She Flies On: A White Southern Christian Debutante Wakes Up

by Carter Heyward
New York: Church Publishing Company, 2017.

Reviewed by Virginia R. Mollenkott

She Flies On book coverThe Rev. Dr. Carter Heyward is a well-known priest, one of the first group of women to be ordained by the Episcopal Church in 1974.  She taught for thirty influential years at Episcopal Divinity School (1975-2005).  Her subtitle establishes that this book of Christian feminist theology will be firmly based in Carter’s personal experiences.  And the title reassures younger Christian feminists that even as the great leaders of ‘60s-‘70s feminism leave this planet, God will not cease Her flight.  As Carter writes, “Traditional Christian theology” bases God’s relational movement in the Trinity—Father, Son, and Spirit: “This book tells you why, over the years, this androcentric language has seemed to me increasingly small, restrictive, and oppressive not only to women and girls, but also to men and boys, and to the Creator and Her glorious creation” (p. xx).

Obviously, this is a perfect book for the members of Christian Feminism Today as we pursue our campaign against androcentric language and policies.

Carter Heyward uses the brilliant tactic of discussing Trinitarian language to illustrate the effects of patriarchy on one individual female life and collective humanity.  God is defined throughout as “the Spirit moving within us with an impulse to connect” (p. 8).

In the process of exploring the sacredness of mutual relationships, Carter describes her lifelong devotion to her professor at Union Seminary, Dr. Beverly Harrison.  Theirs was “a relationship rooted and grounded in a trustworthy mature love that did not rely upon a monogamous expectation” (p. 98).  Into this same atmosphere Carter introduces the life-companionship she formed with Sue Sasser in the late 1990s, years before Bev’s death in 2012.  Although several bishops insisted on calling Sue Sasser Carter’s “second lover,” Carter insists instead that “Sue and Bev had been aware and had agreed on my being life-companion with each, and the three of us—Bev, Sue, and I—had set up as partners in the establishment and maintenance of Redbud Springs” (p. 175).  Any resemblance to the Christian Trinity’s founding and maintaining the world is not at all coincidental!

From another angle, the Trinity appears again as Carter reunites in Australia with David Conolly, a man Carter had come very close to marrying in her youth.  Carter fantasizes reporting to her Bishop that she now had three lovers rather than just two! (p. 181).

I felt so much agreement with Carter’s inclusive theology that I was startled by her assertion that people whose wealth and health permit should be vegetarians in order to establish ‘right relation’ with the rest of creation” (p. 212).  Having been so often told that I cannot be both lesbian and Christian, it was painful to hear that I cannot eat animal flesh and be a responsible Christian.  I think of Peter’s vision (Acts 10:1-15) when Peter was prepared for his mission to the Gentiles by seeing a sheet-like vessel lowered before him, full of all sorts of animals.  A voice said, “Rise, Peter, kill and eat.”  And when Peter refused because so many of the creatures were not “kosher” (and the mixing itself was not “kosher”), the voice reminded Peter: “What God has cleansed, that call not thou common.”  Why was this story included in sacred Scripture, if indeed we were never intended to eat animal flesh?

Nevertheless, Carter’s vegetarian position supports her view that recently the United States has tended to err on the side of “giving greater weight to individual freedom than to social justice” (p. 114)—and further, social justice must extend to animals of every species.  I agree that the United States has gone somewhat crazy concerning individual freedom, frequently to the near-exclusion of concern for the common good.  But I’m not sure that the common good must necessarily include every animal that digs, swims, flies, or walks upon the Earth.

She Who Flies contains sixteen pages of outstanding photographs of Carter and her family and friends.  And it is full of clear, concise definitions like the one of feminist liberation theologies: they were “shaped not only to challenge male supremacy but also to make connections among the various interactive structures of oppression based on varieties such as gender, sexuality, race, culture, ethnicity, and class, religion, age, and ability” (p. 109).

And there is plenty of poetic vision to describe “the sweet sweet spirit that is carrying me more fully into God, who is our heavenly home” (p. 225).  That Spirit is God “moving between us, infusing each of us with an impulse to connect” (p.8).  She is God, and She flies on.

 

© 2017 by Christian Feminism Today

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Virginia Ramey Mollenkott
Virginia Ramey Mollenkott is the author or co-author of 13 books, including several on women and religion. She is a winner of the Lambda Literary Award (in 2002) and has published numerous essays on literary topics in various scholarly journals. In 1975, she spoke at the first national gathering of the Evangelical Women’s Caucus in Washington, D.C., and delivered plenary speeches at almost every gathering of the organization over the next 40 years. She has lectured widely on lesbian, gay, and bisexual rights and has also been active in the transgender cause. Mollenkott is married to Judith Suzannah Tilton and has one son and three granddaughters. She earned her B.A. from Bob Jones University, her M.A. from Temple University, and her Ph.D. from New York University. She received a Lifetime Achievement award from SAGE, Senior Action in a Gay Environment, a direct-service and advocacy group for seniors in New York City in 1999. At age 85, Virginia Ramey Mollenkott continues to use her doctorate in English to share insights with folks who visit the EEWC and Mollenkott websites, and with elderly people in the Cedar Creek educational programs. She has recently taught an Elderhostel course on the poems of the Rev. Dr. John Donne, and is now preparing a Fall course on John Milton’s Paradise Lost. She deeply regrets that her severe arthritis forbids her presence at recent and wonderful street protests.

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