Review: Anatomy of a Schism

Anne Blue Wills

Anne Blue Wills is Associate Professor of Religion at Davidson College.

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Anne Blue Wills, "Review: Anatomy of a Schism," Journal of Southern Religion (19) (2017):

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Eileen R. Campbell-Reed. Anatomy of a Schism: How Clergywomen’s Narratives Reinterpret the Fracturing of the Southern Baptist Convention. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2016. xi + 212 pages. ISBN 978-1-62190-178-5.

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A lot happens in the pages of this slim volume. Organized around the experiences of five erstwhile Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) clergywomen, the book retells the history of the SBC’s late twentieth-century breakup. Campbell-Reed (Central Baptist Theological Seminary) goes beyond the methods of women’s history and feminist theological anthropology, however, to analyze the “psychological dynamics,” “underpinnings and implications” of the turmoil that roiled the SBC from 1979 until 2000 (5, 139). While the history of these controversies has been told many times by SBC partisans as well as by academic researchers, Campbell-Reed’s analysis offers readers something new by combining gender, psychological, and theological analyses. The denomination’s conflict “was more than a battle for the Bible or a struggle for political power” among male leaders (3). The SBC schism was an “expression of the brokenness” – spiritual, psychological, cultural – “in the human condition” (112).

As a historian of U.S. religious history, I lack the training to assess Campbell-Reed’s psychological assessments, which focus on the phenomenon of “splitting” or dividing “self and other, good and bad…as a defense against harm” (6). Campbell-Reed makes intriguing observations, however, and the book should find an audience not only among historians but also theologians, pastoral counselors, gender studies scholars, and clergy and laity in SBC and other Baptist congregations.

Campbell-Reed devises the label of “biblicist” for the scriptural inerrantists opposed to women’s ordination as a “violation of God’s ‘delegated order” (33). “Autonomists” or liberals approved of it as an expression of the “priesthood of all believers” (36). Campbell-Reed’s book stands apart from the debates she recounts precisely because she roots her conclusions in analysis of real women’s lives. By contrast, both biblicists and autonomists used what we might call straw women, conjured up in the service of theological arguments, as weapons against denominational opponents.

 Anatomy of a Schism relies on Campbell-Reed’s in-depth interviews with five Baptist clergywomen. As the “paradigm cases” (3n5), these women, who go by the pseudonyms Anna, Martha, Joanna, Rebecca, and Chloe, illustrate the problematic centrality to both biblicists and autonomists of “complementarity culture”—a world where, even for autonomists, relationships are structured to include a male “‘doer’ and one ‘done-to,’” the role scripted for females (59). The schism showed, in part, that complementarity is not up to the task of authentically human relationships. “Mutuality,” which characterizes relationships in which two equal people share all tasks, describes the structure that Campbell-Reed and her clergywomen subjects seek.

One useful contribution of the book comes from Campbell-Reed’s observation that the “servant leader” model of ministry embraced by the autonomists, although intended as a radical description for male and female clergy, actually hampers women’s ability to lead. One recalls Valerie Saiving’s classic 1960 manifesto “The Human Situation: A Feminist View,” which pointed out that identifying sin with pride might move men to repentance, but in a righteous struggle against patriarchy, women needed to stand up for their God-given worth. Likewise, these Southern Baptist clergywomen, marked by the example of generations of SBC women who served, felt the need to embrace empowered leadership instead. Women cannot “give up…the small amount of power” they do have in order to be recognized as leaders (43).

Campbell-Reed uses the stories of her clergywomen-subjects to show their negotiation of a new kind of leadership that avoided the options offered by biblicists and autonomists: “in very practical, everyday ways, clergywomen and others navigated the [denominational] tensions to find a third way that moved them beyond the stated controversies and into new creative and improvisational ways to be Baptist” (140). These tensions normally enlivened Baptist life but became distorted in the conflict between conservative and liberal contenders for control of the SBC. Campbell-Reed’s clergywomen creatively responded to the polarized absurdities by insisting on and embodying the Christian message of salvation, vocation, and voice for themselves and for all of God’s people. She also notes, not without significance, that none of the women she writes about has continued to identify herself as a Southern Baptist.

Campbell-Reed’s interpretation of the psychological dynamics at play pose the greatest challenge to my understanding and appreciation of the book. While she brings new texture to a well-worn episode of the culture wars, Campbell-Reed’s psychoanalytical reading of biblicist and autonomist motivations outpaces my ability to assess whether or not her interpretations are sound. Sometimes her take obscures rather than clarifies. Moreover, her critique falls more heavily on the biblicists, perhaps for obvious reasons, whereas the persistent patriarchal blind spots of the more sympathetic autonomists may actually pose a larger problem for Christian feminism in the long run.

Chapter 3, in which Campbell-Reed focuses on clergywomen’s “reframed” and “renewed” understandings of relationship in Baptist circles, is especially tough going, as the story of clergywomen in the SBC schism bogs down in somewhat arid theoretical explorations. In writing history, one hopes that the subjects of analysis could recognize themselves in the accounts we produce. Would the actual Baptist women Campbell-Reed writes about recognize their own stories, recast this way? Does her conclusion—that clergywomen “highlight[ed] a subplot of relational deficit, setting the groundwork for separation, distance, and, finally, schism” (82)—add to understandings of Baptist divisions in the late twentieth century?

These questions should draw readers toward Campbell-Reed’s intriguing book, rather than warn them off. She addresses a gap in the history of a major cultural rift, one with continuing implications for our religious, political, and cultural landscapes. The book stands to make both an important correction to the historical record and a provocative contribution to conversations about women and religious authority.