Photos courtesy of St. Luke’s, D.C.
Three Central D.C. Parishes Engage the Good Book Club with a Gender Justice Lens
by Richard Mosson Weinberg
This Lent, three central D.C. parishes are participating in the Good Book Club—a movement promoted by the Most Rev. Michael B. Curry, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, in which Episcopalians across the country were invited to read the Gospel of Luke during Lent and the Acts of the Apostles during Easter. Members of St. Luke’s, St. Margaret’s, and St. Thomas’, however, are participating with a particular lens in mind.
I serve as associate rector at St. Margaret’s, and along with my rector, the Rev. Kym Lucas; St. Thomas’ Priest-in-Charge Alex Dyer; and St. Luke’s seminarian, Maurice Dyer (no relation); we wanted to plan a Lenten formation series that would bring the conversation happening in our culture around the #MeToo movement to our study of the Bible.
This isn’t the first challenging issue our parishes have tackled together. Last year during Lent, the three congregations wrestled with white supremacy by reading Jim Wallis’ recent book, America’s Original Sin. This year’s examination of issues around gender justice shares roots with a collaboration launched last fall (for which All Souls Episcopal Church joined us): Thirsting for Justice, a monthly conversation on topics at the intersection of Christian theology and contemporary issues of justice.
In planning our Lenten series, we accepted the presiding bishop’s invitation to participate in the Good Book Club, but with the caveat that we wanted to engage the Gospel by focusing on the women characters in Luke. Who are they? What can we learn from them? Why does Luke have the reputation of being more inclusive of women? Is that reputation warranted? When are Luke’s women characters presented in a liberating light, and when does Luke seem to perpetuate roles of subordination?
These were some of the questions we had in mind as we began. In a nutshell, “We wanted to tackle the demon of misogyny,” as Kym Lucas put it in her introduction the first week of Lent.
The four of us leading the series each facilitates a small group after one of us takes a turn presenting an introduction of a chosen passage each week.
Alex Dyer expressed appreciation for our collaborative approach, saying, “Even the best of churches often attract like-minded people. This can lead to groupthink. Expanding the Lenten program to three churches means fresh insights.” He added, “Together our collaboration provides a richness that is a hallmark of the Holy Spirit.”
Kym echoed a similar appreciation. She said, “Our congregational experience of gender expectations and roles varies in relation to our context—as does our biblical engagement. I think it is important to hear each other’s perspectives and work together to find ways to combat the sexism and misogyny that is often buried deep in our tradition.”
The fruitfulness of this multi-parish collaboration is evident in how the participants describe their experiences: “wonderful, engaging, and challenging.” Our participants are diverse: probably three-quarters women and one-quarter men, with ages ranging from retired elders to young professionals in their twenties.
I emailed a couple of participants to ask why it was important for them to be part of the Luke series and how they have found it thus far. Jessica Church, a worshiper at St. Margaret’s, wrote:
In my professional life, I work for a nonprofit that advocates for policies and laws that help women and girls achieve their full potential. During this #MeToo moment, … I am grateful for the opportunity to draw connections between my strong belief in gender equity and my Christian faith. … I leave each session with many things to contemplate, but buoyed with the spirit to do so.
Catherine Manhardt, senior warden of St. Thomas’, wrote:
I’ve been surprised by how meaningful I’ve found the act of reading and reflecting on the women in Luke’s Gospel. I often feel discouraged when I think about how women’s voices and women’s roles have been marginalized by the institutional church over the course of its history. This Bible study has reminded me that in the very beginning of Christianity, women were welcomed, included, and raised up as leaders.
Other responses have ranged from positive to challenging. My small group in particular struggled with the birth narratives in our first session because of the ways that Elizabeth and Mary’s roles are limited to child rearing. Still, even naming this tension was meaningful for some.
For others, focusing on Luke in its historical context is critical. One participant wrote, “We should be careful that a twenty-first–century American worldview not be the basis for interpreting a first-century document.”
Still other participants who may have originally approached a passage with skepticism were later appreciative of another’s interpretation. “A woman in my group had a completely different perspective on the figure of Mary,” one participant wrote. “It really opened my eyes to this scripture, which was lovely. She was able to see Mary as having a lot more agency than I tend to give her.”
For my part, I pray that all of us this Lenten season and coming Eastertide continue to open our eyes to the ways scripture nourishes us, challenges us, and invites us into a relationship with God and each other. It’s a joy that our three parishes have found fruitful and faithful ways to do this together.