Something else that grew out of the Enlightenment, new faiths and restructuring the old ones: secularism. The 1800s saw the start of a movement to leave God out of things as much as possible. The belief that humans have the capacity to change the world without supernatural aid simmered for a good long while but really took off in Canada and elsewhere during the 1960s. What a decade that must have been. So much going on there.

Sandra mentioned that 1965 was the first year church attendance started to fall. Protestantism had a lot of growth up until then, and they have not gained much of it back in the time since. The Catholics held their membership better but even now in Quebec it’s sunk to 20% or less of the province, compared to topping attendance records across the world years earlier.

So how much of that was directly caused by secularism’s rise? She had no statistics on that, but it wasn’t coincidence. Time Magazine asked the question, “Is God Dead?” on the cover of their April 8th, 1966 issue. (The article’s up for reading. Isn’t the internet handy?) Sandra seemed to summarize it as concluding that the medieval concept of God should be, but, as we know, antiquated thoughts about God and the traditional beliefs of one’s faith are still prevalent in many circles.

She moved into the coming-of-age of Evangelical Revivalism, too. This was really the place where women were finding their voice and an audience to shout at, besides. She mentioned the impact Aimee Semple McPherson and Phoebe Palmer had. The Evangelical movement was really the first to start ordaining women and letting them have a position of some power. Since they believed in the power of a personal relationship with God, and if it felt like a message came from God then, by gum, it was a message worth telling people. If God could decide to talk to a woman… Well, a daft idea maybe, but who’d question God’s plan, right? God wants her to have her say so we’d better let her say it…

This is different from what the Fundamentalists were preaching. They held true to the Fundamental idea that Paul was right and women should shut up and let men do the talking on church-related issues. Each gender has a god-given role in this world, after all! Just read the bible! You’ll see!

Unfortunately, that “inerrant word of god” thing they pride themselves on when reading the bible is completely inaccurate and total bullshit (my word, not Sandra’s). There is clear evidence that early Pauline writing does not resemble books later attributed to him and it’s far more likely some are complete forgeries. She didn’t say that either; what she did suggest is that second century writers went in and simply updated the books to fit the time they were living and the beliefs about the role of women at that time, not Paul’s time, and certainly not Jesus’ time. Going by gospels (what else is there, after all?), Jesus had a lot of respect for women, she noted, and would have likely disagreed with later church doctrine that banned them from participating at all levels. There’s ample evidence in the earliest writings that women had an active role and voice for a while. She didn’t go into why that changed and I never thought to ask. It’s a good question, though. The Roman Catholics had an answer, though, and one I’ll get into for part 3.

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