Teresa Berger: Remarks for the WATER Teleconference, July 18, 2012
1) some background on how I came to the research done in this book
(Berger, Teresa. Gender Differences and the Making of Liturgical History: Lifting a Veil on Liturgy’s Past. England, UK: Ashgate, 2011.)
2) a look at the work the book itself does
3) a comment on the short excerpt from the book (Ch. 7, pp. 157-160) that you all received, to read if you were so inclined
My scholarly work is in a field called Liturgical Studies, a discipline that inquires into everything having to do with Christian worship: its history; its practices; its theological heart; its new frontiers (for example, the contemporary development of liturgies in Cyberspace).
I studied and trained in this field, in quite conventional ways, in Europe. Strong emphasis on the importance of the past, i.e., liturgical practices in history, as these ground the present.
When I came to the United States from Europe in the mid-80s, feminist theology and feminist liturgies had emerged and commanded attention. We were questioning the past, of course – and what it had meant for women’s lives. For me, while I continued a more conventional trajectory, I also began to think with and accompany these emerging new voices and practices.
One highlight of that work: a book on Feminist Liturgies in Global Context, with an essay by Diann Neu of WATER (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002).
By the early 1990s, gender history had begun to flourish, in part in response to difficulties that became visible with earlier feminist scholarship. Two problems in particular:
1. “add-women-and-stir” approach (Mary E. Hunt’s expression). What was problematic in this approach was its trust in conventional history-writing. Simply adding women to the traditional his-story rendered visible only a handful of elite women. Look at elite men and add elite women (Mary Magdala, Hildegard, Juana Ines de a Cruz, etc.)—render visible only a handful of elite women who have left writings or other traces.
2. A second approach prevalent in early feminist writings focused on “women as victims,” that is, as objects of misogyny and patriarchal oppression. Problems with this approach include the inattention to female sites of agency and power, and to hierarchies between women. Or, to put this differently: a “women-as-victims” approach also trusted traditional history-writing too much in that it took for granted the marginal, dependent, and subservient status of women in the past.
With the emergence of gender history, gender theory, “gender differences” became crucial. What does this mean concretely? Well, one cannot invoke “women” without acknowledging that the meaning of the word is constituted by its other, namely what women are not, i.e., men. This traditional binary – “women” and “men” – is a powerful but incomplete map of gendered lives. It leaves invisible, for example, the roughly six million human beings alive today with neither clearly identifiable female nor male chromosomes. And far from being minor and marginal, the complexity of gender differences impacts contemporary life in a multitude of ways, from restroom access for the gender-ambiguous, to sex determination and Y-chromosome testing of female athletes, to Vatican deliberations on transgender surgery in a priest.
So, the seemingly natural category “women,” which had anchored earlier women’s history, crumbled, while new gender scholarship emerged: for example, the study of masculinities. Scholars use tools of gender history to look at the first five centuries. Gender is not synonymous with women, but includes gender differences—men/women, eunuchs, consecrated virgins, priestly men, etc.
For my own field, liturgical history, I found this an incredibly exciting move. It allowed me to envision essentially a new way of writing about liturgical practices in the past without focusing on just one sub-group (that can’t be done, in liturgical history anyways; if you want to describe, for example, where women had their place in a church, you have to describe where the men were at the same time).
So, my key methodological principles: gender is not a synonym for women. In fact, gender history can never treat “women” as if that category can stand on its own and was not constituted by its relational other, men. An insistence on this fact is, I think, the most marked difference between earlier work and the present Gender Differences and the Making of Liturgical History.
Second, and following from this, gender applies not only to masculinity and femininity, but to all gender identities including those that subdivide one of the sides of the traditional binary, for example virgins and widows or eunuchs, or which defy the binary as intersexed persons do.
The result of this thinking is that gender differences become visible and with that lens I went to work. The veil book is what came of that.
2. THE BOOK:
Now, before you think this book – as a book about the past – is really irrelevant to the here and now, let me stress that, on the contrary, the book offers a history to contemporary questions around gender and liturgical life: our contemporary struggles around gender issues in faith communities (be they continuing questions about women’s ministries, issues surrounding the full ecclesial life of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex Christians, popular discussions of the need for a more “muscular” Christianity in an otherwise “impotent” because “feminized” church) have a genealogy, an ancestry. And they deserve to be seen as part of this larger whole, namely a history of liturgical life that has never been free of gender as both a given and also a struggle.
The core of the book is a set of historical case studies – focused on early Christianity (i.e., the first five centuries), that is: the formative early centuries of liturgical history – to show how gender differences shaped liturgical life from the very beginning.
After two introductory, methodological chapters, Part II of the book presents four case studies to demonstrate what a gender-attentive liturgical historiography entails. The first chapter is dedicated to liturgical space (ch. 3), the next chapter to early Eucharistic practice, especially the image of the Eucharist as God nursing us with breast milk as a mother nurses her child (ch. 4). So far, these are quite conventional topics of liturgical history. The following two case studies move beyond conventional topics to imagine alternative ways of studying liturgy’s past; based on foregrounding questions of gender in worship. The first of these chapters inquires into gender differences as they shaped liturgical presence and participation: highlights liturgical impediments based on bodily flows, especially menstruation and nocturnal emissions, and sexual relations, and childbirth (ch. 5) all of which had sustained weight in terms of who could participate in liturgical assembly. The subsequent chapter traces the emerging link between liturgical presiding and priestly masculinity. It also takes into account liturgical leadership by other gender identities, among them women, eunuchs, and “in-continent,” not sexually abstinent men (ch. 6).
One particularity of the book, important to mention because of the excerpt you were sent: at the beginning of every chapter, I tell a story from the past that introduces the subject matter of the chapter. This storytelling is quite intentional. I am convinced that history at heart is “a set of stories we tell,” as Rowan Williams has put it…. The stories that open each chapter allow me to offer fleeting glimpses of periods in liturgical history that are not otherwise highlighted in the book.
This brings me to the short reading:
3. THE SHORT READING (Ch. 7, pp. 157-160):
I chose this short excerpt in part because the feast day of St. Mary Magdalene is just around the corner, July 22. The excerpt is the historical story I chose to tell, for the closing chapter of the book. The chapter is titled “The Lasting Presence of Liturgy’s Past.” The chapter and its intro text illustrate well how the historical work done in this book has consequences for today: for example, consequences for liturgical historiography of the findings of the previous chapters. And, contemporary discussions around gender and liturgy: what happens to the many ways in which liturgy continues to be shaped by gender when these are seen as having a history – that is, when contemporary realities come to be seen as part of a long history of Christian worship that has never been devoid of gender as basic, potent, and troubling ingredients of all liturgical life.
Questions and Discussion with the Audience
1. What about priestly masculinity? What does it mean?
The images from the past have been inadequate to tell the whole story. The struggle has not simply been female vs. male bodies that can preside. In the 4th century, the question was what kinds of eunuchs can/cannot be ordained. In the 6th century the question was what kind of sexual abstinence marked priestly presiders. Some were married but abstinent. According to Gary Macy, there was ordination of women until 12th century, though ordination meant something else then.
2. The questioner assigned this book as a textbook in feminist worship class. She found it useful that it went beyond gender male/female, dipping more broadly and more specifically into those areas but also expanding the categories.
Teresa Berger described using the book in a class with a trans student, and
to go beyond matters of women not allowed to do anything, rather to look at liturgies from the past with a thicker description of the shape of gender differences.
3. What about gender differences that don’t have physical aspects?
One approach is to think about early Cistercian monks who were told to bring the Word to full term, not to abort the Word. There are reports of men pregnant as Mothers of the Word with spiritual procreation considered valuable/true procreation. There are also men penetrating the side of Christ, which raises issues with regard to sexuality. The point here is not to multiply genders but to see a more complex set of distinctions. The Vatican has a seeming fixation on such matters which is weird given the gender fluidity of the past but understandable as a reaction to gender systems breaking apart
4. Eucharistic practices include bread and wine; milk and honey cups are consecrated.
God nurses with God’s body and blood.
5. With regard to next steps, Dr. Berger has no immediate follow up to this book planned. She is interested in liturgies in cyber space; liturgies related to planetary emergencies; how liturgy deals with time in contemporary society while time is a scarce resource.
6. A questioner asked about women who were forgotten along the way.
Teresa Berger observed that by the 10th century, Christianity was largely rural. Such communities left little written trace, few buildings or monuments; much of that church is completely invisible in liturgical history. There is no way to unearth or recreate those voices. Some traces of people remain but the dominant experience is that vast numbers of people in the past are no longer visible to scholars.
7. What about similar gendered work in Islam or in Jewish liturgical history?
There is some being done with this complicated understanding of gender in studies of early Judaism.
WATER is deeply grateful to Professor Teresa Berger for her time and talent. We wish her well with this book and look forward to sharing her work in the future.
There will be no WATER teleconference in August.
Please join is on Wednesday, September 12, 2012, for our next gathering with Dr. Judith Plaskow who will address the topic of “God After Feminism.”
Happy summer vacation!