A Catholic’s love letter to Evangelical women

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Photo by Juliet Birkbeck

 

 

I was lost and I found them. I was despairing and they held out their arms. I felt alienated from my church and they showed me a domestic church that strengthened and consoled. I had doubt. They had complete trust. I was angry, rejecting and judgemental. They were accepting, prepared to be convicted, repent and then move on. How could I not love them?

 

In the depths of my grief following my sister’s sudden death I realised that I was not really part of a church community. My parents, who were, got wonderful kind-hearted support from their priest and friends in the parish. When my mother and I had carried my sister’s ashes back from Namibia she was buried in their churchyard, alongside faithful nuns, stillborn babies and young children. She was none of these. The churchyard had very little room left but they made space for her; she who had addressed them all on several occasions, appealing for funds to provide support for students with HIV in Namibia. My mother and father were encircled with loving support as they had encircled others.

My situation was different. I did not belong.  In the midst of my despair I could not help but feel this painfully. I was a deliberately unmarried mother with a lapsed partner. I did not even pretend to hold to traditional teachings on all sorts of things.  My faith in God was strong, Catholic liturgy breathed through me, Catholic spirituality formed and nurtured me. But still, some things count more than others. And my own sense of being an outsider, an imposter was as much to blame as anything else. I cut my ties with Catholicism and wandered in the wilderness alone in my grief.

And so, when my lifework was snatched from me through redundancy and my days stretched out empty and meaningless I stumbled upon a community of loving, God-fearing women, many of whom were doing a very strange thing called ‘home-schooling’. They seemed to me to be domestic goddesses: they canned fruits, shopped frugally, cooked in crock pots, shared recipes and housework schedules. I had no idea such women existed.

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Photo by Juliet Birkbeck

 

Why did this resonate so with me? After all I’m a staunch feminist as well as a devotee of ‘The Little House on the Prairie’ books. I hadn’t even heard of complementarian and egalitarian attitudes to marriage – hell, I wasn’t even married! I’m a cohabitee of nearly three decades.

What drew me was the wholehearted commitment to faith. The utter centrality of Jesus in their lives. These weird women who described themselves on their websites as ‘lover of Jesus’, or ‘daughter of the King’. I winced and was entranced at the same time. What kind of communities did they live in where people openly declared their love of God, met for ‘fellowship’ and prayed regularly with their families and friends. I didn’t know, but I wanted in.

And they acknowledged failure. They wrote of the struggle to serve, the difficulties in relationships. They clearly carved out time for themselves with the help of loving spouses and they used some of that time to chronicle their lives, sharing their fears and hopes, their sense of God’s abiding love and their awareness of where they had fallen short and needed to step up.

 

They valued parenting and homemaking. As a full-time working mother, with a highly paid and responsible job in education I had burnt out and never felt valued outside of my career. Not because family did not appreciate what I did but because I had never valued that work. When I was made redundant a few months before my elder daughter left for university I found that there was joy and meaning in being available to her at this important transition point. And the years I’ve had with my younger daughter have been just as treasured and worthwhile. After initial qualms about finance we have all found that our quality of life has improved as my stress levels have diminished and I have had time for myself as well as my family.

I made a huge difference both directly and institutionally to the lives of many deprived young people and I do not regret that. I was a gifted and committed teacher and leader. What I regret is that I never felt that I had a choice about the path I took. Full time parenting and home-making was not something I ever thought was a valid choice. Nor was part-time. Now I try to encourage my daughters to see that parenting is extremely important not just something to be fitted into the margins of life. That working life is fortunately much longer than childhood. That the work of running a home efficiently and lovingly contributes to society’s health and well-being. That none of this is exclusively the work of women but it is all work and it needs doing and doing well. That child rearing does not take a life time. That we can do many valuable things in our lives.

So I lurked on the edges of these communities and gradually I expanded my circle and of course, I came to realise that all was not bliss in this Paradise. That there were problems within just as there were problems within my own Roman Catholic Church.

Women were not welcome as leaders in either, though they did a great deal in both.

Marriage was seen as the norm and my lifestyle choice of cohabitation was no more officially welcome here than it was in the Catholic Church.

Homosexuality was anathema in both.

The pro-life movement was as liable to the same inconsistencies i.e. absolutely no place for abortion and vilification of the women involved but support for militarism and the men involved.

And my uneasy feelings  about the canonisation of the young Catholic girl, Maria Goretti, who preferred to die rather than submit to violation were reawakened by attitudes I began to come across which blamed women for sexual violence on the grounds that they had dressed or acted inappropriately.

But I stuck in there and found that there were still other voices. Voices growing steadily in conviction and strength. Women who bravely claimed their right to name themselves Christians and yet to speak out against some traditional ‘Christian’ attitudes. To reclaim a gospel of social justice and commitment to the poor. To speak up for women who have been raped, for children who have been sexually or emotionally abused, within homes and within churches as well as elsewhere.

Women emerged from abusive churches, from homes where the Gospel of love had been strangely perverted and yet were able to recognise and respond to the love of God and insist that they had a voice and the right to be heard. They were not going anywhere. They are church. They are children of God, sisters of Jesus and they love Him and will serve Him. But they will not collude in oppressive systems. They will not accept that women are second class citizens responsible for the purity of men. They value relationships by the quality of mutual love and service rather than on account of the gender of those involved. They have turned away from a belief that God helps those who help themselves to a commitment to serve all those in need.

And in (what was to me) an unexpected twist they have delightedly drawn on older Christian practices of spiritual development. They value the slow ponderous reading of Scripture that St Benedict advised his monastics to develop. Lectio Divina. More and more are drawing on the treasures of the liturgical churches – in prayer and season. I was astonished to see how many people were writing about the value attached to observing the season of Lent. Something that is observed fairly half-heartedly by many Catholics though many more are trying to take it seriously, particularly in terms of fasting and prayer, despite a lack of church leadership (perhaps wary of the legalism of former times).

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Photo by Juliet Birkbeck

 

I have followed with sadness the distress of many of these women (and men) as they respond to well-known individuals and organisations reiterating exclusive teachings on relationships and insulting teachings on the position and nature of women. For many of us, there comes a moment when all our simmering frustrations are compounded by one more unacceptable fact, and we leave. For me, I tolerated the refusal to allow women to be priests, the insistence that birth control was a mortal sin (though clearly most Catholics in Western Europe at least took no notice of this). I reminded myself that on the ground Catholics did sometimes provide access to birth control as a way to protect people from HIV. I tried to overlook the fact that the official position on homosexuality was to condemn it by focussing on the undoubted truth that many priests were gay and in many cases people simply ignored this. What finally did it for me were the revelations of wide-spread child abuse that had been institutionally covered up. The gap between an official church ensuring that it had insurance in place should it ever have to pay compensation for child abuse and the Gospel of Jesus who stood always on the side of the damaged and oppressed was just too much for me. I left. I no longer consider myself a member of the Roman Catholic Church.

So, why did I call this a letter from a Catholic?

 

Well, I am culturally a Catholic Christian. As I have struggled to understand writings on grace and justification I have come to realise that my understandings, even though I didn’t realise it, are Catholic ones. My soul is nurtured by reverent liturgical worship. The Divine Office is a rich source of prayer for me. I do not accept that the Catholic Church is the only means to salvation (though to be fair, this is an attitude that is being constantly modified.) I do not follow Catholic teachings to do with marriage, attitudes to homosexuality, contraception and the impossibility of even debating the issue of women priests. Many Catholics (not all, by any means) would consider I should not be allowed to receive Communion and cannot call myself a Catholic at all. Nonetheless my faith and spirituality are deeply Catholic.

 

And why a love letter?

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Photo by Juliet Birkbeck

 

I hope that is obvious but if not, then I would say that I have experienced grace and encouragement in my spiritual journey through online encounters with evangelical women. I have had my presuppositions overturned, my prejudices exposed. I have been inspired and encouraged. And I can see now, as the honeymoon has ended and this is now a long-term relationship that perfection is not to be found in any human organisation. That not everything within Catholicism should be rejected out of hand and not everything in Evangelical Christianity should be adopted. We should always pray for discernment. We are to come to God with our hearts and minds and souls. We should think and pray, have regard for our gifts as well as our failings and be as prepared to use the first as we are to mend the second. Whether a quiet hour or early morning Mass feeds our soul is perhaps more a reflection on our personality than which approach is more Biblical.

My love affair with Evangelicalism has better enabled me to recognise holiness and justice wherever it is found and to accept the messiness which comes with acknowledging that these things are not found within denominational boundaries. I dwell now in unclaimed territory and it is not lonely. It is peopled by women and men who seek first to serve God and God’s people regardless of who they are. Who see God in all their fellow men and women. For in the end it will be Christ’s recognition of us that matters. And he recognises us by our love. Love of God and therefore love of our neighbour.

 

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I’m linking this with Synchroblog  – A Facebook group that is posting this month on Bridging the Divide. Scroll down the list and you will see a diverse group of people writing on divisions in the church and how to heal them. I’m honoured to be part of them.

Here’s the list of other bloggers contributing posts related to healing the divides this month:

 

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27 Comments

Filed under Faith, Feminism

27 responses to “A Catholic’s love letter to Evangelical women

  1. You are a brave one. Thank you for inviting us to the pages of your life story :-)

  2. This was so interesting to read – my experiences were almost exactly the reverse of yours! But we ended up in the same place…” recognise holiness and justice wherever it is found and to accept the messiness.” YES.

    My demarcation line, with evangelical churches I knew anyway, was solo scriptura. And the fact that, on most of the issues I cared about, the evangelical communities I knew were no better, and sometimes worse, than catholicism. For example, I found sexual abuse occurs in evangelical churches and there are cover ups by established authorities there, too. ( It’s called “humans are sinful and love power,” and no denomination has found a way around that. )

    But I would never want to live in a world where there is only one church, any more than I would want to live in a world where there is only one kind of person.

    I think also it matters a lot whether you can find a worship community where you fit, no matter the denomination. I would be useless and uncomfortable in an ultra-conservative RC or Episcopal parish.

    Something like the UCC (United Church of Christ) might be a place to pause awhile in your faith walk and see if it fits. Sort of a mix of both worlds….

  3. Tanya Marlow

    This is a fascinating read (as someone who is both evangelical and Anglican, and currently learning lots from St Benedict-types!) I love tracing the threads of grace here. And yes to this: ‘Whether a quiet hour or early morning Mass feeds our soul is perhaps more a reflection on our personality than which approach is more Biblical.’

    I have been having a nosy around your blog and have been so impressed by the thoughtful, intelligent explorations I have found. Looking forward to meeting you in the summer!

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  15. Liz

    Juliet, Thanks for joining the synchroblog. The links are available now to add to the end of your post.

    • Thank you Liz. I’ve just changed the link I had included to the actual list. Now indulging myself in an hour’s reading, there are some really great posts here!

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  22. David

    “Love affair” sums it up. If you are not a member of the Catholic Church, do not call yourself one. I am tired of people who are disappointed with whatever brand of Protestanism they are in who then go on to claim that they are really Catholic in their mind-set but want to be able to dip in and out and take this and that of the Catholic “Tradition”. It is truly insulting. You want the soul without the body. And no matter how polite and sincere you are, I find your tippy tappy approach intolerable. What you want is an “experience” that conforms to your own “I”. You have created a Jesus and a Church in your own image. I am being harsh, but I cannot abide pretty nonsense. You are not taking the Catholic Church and its claims seriously. And because of that, you are not taking Jesus seriously. Accept ot reject; there is no middle way.

  23. Welcome David!

    Thank you for stopping by and taking the time to leave a comment. I do not find you harsh, rather you seem to be a man of deep conviction who has perhaps witnessed the pain that can be caused when people set out to follow God in dfferent ways. When others leave our path, it can feel like utter rejection and be hard to understand and harder still to accept.

    I am a Christian and I will draw on the wisdom and teachings of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, the saints and holy Christian people down the ages who have shared with us their own unique path to God. I am aware of the danger of creating God in my own image and I hope you will join me in praying that we all avoid that and are led, in the Spirit to the fullness of life In Jesus Christ.

  24. David

    Hello,

    You are very kind, Juliet. What I am is a person who believes that Jesus founded a community that I ought to have some hope of identifying. Did Jesus not bind himself to the Church? We know that there were dissensions and imposters from the beginning; we see Paul and John clearly pointing to who and who does not belong to the fledgling Church. There is a visible Church. If this Church cannot ultimately be found, then there is no reason to believe any of the claims of Christ. It is that simple. You say “I will draw on…..” as if one might enter a beautiful library and peruse the books in search of what is most helpful to you. That smacks of adherence to a philosophy of life, not to communion with Christ in the one Church he founded. I am reminded of the insightful comment by Hilaire Belloc:

    “There is no such thing as a religion called “Christianity”. There never has been such a religion. There is and always has been the Church, and various heresies proceeding from a rejection of some of the Church’s doctrines by men who still desire to retain the rest of her teaching and morals. But there never has been and never can be or will be a general Christian religion professed by men who all accept some central important doctrines, while agreeing to differ about others. There has always been, from the beginning, and will always be, the Church, and sundry heresies either doomed to decay, or, like Mohammedanism, to grow into a separate religion. Of a common Christianity there has never been and never can be a definition, for it has never existed.”

    And no, I am not an avid fan of Hilaire Belloc. I read widely and am aware of his defects. But that always struck me as one his finest statements. I am not saying that one must become a Catholic to be saved, nor am I saying that one must become a Catholic because I have a Peter Kreeft book I would like to give you so as to persuade you with knock down arguments. Actually, I have never read a Peter Kreeft book and I have no intention of ever doing so. I occasionally download his free mp3s. God love him! :) My point is that I have greater respect for a person who, though they may work alongside Catholics and enjoy their company, fundamentally believes it is either a complete mistake or a work of the Devil. See, without knowing what you agree or disagree with ecclesiologically, my sense, whether I am right or wrong, is that you believe that the Church did exist for a time, but that with the various schisms and separations, it has taken on the quality of a holy mist. It may be here and there, but no one can really be sure where it is, but it is out there, somewhere. And if one just prays to Jesus, one will participate in the invisible misty Church. What becomes of Jesus? He becomes a fictional character, unanchored, and one’s own personal etch a sketch. He may as well be Aslan. We know Aslan was not ecclesiologically inclined. Calvin might well have liked the Aslan character, with his embrace of an invisible Church. There is nothing that you say in your reply that a Buddhist could not say with a few minor modifications.

    Now, if you will excuse me, I must eat my bowl of cornflakes. :)

  25. Dear David,

    I hope you enjoyed your cornflakes!

    I enjoyed your reply. It challenges me to think more about my position as a non-attached Christian and that can only be good though it will take more time than I will have for a couple of weeks. I was surprised though by what you said about prayer. It’s my belief (always) and experience (at least sometimes) that when we pray, the holy Spirit prays in us, so I’m not sure what to make about you asking ‘What becomes of Jesus?’. I know I don’t always manage to still my soul and be open to the Spirit but surely when we are, we are indeed in communion with the Triune God.

    And before I go to make the dinner, I should admit I always liked Aslan!

    All the best, Juliet

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