The Integration of the Arising Feminine Principle—A Sermon By Bill Redfield
The sermon below was preached by The Rev. William Redfield (pictured, above left) at a farewell celebration for Bishop Skip Adams, 10th Bishop of Central New York (pictured, above right). The event was held at The OnCenter in Syracuse, New York on October 22, 2016.
The Integration of the Arising Feminine Principle: In Celebration of the Episcopate of Bishop Skip Adams
This is a providential a day—a day when we have the opportunity to honor and thank Bishop Adams for his service to this diocese and for his support of the ministries that have taken place during the time of his episcopate. But it was also an auspicious day over fifteen years ago when we elected Skip as our tenth bishop here in Central New York. I remember the doubt on the minds of the self-proclaimed experts in our diocese and how they divined that we would never elect a bishop from within the diocese. How little did they know…? And how little did we know on that day that he would lead us through some of the most tumultuous times this diocese and our the Episcopal Church have ever been through…? What a privilege it was on that day of his election for me to give Skip’s nominating speech; what a privilege it is for me now to preach on this occasion.
So, at first I thought maybe I might try to provide some context to this celebration by recounting some of the highlights of those fifteen years. And then, feeling a little bolder, I wondered about putting these fifteen years in the framework of the history of the Diocese of Central New York. But then finally—feeling completely and self-delusionally inflated—I settled on viewing Skip’s episcopate in the perspective of the unfolding development of human consciousness. Truly…
Fortunately for you I’ve been given a time limit. But I’m going to make you work here, so keep on your toes. And for goodness sakes, don’t cough or blink, or you’ll lose a millennium!
We in the Church all know that the ground is shifting, maybe even sinking, underneath our feet. But rather than just circling the wagons in fear and reactivity, we must try to understand our contemporary spiritual and existential condition in its broadest and most comprehensive terms. That is why I am taking the widest angle perspective I know of.
In the West, it has been the confluence of several emergent understandings that have propelled us into the modern age. Let me mention just three: (1.) science finally grasped that the earth is not the center of the universe around which everything else revolves, (2.) consciousness became completely identified with intellectual thought, and (3.) religious power structures no longer held complete sway over individuals.
Through these and other forces, then, modernity has brought us to a very new and very unique sense of self. But because it is the lens through which we now are seeing, it is hard for us to fully appreciate how different it is from the ways in which human beings used to understand themselves. This modern sense of self leads us to think of ourselves as subjects that are separate, sovereign, and autonomous. And, as separate subjects, we perceive that we are living in a world of objects, a world that is objectified. In other words, we are living among material objects to which we are seemingly superior and which we can, or think we can, control. And in this present perspective of modernity we believe that we are the only beings who have awareness and consciousness. Ever since Descartes, consciousness is thought only to be located within the thinking brains of individual human beings.
But, you know, it wasn’t always like this. Back in the beginning, in what we might call primitive times (although I do not mean that in any pejorative way), rather than being separate, sovereign, and autonomous, the self was permeably embedded in nature. That is to say, the interior of the self flowed into and was continuous with the interior of nature and the cosmos. There was, in other words, no separation between the self and the world, between self and object.
Prevalent at that time was a sense of unitive continuity between the self and nature as well as between the self and the tribe. It was commonplace for the self to enter into conscious communication with a mountain, a tree, or the moon. Without that separation between inside and outside, between subject and object—it was all subject. It was a continuous unity. In that more primitive era we knew we were part of the whole—not because this was a mental belief, but because our bodies and our hearts knew this to be true. It was a participatory wisdom. But now in our more advanced and sophisticated modern age, if we say anything along these lines, we are looked at askance.
But this is precisely where we need to be headed. In my estimation, the challenge of the crucible of change that we are currently in is to recover some of this sense of our embeddedness in nature and our belongingness with the global community, but at the same time without giving up the gains that we have made in the powerful developments of the intellectual mind.
Now, we cannot do this simply going back to a past innocence. But neither can we do this by holding the line where we are right now, thinking that we are going to hold off change. For heavens sake, this is principally what has gotten us into the mess we are now in.
Rather, the way is forward—as 20th century prophets like Teilhard de Chardin and Abraham Heschel have urged us and as our 21st century prophets like Cynthia Bourgeault and Richard Rohr are urging us now. But this way forward requires a deft and nimble hand—respecting the tradition, but not grasping it too tightly. It requires flexibility and openness—the capacity to think outside the box and to color outside the lines. And above all else, it requires progress in a new mode—one that is more along the feminine principle than the masculine principle.
Now wait just a minute… Hang in there with me through this, and for heaven’s sake, let’s not all jump to our cultural assumptions and reactions when I use the terms “masculine” and “feminine.” My point is this: The impulse to forge an autonomous rational self through the course of the development of human consciousness since the earliest times has been a hero’s journey—a masculine journey. Man—and I use this term intentionally—has striven to differentiate himself from the matrix out of which he has emerged—out of nature and out of the tribe. This has characteristically, and maybe even necessarily, required an unconscious masculine disposition or the masculine principle. Thus, patriarchy and hierarchy have been writ large in the history of modern Western consciousness and in the history the Church.
This has all been in service of developing the individual ego and the self-determining human being. This masculine impulse has pursued uniqueness, separateness, and freedom. All this has been very, very good. But—and this is the unfortunate part—this has been accomplished by repressing the feminine principle.
Now what I am talking about here goes way beyond creating equal opportunities for women. As important as this may be, I am talking about something much deeper and more archetypal. Because along with this shadow side of the repression of the feminine principle in modernity has been the related repression of undifferentiated unitive consciousness—as well as the repression of nature. With the progressive masculine denial of our embeddedness and our permeable connection with nature has also come a repressed sense of our belonging to our own bodies and to a greater community of being.
Having gone as far as this masculine, conquering mode of consciousness can take us, we are now poised on the cusp of integrating this with the feminine principle—that part that has been previously repressed. That means moving from rightness, certitude, and domination (the hallmarks of Christendom) to mystery, ambiguity, and emotion. This means moving from dogma and rules, an intellectual understanding of faith, and painting by the numbers (the hallmarks of the institutional Church) to instinct, body, and nature.
Can the Church learn this new language and find it’s grounding in this arising feminine mode of consciousness? And then can it integrate it with the masculine and the intellectual?
It is significant that we here in Central New York have recently elected our first female bishop. Bishop Dede, we honor you, and we welcome you. I can tell you that we are not looking for business as usual; we are looking for a heart-centered, Wisdom Christianity that can find a comfortable home in our bodies and in nature. We are looking for an expression of Christ that will care for our planet and all of its different peoples.
But here’s the point that I have been trying to get us to as we celebrate Bishop Adams’ episcopate: Skip has been the one who has been committed to this new integrative agenda—linking the feminine with the masculine. While working to honor and preserve the tradition, he has at the same time encouraged an expression Christianity that is expressive of this emergent feminine principle.
Again let me say that this is more than just giving women equal footing and opportunity in the Church—although Skip has been about that, to be sure. Women have been given full opportunity within this diocese over the last fifteen years. But even beyond this, Skip has supported and promoted the arising feminine principle—sometimes at great personal cost. Indeed, there are some who have not been on this page and have wished to take the Church back to the 1950’s. But Skip instead has fearlessly led us forward.
How has he done this? Before I enumerate what he has done, let me be clear as to how he has done it. Rather than thinking that the feminine agenda must be forcibly inflicted on the Church of the 21st century as compensation and payback for what has been repressed—for this would be advancing the arising feminine in the old masculine and authoritative ways—Skip has simply allowed it to arise naturally in these fifteen years, as if it has been the coiled and underlying purpose of life all along. He has simply allowed it to unfurl itself. (And now as I list some of the things he has accomplished in this regard, rather than just appreciate Skip for these actions and values, let us ourselves also consider how we might strive to emulate him in these ways.)
Skip has had the capacity to see and value all that is maternal—all things that nurture and support. Rather than taking on the authority of his office and flaunting it, he has done just the opposite—making himself approachable to others and always offering his support to the meaningful ministries of this diocese. In this he as acted as a partner to, and a collaborator with, others—clerical and lay alike.
Skip has functioned as an openhearted listener. Rather than promulgate top-down policies, he has always been willing to hear the way others see and do things and has always first tried to understand those other perspectives rather than automatically judge them.
Both through his office and in his personal life, Skip has exhibited an increasing awareness of the pain of our earth, our fragile island home. He has shown a willingness to speak out and make his own personal commitments to upholding the health of our planet.
Skip has exhibited a growing awareness of, and reaction against, political and corporate policies that dominate and exploit the workers of our world and/or the environment. Knowing how the weak among us often get squeezed by the more powerful, he has extended himself to others in need. And this Skip has most often done very privately, not wanting any recognition or acknowledgement for his great kindnesses. Although there have been many, many such instances, let me just mention one to let you know what I am talking about—his kindness and generosity toward Flor and his support and guidance of our El Salvador ministry and friendship.
Skip has expressed and acted on behalf of a recognition of the relatedness of whole human family. Rather than think of himself and his tradition as right and making others who believe differently “wrong,” Skip has allowed himself to be drawn in wonder and respect to the differences of other peoples, other traditions, and other ways of life. He has been a champion and staunch supporter of interfaith work in Central New York, and clearly his Christian faith has been deepened as a result of this.
Skip has been remarkably open to an archetypal feminine appreciation of the body and its place in meaningful worship. Although constrained by the existing ritual practices of our traditional Church, he has been open to experimentation in this area. Similarly, Skip has had an appreciation of the feminine perspective of the divine, including a Sophianic or Wisdom Christianity as well as the recovery of contemplative spiritual practices and recovered gospels.
Lastly, Skip has been a student of 21st century life. Rather than trying to take us back in time, Skip has had the capacity to see God at work in our present life circumstances. And instead of thinking that the culture should conform to the Church, he has called the Church to respond to the culture—the culture not as we think it should be, but as it is.
In our bishop we have witnessed the dominant masculine and its impulse toward order and authority become joined and married to the longtime repressed but now ascending feminine and its desire for tenderness, compassion, and nurturance. In him we see what the re-configurement of the self in the 21st century might look like. But also in him and his commitments we may just be getting a glimpse of the new life in Christ to which we, the Church, are being called in our age. Certainly the illuminating outline of Christ’s self-giving love shines unmistakably through the life and soul of our dear bishop.
Skip, we see the divine in you, often because we have been gifted by your ability to see the divine in us. And, refusing the protectiveness of an impenetrable mantel of authority and office, we have come to see the humanness in you because you have allowed yourself to be open and vulnerable in our presence. Your tears, my friend, have blessed us and have served to soften the hard ground of the lives of many of us. We are coming to realize that within that vulnerability you exhibit a grounded strength that comes from knowing that you are a Child of God. Thank you, Skip, for seeing that in us as well.
Author’s note: While the basis of this sermon is widely known, no one writes about it more eloquently than Richard Tarnas in “Passion of the Western Mind.”