Changing Church: Rev. Dr. Angela M. Yarber, Pastor for Preaching and Worship, Wake Forest Baptist Church, North Carolina

Rev. Dr. Angela M. Yarber

God of many names, who is not constrained by gender or the binaries humans construct, thank You for the diversity that You imbue in each of us, Your beloved children. We are grateful that You love unabashedly and without discrimination, celebrating the wondrous diversity of humankind: women, men, trans, gay, straight, bi, lesbian, queer, and those not limited to the finitude of our language. In a world where many of us feel constrained by socially constructed categories, we implore You to set us free. In a world where some are valued more than others, we beg You to liberate, overturn, subvert the status quo. And we ask You to embolden us to liberate, overturn, and subvert. Empower us to be Your people, people called to set the captives free, basking in Your never-ending, life-changing, always-accepting love that unites us all. Mother, Father, Friend, Lover, and Guide, incarnate Yourself in us we pray. Amen.

This prayer comes from Rev. Dr. Angela M. Yarber’s prophetic book The Gendered Pulpit: Sex, Body, and Desire in Preaching and Worship. In addition to providing liturgical resources, Dr. Yarber engages readers with personal narrative and scholarly examination of scripture, church history, theology, and theories of preaching and worship. In this book she demonstrates that “gendered and sexualized bodies” are “a vital part of proclaiming the Word, so the body and the experiences of women and the LGBTQ community should be affirmed in preaching and worship.”

In the introduction to The Gendered Pulpit Rev. Dr. Yarber states that through her experience “as an ordained lesbian Baptist preacher,” she has discovered the importance of highlighting marginalized voices. “Since I firmly believe in the notion, ‘if you can’t see it, you can’t be it,’ I have devoted all my adulthood to shifting the status quo when it comes to preaching and worship, doing my best to gender the pulpit in a manner that creates pathways for women and LGBTQ persons to see that they, too, can be called to proclaim the Word. When I step into the pulpit each Sunday, I do so on behalf of countless people who never dreamed that they were affirmed and beloved of God, let alone that they, too, have a Word to share.”

In addition to being a pastor, Rev. Dr. Yarber is an artist, dancer, and scholar. I met Angela at the 2013 Alliance of Baptists Gathering in Greenville, South Carolina. I was amazed to see her powerful Divine Feminine paintings all around the large church where we met. Even though the Alliance is more progressive than any other Baptist group and than most other denominations and the language in worship usually avoids masculine pronouns for God, there are rarely any female divine names and images included in worship at the annual meetings. So I was surprised and delighted to see Angela’s Divine Feminine paintings displayed throughout the church and to watch her paint on the platform during worship services, illustrating the sermons and other liturgical elements. Her first book, Embodying the Feminine in the Dances of the World’s Religions, addresses the importance of embodying the Feminine Divine as a part of interfaith dialogue by looking at four dances from four different faith traditions. Her other scholarly work includes The Gendered Pulpit, Dance in Scripture: How Biblical Dancers Can Revolutionize Worship Today (forthcoming, fall 2013), and numerous articles in books and periodicals.

Angela didn’t grow up in the church, but became very active in a conservative church when she was a teenager. “My family isn’t religious, but I come from a long line of feminists,” she says. “Though church was not a part of my upbringing, my mother always taught me the importance of harmony, compassion, love, and openness. When I did become involved in a very conservative church in my late teens, I accepted the brand of Christianity they taught for a brief period because I thought that their version of Christianity was the only version. I gave up some important parts of myself—including feminism—for a couple of years until I was exposed to feminist theology and Baptist history in college. It was then that I realized my original feminist/artist/vegan-self could also be Christian. The two weren’t mutually exclusive like I was taught. I’ve been proclaiming the Feminine Divine ever since!”

After earning the BA degree in Religion from Brewton-Parker College, affiliated with the Georgia Baptist Convention, Angela went on to earn the MDiv degree from McAfee School of Theology at Mercer University and then the PhD in Art and Religions from the Graduate Theological Union at UC Berkeley. From the time she was at McAfee School of Theology, she has taught courses in colleges, seminaries, and divinity schools.

Rev. Dr. Yarber comments on ways she brings theology inclusive of the Divine Feminine to theological education and to the church. “The most obvious example is the inclusive language policy I have on all my syllabi and in worship. I do all my own translations each week for worship, so that language about God and humanity is inclusive (and typically quite true to the Hebrew or Greek). This is an example of an explicit theology, but the implicit is also important: artwork, music, worship leadership, and feminists/womanists being well-represented in assigned readings and exegesis. As a queer woman, I also think that my very presence—in a classroom or pulpit—illustrates elements of the Feminine Divine. My bodily being speaks to this inclusion before I even open my mouth and proclaim a word.”

Female divine names and images are embedded in Christian history, scripture, and tradition, Rev. Yarber believes. “It’s simply that patriarchy and heteronormativity have ignored or neglected them and it’s our responsibility to uncover these seemingly hidden truths. When I do, indeed, ‘change’ the church’s tradition regarding language or symbols it’s in the spirit of openness, inclusion, and justice. I believe that justice and equality are at the heart of our tradition, so our language and symbols should reflect and honor that.”

"Tiamet/Tehom/Deep" from Genesis 1, by Angela Yarber

In The Gendered Pulpit, Rev. Dr. Yarber writes that “gender-neutral” language is not enough to promote justice. “Neutral inclusive language continues to allow socialized patterns of domination to shape perceptions of God and humanity. If men and women were truly treated equally, and if an equal number of people perceived God to be female as well as male, then such neutral language could work. But women and men are not treated equally in society, and certainly not in the church, and most people still perceive God in male terms. Until this shifts, neutral language is not sufficient enough to gender the pulpit in the direction of justice.” Instead, Angela advocates the use of biblical female divine names and images like Ruah, Hokmah, Sophia, El Shaddai, and Shekhinah in worship. These names and images have the “potential to gender the pulpit in a manner that promotes equality, justice, and empowerment.”

"Sophia," by Angela Yarber
"Our Mother, Mary," by Angela Yarber

Angela says she paints multicultural female divine images also to promote justice, openness, and inclusion. “It’s important for women, LGBTQ persons, and racial and ethnic minorities to be able to see images that reflect who they are in worship. Worship that only includes images from traditional iconography, for example, ignores the experiences of women and LGBTQ persons, while also “white-washing” many persons of color out of our history. If the church truly values all of humanity, then one should be able to look at the images the church displays and see all of humanity. If a woman, LGBTQ person, or person of color can step into the church and see an image of the divine that looks like them, they can be empowered to know that they can become the God they adore. This empowerment extends beyond the walls of the church and into the world so that oppressed minorities can be emboldened, validated, and liberated. The liberation that occurs at church is not limited to the church, but can expand beyond it; as it should, the church can lead the world toward justice.”

"Our Lady of Guadalupe," by Angela Yarber

Although Rev. Dr. Yarber has at times considered leaving the church, she feels a responsibility to stay. “When I receive regular hate mail that tells me I’m damned to hell simply for who I am, and when I experience sexist, classist, and heterosexist microaggressions within my own congregations, communities, and denomination, I often consider leaving! But I return to the notion: ‘if you can’t see it, you can’t be it.’ I think of the women and LGBTQ persons who have never looked into the pulpit and seen anyone like them preaching behind it. I think of the way the church has maligned and oppressed their bodies. And I think of the privilege I’ve had to be a queer woman proclaiming the Word week after week. When a five-year-old girl dresses up at home and pretends to be Pastor Angela, or a gay man tells me that Sunday is the only day of the week he can ‘be gay all day long’ without anyone discriminating against him, I feel a responsibility to stay and create pathways for other women and LGBTQ persons to find affirmation, liberation, and justice.”

By working to create new pathways in church and society, Angela acknowledges that she takes risks. “When a feminist theologian received an award for her work on pneumatology and referred to the Spirit by saying ‘bless Her,’ the room filled with nervous laughter. When gendering the pulpit in the direction of justice, many respond with nervous laughter, as though what you’re saying isn’t valid, true, scholarly, meaningful, or important. Worse, people sometimes respond with anger and disdain. This is a small risk: people thinking you’re foolish, people regarding your work as nonacademic or unchristian, or people disregarding it all because they think feminism isn’t needed. The bigger risks come with some of the hate mail I’ve received. These deal less with issues of gender and more with sexuality. I can take the standard quotation of six bible verses ripped out of context and condemning me to hell. I can even take the writer of one of my pieces of hate mail describing the way my flesh will smell when I burn in hell. But when anyone names my partner, or the baby we are trying to adopt, they have gone too far.  This is a risk I am not willing to take.”

Though not the extreme responses she receives in the hate mail, Rev. Dr. Yarber also experiences criticism of her inclusive/expansive theology. “Less extreme (but often annoying) is when someone says ‘I’m just not comfortable changing scripture’ or ‘you just don’t take the bible seriously.’ These comments are annoying merely because I’ve chosen to dedicate my entire life to taking scripture seriously. I translate it weekly and read it nearly every day; I spend a great deal of time researching its historical contexts and do my best to live by the virtues of love, compassion, peace, and justice that come from much of scripture. If someone isn’t comfortable ‘changing’ scripture, then they should translate it themselves and acknowledge that every translation is an interpretation. If someone chooses to translate anthropos as ‘man’ rather than ‘human,’ for example, they are ignoring the broader and truer meaning of the scriptural text. And since the dictionary deemed it ‘academically archaic’ to refer to humanity as ‘man’ over forty years ago, I’d hope the church could stop resisting and update their antiquated language.”

Inspiration and strength to meet the resistance, struggles, and challenges come to Angela from many people. “I often think of the many women and LGBTQ persons who have gone before me, living authentically into their callings, so that I, too, can live into mine,” she says. “Many of these women are found in my Holy Women Icons (http://angelayarber.wordpress.com/artist/), and I think of them as the ‘great cloud of witnesses’ who strengthen, embolden, inspire, liberate, and empower. If Jarena Lee or Frida Kahlo or Isadora Duncan or Fatima or Sojourner Truth or Dorothy Day could do it, so can I. I’m also inspired and strengthened daily by people in my own life, namely my mother and my partner. My partner is an ethicist and she inspires me to be more compassionate to all creatures, to wonder at the earth, to stand in solidarity with the poor, and to ‘go gently’ (as Dorothy Day and Gandhi would say). She also embodies the playful words of one of my favorite songs by the Indigo Girls: ‘The best thing you’ve ever done for me is to help me take my life less seriously. It’s only life, after all.’”

Angela further recounts rewarding experiences: “I think of the 8th grader who participated in the ‘Day of Silence’ and has grown into a fabulous straight ally. I think of marching in the Pride parade with over 50 of my congregants because they believe in justice for all. I think of over 30 women at Baptist Women in Ministry who initiated a letter writing campaign to write me ‘love letters’ to combat the hate mail I receive. I think of the peacemakers who gather each year at the Baptist Peace Fellowship’s annual conference who make protest signs that read ‘Jesus Loves All Cocoa Farmers’ and inaugurate the Baptist Equal Exchange partnership for fair trade chocolate. Anytime a student or congregant has told me that my teaching or preaching has helped them live more compassionately, more justly, more peacefully, it is a rewarding experience.”

Rev. Dr. Angela Yarber articulates a hopeful, expansive vision for the future of the church: “I hope and dream of the day when women, LGBTQ persons, and the Feminine Divine are an integral part of the church and church leadership. I hope that, one day, our visions of the divine and of what it looks like to be a church leader are equal and inclusive. I hope that, one day, people will not giggle or become angry when God is referred to as ‘She.’ I hope that, one day, when churches post signs that say ‘all are welcome,’ they’ll truly mean all: gay and straight, black and white, rich and poor, university educated and life educated, English speaking and non-English speaking, young and old, abled and differently-abled, male and female. Unfortunately, I think this day is in the far too distant future. Until then, I continue to rage, work, paint, write, and dance toward justice.”

For more of Angela M. Yarber’s prophetic, creative work, see http://angelayarber.wordpress.com/.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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