Conference Names, Bridges Gaps for Women of the Word

On June 13th 130 energetic women and men attended FutureChurch’s first ever Women and the Word: Bridging the Gap conference at Mount St. Mary College in Los Angeles. Presenters and participants worked to develop strategies for "bridging the gap" between the leadership of biblical and historical women leaders in the early Church and what most churchgoers experience today. The conference was designed to retrieve the historical memory of biblical women and to overcome obstacles to gender-balanced proclamation of scripture in churches.

Internationally acclaimed biblical scholar, Dr. Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza gave an inspired morning keynote Wo/men of the Word - Reclaiming Our Power of Memory. Her presentation grounded a subsequent small group process identifying what was heard, and "naming the gaps" between the practice of Jesus and the first century Church and the practice of the Church today. Here are some of the gaps named:

Insights from Keynote:

Panelists speak frankly:

Four female pastoral ministers from diverse cultural backgrounds comprised the afternoon panel addressing pastoral implications of the conference theme, especially as they relate to the experience of Catholic parishes. The panelists noted that women who work in minority cultures need to be rooted in and sensitive to the distinctive ways in which women claim influence in their particular cultures. For example, pastoral associate Fe Musgrave stressed the matriarchal nature of the Philippines where there is a strong reliance on strong, older women as wisdom figures.

Each panelist spoke from her own personal story and life experiences. Many named their sense of standing on the shoulders of the strong mothers, grandmothers, aunts and mentors—women who had gone before. Maria Covarrubias, director of the Office of Catechetical Ministry for the Diocese of San Bernardino, shared her story of breaking up with her fiancé rather than acquiesce to the dominant machismo in Latin culture. This allowed her to negotiate a far more equal partnership in her happy marriage. Pastoral associate Juliette Marsh Williams told of writing to the Pope at age twelve about the lack of female altar servers. She is now studying Canon Law to understand exactly what ministerial and pastoral possibilities are open for women. Campus minister Sheryl Lange spoke of those who supported her on her journey to be an expert in catechesis from the black perspective. While all panelists spoke with hope and obvious energy and enthusiasm for their ministry, it became clear that women’s ministry is contingent on sympathetic male leaders. It can be severely constrained by the existing male power structure in the Church. Bishops and Pastors have the ultimate authority to hire and fire and thus control all opportunities for women to serve in leadership.

The rest of the afternoon was devoted to small group work identifying strategies for bridging the gap between early church practice and today, as well as what conference attendees wanted to say to church leaders.

What To Say to Church leaders:

Among other things, participants wanted to tell church leaders of the need for greater openness and education, for working collaboratively and charitably, for inclusive language, and the application of Catholic social justice teachings in the church itself. Other pointed questions were considered:

Over Forty Strategies Identified

A wide range of strategies were identified…everything from studying canon law to being grounded in contemplative prayer. Some especially creative actions included using social networking sites such as Facebook, My Space and Twitter, increasing media activism via letter writing and working to get innovative ministries highlighted in religious news coverage. Attendees wanted to encourage men to be educated about the early church and help them understand the importance of recognizing and supporting the gifts of women. Strategies fell in the following four major areas:

This conference could never have happened without the commitment, passion and planning skills of a group of ten women from various educational and pastoral settings in Ohio and southern California. Underwriting support came from two special benefactors in Los Angeles, and from a number of communities of women religious, including but not limited to these congregations:

Benedictine Sisters of Baltimore, Sisters of the Divine Savior, Congregation of St. Joseph, Sisters of Providence of St. Mary of the Woods, Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, Los Angeles Province; Leadership of Sisters of St. Joseph, West Hartford, CT.

Another Women and the Word: Bridging the Gap Conference will be held on November 6 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. We will have a special focus on preaching with a keynote will be given by Sr. Dianne Bergant, CSA, Professor of Old Testament Studies at Chicago’s Catholic Theological Union and the author of Preaching the New Lectionary: Cycles A, B, and C and People of the Covenant. Sr. Chris Schenk and Ms. Barbara Guerin, chair of the Women Ministry Committee at her parish in Irvine, CA, will explore practical ways of overcoming obstacles to gender- balanced proclamation of the Word.

A complete list of strategies and other outcomes of the June 13 California Conference, as well as Dr. Schussler Fiorenza’s presentation, is available on the FutureChurch website.

Focus on FutureChurch

Summer 2009


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