“Envisioning a Liberating Church and an Inclusive Ministry within an RLDS Context” by Rita Lester

This is an essay from “Restoration Studies V”, which was published in 1993.

Speaking about God

Language for God is never socially neutral: language reflects gender and social power structures. Language can hurt, unlike the childhood retort that says that sticks and stones can break bones but words can never hurt you.’ Language is a very important tip of the iceberg of misogyny and androcentrism, elitism and classism, militarism and feudalism, hence phrases like “God the Father,” “sovereign Lord,” and “servants of God.” “If God is male, then the male is God” – usually the white upper class male at that 2.

It is important to note that all language is metaphorical and constructed. All language is metaphorical, including language about God; theology is metaphorical. To only understand and worship God as male is to not recognize the metaphorical nature of such words and is idolatrous. The metaphors we use shape our reality, as Lucy Tatman writes in her Storied Theological Dictionary.

[We] see reality as we define it…we understand the world [and] our relationship to the world through the words we use to define the world…to change our words is to change our world. 3

It is my assertion that what is often understood as traditional language about God, Christ, church, and humanity cannot fully integrate a feminist vision, cannot express a fully embodied theology, and cannot accomplish the ethic of love at the center of Christianity or acknowledge other religiously central components of Christianity, such as the resurrection of the body.

A theology that does not effectively express women’s experience cannot fully include women, just as a theology which does not effectively deal with our embodied experience cannot accomplish what Meredith McQuire, calls a re-materialization of the body; that is, to make the body matter, or what I would call a resurrection of the body (you cannot resurrect something your theology ignores; i.e., the body).” We need language that is attuned to the challenges of feminism and liberation theology and that includes but is not limited to eliminating patriarchal, sexist, militaristic, and feudal language about God, Christ, and the body of the church.

In the text, Exploring the Faith, published in 1970 and updated in 1987 by Alan Tyree, it pains me to read the dismissal of inclusive language without any systematic discussion informed by current mainstream Protestant practices and the vision of feminist theologians 5. Besides the strictly patriarchal language and images for God, the text illustrates little concern for militaristic language and images for God: “God as…Sovereign,” for example, is rooted in a feudal image of God 6. I would suggest that there are many creative approaches to correcting patriarchal language, including both alterative images for God, which include female images and associations (which can be found in the Bible and created by communities), as well as language which is not gender specific, like Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer for the Trinity. My disagreement with the text does not necessarily exclude me from this community in that the stated aim of the editor of Exploring the Faith intends this text as a resource, not a creedal position. 7

This is not to say that the historical church can be transformed merely through inclusive language, because, though language should explicitly evoke female and nature imagery as a corrective principle, further and more profound transformations will occur only through a redefining or renewing of understandings, practices, and worship. Though this is a call to an awareness about language, I do not wish to perpetuate what, in feminist circles, is often called the “myth of nonsexist language,” that is, that simply changing “chairman” to “chairperson” gets at any deep androcentric assumptions within our cognitive and social constructs. But practicing a policy of inclusive language is a start. (Consider that seminaries like Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois; Episcopal Divinity School; Iliff School of Theology in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Denver, Colorado; and Claremont in California regard inclusive language policies within classroom and worship as covenant agreements, in some cases to be signed in agreement with the administration.)

Inclusive language would aid in the reconciliation of feminist women and men, a part of the community which most local churches are losing and have largely lost because of their inability to change. The present pattern of sexist language creates a situation in which the more feminist one becomes, the more offended one becomes in worship, as it is practiced, and more out of place one feels in a church community.

Ministry and Community: Confirmation as Ordination?

Sexism, which includes heterosexism, according to feminist theologians like Rosemary Ruether, is a sin – sin being defined as a structure that perpetuates dominance, rendering one group as the definers/knowers and all other groups as the defined/known. Historical churches can only begin to be transformed through a comprehensive revisioning of the language for God and humanity, liturgical practices, and concepts of ministry. In the RLDS Church, to be specific, the underlying androcentrism and the present misogyny, the “call” system of ordination, and the priesthood hierarchy need to be revisioned. It is no longer a question of whether or not women should be in the ministry, but what is the nature of ministry?

The official statements on the nature of ordination vary, from the nonhierachical statement that “confirmation is an ordination” to the specifically hierarchical discussions of what each priesthood office can and cannot do. Fortunately or unfortunately, the church’s text entitled Exploring the Faith: A Series of Studies in the Faith of the Church, Prepared by a Committee on Basic Beliefs, is vague enough and inconsistent enough on issues of authority to let the reader decide. What is authoritative? I strongly agree with Carter Heyward as she writes in Touching Our Strength that,

the value and meaning of authority… is to shape justice, the logos of God. As such, authority is the power to elicit among us, between us, and within us that which already is, to give birth to who we are when we are related rightly. The authority of God is not to create out of nothing (the mythos of patriarchal deity), but rather the power to cocreate out of the fabric of our daily lives who we are when we are related mutually-with justice and compassion. 8

The priesthood in many ways is not treated as an elite group within the RLDS community. Priesthood members are very rarely, and only at the very top of the hierarchy, paid employees of the church. There are no visible signs, like vestments, to differentiate the priesthood from the laity. There is little difference in the theological language used by priesthood and laity as priesthood is not required to be trained extensively in theology. Finally, no one is forbidden to give testimony. Local churches are relatively free, in comparison with most Catholic and Protestant churches, in that they do not face constant intervention and coercion from hierarchical authority.” 9 It is my hope and the intention of my interaction with the community to use these aspects and interpretations of the RLDS Church’s anticlerical history to present a vision of inclusivity and mutual empowerment within the context of ministry.

In the most recent Priesthood Manual, it is acknowledged that “roles which once were well accepted by people are now being challenged” because the “unordained have skills and insights needed by the church.” 10 This challenge is, in the above-mentioned text, framed as a concern only of the unordained; i.e., that unordained persons are more concerned now than in former years about the ways in which they may function appropriately in the church and how they should relate to those in the priesthood. But it is my suggestion that this issue is precisely the concern of the ordained prescribing what the unordained can and cannot do from a centralized, hierarchical position; i.e., “… the priesthood have exclusive roles which cannot be performed in the church by anyone else.” 11 This centralized authoritative position does not take into account the radical congregationalism which actually characterizes the church at the local level.

This deferring to the authority of the ordained is what has been referred to as our Catholic tendencies. Though this name does imply an assumption about the ordained as more knowledgeable and more connected to God, it is worth pointing out that this is where the similarities stop between Catholic and RLDS practices. RLDS ordained persons do not have to attend seminary for three years in order to learn how to consecrate and distribute the Communion elements, nor do I believe any should have to but this educational mandate does provide for the possibility of a theologically informed priesthood. It has been my experience that education is central to revisioning church because, as Jean Danielson has written “without knowledge of historical and theological alternatives, we will have a great barrier to change…never expanding our circles of knowing and known.” 12

Laying On of Hands

“Laying on of hands” is an ordinance practiced within the church not just in healing ceremonies but also in confirmation rites and upon the request of any person wishing to participate in this rite. The basic premise appears to be that the touching of the three individuals (two of the priesthood and the person requesting the ceremony) is healing. The power and simplicity of such a ritual also appears in the work of women writers like Shange who, for example, presents her women characters as spontaneously recreating the ritual of laying on of hands in For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When The Rainbow Is Enuf.

Granted, there is a hierarchical assumption at work in the present practice of this ordinance in that the ceremony is performed with two priesthood members. But the point of interest and promise to me is in the possibility of acknowledging the body as a site of knowledge and healing, and not just as dead matter to be transcended for the sake of the spirit. This recognition of the body as a site of knowledge, and the practice of gathering with others (priesthood or not) for the purpose of renewal, healing, affirmation, or guidance, allows for an embodied theology, and has the possibility of affirming feminist concerns and ecological concerns. Whereas, an anti-body theology tends to be anti-women and anti-earth, an embodied theology has the potential to revision classic mind body, male/female hierarchical dualisms. Such practices, as the laying on of hands ceremony, focus on the here and now, placing confidence and authority in association and bodies, not in aloofness.

Ecclesiastical bodies, rules, or practices hold genuine authority in the lives of people only insofar as we experience them as forged in and concerned with our actual struggles for mutual empowerment and justice. The healing and encouraging power of an ordinance like laying on of hands can be seen, not as a ceremony in which priesthood “call down” and mediate the power of God through their emptied selves to the person being “administered” to, but as a ceremony in which we celebrate the recognition that persons, as embodied selves, whether priesthood or laity, generate the relationships which can be mutually empowering, and reflect the shape of the Sacred in our lives together.


As the editors of Restoration Studies I write, throughout the RLDS “church’s 150year history the cause of Zion has been cherished and pursued.” 13 The conceptualizations of Zion have

taken on many dimensions, ranging from that of a haven to which the Saints may flee to escape the judgments descending on a wicked world to that which ascribes to Zion a redemptive, self-sacrificial ministry for the sake of a world which would be lost but for the love of God; from that of an isolated single community to that of a network of communities permeating social body with Christian attitudes and service. 14

The RLDS Church, like the LDS Church, has – deep and meaningful within its past – the concept of Zion. To a large degree, LDS Zion is manifest in the theopolitical state of Utah and its temple theology. Though the RLDS Church’s Zionic theology is at less tension with the surrounding culture than the LDS Church’s, Zion is not simply symbolic in either community (though some argue it should be only purely symbolic).

As Geoffrey Spencer discusses in “Symbol and Process: An Exploration into the Concept of Zion,” Zion is often interpreted in concrete terms as a place, like Independence, Missouri, or the United States, occurring or achievable at a particular time, or as a spiritual condition, like pureness of heart. 15 Though Spencer is arguing that a concrete interpretation of Zion “tends to limit our vision and lead to confusion, anxiety, and disappointment,” 16 I do agree with him that Zion’s role as symbol and process is seen

…as a powerful and significant dimension in the life of the church as it endeavors to bring the ministry of redemption to individuals but more especially to the corporate structures of the societies in which we live. 17

In other words, Zion can mean the possibility of redeeming, not only individuals, but persons in community. In this way, Zion is not an other worldly hope or system of rewards but is a present striving on earth and within a community of commitment. Consider that the line of the Lord’s Prayer 18 reads, “Thy will be done on earth, as it is done in heaven” (Matthew 6:11) not “let your will be concerned with heaven, because earth does not really matter either in creation or redemption.”

At its best, the Zionic community concept is a call for a “prophetic church (which) participates in the world to embody the divine intent for all personal and social relations.” 19 Zion is not static but is a process which involves both theory and practice. It is not necessarily an immanent eschatological apocalyptism but can be a social and theological commitment which involves the totality of life. It manifests itself as work within the Bread for the World campaign, an active support of peace studies as a religious and educational program, and the justice-making efforts of women’s groups like the AWARE group.

The concept of Zion interpreted in this way can be used as a commitment to justice, a striving for the eradication of present systems of oppression, the decreasing focus on the “afterlife” as the time of redemption, and an increasing focus on the present community as redemptive and salvific.

Open Canon

In the RLDS Church I see great potential in the notion of open canon, in spite of the fact that, in recent years, the subject of the canon has been largely bureaucratic and administrative. A text is not “sacred” in the traditional sense of being able to stand alone as the direct word of God and, as such, of being immune to critical accountability to the tasks of justice-making today. Though it has been argued within our theological forums that the almost immediate canonization of material (which is presented by the Presidency and voted on by the delegates at World Conference) shows disrespect for the long and time-tested canon of the Bible, I see it differently.

Whereas the Catholic approach seems to be to submit biblical authority to an elaborate understanding of tradition and the Protestant tendency has been to grant scripture the sole place of authority in determining church beliefs, I think the RLDS practice of an open canon allows us to claim a new motif of authority and to reinterpret both scripture and subsequent tradition. We have a forum within which to deal with philosophical and theological issues (open canon). We also have a person responsible for the initiation and presentation of canonical additions (president-prophet), and we have the practice of representational voting on the presented material (World Conference).

In this way, we have the opportunity to evaluate presented material on the basis of the following question: Does it help us realize more fundamentally our connectedness to one another and, hence, the shape of our own identities as persons-in-relation within this historical community? We have much in common with Carter Heyward’s description of her own tradition. She writes that we are to draw upon biblical authority in relation to the rest of our faith-heritage (tradition) as well as our own best judgment (reason) in living responsibly in our own generation.” 20 The textualized canon is not worshiped or idolized. The radical congregationalism, rooted in the Restoration movement’s beginnings in America in 1830, allows for various interpretations and practices within the different congregations without substantial hierarchical interference or a strict policy of adherence even to the canon.


It has been my experience that the more one becomes a feminist the more difficult it becomes to go to church.” 21 One reaction to this is for women to build their/our own organizations. This does not necessarily involve a total rejection of the institutional organization. Like most major U.S. Protestant denominations, the RLDS Church ordains women but has not fully expressed questions about the very nature of ministry.

Women-church, not simply an ideology or protest, is a community of nurture which has and will continue to:

…guide one through [the] death [of] to the old symbolic order of patriarchy to rebirth into a new community of being and living…[and is important because] one also needs deep symbols and symbolic actions to guide and interpret the actual experience of the journey from sexism to liberated humanity. 22

Though this can refer to neo-pagan, wicca, or post-Christian gatherings of women and men, my focus here is on an intentional community of women with experiences of Christianity and specifically RLDSism who seek to either reclaim tradition through the experience of women or to reject traditional religion as patriarchal. Both approaches reject the anti-modern evangelical crusade to trivialize and negate women’s liberation and both reach beyond traditional patriarchal religion. Both approaches, the reclaiming of a tradition or the rejection of a tradition as hopelessly patriarchal, challenge the tradition. The force behind this challenge is “women, specifically feminist women, who ask critical questions about the role of religion in the sanctification of patriarchal societies.” 23

AWARE is a self-gathered community of women that takes responsibility for theological and personal reflection, celebration, consciousness-raising and liturgy.

But why would women want and need a base community like AWARE, especially now that women are understood as incorporated into the ordination structure? The problem is that the priesthood itself is an ambivalent pattern because, though officially women’s ordination is accepted, there are significant remnants at the local level who disagree. A feminist base community moves beyond just getting women into the priesthood to altering priesthood/authority structures themselves.

Can’t women support each other simply through their best friends? Best friends, of course, are very helpful, empowering, and transformative, but women can increase our resources and audience through the megaphone of the church whether we are struggling to transform the existing church or starting anew. And one of the models that can be used is the biblical exodus community.

A different model of God is assumed in women-church, instead of “needing” the authority of an ordained clerical power to evoke and mediate between the laity and the Sacred, the women-church paradigm assumes that the Sacred is already here among us in our lives together. Worship/celebration is about helping us to experience that which is underlying life, our connection to each other and the shape of the Sacred in our lives. It implies a theological commitment to develop a “discipleship of equals” and is an example of religious agency in which women name their own religious experience. 24

Closing Comments

The issues discussed in this paper are just a beginning and are from the vision of a person who often feels betwixt and between: too RLDS for religion in the academy and too academic for RLDS communities, too feminist for the religious and too religious for the feminists. Thus far, this has been creative tension, and I am thankful to my friends and companions who have chosen to deal with RLDS theology in very different ways.

Notes and Citations

1. Julia Penelope, Speaking Freely: Unlearning the Lie of the Fathers’ Tongues (New York: Pergamon Press, 1990), xiii.

2. Mary Daly, Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women’s Liberation (Boston: Beacon Press, 1973), 19.

3. Lucy Alice Tatman, “A Storied Theological Dictionary,” (unpublished mater’s thesis at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, Evanston, Illinois, 1990), 5.

4. Meredith McQuire, “Religion and the Body,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion (Semptember 1990): 284.

5. Exploring the Faith: A Series in the Faith of the Church Prepared by a Committee on Basic Beliefs, Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, ed. Alan D. Tyree (Independence, Missouri: Herald Publishing House, 1987), 16.

6. Ibid., 17.

7. Ibid., 8.

8. Ibid., 74-75.

9. Rosemary Radford Ruether, Sexism and God-talk: Toward a Feminist Theology (Boston: Beacon Press, 1983), 202.

10. The Priesthood Manual, Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Independence, Missouri: Herald Publishing House, 1990), 11.

11. Ibid.

12. B. Jean Danielson, “Revisioning Ministry,” (unpublished paper at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, Evanston, Illinois, 1990), 4.

13. Restoration Studies I: A Collection of Essays about the History Beliefs, and Practices of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, ed. Maurice Draper (Independence, Missouri: Herald Publishing House, 1980), 268.

14. Ibid.

15. Geoffrey F. Spencer, “Symbol and Process: An Exploration into the Concept of Zion,” Restoration Studies I, 278

16. Ibid.

17. Ibid., 285.

18. The Holy Scriptures (Independence, Missouri: Herald Publishing House, 1959), Matthew 6:11.

19. Exploring the Faith, 194.

20. Carter Heyward, Touching Our Strength: The Erotic as Power and the Love of God (San Francisco: Harper, 1989), 80.

21. Rosemary Radford Ruether, Sexism and God-talk Toward a Feminist Theology, 193.

22. Rosemary Radford Ruether, Women-Church: Theology and Practice and Feminist Liturgical Communities (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985), 3.

23. Ibid., 2.

24. Mary E. Hunt, Fierce Tenderness: A Feminist Theology of Friendship (New York: Crossroad, 1991), 160.