Fifty years ago on 14 November 1971, Mary Daly became the first woman to preach in the chapel of Harvard University. Her sermon on the heresy of ‘sexist religion’ remains a powerful challenge to the churches and theological institutions, to women and men confronting a long history of patriarchy, self-hatred and fear. She concluded not in words but with an iconic feminist gesture. Daly called on those in the congregation who identified as ‘feminist’ to follow her in ‘exodus’ out of sexist religion — and then she walked out of the building. Fifty years later, here in Australia, we reflect on her action with a question: looking at the state of theological studies, should she also have walked away from the university campus?
After more than fifty years of feminist scholarship that reconfigures biblical interpretation, Christian doctrine, understanding of tradition, and ministry practice, much theological imagination and practice remains unchanged. Simply naming God as ‘Mother’ or ‘She’ remains uncommon, even radical. Institutionally, churches and their academies remain resistant to fully inclusive leadership.
In some contexts, feminist scholarship has influenced if not transformed curricula in university-level teaching of theology, and across other academic disciplines formal scrutiny of ‘gender equality’ has become a major prompt to action (not least through the Athena Swan initiative in the UK and elsewhere (https://www.advance-he.ac.uk/equality-charters/athena-swan-charter#what-is). But in Australia, gender inequality in academic theology remains evident and difficult to challenge. Women are routinely underrepresented and the structures do not change by simply adding new voices to the mix. The intersectional character of oppression means that gender inequality has consequences also for First Nations peoples, across other ethnicities and ‘race’, and across many ‘minorities’. These flaws in our institutions are clear impediments to hearing ‘good news’ in our context. Exodus remains costly, authentic pathways are narrow and the fruits of exile are hard to share in alien/ating lands. Yet liberation remains urgent and we remain hopeful that all may flourish.
The Australian Collaborators in Feminist Theologies invite expressions of interest from presenters at a feminist-informed seminar to be held on 12 November 2021, at the University of Divinity (St Paschal’s, Box Hill). We intend to host a day-long event of 30-minute presentations attending to m/any aspects of gender inequity in theology in Australia.
More information to follow; at this stage, please respond with ideas and enquiries to Stephen Burns at Stephen.Burns@pilgrim.edu.au
Stephen is Professor of Liturgical and Practical Theology in the University of Divinity. He is also Coordinator of Ministry Studies at Pilgrim Theological College, where he accompanies the candidates for public ministries of the church, and teaches across worship and ministry units. Further, he convenes the research work of the Australian Collaborators in Feminist Theologies.