Who Are the Priests for Equality?
by EEWC Update editor Letha Dawson Scanzoni
The Church needs a feminist presence that has a rich and wealthy experience of the Scripture,” Father Joseph Dearborn, National Secretary of Priests for Equality, told me. His voice resonated with conviction. “We need women. That’s what we’re about.”
He was happy to hear of EEWC, with its roots in evangelical Protestantism and its expanding ecumenical spirit. He spoke of the importance of solidarity between Catholics and Protestants who work toward the same goal of gender equality in the church and society.
I had first called Joe Dearborn last December to request a copy of the Inclusive New Testament for review in Update, and now on this May 1996 afternoon, we were speaking heart-to-heart in a two-hour phone interview.
Father Joe had been a priest for nearly forty years and has held his post with Priests for Equality since 1983, I had noticed in their literature that Priests for Equality is based at the Quixote Center in the Hyattsville/Brentwood area of Maryland, just northeast of Washington, DC, so I asked him to tell me what the Center is.
The Quixote Center was co-founded in 1975 by Bill Callahan, a Jesuit priest who was recently dismissed from the Order because of his speaking out for women’s ordination, and Dolly Pomerleau, an active laywoman. It was intended as a site “where people with good ideas–ideas that normally would not be picked up by established kinds of groups–could nurture themselves and get going,” Father Dearborn explained. He pointed out that New Ways Ministry, devoted to gay and lesbian Catholics, was nurtured there, as was the public advocacy law firm that carried the [Karen] Silkwood case through its various stages.
Similarly, Priests for Equality began there. The movement was launched with an invitation to sign a 17-point charter written by Bill Callahan. By signing, Roman Catholic Priests, as leaders in the church, could show they wanted no part in promoting or maintaining gender discrimination, whether in or out of the church, but wanted rather to participate in building a new equality in the church and society.
But hadn’t I read that Priests for Equality was a movement made up of both women and men? I asked whether the [“Priests for Equality”] title was anticipatory, looking forward to the day when women could be ordained priests, or whether it was based on the biblical teaching of the priesthood of all believers.
Joe replied that he had never really explored that question with Bill Callahan. “But the organization, as it was founded , was designed to call priests together specifically to endorse the 17-point charter–with its various points about politics, business, inclusive language, and so on. At the same time, because one of the key elements of feminism is inclusivity, it never was the intent or design that anybody else would be excluded. The only difference is that priests are asked to endorse the charter.” The charter now has 3,000 signatures–even though there is considerable risk in signing.
In its official literature, Priests for Equality is described as “a movement of women and men throughout the world–lay, religious, and clergy–who work for the full participation of women and men in the church and society.” It is a “grassroots organization committed to creating a culture in which sexism and exclusion are behind us, and equality and full participation are the order of the day.”
The organization’s mission statement speaks of a singular vision “to bring about a transformation in today’s religious language, and in the way that language reflects the sacred scriptures.” The aim is “to free the scriptures from the ‘culture of sexism’ which has been so pervasive in earlier translations.”
The statement speaks of adopting “an emancipatory religious rhetoric”–a way of verbal communication that “frees and empowers people–and one that recovers our hidden history in such a way that women and men can listen to the ancient stories and feel that they are part of the holy history today.”
Joe Dearborn grew excited and energized when he talked about the living, dynamic Word. “Scripture wraps itself around every culture, every individual, every situation,” he told me, his joy and enthusiasm unmistakable. “We’re just making it applicable to more people.”
Ed. note: Click on the “Awakening of Joe Dearborn” tab above to read more of the story behind The Inclusive Bible project. (From the Spring, 1996 issue of EEWC Update.)
© 1996 Evangelical and Ecumenical Women’s Caucus, EEWC Update, volume 20, number 1 , Spring, 1996
The Inclusive New Testament
The Priests for Equality
West Hyattsville, MD, 1994, xxiv+468 pp.
Reviewed by Virginia Ramey Mollenkott
As a member of the original National Council of Churches Inclusive Language Lectionary Committee that produced the three-volume An Inclusive Language Lectionary: Readings for Years A, B, and C, I was aware that a subgoup of my former colleagues was at work on The New Testament and Psalms: An Inclusive Version, recently published by Oxford University Press. So when I heard about The Inclusive New Testament, published in 1994 by the Priests for Equality, I thought: it figures—replication of feasts after centuries of famine. Now we have competing versions, where before we had nothing at all!
But having pondered both versions, I have felt my dismay turn to gratitude. Feminists who work closely with the Bible will need a copy of both versions; all others will have a choice in which they cannot go far wrong.
The goal of the Priests for Equality was to give to the English-speaking world a New Testament that would be “accessible to everyone, particularly to those who have felt that sexist language creates an uncomfortable (and, at times, insurmountable) barrier to their devotional life.” They have reached their goal with admirable grace.
Since it is impossible to overview the entire New Testament in a relatively brief essay, I will speak only about a few passages that have been part of my personal oppression and then, when understood inclusively, my liberation from that oppression.
Here, for instance, is what the Priests for Equality have done with Ephesians 5:21-22: “Defer to one another out of reverence for Christ. Those of you who are in committed relationships should yield to each other as if to Christ. . . .”
Not only is the appearance of one-way submission corrected in a way that is actually more in line with the Greek text, but the insights are made accessible to people in nontraditional relationships. In fact, the Priests for Equality frequently use the word partner where the Oxford version sticks to the more traditional husband and wife—so that in that sense, the Priests for Equality have achieved a degree of inclusiveness that surpasses the inclusiveness of the Oxford New Testament and for which we lesbian and gay people, among others, are profoundly grateful.
Along the same line, the Priests for Equality’s rendering of 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 could not easily be misused as other translations have been. “. . . no fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, hustlers, pederasts, thieves, misers, drunkards, slanderers or extortionists will inherit God’s kindom. And such were some of you! But you have been washed. . . .” The emphasis is clearly on sexual and non-sexual abuses: and the reign of God is described, both here and elsewhere, by the communal and gender-inclusive term kindom, rather than kingdom.
Acknowledging that according to the extensive grassroots feedback they utilized, the top priority was the inclusive naming of God, the Priests for Equality have used such terms as Our God,, Almighty, or Sovereign. Jesus is called Firstborn or only Begotten rather than “son.”
“Son of Man” becomes Chosen One or Promised One. (In these cases, I prefer the Oxford version’s Child and Human One, chiefly because so many children are abused or marginalized because being human is too often undervalued, especially by the Religious Right.)
“Lord” becomes Sovereign or Savior, and Jesus’ frequent references to “the Father” become Abba God.
Those who have winced at the misogyny of expressions like “the whore of Babylon” will see Good News in the rendering of Revelation 17:5, which describes the scarlet beast covered with blasphemous names. “This cryptic name was written on its forehead: Babylon the Great, Source of All Idolatry and of the Abominations of the Earth.” Instead of promulgating myths of specifically female-associated evil, the Priests for Equality have struck through that mask to the underlying meaning of idolatry, cultic practices, economic excesses, and debauchery.
The intention of the Priests for Equality was to make The Inclusive New Testament truly inclusive by focusing “on those whom society has marginalized: women, ethnic and racial minorities, lesbians and gay people, and those typecast in terms of their afflictions” (Introduction, p. xx). “We do not identify people as their afflictions, impoverishments or infirmities,” they write. “We do not refer to ‘the poor.’ but rather ‘poorer people’ or ‘people in need” –to show that poverty is not an absolute, easily delineated category of people, but a relative condition that touches everyone.” A person afflicted with leprosy is not called “a leper” but rather “ a person with leprosy” (p.xvii).
(Interestingly, the scholars who produced the Oxford version not only make the same point in their introduction but emphasize that such a translation is a more accurate rendering of the original Greek.)
The Inclusive New Testament features a readable and welcoming layout and typeface, an informative introduction and acknowledgments, and a helpful pronunciation guide. At $19.95 [the 1996 price], it’s an excellent buy; at the special offer of two copies of $29.95, it’s a steal.
Virginia Ramey Mollenkott is Professor of English of William Paterson College of New Jersey and is the author of numerous books, including Women, Men, and the Bible, and Sensuous Spirituality: Out from Fundamentalism.
Ed. note: To read more about the Priests for Equality, Father Joseph Dearborn, and the beginnings of The Inclusive Bible project, click on the tabs above.
© 1996 Evangelical & Ecumenical Women’s Caucus. EEWC Update, volume 20, number 1 , Spring, 1996
“There was just something about women. . .” — the Awakening of Joe Dearborn
by EEWC Update editor Letha Dawson Scanzoni
Father Joseph Dearborn has been a priest for forty years. He is a modest man, not wanting to call attention to himself–even refusing to have a photograph taken. But I could hear his voice smiling as we talked by phone, and I could picture the twinkle in his eyes and feel the warmth of his spirit.
He speaks lovingly of God as “the divine She” and “Mother Spirit” and says that “the tragedy of Christendom in the late 20th century is that women are still bound”–bound by traditional attitudes, practices, and church policies that impede forward movement much as foot-binding once did in China.
“We have to take the wraps off this sexism,” he asserts, stating his belief that most women don’t experience the full wealth of Scripture “because if they’re sensitive at all, they ‘can’t take it!’” Male-centered translations and interpretations have made women feel left out and of lesser worth than men.
He tells of a telephone conversation with a Provincial, “extremely experienced and capable, with large numbers of other nuns under her,” shortly after the publication of The Inclusive New Testament. She said her leadership team had been “delighted to the point of tears” as they read passages from it and had spontaneously gathered to share favorite verses.
Then she said, “I need to tell you something else, Joe. As I used the book for my private readings, I was struck by a consciousness that for the first time in my life, when I was presented with Scripture in whatever form–going to church, or for private reading, or being at a convocation or anywhere else–I could approach Scripture without having to consciously arm myself against what I was going to have to hear.”
As he tells me this story, Joseph Dearborn’s voice conveys both his anger over the injustice perpetrated by religious institutions where women have been relegated to second-class status and his unflinching determination to do something about it. “This woman realized that, for all of her life, she had to compromise her very self “ because her experience as a woman had to be put aside while reading Scripture through a patriarchal filter.
“That’s what sexism does,” Joe continues. “It hurts society, it hurts individuals, it hurts all humankind. We’re killing ourselves. We’re taking our seed corn and using it to string beads!”
I asked Father Joe about his spiritual journey. What brought him to this place of such resolute dedication to feminist principles? He replied, “There was just something about women . . .” That “something” produced what he called “an awakening–very gradual, like nine months in the womb.”
I thought of Holy Near’s song, “There’s Something about the Women in My Life,” in which she describes how observing women’s strength and courage in various situations has had an impact on her own life. Who were the women in Joe Dearborn’s life, I wondered, and how had they influenced him?
Women in the Home
He grew up in Kansas City, Kansas, in a home composed of three girls and two boys, an alcoholic father, and a loving mother whose indomitable spirit and wisdom in coping with difficulties bound the family together. Then there was his Aunt Katie, “a true matriarch,” who lived nearby. “I was very much aware of the presence and power of women–especially in the household setting,” he says.
But when he entered what he calls the “clerical culture,” he began having all sorts of questions. What was this often discussed “women problem” in the church? Why were women treated differently from men? “Why did they have to put that little napkin on their head and that kind of stuff? I couldn’t quite piece it all together,” he says.
Women as Professionals
Then in the late 1960s, while serving two rural parishes, Father Dearborn heard about the Economic Opportunity Act and a new program called Project Headstart. He established a seven-county community action agency, became a Headstart counselor to parents, and later was put in charge of Headstart training for the whole state of Kansas. “And I never did ask the bishop for permission,” he laughs.
Joe’s tasks with Project Headstart included contracting for consulting services for interdisciplinary pre-service and in-service training sessions. “About two-thirds of the people I used as consultants were women,” he says, “women with Master’s and PhD degrees in early childhood education, nutrition, biochemistry, and so on. And this was when I really began to open my eyes. Now I could see women as professionals–and the power they have. But at the same time, there’s a gentleness. It just blew me away!”
Three of these women–two Roman Catholics and one Lutheran–became very close to him. The four friends often went out to lunch together, or Joe would invite the women to his “big, old country house.” The friendship of these women had a profound impact on his life. They patiently helped raise his consciousness and made him more aware of the untapped potential of women and the discrimination and oppression women have had to face in religious institutions and society in general. “They even taught me to cook!” he laughs. “Big, old macho man couldn’t even make white sauce!” This was his awakening period.
When the bishop kept increasing Joe’s workload and assigning more parishes over a vast area, the two men went through a time of great conflict. Joe continued his Headstart work along with his priestly duties, but it was a time of intense pressure. A fellow priest suggested that Joe needed a support group. And so, while other priests were forming support groups from among their own number, Joe Dearborn asked his three women friends to become his support group. They agreed. “To this day, I never make a major decision without consulting them,” he says. It was they whose prayerful counsel he sought when the opportunity arose for him to become the National Secretary of Priests for Equality in 1983.
Women in Challenging Situations
Something else was also happening during his travels for Headstart throughout the state of Kansas. He saw the challenges being faced by African American women struggling to raise their children with dignity in the city ghettos. He listened to the stories of Hispanic women in the beet fields of western Kansas. He visited with farm couples during that period when not only weather-related concerns but the financial strain and risks of farming were causing unbelievable stress and despair (and were the subject of several Hollywood movies). Invariably, he found the women in these households to be towers of strength and courage.
Women as Equal Partners
As he observed equal partnership in marriage as he sat with farm couples in their kitchens. “It would come out at times like this not only how much they depended on each other, but how deeply they loved each other,” he says. They were a team, working together, sharing the burdens, challenges, and joys of farming together.
Women in Prison
After his days of serving rural parishes in Kansas, Joseph Dearborn was drawn to a ministry with women prisoners in the state of Washington. “You talk about a disaster in the making,” he says, it’s women in county jails. So often these jails are the pits to begin with, and they have never even thought of women and their needs.”
He tells of one jail in which he was required to stay in a tiny passageway separated by bars from the women gathered in a common room awaiting his ministry. “And for me to hand the Eucharist through those bars to these women who were just dying to have some human contact–it just tore me apart!” On one occasion, one of the prisoners, highly drugged and almost incoherent, was given gentle support by all the other women throughout the service. “They would move next to her, one by one, so that she was never alone,” he marveled. “It was so natural, and so instinctive, and so caring!”
I find the story symbolic of what Father Dearborn has been trying to do in his ministry over the years–reaching out to women, with the institutional bars of organized religion trying to hold him back from getting really close. Yet the women behind those church-imposed “bars” have been and are being a support community, strengthening each other. “And strengthening me!” Joe Dearborn interjects as I share my musings. “You caught the metaphor!”
Removing the Language Barriers
Needing a break from the prison ministry in the fall of 1982, Father Dearborn traveled east for a time of spiritual refreshment and renewal at the Quixote Center. During his stay, the national secretary of Priests for Equality resigned to pursue further studies, leaving the post vacant. Joe Dearborn was asked to fill it. After prayer and consultation with his three-member female support group, he accepted.
Joe was increasingly questioning during this time. He seldom wanted to accept invitations to go out and serve liturgies. “It got to the point where I’d stand up in front of people and realize that half of them were being psychologically butchered by an institution,” he says. “It became a burden to preside when I always had this sense of women being left out.”
In his private devotional Scripture readings, he was finding that sexist language bothered him more and more. He longed for inclusive language readings, something emphasized in the 17-point charter [which he was kind enough to summarize for us for publication with this article. See below.]. He thought about providing such a resource himself but felt too overwhelmed to get the idea off the ground.
Then one day, he read in the National Catholic Reporter that the San Francisco chapter of Dignity, the gay and lesbian Catholic support group, had published its own inclusive language lectionary. He asked the Dignity committee for permission to use their materials and subject them to a grassroots response, then develop the materials further. With permission granted, the work on what would eventually become the entire New Testament in inclusive language was underway.
Women as Scholars
Father Dearborn sees God’s blessing on the project evidenced in the hiring of two young female graduate students trained in English and rhetoric. Once again, it was “something about women” that helped him gain another insight. Up until then, in working on the Inclusive New Testament, Joe had made sure that four disciplines were represented: biblical scholarship, systematic theology, feminism, and pastoral ministry. These two women helped him and his colleagues see a fifth ingredient was needed–rhetoric. And the women brought to the project the superb communication skills necessary to bring it about.
The project is now moving forward on an inclusive-language translation of the Old Testament to be published in three volumes, following the traditional division of the Hebrew Scriptures: the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings. Joseph Dearborn recently finished work on the Psalms and is now working on Job and others in the Writings volume.
He recalls the words of a high church official: “Father Dearborn, you always were a troublemaker.” Joe accepts that as a compliment and says he’d like to have the remark inscribed on his tombstone. What others may see as trouble (a change in the status quo), Joseph Dearborn sees as God at work, making the church what God intended it to be — “with women, given their capacities and their incredible gifts and skills, enriched by an honest reading of Scripture, coming to the fore in the leadership of the 21st century.”
The 17-Point Charter of Priests for Equality
(as summarized in 1996 by Father Joseph Dearborn, for EEWC’s publication, EEWC Update, Summer, 1996)
In societal life, we affirm that women and men
-in God’s love are equal
-are equally called to full personhood
-are thus equally called to participate in societal development
-have a right to be treated equally before the law
-have a right to balanced portrayals in the media and advertising
-have a right to equal opportunities in societal life
-have equal rights and responsibilities to take part in political life
-are called to equal partnership in marriage
-should equally share the burdens of keeping the peace.
In church life, we affirm that women and men
-are called to work for equality in our Church
-have a right to be treated equally in Church law and prescriptions
-are called to an equal share in Church decision-making and responsibilities
-have a right to equal participation in the worship of our Church
-have a right to equal opportunity for ordination to the priesthood.
We affirm efforts of persons in Catholic schools, in religious education, in adult programs, and in Catholic organizations to work vigorously for equality on behalf of women and men.
We affirm efforts to use sexually balanced language and images in Church liturgy, publications, education, and preaching.
© 1996 Evangelical & Ecumenical Women’s Caucus, from EEWC Update, volume 20, number 2 , Summer, 1996