Women in Church Leadership
Women in the Lectionary

This brochure is a reworking of Sr. Christine Schenk's longer article: Celebrating the Inclusive Jesus which was published in the February 2000 edition of Celebration. Schenk, who has master's degrees in midwifery and theology cites Sr. Ruth Fox's landmark article in the May/June issue of Liturgy90, as the most comprehensive study of women inexplicably excised from the Roman Catholic lectionary. Schenk lists just few of the most egregious examples here. For a more comprehensive study, the reader is referred to Fox's full length article.

Women in the Hebrew Scriptures

As a Catholic midwife, I am sorry to report that I never heard of two Hebrew midwives who were saviors of their people until I came upon them by accident on a retreat one year. I was despairing over ever getting a midwifery educational program off the ground in the face of stiff opposition from local obstetricians. Shiprah and Puah were waiting to console me in the back of my breviary. I couldn't believe that I had never before heard their powerful story .

The Exodus 1:8-22 weekday reading (Monday of fifteenth week of Ordinary Time [OT], year I) completely skips from verse 14 to verse 22 thereby eliminating the story of the midwives' brave nonviolent resistance to the Pharaohs order to kill all male Hebrew children. Had they obeyed him, Moses would never have grown to adulthood. What wonderful role models for following God and conscience rather than the death-dealing laws of the state. What great examples of "choosing life." But our sons and daughters will never hear about these women from a Catholic pulpit.

Other Hebrew women leaders that we never hear about are Huldah the prophet who is neatly excised from the middle of 2 Kings 22:8-13 (Wednesday, Twelfth Week of OT year II). Another deletion is the story of the mother of the Maccabee brothers (thirty second Sunday in OT). Although her valor is called "most admirable and worthy of everlasting remembrance (2 Maccabees 7:20) the Sunday reading stops short of the passage paying her tribute for encouraging her sons' bravery. Instead her story only rates a weekday mention.

Esther and Judith are recognized for stereotypical "feminine" attributes rather than their heroism and courage in saving the nation. Esther is proclaimed only in a Lenten weekday reading recording her prayer for strength. No mention is made of the bravery with which she saved her people. Judith is praised for her asceticism and physical beauty rather than the initiative, determination and courage with which she liberated a nation.

Women who Anointed Jesus

One of the most consistent and ironic lectionary omissions is one in which a woman takes the prophetic role of anointing Jesus' head (Mt. 26:6-13). Even though he promises: "I assure you, wherever the good news is proclaimed throughout the world, what she did will be spoken of in memory of her," most of us have never heard about the woman who seemed to understand Jesus' Paschal mission best.

In Matthew's Palm Sunday passion account (Year A), we see that even though the passage begins with the woman anointing Jesus, the lectionary omits these verses (26:6-13). The optional short version also concludes just before the mention of the faithful women who had followed Jesus to Jerusalem from Galilee. The Gospel reading for Wednesday of Holy Week repeats the Palm Sunday reading, again excluding the woman's anointing. The Palm Sunday passion reading from Marks' gospel in Year B again makes the anointing by a woman and the witness of women at the cross optional. Lastly, John's account of Mary of Bethany anointing Jesus at a banquet served by Martha, is not included in the reading of the passion on Good Friday but is only read on a weekday ...Monday in Holy Week.

The anointing passages we do hear about are those in which the woman is a penitent sinner who washes Jesus' feet with her hair. Our daughters and sons hear about this woman every year on Thursday of the 24th week in OT and on the Eleventh Sunday in O T (Year C). They may never hear about the prophetic woman who anointed Jesus' head to strengthen him in preparation for his passion. This reinforces the unfortunate notion that women and sin are invariably linked How often do we hear about Peter the repentant sinner even though he surely qualifies, as would Matthew the tax collector and Paul the tentmaker?

Mary Of Magdala

All four Gospels name Mary of Magdala and the other women disciples as the first to witness the resurrection. However the Easter Sunday Gospel stops just at the point of Jesus' appearance to her in the garden and his important apostolic commission: "Go to my brothers and tell them..." . Instead Peter and John's race to the tomb (John 20:1-9) is retold every Easter. If this weren't bad enough, homiletic mentions of Mary of Magdala invariably link her to the woman who was a public sinner, again reinforcing the woman-sinner motif. This occurs even though contemporary biblical scholarship shows there is no evidence that Mary was either a prostitute or a public sinner.

Inexplicably, this important account of Jesus' appearance to Mary in the Garden does not rate an appearance on any Sunday of the Easter season, but is assigned instead to a weekday, Easter Tuesday. Yet the story of Thomas and his doubts is read on the Second Sunday of Easter every year. This oversight can be especially painful to Christian women after their experience of the Holy Week liturgies in which they see women are the only ones to accompany Jesus through his crucifixion, burial, death and resurrection. To compound the difficulty, how many times have we heard the homiletic point that Jesus was "abandoned by everyone" in his final suffering hours. Everyone that is, but the women who again become invisible and discounted, though their presence must have meant a great deal to Jesus.

Women in the Acts of the Apostles

The readings for each of the Sundays of Easter focus on the activities of Peter, Paul, Barnabas and Stephen. The woman leaders in Acts...Tabitha, Lydia and Prisca are featured only in the weekday readings of the Easter season. In fact most Catholics are completely unaware that there even were woman leaders in the early churches. And no wonder since they are rarely if ever mentioned on Sundays.

Ways to Celebrate an Inclusive God in Jesus Christ

  1. Be aware of historic androcentric bias in both Hebrew and Christian texts and try to alleviate it through inclusive proclamation and preaching. Change references to "Abraham, Isaac and Jacob" either by referring to our "ancestors in the faith"(now standard in the NRSV) or by including Sarah, Rebecca and Rachel. When texts (particularly psalms and other Hebrew Scripture readings) refer only to "sons" as being the important offspring consider proclaiming "daughters and sons," "offspring," "heirs"or"children."
    When the readings mention Jesus' women disciples by name (Joanna, Susanna, Mary of Bethany, Martha, Mary of Magdala etc); or mention is made of the prominent women leaders of the early church (Prisca, Phoebe, Junia, Lydia etc.) take the opportunity to educate about Jesus' inclusive practice . Women (and especially the girl-children) in our congregations can then begin to see themselves in the Gospel stories in roles other than repentant sinners, "gentiles", or in need of healing.
  2. Some Churches have begun a "Woman and the Word" column in their parish bulletin. Competent women write their reflections on the readings of the day. In this way the parish can become educated in contemporary biblical scholarship, see the scriptures through a woman's experience and recognize and make visible women's homiletic and ministerial gifts. It is also an opportunity to see and hear women proclaiming the Good News of Jesus' salvation as integral to their feminism.
  3. In proclamation, reinstate the women leaders excised by Lectionary texts. (see John Huels book: More Disputed Questions on the Liturgy for the canonical legality of adding verses).
  4. Celebrating the feasts of St. Mary of Magdala (July 22), the women Doctors of the Church Catherine of Siena and Teresa of Avila, the many Mary feasts, and other prominent women saints such as Julian of Norwich, Claire of Assisi and Therese of Lisieux provide other valuable opportunities to make Jesus' women disciples and contemporary biblical scholarship better known to our congregants. An added bonus is to provide preaching opportunities for qualified women and men lay ministers. During Advent I have often reflected about how much our communities could be enriched by hearing the good news preached through the eyes of an expectant mother. On the several occasions this occurred in my own parish our advent expectation was heightened leading to even deeper joy at Christmas time.
  5. Holy Week is a particularly fruitful time to promote gender balanced proclamation of the good news. It is not difficult to notice the heroic fidelity of Jesus' women disciples during this week. Alternatively, when women do not see themselves included our holy week celebrations may unwittingly become no small source of pain.

Liturgical leaders could reinstate the Palm Sunday account of the woman who anointed Jesus, finally keeping his promise to tell the story "in memory of her." Many churches hold Tenebrae services in which prepared women preside. Others include a woman presider with the priest presider(s) at the Good Friday Commemoration of the Passion.

Yet another Good Friday celebration features the many readings pertaining to the women who followed Jesus. Hymns and brief reflections by selected women are interspersed with the Scripture readings. I attended such an ecumenical celebration at a nearby parish last year. It was held at noon before the regular service and was an empowering experience for all the women and men who attended.

Surely the Triduum celebrations when Jesus' women disciples stood so faithfully at his side from cross to tomb to resurrection, could constitute "special occasions" for prepared women to preach. This gives gender balance and visibility to faithful women during this most solemn and joyous time of the Church year. Needless to say, it would be wise to temper references to Jesus' abandonment "by all," without at the same time diminishing the depths of the cup He drank on our behalf.

A Last Chance with Youth

I hope I have provided sufficient biblical and liturgical information to encourage creative approaches to worship which will help women and girls experience greater inclusion in their religious home. Undoubtedly there are many other suggestions.
I would welcome hearing them.

One final point. It is important to acknowledge by our preaching and our actions that we are still struggling to fully incorporate Jesus' inclusive vision in our Church and in society. We have not yet reached the full gender inclusion to which belief in Jesus calls us. Such acknowledgement both validates the experience of the marginalized and grounds preaching about Jesus' liberating vision in the lived experience of the faithful. If such issues are not acknowledged, people especially the young, may slip sorrowfully away believing the Gospel to be sexist, hypocritical or hopelessly out of date.

Like Paul, we must witness our awareness that "all of creation cries aloud in great travail" until the Spirit of God in Christ comes again to make us whole. Perhaps the poet Rainier Marie Rilke says it best: "The least we can do is make His becoming not more difficult for Him than the earth makes it for the spring when it wants to come."

Written by Sr. Christine Schenk csj
A Call for National Dialogue on Women in Church Leadership
was developed by FutureChurch in partnership with Call to Action.