My Weekend on the Church Reform Cruise Ship

I spent this weekend at the Inclusive Ministry and Renewal in a Complex Age Conference in Boston.  This joint conference was co-sponsored by Roman Catholic Womanpriests, Federation of Christian Ministries, CORPUS, and Women’s Ordination Conference. 


From the moment I arrived at the conference I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was on a cruise ship.  Maybe it was because the conference was held at a fancy hotel right on the Boston Harbor.  Or perhaps it was because 99% of the attendees were white people in their 60s and 70s donned in floral prints and khaki shorts.  Or it might have been because of the numerous cocktail hours held overlooking the water.  Nonetheless, as I sat in an adirondack chair watching one older heterosexual couple practice Tai Chi as another clinked wine glasses – I couldn’t help but think – I am on the Church Reform Cruise Ship.


Now, the thing about cruise ships is that people board at one port.  They eat.  They drink.  They relax.  They may stop off at a few other ports, but they always come back to the exact place from where they started.  I think this may be the problem with this part of the Church Reform movement.  (By “this part of the movement” I mean folks  – mostly older, white, upper-middle class folks – who stand ardently behind the Roman Catholic Womanpriest movement, see it as the most radical form of change the Church has ever seen, and further the ideology which puts folks who have been “legitimately” ordained in a position of superiority.  While not everyone at the conference took this position, it was clear that this ideology was steering the ship).  These women and men sail off with the best of intentions, but they end up right back where they started – patriarchy, white privilege, heterosexism, classism, elitism…


I witnessed this several times at my weekend on the Church Reform Cruise Ship.  I watched in wonder as folks at the first cocktail hour rushed around the reception room to get to shake the hand of the newest womanbishop.  I listened in terror as the man giving a presentation on pre-marriage told me about the difficulties that couples face in preparing for marriage especially when “one is a man and one is a woman.”  I tried to understand with compassion as one person in the workshop entitled “Addressing Racism in Inclusive Ministry” discussed celebrating Martin Luther King Day and Black History Month as key ways to be an inclusive Church.  I cringed as I heard that when each of the sponsoring organizations was having a breakout meeting, the RCWP meeting was only open to those ordained and the candidates for ordination.  And I laughed when one man tried to claim that women are “just more programmed to like chocolate than men – it is something in their genetic makeup,” and I wanted to cry when the women around the table agreed with him.


This Church Reform Cruise Ship was definitely going back to the port from which it started.  And maybe it is good that these folks do take this cruise, see what is out there, and come back to tell us what they’ve seen and show us what it means to come back.  But I am convinced that we, as the next generation of this movement, need to be sailing to a different place entirely.  We need to chart our own course to a place where all people are considered priestly.  To a place where there is a true discipleship of equals.  To a place where we can create a genuine inclusive community.  And the ship I was on this weekend – well intentioned as it was – is just not going there.  So, let us set sail.

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About Kate Childs Graham

Kate Braggs has recently completed her graduate studies in Gender and Peacebuilding at the University for Peace in San Jose, Costa Rica. In her graduate studies, she focused on the intersection of gender, sexuality, and religion in a human rights context. Currently, Kate is working as Justice Advocate for a community of women religious. She is also member of the Call to Action Next Generation Leadership Team, the Women's Ordination Conference Board, and a small faithsharing community in the Washington DC metro area.

12 thoughts on “My Weekend on the Church Reform Cruise Ship

  1. Hi. I am from Minnesota and have interacted with the women from the RCWP movement in our region. As a young person, I too, have wondered about the inter-cultural component of age difference as I interact with these women, and I, too, find myself evaluating others’ perspectives and subtle messages related to the myriad of other isms that we encounter.

    I am curious about your experience on the cruise ship. More explicity, I’d like to know whether you considered sharing your experience and perceptions with the others in attendance; did you feel comfortable or encouraged to offer of yourself?

    I work in inter-generational spirituality groups at a college in MN. Because of our work, I have had the opportunity to join Spiritual Directors International, which is another non-profit organziation working toward inclusion and promoting the sharing of sacred stories across traditions. In my first interactions (at conferences and through publications), I felt upset by my perception of seeming “gaps,” similiar to those you describe in your cruise ship experience. However, as I began to voice my concerns, I was pleasantly surprised by the receptivity and encouragement I received.

    In summary, I ask my questions of you and share my experience because of my concern with the conclusion of your entry. While I agree that we need to keep on sailing forward and that we should be sailing toward inclusive waters–I am not sure that we should be looking for “a different place entirely” or “charts for our own courses.”

    Experience has taught me that when we hope to build inclusive community, we must all begin from where we are and also accept where others are–that is to say, we must meet from where we already are on the journey before we can forge new paths together.

    I’d be curious to hear more from you, and thanks for offering your reflection on your experience.

  2. Whoa! What strange comments from the people you were with there. I definitely feel a disconnect with some people from the older generation of church reform minded individuals. At other times, I couldn’t be bonded closer! But there are moments, such as liturgy, when its clear that although we are concerned about many of the same issues, we want to go about them in a different way.

    I don’t know what the answers are but I echo the feelings. I was on the cruise in Pittsburg and really enjoyed it. However, I don’t know that I reflected upon those around me very much. I guess I was in a different place that day. Thanks for your thoughts.

  3. The biological and gender role essentialism in some church reform circles drives me nuts.

    Women are birthing a new church into being!
    Women are weaving a revolution!
    Women are (oh God help us) knitting a new community!

    Why, why all the language of wombs and cycles and birth? Give folks who do this the benefit of the doubt and say that dialogue about folks who don’t fit into traditional gender roles may be pretty recent and not the first special interest group that leaps to every liturgist’s mind. Even given that, surely they’ve heard of women who are infertile or choose not to have children (hello, Vowed Religious?) Or more to the point, We’re In the Progressive Church! Why Are We Still Being Defined By Our Bodies?!

  4. I have had several “I have seen the enemy and it is us” moments. I remember several years ago my reform minded church made the bread for the eucharist from honey bread, through some news source I heard that this would no longer be permitted, though no one seemed interested in dialouge on this I was simply told it was not important and no one was willing to tell me any of the why’s. It also bothered me this past year when Sr. Joan Chittister came out in opposition to the Pope granting wider permission for the Latin Mass. Here was a document that provided rights to the laity for a Latin Mass, and did not allow a bishop to silence the will of the people on this matter, in principle I did not see how this could be opposed.

    Some times it seems to me that one set of Dogma was exchanged for another.

  5. bds- but isn’t that the point you are trying to make, that people should be able to exercise their interest in the Latin mass just as Sr Joan should be able to speak her mind about it? She doesn’t hold any authority that would impede the permission from the pope, so I don’t see the problem.

    Eucharistic bread–On the one hand, I don’t want the symbolism of the Eucharist to be lost just to follow some rules/guidelines that aren’t terribly meaningful to people but I don’t want the symbolism to be lost either by not following the rules/guidelines. But why honey? What purpose does it serve, if any, other than taste? if its not vital, they why use it?

    Did Jesus have honey in the bread he used at the last supper? Probably not, but in spiritual matters, do we have to be so literalistic especially if the meaning isnt even known to the congregation? And two, why are the ingredients given more priority than the look of the bread? When I look at Eucharistic bread, since I didn’t make it, the meaning is going to be in how it looks to me, not what I imagine they did or didn’t use to make it.

  6. Lauren – My point is that the Pope empowered the laity, he said that a Bishop or a Priest cannot deny the will of the laity in this regard. I’m a regular reader of NCR and thought this was a principle that they would support however distasteful the Latin Mass may be to them. Instead Sr. Joan opposed giving this power to the people and preferred the “ban” that existed before. Sure she can make her point, and she did, but it seemed to me the casualties were any principle of a democratic or inclusive church.

    I’m only using Sr. Joan as an example, unfortunately I’m seeing this type of hypocrisy in many places and it scares me.

    I don’t fully know the rational behind the use of honey bread, other then the Priest saying he felt it emphasized the meal rather then the sacrifice.

    I’m at a rough spot with my faith lately and I’ve been thinking about this often, it seems so Orwellian, if any of these “excommunicated womanpriests” ever became bishops of a diocese would they in turn excommunicate those who oppose the ordination of women? My guess is they would. Isn’t that happening in a way in the Anglican community?

  7. BDS1981–I didn’t read Joan Chittister’s piece, but I’m wondering if she opposed the expanded access to the Tridentine Mass for this reason: that Mass in the vernacular was intended in Vatican II to completely supersede Mass in Latin, and that to give it back is kind of like calling for a run-off when one candidate already won the election. Any Vatican II scholars have more insight on this?

    At my home parish when they instated the more bread-looking Eucharist bread in place of the wafer, we were told that the bread still isn’t supposed to be leavened in order to conform with liturgical norms. I think, although I have no idea why I think this, that leavening here was under Jewish Passover standards (that would make sense since the Last Supper was a Seder.) So honey, milk and yeast were out as leavenings, but baking powder was OK because Jewish law doesn’t consider that a leaven. Again, anyone enlighten?

    (Actually, our baking team decided the bread tasted better with honey and continued making it that way, but don’t tell anyone!)

    I agree with your overall point, though, that “liberal” Catholics can often want to be as limiting as our conservative siblings, only we want to limit things to our liberal way. And then, if we decide to be open minded and let a million flowers bloom, atheists accuse us of abetting fundamentalism. Sigh . . .

  8. BDS–as fare as the womenpriests if they ever became bishops. I don’t think they would excommunicate people who didnt want the ordination of women. I know a few of them, and am utterly impressed with their committment to unity. I think they would find a way to allow for both. And ultimately, this is what I would love to see! Everyone able to hold their own beliefs but not keep the other from exercising theirs. I don’t know how it will happen, but I sure would love to see such a thing.

  9. Lauren – I appreciate the optimism and the purity of your vision, for a while now I’m seeing things through the prism of the glass being half empty.

    Kate – The piece is still online, but Sr. Joan objected to the liturgy based on what she feels it communicates(males only in the Sanctuary etc) not any part of Vatican II. It was very dissapointing, but really only one example of what I recognize as a greater trend that I’m uneasy about.

    I remember a saying “I may disagree with what you are saying, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it” It seems to me this has been set aside.

  10. Hi all,

    Thanks for all of your fascinating comments. Sorry it has taken me so long to hop into the conversation – I am planning an anti-racism training in Miami for the folks I work for…

    So, I think what it is important to remember is that no matter what “side of the aisle” you are on, it is important to uphold the dignity of the folks on the other side. That doesn’t mean you have to agree with them (and I think this is where I may disagree about the Joan Chittister piece). I believe to agree just to be inclusive of all thoughts would do more harm than good. It is to recognize the truth of the folks on the other side, see if it is just, see how it compares with your own truth, and speak your own truth.

    But it all has to do with your understanding of justice. To me, excommunicating bishops who do not grant equal rights to women makes a whole lot more sense than excommunicating women trying to seek that equality (whether I agree with their method or not) – because sexism in the Church via women’s inequality in decision-making roles is unjust and that is my truth.

    And I guess, the point I was trying to make in the original post was that I think the RCWP movement is not bringing forth true justice to the Church because it is not breaking the mold that our Church fathers have casted for us. It may be bending it – but it is not breaking it. To put it bluntly – women’s ordination the RCWP way is not my jam or my vision for the Church. But I do recognize that for some (most of the folks I spent my weekend in Boston with) the RCWP thing is their truth, and I see why.

    I do think we need to be sailing to a different place. Or maybe, leaving the sailing puns aside, we need to think outside the box. A box that we have been conditioned to think in. I am not entirely sure what a true “discipleship of equals” would look like – but I am excited to find out!

    This is a deep conversation that should keep going!

    Take care,

  11. BDS–I can understand that feeling of glass half empty. Really, I can, even though I jokenly call myself Pollyanna. I hope a realistic Pollyanna though because I want to be hopeful, planning for the future, and put postivity out into the world AND be realistic, seeing the here and now. Because I’ve never been very good at the whole power of positive thinking. There are some who think instead of hoping for peace, we shoould say the world is peaceful in order to make it a reality. Thoughts manifest. And I can get that to a certain point, but not all the way.

    I have always loved that quote you mentioned, but I always wanted to add too it to say ‘but I have a right to say something about what/how you said it’ at the same time as defending their right to speak.

    And, I imagine, I can defend someone’s right to say something AND I don’t have to put myself in their presence if its violent speech.

  12. Just a point on Vatican II and the liturgy, there was no vote to supersede the Latin Mass with a vernacular mass, thus the calling for a run-off analogy does not work.

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