Sandra Beardsall, feminism and the church: Freethinker meeting part 3

I’m in the middle of a “long-winded” rundown of the Saskatoon Freethinker meetup I attended on Sunday morning. We’d invited Pastor Sandra Beardsall to talk to us about her experience in the United Church and the history of feminism from the church perspective. It was a great talk and incredibly interesting. I learned a lot and am now sharing it all with you lucky readers. If any readers were at the meeting and want to add comments (in case I screw something up or missed something important) please do so. This is part three. (Read one and two if you want before continuing).

Sandra is a professor of Church History and Ecumenics at St. Andrew’s College at the U of Saskatchewan and participates in research related to Christian history and the development of interfaith/interchurch dialogue. The first part of her talk focused on the beginning of Enlightenment. The second part focused on church reaction to that, and what sort of schisms and additional belief groups developed in opposition of it. Some like Christian liberalists found room for some of the tenets that gave Enlightenment its strength but others, like the Fundamentalists and Orthodox groups, took the growth of that human-centered ideology as a threat in many ways, and bolstered their own traditional beliefs and the necessity to hang onto them at all costs.

Something that played into all this was the changing role of women in the world, but more specifically in church settings. Sandra explained how Evangelical Revivalists welcomed women as active speakers on the road and they did well, converting audiences all over Canada and the U.S. Fundamentalists, on the other hand, held the word of God over the heads of women, restricting their role to only what men thought God himself mandated for them, which made teaching anything church-related a complete and utter no-no.

The Roman Catholics weren’t much better. Sure, they had nuns who’d do their bit of running around and charity work but it was declared early that women could never be ordained because it might impede attempts to create ecumenical relations with other Christian (etc) faiths. Was it because they assumed others wouldn’t like to see powerful women so they refused to let women have power? Maybe. Odd when you think of how much they’ll revere Mary, though. Still, some sects still hold tight to the belief that to ordain a woman by a bishop, especially through apostolic succession, would be a grave sin and churches that do so must be shunned, essentially.

For liberal protestant groups (in which Sandra’s United Church falls), the lack of bishop-based organization has allowed the groups and individuals a bit more latitude in terms of whether or not they feel women should be ordained and paid for their work. This arrangement gives women a bigger voice. Congregations can make more of their own decisions, which makes room for more feminist perspectives and more inclusion for women on account of it.

She said something then about the huge impact Puritanism has had on the way societies organize themselves, whether we’re talking through a church or secular living. The whole determinism, Calvinism, free will thing made just as big an impact as Descartes’ work did in his day. She also said that protestants had started to ordain women as early as the ’30s but there was a setup that made sure that if they married, they’d have to step down and be wives instead. “Because men needed them,” she said. We all laughed. Men could still minister and be husbands, though. This weird inequality hung on until 1962, if I read my writing correctly.

Sandra also mentioned that while she was doing her theology course work, she was instructed to relate to issues using inclusive language, not automatically genderize things to a masculine form all the time. This is when she got into why she can be a feminist and still remain with her church. That’ll be part 4 and the last.

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