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Susan Penberthy

Further information

About the author

Susan Penberthy is currently studying for a PhD in English Literature at the University of Western Australia. Her interest is in representations of work and idleness in various forms of literature in sixteenth century England. She is also an enthusiastic participant in St Barnabas Anglican Church and has a longstanding concern for the church's treatment of women.

Publication details

Volume 2, November 1996

Women-Church: An Australian Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion (1996)

Women-Church: An Australian Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 18 (March 1996).

From its zany purple cover sporting a female symbol styled as the inverted orb of Christendom, Women-Church proclaims subversion. The March issue of this bi-annual journal, containing articles from the disciplines of theology, anthropology and the perspectives of Buddhism and Neo-paganism, celebrates the heteroglossic tones of multicultural Australia and its manifold feminisms.1 Indeed, the commitment to hearing many voices appears to be a tradition central to Women - Church evident from the list of articles available from back copies covering subjects such as Japanese Buddhism, elderly women, Aboriginal women, Goddess religions as well as on-going concerns with ordination, abortion, liberation theology, God as father, and domestic violence.

The central feature of the March issue, and the section most interesting to me, was an extended focus on the recent visit to Australia of the feminist theologian Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza. The feature contains an introduction to her theology, some extracts from a paper that she gave while in Australia, some personal responses to her visit and a "critical reflection" on her work. The North American, Schussler Fiorenza, changed the face of Christian feminism with the publication of In Memory of Her (1983) a scholarly study historicising biblical interpretation and reframing it from a female perspective. In this edition, Women-Church has reproduced the third and fourth sections of her paper entitled "Struggle is a Name for Hope: A Critical Feminist Interpretation for Liberation" which was prepared for the Colloquia on Feminist Hermeneutics, Australia, August 1995. In it, Schussler Fiorenza argues both against women abandoning the bible as irretrievably androcentric and against "feminist religious apologists" who claim that Scripture is unproblematically "meaningful" and "liberating for women." Instead, she posits an alternative interpretive approach whereby women participate in, and "articulate" what it means to participate in, the "critical construction and assessment of religious, biblical and theo-ethical meanings and assert their authority to do so." In addition, she argues that central to a feminist liberation theology is an assertion of the "hermeneutical privilege of the oppressed and marginalised for reading and evaluating the bible."

These strategies are incorporate in the agenda of democratising the church, a project that Schussler Fiorenza dubs as building the ekklesia of wo/men. Her vision is of a new community but one not based on individualistic and spiritualised biblical interpretation characteristic of modern church practice. So positioned, she gives short shrift to Irigaray's emphasis on individual fulfilment via personal divinity. On these grounds Schussler Fiorenza would probably also have criticised Lynne Hume's article in the same edition of Women-Church entitled "Heretics, Witches and other nice people: Reconstructing the Witch." Hume offers a Derridean critique of the binary opposition Christian/pagan advocating a reclamation of the terms "pagan" and "witch" as positive appellations drawn from ancient beliefs in which a female deity was present. Although Hume's account of the etymological shifts occurring over the history of the term "pagan" was interesting, I felt her promotion of a personally designed religion and assertion of the constructedness of the dualism good/bad to be philosophically naive.

Zane Ma Rhea's article, "Breaking the Silence on Women's Enlightenment" is a sometimes impassioned personal account of her pilgrimage from Catholicism to therevada Buddhism and then to a feminist positioning within the very patriarchal shape of this religious tradition. Claiming that she has attained enlightenment, and that women in general can do so, Ma Rhea also tackles the problems posed for the feminine subject by the therevada definition of enlightenment as a state of "non-self". Subjectivity to the three fathers - biological, symbolic, and divine is the focus of Ruth N. Pidwell's article "The Seduction of the Father" in which she offers some preliminary findings from her research on the determining role of fathers among women who have gained positions of prominence in the church. Ultimately, Pidwell's conclusions are depressing in her findings of complete subjectivity. Perhaps on a more empowering note, Lisa McNeice's fictional piece "Sacred Spaces" claims motherhood as a sacred space unrepresentable by a patriarchal symbolic order.

Women-Church March 1996 is not only a stimulating read but also a great resource for those interested in its central concerns of feminism and religion. In addition to articles, cartoons, and fictional pieces, the editors also offer a feedback page - "Webbing", and extensive notes on upcoming conferences, events, and other resources available in the shape of journals and books. Reviews and an updated annotated bibliography of books, journals and periodicals make the March edition an invaluable guide both to the neophyte and to the experienced wishing to negotiate the discursive fields of women, religion and the church.


Notes

1. In contradistinction to Prime Minister John Howard who seems to only value multicultural Australia for its economic contribution


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