It’s not every seminar session that encompasses questions of Christology, gender, race and Serena Williams but that’s what happened last Friday afternoon during the With All Due Respect: Theology, Feminism and Conflict conference held at the Centre for Theology and Ministry.
Approximately 140 people attended over the two days of the conference and on Friday evening nearly all of the 120 seats of the venue were taken as visiting Boston College Theology Professor M. Shawn Copeland delivered the Northey Lecture.
Two other distinguished US theologians, Rev Dr Cynthia Wilson and Professor Ruth Duck, also gave keynote addresses while poet-in-residence Talitha Fraser read two very well-received works.
Before the official program began Rev Seforosa Carroll convened a woman of colour meeting in the CTM chapel, which brought together participants from varied non-Anglo cultural backgrounds.
Brunswick Uniting Church student and youth support worker Anika Jensen said the conference has given her a lot to think about and reinforced some of her beliefs.
Ms Jensen said speakers such as Professor Copeland, who spoke on “Why the body matters” and fellow African-American Rev Dr Wilson, delivered a strong focus on the intersection of racial and gender identity.
“Something really important is the way that bodies are ‘raced’ and bodies are ‘gendered’ and that it is all social and all constructed,” Ms Jensen said.
She said that language could perpetuate or dismantle such constructions.
A session led by Brisbane theologian Dr Janice McRandal illustrated how US tennis champion Serena Williams challenged set ideas.
“She (Dr McRandal) used Serena because she is someone who simultaneously exoticised because of her race, so she is sexualised but also desexualised for her ‘masculinity’ and athleticism,” Ms Jesnson said.
“She is someone that, I think, the white patriarchy tries to put in a box because they are very threatened by her.
“The theologian talked about high Christology and how if we identify Jesus in a narrow way we don’t actually allow for that identity to be mirrored as ourselves.”
Ms Jensen said one thing she had especially taken from the conference was the importance of not putting people into categories but instead seeing them as part of the whole of God’s creation.
“It’s the way that we and the church in welcoming the stranger have to be welcoming ourselves and welcoming someone who is also created in the image of God,” Ms Jensen said.
She thinks rather than using the term ‘diversity’ it would be more useful to speak of ‘wholeness’.
Ms Jensen said she was pondering things from the conference that applied in her own life and youth work.
“It was really freeing,” she said.
“When I work with youth who have really different understandings of what sexuality is and what gender is I often think ‘how are our sermons and how are our teachings applicable to you guys?’
“‘How can we actually access what you are thinking about or even what I am thinking about?’ It confirms in my own theology and my own thoughts about the world because those are things I think about often but often aren’t preached about on a Sunday.”
The conference was organised by the Australian Collaborators in Feminist Theologies network in partnership with Pilgrim Theological College, Trinity College and the Jesuit College of Spirituality.
CTM conference organiser Cath McKinney said in the context of what is disappointing about the contemporary church, as highlighted by the royal commission investigations of how incidents of child abuse were handled, the conference had shown that theological discussion could be joyful and forward-looking.
“It was a hopeful engagement of what is possible,” she said.
“It was complex and authentic and just the beginning.”