Church in the Round by Letty M. Russell (Book Review)

“Instead of worrying that we will lose our faith as feminists, we should be celebrating the fact that we have been given gifts that will allow us to talk back to tradition.  We should be claiming a voice at the center of the church as interpreters of what it means to followers of Christ in contemporary society.”[1] Letty M. Russell

Church in the Round, The Feminist Interpretation of the Church

Beginning the Journey into Feminist Theology is more than a book list, it’s a change in direction.  Instead of trying to fit into a structure that is hierarchical with jagged edges, ladders to climb, and stained-glass cliffs to fall from; I’m choosing a new way of thinking about theology, one with round tables, with circles spiraling to the margins and back to center, where connections between mind, body, soul lead to connections with others for liberation and blessing[2].  “Church in the Round” was recommended to me as a starting point in this journey and it is all that is promised.  The book was written in 1993 and yet feels like a current critique of the church and society.  I wish I had read this work alongside the “fathers” of faith in seminary; it feels as foundational as they did, maybe more. 

I’ve read this book slowly and it has shaped some of my other blog writing, including: Unexpected Mercy and the up-date of that sermon, Quality Control as love for Neighbor, Inspired, and Saints and Sinners at the Table.  In these entries, I’ve focused on the idea of being connected to those at the margins of church and society, which is a theme Russell weaves throughout the book.  Looking back at these blog posts, I can also see how family systems theory and feminist theology share the connection that those in the margins are in the margins because ‘the system’ has placed them there.  Whether the system is a family or a church or a society, we all play our parts and our actions and reactions effect the entire system.  Bringing people from the margins and into the center of society means to break the system or the change patterns of behaviors in the system (not just change out the players).  Each of us can make choices that can shift the system; the more people within the system willing to make changes the better it becomes for those who are baring the stress produced by the system.  In order to see how the whole system functions to keep us in our places, we must see our place in it, see who is hurt by the system, and who benefits from the system.  Bringing the margins to the center means to change the function of the system so that everyone benefits, and no one is hurt.  This is difficult in a climate where we are divided against each other.  Smashing the patriarchy, breaking the systems of oppression, living in the kingdom of God, or whatever phrase you are most comfortable with, require empathy and love for all.  It requires seeing the human and the holy in each of us.

Russell notes that many women feel that they are in the margins of their religious circles so there is a need for women to “talk back”[3] to critique their tradition or to have others hear “theology in a different voice”[4] I order to critique the patriarchal structures and reinterpret traditions in order to write theology “out of a paradigm of community or shared partnership”.[5]  Leaders in this paradigm must also be different, not just in gender and diversity but also in structure.  “A feminist leader is one who inspires others to be leaders, especially those on the margins of church and society who do not think they are ‘somebody’.”[6]  An example of this style of leadership can be found in Girl Scouts.  The National (USA) and Regional Girl Scout staff is organized “in a weblike structure in which ever-widening circles of staff and volunteers are woven together by multiple lines of communication, and decision making glows around and across and not up and down a ladder of authority.  …. the authority of this form of leadership comes from connection rather than from position at the top, and staff people work in teams rather than competing with each other.”[7]  I have found this to be true in the women lead organizations I have been part of, including Girl Scouts and Days for Girls International.  What was difficult for me was the idea that ordination was a barrier for this type of leadership.  I’m ordained, and I like that ordination gives me authority.  I understand that ordination is not just a calling but also a result of the education I was privileged enough to receive.  And I understand that ordination is not offered to everyone in every faith and that barrier is often about gender and sexuality more than calling and education.  So, ordination is exclusive and if we are working for inclusivity… this is something that I am going to have to think about more.  I do love her assertion that equality in Christ’s calling (to ordination or to any form of ministry) is based on our Baptism.  She cites a few new testament letters about the circumcision debate (do gentiles have to undergo circumcision to be Christians?) as a way to give equality not just to gentiles and Jews but to men and women.  “Baptism, not circumcision, is the sign of Christ’s calling to service for both women and men.”[8]  Believers do not have to undergo circumcision, or even have the correct anatomy for circumcision to begin with, in order to be one in Christ and to serve in the church. 

Later in her discussion of sacraments in chapter 4, Russell states, “Studies in social science and religion by feminist scholars have shown that the usual pattern of blood sacrifice is that it takes palaces as an exclusive male ritual in which the pattern is one of taking life and shedding blood, in contrast to the women’s role of shedding blood to give life.”[9]  So, linked with blood sacrifice is a male-bonding or male succession, which could be a way to view the eucharist, and therefore the priesthood as passing authority from one man to another.  Even after the Protestant Reformation, “patriarchal imagery of sacrifice continued in the Christology, and the patriarchal social context ensured that the claim to exclusive male privilege of ordination would continue.”[10]  And even though I am in a tradition that has ordained women for some time (PCUSA), in my context (Pittsburgh, where the majority of people of faith identify as Catholic) there is still use of this imagery of male sacrifice (and its accompanying patriarchy and privilege) that seems pervasive in the church and in my seminary education.  I got a great education in many ways, but in other ways it was not a particularly diverse/inclusive education (which as an alum, I can see that the seminary is working to be more diverse/inclusive).  Anyway, back to Russell, who asserts that the eucharist “…needs to be carefully retraditioned from a feminist perspective.  It is possible to celebrate at table in memory of the sacrifice made necessary by the injustice of religious and political authorities of Jesus’ day and the victory of God’s justice and love over injustice.  In this way the table could be administered rightly as a place where such sacrifice is no longer necessary, and each and every person is welcomed to share in Christ’s presence through the power of the Spirit.”[11]  While I agree with my tradition that we are not re-sacrificing Christ when we celebrate the eucharist, I have to wonder if a blood sacrifice was necessary for atonement of sin or if the blood sacrifice is a result of the sinful system.  I still affirm what I wrote in my faith statement as part of my ordination process (and you can read more about my thoughts on sacraments in Nothing but the Blood of Jesus).  After reading Church in the Round, I feel like I need to expand it or reframe it too with a fuller understanding of if or why the blood sacrifice had to happen.  Jesus entered our world with such radical love, the kind of love that changes everything, but instead of changing the system, the system killed him, and the current system would too.  Jesus died for our sins.  Maybe it doesn’t matter what time/place Jesus entered into humanity, he would have died in the system our sins created.  So, the purpose of Jesus, God incarnate, wasn’t to be a sacrifice but was to love radically.  This radical love meant (and means) that each and every person is welcomed to share in Christ’s presence through the power of the spirit and that we are all connected by God’s love.  Russell puts it a little more clearly in chapter 6, “…the suffering of Christ on the cross was not a choice of suffering and was not the choice of the God of life.  ….  His [Jesus’] choice of obedience to God’s will led to his crucifixion, not because he wanted to die or because God wanted him to die, but because the political and economic power and the religious power structures of his time rejected his call for a new household of God where all are invited to wholeness and to food.  These same power structures, which continue to crucify countless people through starvation, war, abuse, poverty, and scorn, must be confronted by a church that reinforces and justifies needless suffering.”[12]  Which brings us back to being connected to ourselves, to one another, and especially to those on the margins.[13] 

Russell ends the book with a sort of charge and blessing to stay connected, “Stay well connected to our embodied selves and question the dualism of those who try to separate us from our own bodies and from our own kitchen table realities.  Stay well connected to your communities of faith and struggle and question those who use dogma to prevent spiritual gifts of transformation from being shared at the round table.  Stay connected as well to the margins and question those who perpetuate contradictions and structures of domination that deny the hospitability of God’s welcome table to the “outsiders”.  For those who wish to open themselves and their churches to what new thing God might be doing in their lives, I can only say, “Stay well connected,” and perhaps you will discover the gift of church in the round in and through the many table connections that disturb and nourish us day by day.”[14]

[1] Church in the Round page 200

[2] “…talking back is a constant movement around the spiral, bringing scripture and tradition into connection with context, critical analysis, and action by those at the margins of church and society.  This dialogue finds its conversation partners among communities of faith and struggle, who in turn become the prism for feminist self-understanding of what it means to be church.” Church in the Round page 36

[3] “Talking back is the constant movement around the spiral, bringing scripture and tradition into connection with context, critical analysis, and action by those at the margins of church and society.  This dialogue finds its conversation partners among communities of faith and struggle, who in turn become the prism for the feminist self-understanding of what it means to be church.” Church in the Round Page 36

[4] Church in the Round page 36

[5] Church in the Round page 36

[6] Church in the Round page 57

[7] Church in the Round page 57

[8] Church in the Round page 61

[9] Church in the Round page 143

[10] Church in the Round page 143

[11] Church in the Round Pages 143-144

[12] Church in the Round pages 190-191

[13] Church in the Round page 183 “Spirituality of connection represents the choice to be connected to ourselves and our bodies, to the margin, and to justice struggles, as well as to tradition and to our particular communities of faith and struggle.”

[14] Church in the Round page 208

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