Ageless Grace

Last weekend I attended a symposium called “Ageless Grace: Women in Leadership in the Church and in the World” at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University. There were two main presenters with two responders on stage, and then a period of questions and answers after each. The first presenter was Melanne Verveer, U.S. Ambassador at Large for Global Women’s Issues. The second was M. Cathleen Kaveny, Professor of Law and Theology at Notre Dame University. It reminded me of all the things I loved about my education at a Jesuit university. For Quakers and for Roman Catholics, on our best days, we share a fearless approach to knowledge as a reflection of God in the world.

What follows is not a description of what the speakers said. This blogpost began as I was asked to share my reflections and reactions at the end of the day, but then the event ran over time, for the best of reasons, and I didn’t get to speak, so I’ve tried to arrange my notes into something slightly more coherent. I may still edit this further for a longer article. As a Quaker, an alumna and a woman in church leadership, I was grateful for the opportunity to reflect on my practice with other women theologians.

Some of what I treasure most about Quaker tradition are the examples of my foremothers. Women who preached the Gospel and traveled far and hard in response to God’s leading.

Women many people have heard of, like Lucretia Coffin Mott and Elizabeth Fry. And like Mary Dyer, who was hanged on Boston Common for daring to preach her Quaker heresy in Massachusetts Bay Colony. Or Margaret Fell, the nursing mother of Quakerism, who wrote a tract in 1667 called “Women Speaking: Justified, Proved and Allowed of by the Scriptures, All such as speak by the Spirit and Power of the Lord Jesus and how Women were the first that Preached the Tidings of the Resurrection of Jesus and were sent by Christ’s own Command, before he ascended to the Father, John 20:17.” For more examples, I recommend the book, Daughters of the Light by Rebecca Larson.

These examples are a gift of Quaker history. It’s not that the Religious Society of Friends is or ever has been free of sexism but no one can point to our tradition and say that’s the way it’s supposed to be.

Inspiring examples of Quaker women are not all long ago and far away. It’s not only the province of extraordinary individuals whose example we could never live up to. They include women who are teaching alternatives to violence right now. Women who are pastoring and preparing to preach, right now.

Inspiring examples also include the women who spoke that afternoon. Women who are letting their lives preach as well as their words. Women who are advocating for truth and justice in their church and in the world.

Women my age and younger have so many examples before us. It’s getting a lot harder to be the first woman to do anything. On the other hand, we won’t have to be the first to do everything.

One benefit of the breadth and length of history is seeing multiple examples of how to be a woman in leadership in the church and the world. For me, it is deeply important that I can be a mother and a minister. But not everyone has to do it my way. God calls each of us by name, not by category.

Another gift of Quaker theology is our understanding of the role of the Holy Spirit - how God is speaking to all of us all the time. Our job is to listen, to try to understand with all our faculties, and to obey God’s leading. But fear gets in the way. I think fear is the single greatest obstacle to hearing and obeying when God calls us to change our minds, our practices, our society, our church institutions.

God’s guidance is more like a sacred compass than a GPS. Jesus gives us a steady point to steer by and gauge our progress, not step by step directions to our destination. (Thank you, Brent Bill, for the metaphor.) Two clichés that come to mind as appropriate for this discussion are “the bigger the ship, the longer it takes to turn it around” and “it’s always darkest before the dawn.”

I did get to have my little input after all. The last question that was read was mine. I asked, “Do you think that all the chaotic, painful events in the relationship of church and society these days are the death knell of religion or the birth pangs of a new role for the church/faith community in the world?”

And here’s my answer: Of course it’s both. A lot of old structures are dying, and some of them are thrashing around and shouting loudly on their way out. But because human beings have an innate capacity for and need for spirituality, new ways of being religious are being born. Those structures that “encourage flourishing,” as Cathleen Kaveny put it, will survive.

I pray for the strength and grace to follow God and lead Friends into ways that encourage flourishing.

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Blogger Chris M. said...

Nicely said, especially your response to your own question.


3/27/2012 4:32 PM  
Blogger Robin M. said...

Thanks, sweetheart. The support of men like you is another gift in my life and for women everywhere.

3/27/2012 7:01 PM  
Blogger cubbie said...

i'm a fan of your response to your question, as well. :-)

3/29/2012 9:09 PM  
Blogger Robin M. said...

Thanks cubbie, I think this is a good time to move forward from the deconstruction and into new flourishing!

And I had a good time. I connected with old friends and made new friends. Pretty good for a 24 hour trip.

4/01/2012 9:11 PM  

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