Vol. 10, No. 7 email@example.com www.thespiritualherald.org July 2011 © 2011 Eastern Tsalagi Publishing Co.
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Newcomers Facing Traditionalists in a Tug-of-War Struggle
By Megan Larkin
WASHINGTON--A silent storm is brewing to put “the people” in church pulpits--women, lay members, minorities and other faithful—who find the church doors locked against them by traditionalists who want no “outsiders.”
Women priests denied the pulpit are in the forefront, and backed by some strong advocates.
“Something is bubbling now,” Suzanne Thiel, president of Roman Catholic Women Priests, told The Spiritual Herald. “We’re not going away and it seems to be snowballing and developing. We seem to be a thorn in their side.”
A movement comprised of laity, priests, ministers, and religious organizations is challenging the inequality that has become an accepted part of many churches and they are rapidly moving closer to implementing hierarchical and cultural shifts which could change the course of these religions forever.
Two secretive meetings of religious leaders have already been scheduled for the remainder of the year to develop plans for implementing widespread change. John Hushon, co-chair of the American Catholic Council, commented, “We’ll start seeing meetings around the country of priests who are banding together. They are going to stand up and take notice.”
Groups are now saying, “we’ve had it, we want a change and we’re not leaving,” according to Thiel. Despite their violation of the Catholic Church’s Canon Law 1024 forbidding female priests, the Roman Catholic Women Priests stand up against religious inequality by preparing and ordaining women.
Many feel deeply rooted within their religious identities and cannot imagine leaving them. “What you hear women say over and over again is ‘I am Catholic. I was born Catholic. You can’t take Catholicity away from me,’” said Thiel.
Progress in the fight for equality is an indication of inevitable change to come. Voices are getting louder and although the movement has been relatively quiet thus far, it will not be silent for long.
However, some pundits claim that inequality is inherent within religions. “It is part of religious liberty that churches can believe whatever they want and they believe a remarkable variety of different things,” declared Douglas Laycock, J.D., Professor of Law at the University of Virginia.
“All of those beliefs are protected. In some states the right to act on those beliefs is protected. Probably everywhere the right to do core internal things like decide who is going to be a minister is protected.
“With respect to women clergy or gay clergy in particular, the right to decide the criteria for your own ministers and to choose individuals who are going to be entrusted with religious leadership is almost certainly beyond the states power to interfere with,” Laycock said, adding:
“A lot of benefits are granted with religious liberty in all these different religious organizations and some of them are going to do attractive things with it and some are going to do unattractive things with it. That’s inherent in the nature of giving people liberty."
Inequality has not only been tolerated but accepted within the religious context. Blatant and undisputed discrimination exists along various lines including gender, sexuality, and race. In the face of inequality, groups in opposition have two choices: fight or flight.
History has shown that choosing to flee is a viable option. Martin Luther and John Calvin demonstrated this during the Reformation in which new denominations were formed and proved to be just as strong and long-standing as those already established.
Despite historical success gained from fleeing, today there is a consensus that the most effective gains are achieved not through flight, but fight. Recently there has been a significant increase of groups in opposition to imposed unequal practices that have committed to this course rather than simply leaving to find or create a new denomination.
Rev. Hickman Alexandre, the Priest-in-Charge at St. James’ Episcopal Church in Long Island, NY, is one such expert who feels this way. As a black priest in charge of two mixed race congregations, Rev. Alexandre believes that progress has already been made in the war against inequality due to the willingness of past leaders to stand up and fight.
To Alexandre the progress achieved by St. James’ Episcopal Church “comes from generations of leaders getting up and challenging the status quo. The civil rights movement happened in the Episcopal Church when people stayed steady and pushed the leadership of the church to initiate these changes.”
Had leaders in past generations chosen to flee instead of fight, “we would have separate but unequal,” Rev. Alexandre added.
Whereas in the past religious groups have broken away in response to differences, a renewed emphasis on religious identity has inspired groups to enact change within the framework of their current religion.
Hushon also acknowledges the importance of religious identity in fueling the movement towards change and adds an element of responsibility. He states that these people “are those who believe that we have a birthright and that we’re just as much a part and we are just as much this church as anyone else. And we have the right to demand what we believe is appropriate for our church.” Challenging practices that promote inequalities is not only a right but a duty.
In June the American Catholic Council held a gathering in Detroit of 1,800-2,000 people “rigorously involved in attempting to reform the Catholic Church and make it more inclusive.” The ACC has become a driving force in the effort to make the Catholic Church more democratic and give a voice back to the people. These groups “want to see it change its clericalist structure so lay people can be included,” added Harvey Cox, Hollis Research Professor of Divinity at Harvard University.
The incidence of small groups of hierarchical elite acting as a religion’s sole voice is not restricted to Christianity and Judaism. Cox added, “I see this as a movement which is not confined to one religion but that is visible in various ways and to various degrees in other ones as well. I think the whole thing will continue.”
In his book, The Future of Faith, Professor Cox references the Soka Gakkai, a lay Buddhist movement in which millions were excommunicated by a small group of priests for their belief that lay people should have a greater voice. “It has the same emphasis,” added Cox, “which is that lay people ought to take responsibility for spreading the teachings and the values of Buddhism.”
Resistance to change stems from sincere beliefs about what is best for a religion as well as reluctance by those in power to give up control. Although there may be some religious leaders who sincerely believe that removing inequalities is wrong and against their faith, many are using inequalities as a tool to maintain power.
The Catholic Church has been no stranger to power struggles. Thiel stated: “Of course we certainly know that there is a power and control issue here when it comes to the Vatican and the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. It is a male control issue. There is no question about that.”
The Church has a rich history of establishing rules to fulfill ulterior motives. Celibacy, for example, was originally enforced as a way to keep land and property in the hands of the Church. Justifying inequalities under the guise of following core religious principles would allow those currently in power to keep it by establishing superiority and minimizing competition.
Understanding this resistance has not deterred alternative groups in their fight for equality--it seems to have inspired them to fight harder.
Hushon added that the “movement is getting larger and larger” and he predicts that it will soon reach a critical mass at which point huge gains will be made.
“We could see some very interesting things as acts of resistance. We could see two weeks in a row significant numbers of people who don’t give anything in the collection bowl. We could see two or three weeks in a row at the end of this year where nobody shows up to give communion. Or nobody shows up to read. Or nobody shows up to teach,” he said.
Those in power are seeing the vulnerability of their position. The movement not only consists of lay people but includes religious leaders who are speaking out together. Reports of disobedience are increasing and in the Catholic Church in particular priests are deliberately disobeying orders of higher authorities with no repercussions.
The Catholic Church hierarchy has growing concern about the low priest to laity ratio which leaves them powerless to penalize priests who challenge it. This power shift provides leverage to those fighting for equality and will fuel continued confrontations felt throughout all levels of the church hierarchy--pews to pulpit.
The movement’s leverage will continue to grow along with its numbers, inspiring bigger and bolder attempts to challenge the status quo.