Changing Church: Dr. Kendra Weddle, Associate Professor and Chair of Religion and Humanities, Texas Wesleyan University

Dr. Kendra Weddle with Pippi

“Living in this boundary where only a small number of people have chosen to put down roots at the intersection of feminism and Christianity can be lonesome. At least for me, however, there is no going back and certainly no desire to return to the narrow path of patriarchal claims. But the question I continually struggle with is how to share this perspective with others.”

These statements come from an article by Dr. Kendra Weddle in “FemFaith: An Intergenerational Christian Feminist Conversation,” a blog on the Evangelical & Ecumenical Women’s Caucus-Christian Feminism Today (EEWC-CFT) website.

Kendra says that her “feminist impulse” emerged when she was growing up on a farm in Kansas and asked her father to teach her how to drive a tractor. She had other childhood experiences that gave her a strong sense of fairness. “I expected to be treated like guys my age, and I did not want to be treated as my mother was by my father and my grandfather, who had both followed the traditional patriarchal belief that women were subordinate to men and that wives were to submit to their husbands,” she writes. “And, as I grew older and began studying the Bible as part of my academic training, I began to see more clearly how Jesus modeled a very different way of living: he respected women as persons and he sought them out as companions on the Way. Over time I became convinced! Jesus did not condone treating any group of people as secondary and in fact demonstrated how going against societal norms was often necessary to extend grace, love, and genuine hospitality especially to the least and the last.”

When Kendra studied for her undergraduate degree at Friends University in Wichita, Kansas, in the late 1980s, all her professors in her field of religion and philosophy were men. “I never for a moment thought about the implications of having no female role model,” she writes. “Nor did I consider how a woman might teach these subjects differently from a man. The feminist movement had rocked the world around me and I was completely insulated from its reverberations. None of my professors planted the idea that I might want to attend a graduate school where feminist thought was intersecting with Christian theology and history. And because my professors were silent about this movement, I did not know what possibilities existed. As I look back on my ignorance, I lament not knowing more. Not being aware of an entire movement underfoot resulted in my journey to feminism coming much later than I wished it had.”

With an M.A. in Theological Studies from Asbury Theological Seminary and a Ph.D. in Religion from Baylor University, Dr. Weddle began teaching in 2003 at George Fox University, a Christian school in Newberg, Oregon. While she was teaching in the Religious Studies Department at George Fox University, her study of feminist theology flourished, building on her interest in women in Christianity, reflected in her Ph.D. dissertation, Preaching on the Plains, Methodist Women Preachers in Kansas, 1920-1956. This dissertation later became a book, published in 2007 by University Press of America.

At George Fox University Dr. Weddle found little encouragement for her growing feminism. As the “only female religion professor among ten vocal males,” she says that she “felt very much like a stranger in a strange land.” When she told her male colleagues that she felt excluded in worship and in other venues, they questioned her feelings, indicating that there was “something wrong” with her, “not with traditional male theology.” The preponderance of male images for God contributed to her feelings of exclusion, and she began to explore the Divine Feminine. “When I read Sue Monk Kidd’s Dance of the Dissident Daughter, I knew I had to do something more, to not be complicit in what felt to be a silencing of the problem,” she says. “Attending a church in Oregon with a female pastor was extraordinarily helpful. She served as a friend and mentor for moving beyond a masculine point of view.”

Dr. Weddle says she had a “terrible struggle” when she tried to bring feminist insights to students in her religion classes at George Fox University. “The resistance was so strong at Fox that I was labeled a feminazi, and the university paper ran a cartoon of me with the label.”

Her feminist theology almost cost Dr. Weddle her job at George Fox University. “I came close to losing my job,” she says. “My theology was too liberal because I took a feminist stance. People from all parts of the campus were out to see me leave, including folks in the engineering department who had the ear of the president.”

There were, however, some students who were receptive to Dr. Weddle’s feminist theology. She describes a highlight of her teaching at George Fox University: “I had a handful of students sign on to a project of praying to Sophia for a month and keeping a journal of their experiences. It was a powerful project.”

Kendra expresses appreciation for theologian Elizabeth Johnson’s book She Who Is “as a helpful way of understanding how Sophia (Greek word for “Wisdom” in the Christian Scriptures) was eclipsed by the Word in the writings of John.” Also, she appreciates Sister Joan Chittister’s work that addresses the church’s sexism, including ways it refuses to take language seriously.

“Language shapes how we construct reality and not the other way around,” Dr. Irons states. “I believe that until we change our language we will continue to live within the strictures of patriarchy.”

In a “FemFaith” blogpost on the EEWC-CFT website, Kendra elaborates on the power of the language and symbolism we use for Deity: “While we may chip away at various corners of patriarchal expressions, we will not successfully create an alternative way of living and relating to one another until we change our thinking about both women and men alike as having been created in the image of God, and that this must surely mean that God is both female and male and that the male gender does not rank above the female gender. That means that we need to change both our language and imagery for Godde. (Godde is the spelling some Christian feminists, but not all, prefer to use in talking about the Deity because it suggests a combination of male and female in the very name.)”

Kendra connects sexist traditions surrounding potluck dinners and other church activities to exclusively male language for the Divine: “Until we see and understand the relationship between the perception of God-as-male and subtle expressions of sexism (whether it shows up in potluck expectations or limitations on women’s leadership in churches), we will not substantially change the way Christian communities are constructed. When we become as familiar with the image of God as Mother as the church has been with the image of God as Father exclusively, then and only then, will the long and painful history of patriarchy begin to fall. I think a failure to recognize this explains how churches who purport themselves to be progressive or egalitarian and yet fail to change their language for God will nevertheless continue to reflect patriarchy in Sunday school classes, nursery attendants, potluck dinners, vacation Bible school programs, and all the rest of it.”

Even in churches with women pastors, Kendra has experienced resistance to changing exclusively male language for God. The female pastor in Oregon, who was friend and mentor to Kendra, “continued to use the Lord’s prayer without alterations.” When she moved to Texas, she visited what she thought was a progressive church with a woman pastor, a community garden, and a labyrinth. But she noticed a “consistent pattern of the father-only metaphor and masculine language” in the liturgy. Kendra discussed her concerns about inclusive language with the pastor, who promised to give more attention to language. But a few Sundays later, the pastor preached a sermon justifying her exclusive language by saying that Jesus used only the word “father” and by dismissing those concerned about inclusive language as having “some political correctness conviction.” Kendra felt “bewildered” and “assailed.” (See a full account of this experience in her article “An Empty Pew,” on the EEWC-CFT website.

Now Dr. Weddle seldom wants to attend church services because she has become “tired” and has “mostly given up” on finding a church with inclusive liturgy. But in Evangelical & Ecumenical Women’s Caucus-Christian Feminism Today (EEWC-CFT), she has found what she has been looking for. “I met Anne Linstatter at a conference in California several years ago,” she recalls. “I made a presentation that had something to do with the sexism rampant at Christian colleges. She approached me afterwards and suggested I look into EEWC.”

Kendra describes her first experience of an EEWC-CFT Gathering: “What I encountered in worship with EEWC members from all over the United States is, as is all religious experience, impossible to convey through the limited construction of words. The closest I can come to describing this time is that of one-ness; a deep and persuasive sense that even though I barely knew anyone, we were somehow fully connected to each other and to the divine mystery. As women read liturgy and sang and shared openly about their lives, as feminine imagery for God was employed and intention was given to exclude no one, the spirit of God surely was pleased. Throughout this holy weekend, I felt found. Found in this community of inclusivity. Found by a gospel of truly good news.”

Currently in her religion classes at Texas Wesleyan University, Dr. Weddle has more freedom to introduce feminist theology and inclusive/expansive language than she had at George Fox University. In her course “Women and the Bible” she focuses not only on women biblical characters, but also on feminine imagery and gender issues in the Christian tradition, and in “American Women of Faith” she examines the intersection of American religious history and gender. But she wishes more students were interested in gender issues.

Undaunted by the resistance she has met in Christian colleges and in churches or by the apathy of students, Dr. Weddle continues her work as a prophetic, passionate advocate for inclusive language and feminist theology. “There is a direct connection between how we understand God and how we treat others,” she states. “To the extent God continues to be understood in masculine terms, we will (unconsciously and consciously) see men as primary and women as secondary. There will be no justice until our images of the Divine have shifted. Of course, this is why the resistance is so strong. Exclusively masculine images for God support sexism. Including female images will enable a different social structure.”

Dr. Kendra Weddle further articulates her vision of a transformed church: I mostly think the church as it is currently constructed needs to die and in its place something entirely different will emerge. I imagine this to be not a church of buildings and programs but more organic groups who migrate from places of need to new places of need. Maybe the church will become more like how I imagine Jesus and his followers were–people who moved around seeking to spread compassion and justice.”

For more of Kendra Weddle’s prophetic, creative work, see another blog, “Ain’t I a Woman: De/Constructing Christian Images,” that she co-authors with Melanie Springer Mock.

 

 

 

 

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3 Comments

  1. Dr. Melanie Mock
    Posted October 20, 2012 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for sending this along, Jann, and for writing about my good friend, Kendra. You capture her spirit quite well!

  2. Lourene Bender
    Posted October 20, 2012 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

    Wonderful article – and how great that she (and you, Jann) are part of EEWC! Lourene

  3. JoMae Spoelhof
    Posted October 20, 2012 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

    Kendra’s journey resonates with mine in many ways and it is encouraging to be reminded that I was not alone. “Not being aware of an entire movement underfoot resulted in my journey to feminism coming much later than I wished it had.” I wonder how many of us floundered pretty much alone during much of our search.

    Looking back, I’ve often wondered how I could have been so dense for so long! I’m 74 now and in the 1980s, while Kendra was at University, I was raising my kids, grappling with inclusive language and women in church leadership. Language for God wasn’t even on my radar screen yet! Books were my companions and “Dance of the Dissident Daughter” was also pivotal for me – as was your “In Whose Image?” and “Breaking Free.”

    I hope more CFT people will share their stories here. I’d love to hear them! I’m fairly new to this community and it is a great blessing to me!

    JoMae

One Trackback

  • By Changing Church: Dr. Kendra Weddle Irons, “Ain’t I a Woman: De/Constructing Christian Images” on October 25, 2012 at 10:15 am

    […] Changing Church: Dr. Kendra Weddle Irons, Religion Professor, Texas Wesleyan University Upcoming Events Categories […]

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