Feminist theology a critical theology of liberation

Feminist theology is a global theology, or rather, a family of contextual theologies committed to the struggle for justice for women and the transformation of society. It is therefore a critical theology of liberation1 engaged in the reconstruction of theology and religion in the service of this transformation process, in the specificity of the many contexts in which women live. Whereas in European and North American contexts the term 'feminist theology5 is most frequently accepted, in other parts of the globe, in order to heighten visibility, recognise identity and respect the diversity of experiences and goals, the different theologies of Asian, African and Latin American women have acquired their own distinctiveness, together with Womanist theology (the theology of the United States black American women and women of colour)/ and Mujerista theology (the liberation theology of Hispanic women).3 Increasingly emergent is the spirituality of, for example, indigenous American Indian women and indigenous Indian women in Latin America, as well as of aboriginal women in Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific.

If there is a commonality of purpose in all this diversity, it is the liberation of humankind together with all sentient life. The words of the American poet Adrienne Rich are widely inspirational:

My heart is touched by all I cannot save; So much has been destroyed I have to cast my lot in with those who with no extraordinary power re-constitute the world.4

Here, after charting the origins of such diverse theologies, I will describe feminist theologies in a four-pronged method, namely, as new aware-nessy new academic discipline^ new culture and etbic9 and new spiritual quest5

New awareness

The origins of feminist theology in the Northern Hemisphere are usually associated with the secular feminist movement which followed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights at the end of the eighteenth century with the struggle for equal rights for women/ It is generally maintained that the nineteenth-century movement lost its momentum after suffrage for women was achieved in 1920, became quiescent, and revived in the 1960s although many would dispute this analysis7 which certainly does not fit the experience of women in the Southern Hemisphere. The early movement was strongly influenced by such works as Mary Wollstonecraft's On the Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792), This liberal feminist agenda had a twofold aim: it focused on the historical exclusion of women from the spheres where men, traditionally, held power - political, economic, educational and religious - and aimed, first, to dismantle the historical structures of patriarchal laws which denied women rights, and second, to achieve equal access for women to all these spheres/ This became the focus in the United States, and there, from the beginning, religious women were prominent in the leadership: especially active in the movement were such figures as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, author of the Women's Bible Project* the Grimke sisters, Susan B, Anthony and Matilda Jocelyn Gage.10 Though the struggle for the vote was achieved for white women in 1920, the fact that black women were not included caused a deep rift between black and white women which, sadly, is not yet healed.

Even at this early stage it was felt that the Equal Rights Agenda did not address the complexity of women's experience; the nineteenth-century split between public and private spheres of life also disguised hidden areas of oppression in the home. Thus Romantic feminism - characterised by the slogan 'The Rising of the Woman is the Rising of the Race' - focuses on a presumed superiority of women in the private sphere and the qualities of caring, tenderness and nurture which women are supposed to both symbolise and embody, {This tendency is frequently caricatured as the fi Angel in the House5 symbol),11 What is needed, says Romantic feminism, is for these qualities to transform public life, characterised as it is by a male, competitive and aggressive culture. Its most essentialist form appears as the Eternal feminine1, which attributes the above-mentioned qualities to women as part of a divinely-ordered creation.11 Rosemary Radford Ruether classifies Romantic feminism in three types - as conservative, as reformist, (reforming, society through feminine' attributes», and the radical/separatist which r^r'-di^res ctIzzrt fr?r the ^utoclin world ot the good VrSroc" s ^ ¿L nozirescei iseolc^y, it remains problematic in lacking an analytic framework for understanding women's place in the social structures, as well as resting on an essentialist understanding of gender.

Radical or separatist feminism, resting on the belief that the person is political, rejects the patriarchal culture of domination/submission, challenges traditional notions of family and romantic love as means to control the identity and lives of women for patriarchal ends, and develops an alternative woman-identified culture- Thus radical feminism has exposed the violent means used to control women - such as rape, pornography and domestic violence - and claims that the structure of the patriarchal family and motherhood as institution arose over the securing of inheritance rights. It celebrates women's culture and space and aims to liberate from male-controlled spaces. But in so doing it fails to address the many other oppressions from which both women and men suffer, for example, those of class, race and heterosexism.

Therefore socialist feminism insists on a class analysis and criticises radical feminism for its lack of attention to these factors. Not only does it challenge the equal rights agenda and seek to articulate a much more comprehensive analysis of women's oppression, but it focuses on the sexual division of work as its central but not as its exclusive lens. Socialist feminism asserts that neither liberalism nor Marxism is enough. The structural analysis of work conditions outside the home exclusively, renders the economic basis of women's reproductive work invisible. Women are productive and reproductive and the whole area of housework and child-rearing, of responsibility for the home and care for the elderly, should be taken into the struggle for juster structural relationships between women and men.

Feminist theologies reflect all these strands of secular feminism: indeed they are dependent on and in dialogue with the analyses of secular feminism. The growing realisation that the concept of the human subject, the familiar 'man', was gender-blind - now uncovered in anthropology, sociology, psychology, philosophy, literature and the sciences - was the catalyst for the development of feminist theology as a new consciousness and a new awareness.

It was an awareness that the religions, too, operated with this gender-blindness, and that the Christian churches failed to promote the full humanity of women in their structures of theology, and what was worse, legitimised the subordination and victimisation of women by recourse to Scripture and tradition to show that this was the part of God's plan for creation. Hence it is not enough, as Elizabeth Schiissler Fiorenza writes, for the work of feminist theology to understand the sacred texts in their historical settings. Tradition is also 'a source of untruth, repression and domination'.H Feminist

theology^ task is therefore twofold: to uncover the theologies and institutional practices which perpetuate the injustices inflicted on women and deny their full human subjectivity; and constructively, to create a liberated and liberating theology. Thus whether feminist theologians stay within the churches - and many women have a deep, abiding loyalty to and hope for the Church15 - or choose to leave because, for them, the inherited patriarchal tradition is irredeemably sexist (the position of, for example, Daphne Hampson, Mary Daly and Carol Christ}, there is a common focus on theology as the praxis of transformation,1*

For many Roman Catholic feminists - such as Rosemary Radford Ruether, Elizabeth Schiissler Fiorenza, Mary Daly and Catherine Halkes - the dawn of the new consciousness coincided with the Second Vatican Council (i962-5). Mary Daly describes {in The Church and the Second S<?£T7) how the wind of change which the council documents inaugurated created enormous hope that the injustice inflicted on women through the centuries would be replaced by the just structural relationships between women and men in the Church.18 The emphasis on the Church as the people of God, the emphasis on the mission of baptism for every Christian, the dignity of the lay apostolate, for example, raised the expectations of women. Correspondingly, the disillusionment which followed was the catalyst for many women leaving the Church, But for many other women - from all denominations - the consciousness-raising process began earlier and owes much to the ecumenical work of the World Council of Churches since its foundation in 1948.1* Much of the early work was therefore achieved in the context for the struggle for the ordination of women10 although built in from the beginning of the process were the wider issues of justice for women on a world-wide scale as the programme The Community of Women and Men in the Church5 witnesses.21 There was also from the beginning an awareness that context made a difference to the articulation of feminist theology, and serious attempts began to make the connections between feminist theology and liberation theology.11 On a European level there are two networks where women theologians are active - in a more or less explicitly feminist way, although this is sometimes disputed - namely, the European Ecumenical Forum of Christian Women (EFECW), and the European society of Women in Theological Research (ESWTR). The latter, which held its first Conference at Magliaso in Switzerland in 1985, now publishes a Jarhbuch, of which the first volume was devoted to Feminist Theology in a European Context (1993), and the second to Ecofeminism and TheologyIts special focus is the struggle of women in theology both in academic institutions and working as independent scholars, and with that in mind the Society holds biennial conferences, the different regions organising their own networks.

There is an attempt to work in a broadly based manner beyond Christian theology, to include Jewish and Islamic scholars: for four years the Society had a Jewish vice-President, Dr Evelyn Goodman-Thau from Jerusalem, The Forum is more rooted in the Christian Churches of Europe: it holds an Assembly every four years, and maintains networks on a very wide scale across Europe, Since 1989 it has made valuable links with the women in the churches of Eastern Europe. The third networking is a European Synod of Women. The first event, which gathered more than a thousand women together, took place at Gmünden, Austria, and further events are planned.

But women from the Southern Hemisphere followed a different process which is usually associated with the development of the Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians (EATWOT).14 EATWOT's birth in 1976 had been preceded by a decade of heightening awareness of the common problems of 'Third World' countries, politically, economically and socio-culturally* The actual association, which began in Dar es Salaam in 1976, had as its aim, *the continuing development of Third World Christian theologies which will serve the church's mission in the world and witness to the new humanity in Christ expressed in the struggle for a just socictyV* Its theology was from the beginning contextual, liberational, and ecumenical and the primacy of praxis was its hallmark. But the real breakthrough for women did not come until EATWOT's fifth conference in New Delhi, in 1981. As Virginia Fabella relates, the women felt that their contribution was not taken seriously, that despite the supportive statements regarding women's equality and the declarations against sexism in all the past conference documents> the reality was different. Both disturbed and disappointed, the EATWOT women decided it was time to demand their rightful place not only in socicty but in the association as well, Oduyoye [Mercy Amba Oduyoye from Ghana, MG] referred to this as the 'eruption within the eruption' in her assessment of the Delhi event/6

This eruption had an influence on the final statement of the Delhi Conference. Clause 7 of the statement reads: *Just as the experience of the Third world as a true source for theology must be taken seriously, so also must the common experience of women in their liberational struggle be taken seriously5 (p, 30), In 1983 the EATWOT Women's Commission was born and a process of work in four phases inaugurated, from national, to continental, to intercontinental and to global in 1987, This final phase was envisaged as a dialogue between First and Third World women, a dialogue which finally took place at Costa Rica in December X994/7

The women theologians from each regional group expressed the emphases of their theology distinctively: for example, the Latin American theologians characterised liberation theology from women's perspective as unifying, relational, free (with the freedom of those who have nothing to lose), marked by humour, joy and celebration and filled with a spirituality of hope. The Asian women began the characterisation of their theology by denouncing oppression of women as systemic sin, and accusing both theology and the churches as having contributed to the subjugation and marginalisation of women and of having 'blurred the image of God that we are1; further that the bias against women in the Christian tradition is buttressed by male-oriented Asian beliefs. But just as they uncovered the hidden realities of faith which oppressed women, so they rediscovered empowering elements of gospel faith and expressed solidarity with all oppressed peoples. Among the resolutions emerging from the two meetings of African women theologians in 1986 were the commitment to participate in the holistic human development to eliminate the life-denying developments in Church and society, and to work toward eliminating racism, abject poverty and the neglect of rural areas, in a theological framework in which men and women together image God and neither is complete without the other. After this historic development, feminist theology could not be articulated without the voices of Third World women. The awareness that Cthc maps they gave us were out of date5 (the phrase is Adrienne Rich's),18 the need for new cartographies to map the categories of thinking about the human person, has evolved to a complex and continuing process as yet more pieces of the jigsaw come to light, as more of the suppressed voices are 'heard into speech'/3

Alongside Mujerista theology - the distinctive theology arising from Hispanic women in the United States50 and their experience of being forced into being a permanent underclass - womanist theology continues to grow in stature as a powerful voice for the experience of black women in the United States. Owing its name to Alice Walker's phrase in In Search of our Mothers3 Gardens, 'womanist1 is defined as

1. From womanish (Opp. of 'girlish5 i.e. frivolous, irresponsible, not serious). A black feminist or feminist of color. From the black folk expression of mothers to female children, 'you acting womanish* . . . Usually referring to outrageous, audacious, courageous or willful behavior. Wanting to know more and in greater depth than is good for one ., , Responsible. In chargc. Serious. 1, Also: a woman who loves other women, sexually and/or non-sexuaily. Appreciates and prefers women's culture, women's emotional flexibility___Committed to survival and wholeness of whole people, male and female.*1

Womanist theology has a double origin. It distinguishes itself from Black theology, because it claims that black men did not include black women in their analysis, But it also distinguishes itself from Euro-American feminist theology, which, it claims, ignores the realities of race and class in its agenda, reducing the oppression of women to sexism alone. White women, say the womanist theologians, do suffer from oppression qua women; but vis-a-vis black women they are privileged because of the benefits which whiteness, and often class privilege, bring in a racist, unequal society. Thus, writes Emilie Townes, 'the most common understanding of womanist is that she is a woman committed to an integrated analysis of race, gender, class ,, . Womanist thought is intentionally and unapologetically biassed. Its bias is for a diverse and faithful community of witnesses',3*

The second distinctive feature of womanist theology is its anchor in the Black Church. The social structure, the world-views of the people, the very life of the Church, 'all are resources and guardians of communal memory and accountability. Academic theological discourse is also a part of womanist reflection and thought.'33 This is in sharp contrast with Western feminism, with its secular roots and the many situations of estrangement between women and institutional Christian Church.

Academic discipline

Feminist theology as an academic discipline has a somewhat varied career. Like all theologies of liberation, it attempts to keep its anchor and roots in the grassroots struggle; as such it runs into the Scylla of being considered ephemeral, lightweight, of being a 'changeling in the academy5,34 substituting a biased kind of activism for solid theology; on the other hand it runs into the Charybdis of being accused of over-intellectualising, of losing touch with the grassroots, when it engages with feminist theory from such disciplines as psychoanalysis, literary criticism, philosophy, history and anthropology. But it is when the feminist theological analysis manages to keep in a creative tension both with feminist theory and with the many struggles of women against oppression, that it is at its most authentic. As a critical theology of liberation there is no discipline of traditional theology to which it does not make a contribution. This contribution has become sophisticated and diverse in the last twenty years, for example, in Biblical Studies* From a rather naive initial attempt to highlight the forgotten or hidden stories of biblical women, three distinct types of interpretations have emerged.

The first, which might be called the literary-critical approach {illustrated by, for example, Phyllis Trible35), focuses on the androcentric nature of individual literary units of the Bible, 'cleans them up' and tries to present them as liberating for women. Important as this may be, the approach ignores the androcentric, patriarchal and oppressive context in which the entire text was produced.

The second approach - characteristic of Rosemary Radford Ruether, Letty Russell, Carter Heyward, and many others - privileges a certain strand of the Bible over against others, namely the 'prophetic-messianic dimension1 with which, so Ruether claims, the Bible constantly critiques itself, recalling itself to God's authentic purposes for humanity, Ruether places Jesus in this same prophetic tradition: Jesus is the kenosis of patriarchy: Christie personhood goes before us, constantly calling humanity to yet more liberating forms of relation.36 This approach - with which I am in considerable sympathy - yet encounters the difficulty that it arbitrarily discounts large chunks of the Bible as not belonging to the inner 'liberating core*.

The third approach, of which Elizabeth Schussler Fiore^a is the most famous exponent, simply assumes that the Bible is thoroughly androcentric in origin and production. Yet Fiorenza acknowledges the ambiguity of the Bible functioning in both oppressive and liberating ways in the lives of women. Using a criterion derived from the contemporary struggle of women for liberation, she identifies what is liberating in the Jesus movement of the first century as in its deepest intuition promoting the full humanity of women in Christian community as T)iscipleship of Equals5.37 Although the patriarchal structure of the household was soon to stifle the leadership role of women in the first flowering of the Christian Church, Fiorenza claims that this basic intuition was never totally lost. It is the task of feminist biblical hermeneutics of liberation to recover and restore women to their egalitarian position within Christian community and society through a four-pronged method of a hermeneutic of suspicion^ of proclamation, of remembrance, and of creative actualization}* The crucial importance of reclaiming biblical traditions in the service of achieving just relations between women and men in the Church as a whole cannot be over-emphasised. Here the interface between feminist theology as an academic discipline and as a grassroots movement is abundantly clear for both1 feminist and woman-ist theology. For example, the figure of Miriam has become significant as reclaiming the lost prophetic leadership role of women.39 But for womanist theology the person of Hagar is crucial, symbolising the woman who is rejected on the grounds of race, sex and class, yet at the same time is the recipient of a divine revelation/0

When it comes to the area of doctrine, the same dialectic is observed between the lives and experiences of women and the structures of systematic theology. Unsurprisingly, there has been much attention to the meaning of the person of Christ, Feminist theology stresses the fundamental importance of the incarnation of God in Christ as human, rather than Christ as male, although it has to be said that the maleness of Christ does not present the same problem for womanist theology, where the symbolic force of Jesus as suffering brother in the struggle^ regardless of his gender, is a more empowering symbol. As the richness of the contextual diversity of feminist theology develops, the plurality of christologics is a rich resource/1 Another focus is the revealing of the connections between central doctrines and the suffering of women. It is not the doctrines of redemption and atonement, or the cross of Christ as such which are seen as problematic, but their dominant interpretations which are seen as legitimating the suffering and expiatory role of women/1 The method of feminist theology is twofold: a critique (Mary Daly's term is castration) of the patriarchal dualist categories of classical theology, and an alternative constructive movement built on anti-dualist, liberating, justice-making categories, which express the key notions of revelation in embodied terms, directly relating to the diverse experiences of women, as the poorest of the poor, and therefore the direct focus of the ministry of Jesus and the justice of the Kingdom of God, From the very beginning, the predominantly male categories of theology were felt to be a stumbling-block to the full humanity of women: not only the maleness of Jesus, but maleness as constitutive of divinity: "If God is male, then the male is God*, as Mary Daly proclaimed/3 It is the link between privileging maleness as more intrinsically Godlike - witnessed to by the intransigent hanging on to exclusive language in the liturgy - and the legitimation of structures which dominate women, both domestically and in the societal structures, which has been consistently highlighted by feminist theology.44 Elizabeth Schiissler Fiorenza even uses the term kyriarchal -which better expresses the rule of domination legitimated by patriarchy/5 But it would be false to suppose that feminist theologians simplistically replace a Father with a Mother God. Rather, the many strands of feminist theology tend towards imaging God as relational - the Trinity is conceived as a God in dynamic movement, as the archetype for just relationality46 — as the power to make right relation,47 as Sophia, Wisdom, and with a variety of titles, such as Mother, Friend, Lover, Sister,4* The concept of a God who suffers with the pain of women and all broken people is very much to the fore: 'God weeps with our pain', as the Chinese theologian Kwok Pui Lan wrote.4* Even when God is called Mother, this is not simply a new essentialising of the experience of motherhood: it is both a highlighting of this strand already present in the Christian tradition, a valorising of the embodied experience of women, calling attention to the role of mothers as culture bearers, as bearers of tradition, and also to the symbolism of the sorrowing mother: God as mother cradles the pain of all generations, It is the pluralism of images, metaphors and concepts of God which is most manifest in feminist theology, and particularly vital are the non-personal images derived from the mystical tradition and those images which call into being the becoming of women. 'I found God in myself, and I loved her, I loved her fiercely', was the famous line from Ntosake Shange's play which was so popular on Broadway.50 This is not a call to self-indulgence, but a rediscovery of the immanent God: as Catherine Keller wrote, making the connections between the vital presence of the God within and the ethical project of theology: 'If we meet God in ourselves, we meet her at the molten core of heart's desire, energising our courage and our quest.5'1 In seeking this relational, inclusive, suffering God, beyond rigid, exclusive, masculinist conceptions, feminist theology unmasks the links between certain interpretations of the atonement and death of Jesus which serve to legitimate the suffering and victim status of women.51

A new ethic and a new culture

Feminist theology as the search for a new ethic and a new culture resists the logic of domination/submission of patriarchy. Although there is a sharp focus on ethical issues which contribute to the oppression of women - in particular, the many forms of violence against women - there is a more profound project of transforming the culture of violence into a culture which affirms and celebrates life. Whereas there have been attempts to construct an ethics based on a rather essentialised view of female human nature, for example Carol Gilligan's 'ethic of careYJ there is far more focus on an ethic transcending the dualisms of patriarchy. Sharon Welch calls this *an ethic of risk', which refuses to give way to (the culture despair of the middle classes' and which is able to celebrate limits, contingency and ambiguity,54 The final statement of the Costa Rica dialogue called for an alternative anthropological discourse to ground this theo-ethical project and stressed its deeply spiritual nature:

Resisting violence is a deeply spiritual work interwoven with the struggle for life. We must deconstruct theologies of the spirit that devalue physical life, especially life as symbolised in the bodies* and particularly in the sexuality, of women. Spirit/body dualism must be reconstructed toward a whole [ife energy of resisting, renewing, sustaining healing and growing. Such a spirituality of and for life is continually being renewed not only through our experiences of work and struggle, but also through those of prayer, contemplation, and communion in worship and action. Si

This shows how the task of reconstructing the ethical basis of culture is deeply related to the fourth dimension of the feminist theological project, namely the spiritual quest.

The spiritual quest

The very fact that the Costa Rica dialogue was titled CA Spirituality for Life' indicates the crucial nature of the spiritual quest for feminist theology. Feminist spirituality, writes Katherine Zappone, 'may be simply defined as the praxis of imaging a whole world. Such praxis depends on the lived experience of mutually supportive relations between self, others, God and nature.'56 The spiritual quest begins with the new, heightened awareness that, as I have written, the maps they gave us were out of date. It begins, Carol Christ has written, with an experience of ?wthingness . .. that women have no real identity, but simply reflect the identity which others have given them. Feminist spirituality (-ies) rejects all dualistic splits between matter and spirit which have dogged traditional spiritualities- It is an embodied spirituality, embodied in the specificity of the lived daily realities of women's lives, with all the diversity which this brings. Thus the spiritual quest is embarked upon across the world faiths, in Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, Hinduism, Sikhism and so on.57 But it is also embarked on in what has been called a post-Christian direction. For example, goddess-based spirituality invokes the memory and active presence of the ancient earth-goddesses, in particular Isis, Cybele, Demeter, Astarte, Ceridwen, Aphrodite and so on. And these are merely to cite one tradition: African, Afro-Caribbean, Indian, Japanese, Chinese and Latin American women are actively reclaiming the goddess traditions of their own cultures as part of their own burgeoning spiritualities,^ In addition, the Wicca or witchcraft movement, often associated with the name of Starhawk, evokes the power of the ancient goddess as inspiration for its rituals of healing, celebration of the seasons, and ethical lifestyle based on respect for the earth and bodily rhythms:

'Wicca' are the wise ones, the women priestesses, diviners, midwives, poets, healers and singers of power. Starhawk maintains that a woman-centred culture based on the worship of the Great Goddess underlies the beginnings of all great civilisations. For her and her followers, the old religion of witchcraft, or 'the craft of the wise', was handed down in the covens of Europe where the mythology and rituals of ancient, mother-centered times* were preserved through the age of persecutions,5*

'The Goddess' has many meanings in feminist spirituality and is not unproblematic. Carol Christ, in a now famous article, has distinguished three dimensions of 'the Return of the Goddess\*° The first is the goddess as divine female, who really exists {in different cultural manifestations), and can be invoked in prayer and ritual. The next two interpretations see the Goddess primarily as symbol rather than metaphysical reality; she symbolises above all life, death and rebirth energy in nature and culture, in personal and communal life. The third view also understands the Goddess as a symbol, but reads it differently as affirming above all the legitimacy and beauty of female power, made possible by the new becoming of women in the women*s liberation movement.61

This last interpretation makes clear why the Goddess movement has become crucial for many women in their search for identity and self-affirmation, as the already cited title of Ntosake Shange's play has made clear,62 Criticism of the many goddess movements has been on the grounds of a lapse into neo-paganism* or accusations of nostalgia for a supposed Golden Age of matriarchy which possibly never existed/* or because the Goddess movement distracts attention from the social and political challenge of feminism, or even because it encourages self-indulgence, as 'women snuggle up into the arms of the goddess', (Elizabeth Moltmann-Wendel), or a trivialising of the (serious) feminist agenda. No doubt there is an element of truth in many of these criticisms, as there is also an element of hysteria and exaggeration, Starhawk, for example, has a very earnest ethical project for a peaceful, non-violent culture which emerges from her commitment to the Wicca movement/4 The criticism of self-indulgence seems to me equally applicable to many of the current, narcissistic spiritualities of the 'me generation'. What is beyond dispute, is both that the quest for the Goddess can never be more than one dimension of an embodied, non-dualistic, justice-sceking spirituality for women, and that it has stimulated the search within the established religions - Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Sikhism - if not for actual goddesses, for traditions which affirmed the leadership and contributions of women which had been 'forgotten* or obliterated from 'mainstream* versions.

Of special significance in Christian feminism is the spirituality associated with the Women Church/* Rosemary Radford Ruether sees this as an exodus, not from the institutional Church, but from patriarchy. Women Church - a global movement of women seeking authentic ecclesial communities of justice - is in voluntary exile from patriarchy, is dynamic and speaks the prophetic word for our times, Mary Jo Weaver describes the movement's origin in 1983, when 1400 Catholic women met at Grailville in the USA and declared themselves to be Woman Church, (later Women Church). Since then the movement has bccome global, ecumenical and interfaith in character/6 Elizabeth Schiissler Fiorenza understands the roots of this ecclesia of women to be planted in the very origins of Christianity: in her reconstruction of the history of women in early Christianity, in a vision of the Church as discipteship of equals, she finds inspiration for a new praxis of ecclesial community today- Mary Hunt has defined her vision of Women Church as "base-communities of justice - seeking friends who come together to share word and sacrament'/7 In The Netherlands the grassroots movement Vrouw en Geloof (Women and Faith) functions as a Women Church movement, which cither focuses on ritual and symbol, or is a more action-based group, I prefer the term Beloved Community, because I want somehow to recapture the sense of vision of early Christianity and combine this with recent justice-based movements - like that of Martin Luther King/8

Women Church is neither a new Church nor an exodus from the established churches and religions. It is both an attempt to make it clear, after years of being marginalised from church structures, that women are churchy and to recover authentic inclusive, justice-based communities, responding to the reality that within the present structures, many women and men receive no nurture in faith: as Rosemary Radford Ruether wrote:

Women in contemporary Churches are suffering from linguistic deprivation and eucharistic famine. They can no longer nurture their souls in alienating words that ignore or systematically deny their existence ... Their call for new communities of faith and ritual assumes that existing institutional churches do not have a monopoly on the words of truth and the power of salvation/*

Again, the Women Church movement is only one expression of the contemporary spiritual quest of women. Whether this is expressed through the creation of healing, transforming rituals using new symbols, or recovering lost images (for example those of the female mystics); whether it is expressed through a new lifestyle, caring for and affirming the sacredness of the earth, its rhythms and seasons, as in many ecofeminist groups; whether its inspiration is *a passion for justice-making1 - the phrase is Carter Heyward*s,7° - attempting to speak the prophetic word in the face of global poverty and violence; or, finally, whether it is expressed through a new mysticism, God being experienced in the political struggle, in nature, as mother or Sophia - Wisdom - or through the female mystics of the tradition, there is a global awakening of women's spirituality which is a powerful response to secularism and to the fact that human spiritual hunger cannot be quenched. As the women in Costa Rica affirmed, spirituality in its basic meaning is life itself.

But these four dimensions which I have explored - new awareness, new discipline, new ethic and culture and spiritual quest - are not separable categories, capable of hard and fast definitions- Feminist theology's authenticity is its openness to the challenge of new contexts, its ability to resist foreclosure, and its commitment to the working out of the theological implications of new forms of oppression, (There will inevitably be an ongoing symphony of liberation but sadly, tike Schubert's, it is unfinished.) The implications of contextuality, diversity, pluralism and the global need for justice mean that our work is only beginning.

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