Thursday, 29 August 2013

Learning from Antionette Brown Blackwell

Last year I started this blog full of good intentions. I was intending to look at a variety of biblical characters and unpack their relevance today. But I never got any further with the project than Hagar and never fully talked about her. Please see these links on my old blog for a full discussion. This one is based on a sermon I gave and this one looked at what Hagar's life might have been like if she was a single parent in the church now and what good practice may have looked like.


A year on I don't want this blog to die but I do want to take it in a different direction. I want to widen it to talk about issues more generally related to faith and contemporary culture. I don't want to lose sight of my initial vision though, rather I think I want to widen it to not just look at biblical figures but also at those figures from the past and perhaps occasionally the present who have something important to speak to us.


To kick this off I want to focus on Rev. Antoinette Brown Blackwell, (whose story can be found in FromPreachers to Suffragists: Woman's Rights and Religious Conviction in the Lives of Three Nineteenth-Century American Clergywomen by Beverly Zink-Sawyer).


The Zink-Sawyer book tells how Brown Blackwell was the first female ordained in a major denomination in the US  and fought for the right to study Theology at university. She was involved in the National American Woman Suffrage Association worship service in 1906, but in 1850 when the First National Woman's Rights Convention was held she wasn't sure about involvement in the woman's rights movement. She is quoted as saying to a friend in a letter, "I might go there and speak against them in many things for I do not believe exactly with your party even on the subject of woman's rights and I would not be bought to silence......I should be a stranger in a strange land and it would be hard for the people to understand me."


The thing was that Brown Blackwell became an activist as much as result of her faith as any political inclination and her attitudes and actions were framed by her understanding of scripture and tradition as much as by her reason and experience. She was in the space where she knew she would be misunderstood by those whose activism was based on more secular thinking. At the same time it was her treatment by the church and academy which largely pushed her into activism.


The misunderstanding she feared, and no doubt at times encountered came from an understanding she was working from a clearly different script to others. They would have also come from her recognition of those whose opinions differed from her own but who she still valued deeply and who she recognised as her brothers and sisters in Christ.


Many LGBandT people in our faith communities find themselves in a similar space to Brown Blackwell, but also going on somewhat of a similar journey. They are not necessarily natural activists and they may find themselves misunderstood by LGBandT organisations and secular activists. Yet they find themselves involved in activism as a result of the church and it's actions. Some feminists are also still finding themselves taking a similar journey.


What are the key things we can learn from Brown Blackwell's journey today though?


1) Recognise where the differences between the motivations and language lie.


I believe she was right in what she said in 1850. There will be misunderstanding which will occur because the motivation and narrative for the faith based activist is different to that of secular activists in some ways. For Brown Blackwell the initial motivation was that she was following her calling. We do, I believe, need to be sensitive to where the differences lie in our motivations and language.


We also need to keep hold of what we are seeking to do in ensuring our faith does not get compromised.


2) Take opportunities and be ready to carry on regardless


Brown Blackwell had the opportunity to study at Obelin, a co-educational college. She took that opportunity and then pursued theological study by sitting in on classes despite the opposition and a lack of any encouragement. She didn't get to graduate at the time but she did get to gain the knowledge and skills that taking that opportunity gave. In 1908, on the 75th anniversary of the college, she was presented with a degree of Doctor of Divinity. 


It was these skills which helped Blackwell gain acknowledgement and opportunities in the wider women's movement and part of the church.


3) Networking is key


After she left Obelin Brown Blackwell was able to use speaking opportunities to network with others inside and outside the church who had shared aspects, if not all, of her vision. The building of these networks is what enabled Brown Blackwell to receive encouragement as well as be involved in movements for change.


4) Hold on to who you are and envision a life which allows you to be true to all you believe and all you feel called to do


Brown Blackwell was ordained but all did not go well. She encountered misunderstanding and opposition from both the church and the women's movement and for a while this took its toll. She realised that the solution was to be ready to support herself and hold on to who she was and follow the call she had and take an integrated approach rather than being tied in to any one group or organisation. She realised that she could be and needed to be a preacher, a reformer, a part of a variety of campaigns and whilst others might be suspicious of apparent contradiction it was what she was called to be.


5) Change will come....but you might have to wait for it


In 1920, a year before her death at the age of 96, Antoinette Brown Blackwell was able to vote. As I said earlier, she had also received her D.D. in 1908. Whilst some of the inequalities and issues she was speaking out against still exist and men and women continue to speak out against them the situation has changed and some extensive level of change has come.


For me point 4 is the most important to hold on to. I know that there are still those who the religious institutions cannot cope with because of their outspokenness on social issues who also find flack from the secular world and particularly from reform movements they are passionate about for being part of the church. Being a stranger in a strange land is not comfortable yet it is sometimes a vital space to inhabit.