With St. Valentine’s Day around the corner, you could be holding one of two postures; excited to share the love, whatever that might look like, or cynically smirking in a corner and despising the Hallmark romanticism of the day. You may be delightedly planning cards or gifts to a lover or a friend or bemoaning the fact that no sooner had the tinsel been taken down, the Easter eggs where on the supermarket shelves and the card displays turned a nauseating tone of pink. Somebody somewhere’s making money and so the world turns.
February, in recent years, has a different focus for me. Some years ago, I came across a video online with women dancing in a campaign to end violence against women. It was, I came to learn, part of the V-Day, the playwright Eve Ensler’s campaign to raise awareness, and so end, violence against women and girls. The movement had started 20 years ago with the production of her play The Vagina Monologues, a daring attempt to put women’s voices about the most intimate parts of their lives and bodies centre stage. It was shameless, joyous and empowering and since then, every February she has made the rights available for free for women’s groups all around the world so that they can participate in the global campaign.
The movement has grown to become One Billion Rising, where flashmobs of dancers take over streets and public areas letting their bodies and voices bear witness to the injustice, inequality and violence they face.
I’ve always been a good girl. I did well at school, behaved at home and generally never put a foot wrong. I consciously chose my Christian faith when I was a child of 8 and found it empowered me to be a force for good in the world. When I became a minor celebrity in the late 90s, I was never one to grace the covers of tabloids with lurid tales of my exploits. Rather, I was the one using my profile to focus attention on issues of justice and inequality. Around the same time, Ensler’s play was getting plenty of notice with famous actresses lining up to take part. While women’s issues were front and centre in my heart and mind I would have balked at the thought of getting up on a stage and talking about the intimate issues at the heart of The Vagina Monologues. There was still a part of me that felt that this was not the sort of thing a good Christian girl could be part of.
While some might say that feminism and Christianity are anything but compatible, I had always held both as strong parts of my identity. I advocated for women’s full inclusion in the church. I organised women’s groups in whatever congregation I happened to belong to. In recent years, I have preached regularly and led Sunday services. Believing strongly that the original message of Jesus was hope and liberation for all people and that women were not intrinsically less than men, I pushed forward in my attempts to make change from the inside.
But I was keeping my firmly held identity as a good daughter. I was still within a structure and culture that was patriarchal at its core and I still aimed to please. And this led to an increasing discomfort at the deepest levels of my being.
My involvement with the Mothers Artists Makers movement in Dublin, advocating for more visibility for female artists who also have children and better work place conditions for all parents in the arts, increased my discomfort. So many women I spoke to had been hurt, dismissed, ignored by the church – perhaps not my particular ecclesiastical corner but by calling myself Christian I found myself, however subconsciously, put in the same box.
There are some amazing women working within the church who are speaking up for women and there are changes happening certainly. Women like Rachel Held Evans, Sarah Bessey, Nadia Bolz-Weber, Jen Hatmaker, Sr. Joan Chittister, Rita Nakashima Brock. But as the tide of female empowerment rises, as the voices of the #MeToo movement are finally, finally, heard it’s become increasingly clear to me that right now, I can’t be in the box with them.
The last sermon I preached was in the summer of 2016. The reading of the day was from Luke’s Gospel where Jesus tells the people the story of the lost sheep. (You can look it up at Luke 15: 1 – 10). Jesus’ parables have been recorded by Luke for a revolutionary community of men, women, Jews, Gentiles, slave and free who are trying to live a completely new way of being in the world, where old divisions have melted away and the teachings of their master Jesus are put into practise. The story of the lost sheep is of a shepherd who has 100 sheep and one has wandered off and the shepherd leaves the 99 and goes off looking for that one naughty little bleater, finds it, brings it home and celebrates with a party. It’s traditionally been interpreted in terms of us being the naughty little bleaters that go wandering off and God being the poor suffering shepherd who has to risk the 99’s safety by coming to get us and bring us home – whether we want to come of not, I might add!
In preparing the sermon however, the same phrase kept leaping out at me.
‘Which of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety nine in the wilderness and go after the one until he finds it?’
The gospel or good news of the Jesus story is abundant life for all, here and now, not in some disembodied place in the future, and the message time and time again in the life of Jesus and that of the early church was that this abundant life was specifically for those who needed it most. I had to question whether the church as I knew it was part of the good news to the poor, dispossessed, disenfranchised, oppressed, downtrodden, ignored, voiceless in my culture and society or whether in fact it was complicit in the systems that keep people down and specifically the system that keep women down.
So I took a step back. The cognitive dissonance of feeling out of step with my spirit meant I stepped down from no less than 4 preaching engagements in the months following that last sermon. I scaled back my Sunday morning attendance and since we’ve moved north, I’ve not been to church. I’m currently on an indefinite sabbatical from church membership. I want to find out if there is a way for me to live my faith out from under a patriarchal system. I keep asking myself, what would Mary of Magdala’s spiritual community have looked like? Might it have looked more like the Jesus I read about in the Gospels than our present day church does?
There’s no such thing as the perfect church. That’s not what I’m looking for. I am looking for a radical new paradigm and perhaps it’s out there, and I just haven’t come across it yet. I’ve always been the good girl, the good daughter, so to step outside the lines like this is a big thing for me but I really believe that I’m being called out of the fold, to leave behind the Ninety Nine in the wilderness of the patriarchal system to dance and sing and act alongside and on behalf of the women rising in movements like the V Day initiative.
This February, my focus is to step into this space with my body, heart and soul. Valentine, the saint who’s day we celebrate on the 14th, was martyred for his faith in this abundant life and new way of being in the world, for marrying couples who otherwise would have been separated when the young single men were to be sent to war as canon fodder for a Roman Emperor. He defiantly resisted a system of oppression.
Valentine inspires me. Jesus inspires me. Mary of Magdala inspires me. Eve Ensler inspires me.
I am woke. I am out of the box. I am beyond the fold. I am risen.
Sign up for my newsletter for news about an upcoming version of The Vagina Monologues that I’m involved with. Don’t forget to follow me on Instagram and Facebook and subscribe to the podcast on iTunes. If you’re looking for an inspiring conversation with a leading Irish feminist activist, check out the episode where I chat to Lian Bell, founder of the Waking the Feminist movement.