This prayer of confession and assurance of pardon are among the creative blessings and prayers by Gail Anderson Ricciuti in Birthings and Blessings: Liberating Worship Services for the Inclusive Church. This book, which she co-authored with Rosemary Catalano Mitchell, provides an alternative to traditional worship that limits the Holy One to maleness.
Rev. Ricciuti connects this male-dominated tradition with other injustices. “Sexism, racism, classism, heterosexism—all of these are rooted in the same ground and built upon the same assumptions: that one gender or class or race of human beings is superior to others by Divine Right and should therefore be accorded privilege unavailable to lesser people. Until all of those lies are debunked, until all of those superficially-constructed chains are broken, no one has true equity or access in any other dimension! Even when they look very different, there is an intimate connection between one form of oppression and all the others, at the very root.”
In her preaching, teaching, and writing, Rev. Ricciuti challenges the status quo to help overcome these interlocking injustices. “Anything that unsettles the status quo about our common assumptions, about the nature of humanity or of God or of ‘how things are supposed to be,’ is helpful in breaking open further and truer understanding: in facilitating the in-breaking of God’s realm. Gender and racial inclusive leadership, language, and theology are not just optional, but critical to living a faithful Christian life in a community of justice and peace; it’s become my conviction over the years that anything less constitutes idolatry: substituting a part for the whole, and/or substituting a lie for the truth. To give little boys and little girls the tacit impression that God is identified with one gender and not the other, or that the characteristics of the Holy One are male and Caucasian(!) is to lie about who they are and about who/what God is.”
Commenting on the power of language and the interpretation of biblical phrases and images, Rev. Ricciuti gives Virginia Ramey Mollenkott credit for helping her expand beyond the literal to deeper meanings. At the 2012 gathering of Evangelical & Ecumenical Women’s Caucus-Christian Feminism Today (EEWC-CFT: http://www.eewc.com/audio/), Dr. Mollenkott gave a presentation in which she interprets three of Jesus’ parables about workers in light of current economic injustices that serve the interests of the 1% (Matthew 25:14-30, Luke 16:1-12, and Matthew 20:1-16). Rev. Ricciuti also sees this deeper meaning of justice in another of Jesus’ stories. “So our hermeneutics—the way we express and hear, for instance, Jesus’ teaching about the widow’s mite (Mark 2: 41-44) and the tools we use and the depth at which we interpret it—can make all the difference in whether at last we hear Jesus’ real meaning or distort the story into something that supports our prior assumptions about economic justice!”
In her sermon at the EEWC-CFT Gathering, Rev. Ricciuti illuminates two of Jesus’ parables that unsettle the status quo. Her sermon, entitled “A Quotidian Faith: Stories Sacred, Subversive, and Small,” focuses on two parables in which Jesus images God as a woman: a woman searching for the lost coin (Luke 15:8-10) and a woman baking bread (Luke 13:20-21). In keeping with Jesus’ female divine imagery, Rev. Ricciuti calls God “She” throughout her creative sermon. In her interpretation of the parable of the lost coin, she points out that Jesus images God as a poor woman: “Her house is dark. Otherwise, there would have been no need for her to light a lamp for this search. So we know that she was poor, with one of those peasant-class homes built around the tax code that dictated a certain taxation according to the number of windows and the height of the door frame. If you were poor, you’d forgo windows altogether and light and airiness. She has 10 drachmae; and that’s all she has, and lucky to have even that—20 days wages for a woman laborer who could earn only 50% of what the men around her earned even doing the same job. And we know that story too, don’t we? Her story tells us that the God of the poor watches, searches, looks around, and listens for us.” Interpreting the parable of the baker woman, Rev. Ricciuti proclaims that the bread the woman bakes was “not status-quo bread—it was justice bread bringing joy.” The yeast that the woman uses was in that culture “a substance detested by the religiously observant.” She mixes “this little bit of old, yeasty leaven in more than 39 liters, that is almost 9 gallons, of flour, three measures,” enough to feed 100 people.” Rev. Ricciuti concludes her sermon: “The Spirit that is holy keeps persistently seeking the lost to keep company with Her and using the least to infuse the earth with abundance and glory and the aroma of rising bread. When we care enough to turn the house or the world upside down, seeking those missing and absent from the feast and then bake up a surprising amount of bread to feed indiscriminately all who will join in, those familiar, subversive, and small quotidian acts are holy work.”
Gail grew up in a Community Church in Longview, Washington, a church that she describes as “moderate-to-conservative theologically and socially.” Her parents gave her and her younger sister the clear message that they were “no better than anyone else, but just as good as anyone else,” and that they could be whatever they wanted to be. “In the pre-feminism climate of the 50s and early 60s, that was a message that taught us much more than I think my mother, in particular, was aware she was conveying!” Gail says. “So it was also more extraordinary than I knew at the time, when in 1968—midway through college—I began, after a long secret period of discernment, to articulate to people in my home church my strong sense of being called to ministry, and was greeted only with supportive encouragement!”
It never occurred to Gail that anyone would object to her call to ministry until she arrived at Princeton Theological Seminary in 1970. “I discovered to my great astonishment that there were people—many people, and most of them men my age—who actually believed that ordained ministry was not appropriate for females!” she recalls. “I was astonished and incensed at what seemed to me bald-faced idiocy from supposedly-educated people, and have often joked that it took me less than 24 hours to become a raving feminist! Looking back now, I see that it was nothing short of miraculous that as a child of the 50s and 60s, I had lived such a ‘charmed’ life and encountered countless beloved mentors, teachers, and pastors who were somehow already enlightened enough to perceive, respect, and celebrate God’s calling in a young female life.”
Growing up, Gail had no female clergy role models except one associate pastor in the United Church of Canada, whom she heard preach several times when her university band went on spring tour to British Columbia. Then a month before she graduated from seminary, she experienced a woman minister officiating at a communion service. “The power of that sight, that experience—and what it symbolized about God, about women, and about myself—was so overwhelming that I couldn’t stop sobbing throughout the service,” she recalls. “While I had already by then come to a theological understanding of the radical inclusiveness of God’s creation and God’s realm as proclaimed by Jesus, the inclusive proclamation of that evening’s service was undoubtedly a large factor in the decision my husband and I made a year or two later to seek a co-pastoral position together—partly for the importance of what it would ‘image’ to church members about the intended relationship of male and female in God’s sight, as well as the message co-pastoring (then a revolutionary and almost unheard-of notion) would convey about male/female equality, and about God Herself.”
After graduating from Princeton Theological Seminary and being ordained by the Presbyterian Church, Rev. Ricciuti served for 25 years as a parish pastor, 23 of those pioneering in co-pastoral models with her husband, Anthony, with congregations in Ohio and New York. Since 1998, she has served as Associate Professor of Homiletics at Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School in Rochester, New York. She holds an honorary Doctorate of Divinity from Keuka College. She is co-author of two volumes of Birthings and Blessings, and is currently collaborating with an art professor on a book about what preachers might learn from artists. In addition, she writes for Lectionary Homiletics, Feasting on the Word, and Feasting on the Gospels. At the divinity school, she teaches courses in preaching, liturgy, worship, critical theological thinking, Presbyterian polity, and church administration.
In her work with seminarians, Rev. Dr. Ricciuti tries to “stretch the boundaries of biblical/theological assumptions they might bring with them from diverse denominational backgrounds.” In worship classes, she encourages students to expand their divine images. “I challenge them to use different names for God in their own prayers than have ever occurred to them before—even if this causes some discomfort—and to examine how prayer feels, how it ‘works,’ when the image of God is allowed to expand; and then to notice, scripturally, how many images and names exist even there for the Divine, that we have often simply ignored or to which we’ve been oblivious.”
Believing in the importance of gender inclusive leadership as well as language in the church, Rev. Ricciuti enthusiastically accepted the invitation to participate in the ecumenical, multicultural Access and Equity for Women Clergy Conference this fall. The big vision for this historic gathering is to develop strategies to facilitate equal representation of clergywomen as pastors of multicultural churches. “It seems to me incumbent upon those of us who had to ‘fight’ for our right to answer God’s call to ministry, to offer a supportive arm and strong hand to those coming after us,” she says. “For those young women who may already have reaped the benefits of their foremothers’ work, and who wonder ‘what the problem is,’ it is our responsibility to educate—to pass on a conscious legacy that prevents a new generation from falling asleep and inadvertently losing ground they had taken for granted. So my hope is that conferences like Access and Equity for Women Clergy will keep awareness of these issues alive, and make clear how the ‘ism’ injustices are interrelated: one pulled thread unravels other rights, as well.”
Gail acknowledges that it is still difficult for women in many denominations to fulfill their call to ministry, and she wants to ensure that they experience the gains made by her generation of clergywomen. “We women entering ministry forty years ago knew that simply stepping into the pulpit, before we ever preached a word, was already a visual image pushing people’s boundaries and taking them out beyond their accustomed horizons. In the early days, it felt like simply being myself, not trying to fill the image of a male pastor, and moving naturally in the world without taking on ‘clergy airs’ was itself risky. In more recent decades, the biggest risks in changing the theological assumptions and symbolism of Christianity have revolved around the work of opening church and ministry to gay and lesbian brothers and sisters. The basic day-to-day work of ‘reimagining’ the breadth of God’s embrace, of preaching justice and welcome and acceptance in the Church, began to emerge as riskier than we had imagined. Some twenty years ago I discovered a hand-lettered death threat, addressed to me, that had been delivered to our home mailbox during the night. Although its threats ultimately did not materialize at the moment it specified during our Easter morning communion, nevertheless it was a vivid reminder that language, symbols, and theological imagination have always been more risky to challenge than we have sometimes acknowledged.”
In her seminary teaching, Rev. Dr. Ricciuti continues to meet resistance to gender inclusive leadership and language. She says that some students, both male and female, maintain that “Jesus chose only male disciples” or “Jesus only called God ‘Father’ and so that’s the name we should use.” She enjoys “messing with a few heads,” pointing out “that Jesus also only chose Jews to be his disciples,” and exploring “how revolutionary it was in Jesus’ day, how unheard-of, to characterize the God of Israel as ‘Abba’—‘Daddy’!”
Experience of a woman pastor can also make a big difference in opening minds, Gail says. “I do believe, passionately, that all it takes for minds and hearts in the pew to begin changing radically is exposure to the ministry of a woman pastor! While there will always be those isolated, critical voices not about to change their minds in the face of new experience, nevertheless over all, and time after time, I have seen theoretical opposition melt away in the light of the actual human experience of a woman’s approach to leadership, preaching, and pastoral care! I will forever cherish the decades-long friendship of Edwin, an older member of a church I served for just six months as Sunday supply preacher. He had never known a clergywoman, and was at the outset quite suspicious and hesitant about how useful one would be; but very quickly, he became my greatest encourager and ‘believer.’”
The Mennonite congregation, with whom she currently worships, shapes her vision of the future church, Gail says. “They are, intentionally, a genuine community of mutual care and welcome as well as of outreach for justice. Every member takes responsibility for the life of the church in diverse ways.” In so doing, they embody one of Rev. Ricciuti’s beautiful blessings:One: In the darkness as in light, may the Holy One seek and call us to bear Her life in the world. All: In darkness as in light, may we hear, and bear, and bear each other up.