Intersectionality, social categories, and the local church

patch1For the past year or so I’ve facebook-followed Mike Kinman, Dean of Christ Church Cathedral (an Episcopal outfit) in St. Louis. As he’s worked to engage the Cathedral with the pain and sorrow of the city it serves, Kinman has been an example for me of compassionate Christian leadership. When Kinman invites us to pay attention to something, I respond. That’s why I started looking at intersectionality.

The term ‘intersectionality’ grows out of black feminist social analysis. Black women found the women’s movement was not responsive to their experience as people of color and the black liberation movement didn’t respond to their experience as women. They were at an intersection. Intersectionality is now part of the formal language of sociology; you will find, on wikipedia, not only a very solid description of how the term is used but also another page discussing how the description should be improved or expanded. Which is to say: there’s a high degree of ownership in intersectionality as an analytial lens for social scientists.

This September Kinman brought the Rev. Jeff Hood to speak to the Cathedral about intersectionality. Hood offered a sermon, Beyond Identity: The Image of a Queer God, and a longer presentation, The Church at the Intersection.  Here are my notes on Hood’s longer presentation; these are not verbatim.

“A church at the intersection is a space where people get to talk about where they came from. And where they come from is used as a means of energizing – not just the individual, but the entire community.”

Hood says that the church at the intersection gets its energy from knowing one another’s stories, so he begins his talk by telling the story of his faith journey from Southern Baptist to UCC. Around minute 26 he begins discussing the Cathedral of Hope, a UCC congregation in Dallas that’s about 85% GLBTQ. From the outside, Cathedral of Hope might appear as a single category. You might think that such relatively homogenous congregation would be free from intersections, free from people’s sense that their overlapping categories are not adequately represented or understood. But that hasn’t proved to be true. There are multiple subcategories with respect to age, gender experience, ethnicity, household and family configuration. People feel dissed. People feel marginalized.

Hood doesn’t offer programmatic solutions in this presentation – indeed, in the discussion section, I sensed some frustration with that. Instead, he moves to the importance of modeling, teaching, and expressing that God is intersectional – beyond categorization – and that each of us is a state of intersectionality with God. The resolution he proposes to our condition of intersectionality is to move more deeply into loving relationships.

Hood uses the language of ‘queerness’ to express his ideas, perhaps to emphasize the strangeness of what he is saying; in his words, he is ‘pushing against the normative.’ It’s not a term of discourse that feels helpful to me in the Liturgy Remix project because it relativizes all categories that are not gender-related. Feel free to tell me how wrong I am.

Returning to the terms of sociological discourse, how might these ideas relate to the churches we love and serve? Could intersectionality be a useful lens? Let’s begin with the idea of an Imaginary Normal Person. We each carry our own Imaginary Normal Person around in our heads; the expectation set against which we unconsciously or unconsciously compare ourselves. So, how do I compare myself to my Imaginary Normal Person? He/she is cisgender. [ Me too.] Married. [Me too]. Educated, able to read, able to read music. [Yes, yes, yes. So far so good!] He/she has no physical disabilities. [I have several.] He/she has no cognitive disabilities. [I have those, too.] He/she is middle-aged and fit. [I’m old & tubby.]

If I organize my self-categorization – consciously or unconsciously – around the Imaginary Normal Person, I really don’t fit in the congregation where I worship. And I have many more unexamined, unarticulated categories – the whole Giant Puppets trope, for instance. But if I organize my selftalk around intersectionality, suddenly I have lots of company. In every category of my personal intersectionality, there are other people. There’s just – no one with my exact configuration. No perfect match.

Is the worshiping community only open to people who closely match up to the congregation’s Imaginary Normal Persons? Because, if that’s true, the vision of a multicultural, multiethnic church is delusional. If we value ourselves, or value others, by our degree of distance/difference from the Imaginary Normal Person, then our tolerance for authentic differences is – consciously or unconsciously – deeply impaired. If our vision is of a multicultural, multiethnic congregation, negotiating intersectionality is a skill we all – lay, clergy, staff – have to learn, enjoy, and experience as a source of energy.

How do we move from tolerating difference – to affirming difference – to celebrating difference? To dancing with difference? It could be a useful thought experiment to articulate and reality-test our congregation’s Imaginary Normal Person. If that person is our unconscious expectation set, what does that imply for liturgy? For program design? For new-member incorporation?
The obvious categories by which it’s convenient to organize a congregation’s events and opportunities can actually exacerbate people’s sense of difference. Age-graded Christian formation for children has always seemed to me to miss other, more interesting ways to group kids. Ministry to Boomers? Oh, please. Spare me. Family night? Hmm. Ministry to the elderly? Not yet! Not yet! My millennial friends are getting cranky about Ministry Strategies for Millennials. If everything is intersectional, aren’t there more interesting categories than these?

Storying the local church
I invite you to reflect on Hood’s proposition that the church at the intersection draws its energy from difference, and that we find and affirm difference by hearing one another’s stories. How can we nourish that network of knowing-and-being-known? I don’t think it’s as simple as sitting people down to Talk Stuff Over. A resilient network of respect, intimacy, and trust does not happen automatically in a faith community. It requires many kindnesses, many patient moments, years of hot dish.

How might we build storying into the lived experience of the local church?
How do we invite people to inscribe their individual experience on liturgy?
Is there space for spoken prayer in the Prayers of the People?
A shared altar for All Souls?
Are there places in the narthex for people to sit and talk?
Do people cook for each other?
Do people celebrate one another’s cultures?
One another’s music?
One another’s language?

Another take on the general idea – Bishop Wayne Miller of the ELCA Synod of Metropolitan Chicago talks about his sorrow and frustration at ELCA’s failure to broaden its cultural and ethnic reach:

“… if we only talk to each other inside the ELCA about race and privilege we are never going to make progress, because we will never be able to get past the cultural blinders of seeing our own values and patterns as universally normative. … our feeling, our speech and our action related to race and privilege are never going to appreciably change until we force the conversation and the work outside of the Church Council or synod councils or seminary faculties or ELCA assemblies; in fact outside the ELCA altogether into active interfaith and ecumenical engagement on a local, relational level … it is in that local interfaith arena that “the other” is re-humanized into personhood, that the “I-It” relationship is transformed into an “I-Thou” relationship, and the struggle against systemic racism and social privilege becomes an expression of solidarity with someone I love from a different culture, rather than an ideological debate or a seminar topic.”

Much to think about, but this post is long enough. Your comments are welcome.

If you’d like to read more by Rev. Jeff Hood, his blog is here: He also writes extensively and thoughtfully for Huffington Post.

This entry was posted in Intersectionality and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Intersectionality, social categories, and the local church

  1. John Rawlinson says:

    This is an enormously complex topic which seems not suitable to a “post” type comment. This is an invitation for a book-length, and highly opinionated and story-illustrated, presentation– followed by an extended face-to-face conversation. There is no way around the “fact” that congregations have clergy who are the principle “formers” and “shapers” of the nature and relationships in that congregation. So, to consider the topic posed, requires attention to the clergy role. Because this deals with concepts related to cultures, attention to the theory of cultures is needed. In relation to the generalities of “culture” there are the realities of the particular cultures present/represented within a given congregation– and potential cultures which form the context of the life of the congregation. So, cultural practices need to be used to illustrate both the general concepts of “culture” and the living realities of cultures. Since cultures are mutually present, and constantly interacting, they are evolving not static. So, in dealing with cultures in the practical sense, one should address the complexity of cultural interactions and “cultural morphing” and change. Since a congregation has worship at its core, Liturgical diversity and ESPECIALLY liturgical creativity are a part of the mix. Since seminary educational programs are oriented toward the learning of the verities of the past, with some minimal attention to the present, liturgical creativity is not a common educational aspect. If there is any seminary attention to liturgical creativity, it is always dealt with on the basis of the review of superficial practices, rather than on the basis of what meaning is intended to be “conveyed” or “represented.” The rest is that the book-length version of the in-lieu-of-a-post should deal at great length with helping others understand how to ask questions of meaning and how a creative liturgical artist might mobilize a community to embody the common sense of meaning in its ever-changing liturgy. With all those factors at play, and considering all those factors, the constant inter-play of those dynamic factors needs to be addressed in such a way as to keep them dynamic, and not enshrine them in a statuary which represents only the glorious past– having ossified them. All of these need to inform a set of pastoral practices which makes it possible for the pastor(s) to interpret one culture to another, and in the manner of a phenomenologist, to find underlying common meanings. Having found that phenomenological common element (on a particular aspect os cultures) it becomes possible to continue the interpretation of one culture to another. This form of pastoralia happens, of course, largely on a one-to-one basis. With all that said, educational programs for adults need to be designed to address all of these matters in dynamic interaction. Having said all of that on the basis of “these are the headlines” it is necessary to return to the consideration of the critical and central role of the pastor. It is the pastor who has to balance all of these matters, keep the learning in process for the whole congregation, be the spearhead of interpretation without appearing to be the know-it-all authority, and be the warm and receptive figure which models all of the good and necessary aspects for the rest of the congregation. In this way, as I have said above, the pastor forms and shapes the congregation. At best, that results in a dynamic congregation which largely reflects the image, understanding, function, and artistry of that single pastor. It is EXTREMELY rare when a congregation so formed, can find a suitable replacement who does not destroy the edifice of diversity, creativity, and mutual learning and teaching which has been previously built. So, to describe these extremely complex matters and interactions is not suitable to a “post.”


  2. Pamela says:

    Friends, let me introduce John Rawlinson, a retired Episcopal priest who served for – twenty years, was it, John? – a truly bilingual congregation in California. John has been generous with help in private correspondence which I hope to quote extensively with his permission when we start thinking about Las Posadas.

    John, you wrote: “…This is an invitation for a book-length, and highly opinionated and story-illustrated, presentation– followed by an extended face-to-face conversation.” Well, get busy, brother! Start writing!

    There are strong books on multicultural congregations and reviewing them is part of the Liturgy Remix project. On top of the stack is Sheryl Kujawa-Holbrook’s A House of Prayer for all Peoples: Churches Building Multiracial Community, suggested to me by Episcopal priest Miranda Hassett who studied with Kujawa-Holbrook at EDS. Other book suggestions are welcome.

    John writes, “…cultures are mutually present, and constantly interacting…” Amen to that. Day to day we are in the middle of it. Fr. Ed Tourangeau, now also retired, told me years ago that every local church is always two churches: the church that’s passing away, the church that’s being born.

    NOW is a primary word on this website. I think the time to reflect on best practices is now. The time to start talking it over is now. The time to rejoice at the work of the Spirit is now. The time to seek insight on how the church may be resisting the Spirit is now.

    John, you ground the responsibility of interpreting and reconciling cultures in the local church as primarily the work of the pastor; as a lay woman, there are two reasons why I hope that is not true.

    First & simplest, my vision of the authority of the laity is broader than that. We’ll have to keep an eye on that question as the Liturgy Remix conversation continues.

    Second, and far more challenging, is the question of clergy preparation. Do we equip clergy to value the culture, the lived neighborliness, of the congregations they are called to serve? That question is above my pay grade. Would any seminarians or clergy-readers with recent seminary experience like to comment?

    Grace and peace,



    • John Rawlinson says:

      “…you ground the responsibility of interpreting and reconciling cultures in the local church as primarily the work of the pastor…” I would not quite say “primarily.” The reality is that the pastor of a congregation can easily impede any form of congregational development. So, the pastor is central to developing a congregation which is interested in, and sensitive to, cultural diversity. If the pastor is narrow, so is the congregation. The pastor who engages in the practice of identifying and interpreting cultures thereby encourages lay persons to do the same. Once the laity of the congregation begin to follow such a lead, they become a powerful force in those interactions, but the pastor leads the way. Also, the pastor is in constant contact with persons of different cultures, and with different perspectives. Like old style telephone switchboards. which used wired plugs to connect one telephone to another, so the aware pastor can connect one parishioner to another– thereby enhancing cultural interchange, and cultural awareness. The pastor is not the only person who can do so, but generally, the pastor is the one with a wider knowledge of the diverse persons and perspectives which exist, and therefore can make more connections. One with greater knowledge (of individuals, cultures, perspectives, capacities, etc.) has greater power– for good and for ill. Because of engaging more people (pastoral visits, leading educational activities, participation in more committees, more one-to-one conversations, etc) the pastor is the one with more knowledge– hence more power. None of that excludes lay persons, it merely means that the pastor is more knowledgeable, and has greater power.

      “Do we equip clergy to value the culture, the lived neighborliness, of the congregations they are called to serve?” Implicit in the question is whether or not programs of educational preparation do that type of equipping. To the question and its implications, I would say an emphatic NO. On one hand, I would express sadness that they do not so equip ordination candidates. On the other hand, I think that is both inappropriate for such educational programs, and too narrow a concern. Why would it be inappropriate? It would be inappropriate because given the limitations of time, it would substitute a particular methodology for more substantive content. Likewise, because of the nature and locus of educational programs they are largely divorced from multi-cultural contexts and therefore remain “ivory tower” situations– and always will be. When there are “laboratory” or “living reality” situations, students always tend to approach them with the inner question, “What does the teacher expect me to learn– and repeat back.” So, a student generally learns the details of the particular situation, and rarely generalizes. At the same time, why do I think the question is too narrow? When the issue is how to be adaptive as regards cultural diversity, the tendency– again– is to focus on the particularities of what is present– this, or these, cultures. What is needed and wanted is to shift the curricula of theological education so that in all subjects there is simultaneously attention to the details of good and useful knowledge from the past, and how to be adaptive– within that framework of knowledge– to changing realities. So, learning something about this/these cultures is somewhat narrow. However, learning to analyze cultures in general is broader. Learning particularities of Biblical history and theology are useful, but combined with that knowledge we need ideas as to how to understand, adapt, and use that Biblical knowledge in the contemporary world– not merely to try to impose the verities and practices of the past. I once had a course about the Palestinean prophets of the 8th Century B.C.E. As a part of that course, each student was required to find a parallel between the life and times of those prophets, and a close parallel in the modern world. On one occasion, we came to class and encountered honky tonk music playing. Eventually one student expressed frustration that we were not getting on with some useful content, and wondered why we were forced to listen to this “hillbilly” music. The student responsible was both a good student, and a rodeo rider on the weekends. In answer to the questions, he began drawing parallels between 8th Century B.C.E. shepherds– like the prophet Amos– and modern cowboys– being somewhat isolated, depending on livestock, living with dangers and the vissisitudes of changing weather, etc. He then talked about the honest (no nonsense) style of cowboy talk, and that of the 8th Century B.C.E. prophets. His parallel continued. He illustrated what I am talking about— seeing an adaptive and interpretive intersection between Scripture and the modern world. That perspective needs to permeate the whole of the theological curriculum. Such permeation might then help mold and shape ordination candidates who have developed the skills to adjust and adapt on all fronts and in all aspects of congregational life– not merely and narrowly liturgically.It would also mean that exercising leadership in that style, a whole congregation could be similarly shaped.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s