Common Roots: Ancient Evangelical Future Conference

Coming to an Episcopal Church near you: the Vagina Monologues

Bishop of El Camino Real to take part in the performance of the Vagina Monologues to be held in a California church sanctuary

She was dead.

Dear, gentle, patient, noble Nell, was dead.

Her little bird – a poor slight thing the pressure of a finger would have crushed – was stirring nimbly in its cage; and the strong heart of its child-mistress was mute and motionless for ever.

Charles Dickens, The Old Curiosity Shop (1841)

The Anglo-Irish playwright and bon vivant, Oscar Wilde, once observed that “one must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing.”

On the surface, Wilde’s aphorism is wicked. Laughing at the death of an impossibly good child is a heartless act. Yet the strength of Wilde’s remarks – and their repetition to this day – comes not from the discovery that Little Nell’s death was funny. Rather it is the realization that Dicken’s depiction of Little Nell’s death was aesthetically flawed. So over the top, so one-dimensional that the power of the narrative collapsed under the weight of its treacly sentiment. It was bad art

Reading in the San Luis Obispo Tribune that the Episcopal Bishop of El Camino Real, the Rt. Rev. Mary Gray-Reeves, will participate in a production of the “Vagina Monologues” makes me laugh and weep.

The cliche of the go-getting, with-it Episcopal bishop is such an old trope — think back Bishop Pike and the 1960s — that the news a bishop will act in a play that celebrates child abuse is not so much shocking, as it is tiring. It is also amusing as the good bishop will also face a collision of worlds — which Episcopal imperative must be obeyed …. Transgender rights or women’s empowerment?

Since its premiere in 1996, the Vagina Monologues, which “delves into consensual and nonconsensual sexual experiences, body image, genital mutilation, direct and indirect encounters with reproduction, sex work, and several other topics through the eyes of women with various ages, races, sexualities, and other differences” the website of its author, Eve Ensler tells us, has been a staple of feminist drama groups.

Each year the play generates local controversies at schools or colleges when administrators or parents seek to ban its performance due to its content — which portrays male-female sexual relationships as intrinsically bad, lauds lesbian relations as fulfilling and good, treats with approbation the seduction of a 13 year old girl by an older woman, and has nothing good to say about men.

The Tribune notes the play will be performed in the sanctuary scheduled to be performed in the sanctuary of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in San Luis Obispo. It reports:

This year, Valentine’s Day coincides with Ash Wednesday, a day of fasting, prayer and repentance that marks the beginning of the Christian season of Lent. Gray-Reeves will lead a special Ash Wednesday service at St. Stephen’s prior to the performance of the play.


“Ash Wednesday is not just a day of personal confession and atonement. It’s (also) a perfectly good time to acknowledge a corporate sin,” Gray-Reeves said. “The church has a long history of sexual abuse and harassment and patriarchy and violence against women. That’s part of the history of Christianity.”


In the wake of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements against sexual assault and harassment, “We have a moment where women are feeling very empowered to speak,” the bishop said. “To set aside time and sacred space to actually hear these words is critical at this time.”

However the play has come under attack from the new wave of feminists and transgender activists for assuming that all women must have vaginas. Huffington Post reported in 2015 that a theatre group at Mt Holyoke College had cancelled its annual performance due to its prejudice against the transgendered.

“At its core”, Erin Murphy, the president of the school’s theater group, said, “the show offers an extremely narrow perspective on what it means to be a woman. … Gender is a wide and varied experience, one that cannot simply be reduced to biological or anatomical distinctions, and many of us who have participated in the show have grown increasingly uncomfortable presenting material that is inherently reductionist and exclusive.”

I applaud Bishop Gray-Reeves for having the courage of her convictions to state why she feels called to participate in the play. Nonetheless is is rather a tired, silly thing to do.

The problem with being on the leading edge of the church of what’s happening now, is that what may seem edgy to us old folks, is really rather passe. Bishop Gray-Reeves finds herself torn between the competing truth claims of feminism and transgenderism — not to mention the claims of aesthetics (it is a rather tedious tendentious play with little artistic merit).

Commentator Mark Steyn three years ago noted the implosion of the movement that brought America the Vagina Monologues. Writing about an interview he gave to the National Post, Steyn said:

I can’t recall ever describing The Vagina Monologues as ‘edgy’. But I did tell Joseph Brean that I was amused to see that its annual ‘V Day’ production at Mount Holyoke College has been canceled because of its ‘extremely narrow perspective on what it means to be a woman’. Hence, this Guardian headline: ‘Vagina Monologues playwright: “I never said a woman is someone with a vagina”.’ As I said to Mr Brean, the revolution devours its own: Less than 20 years after Eve Ensler ’empowered’ women by ‘reclaiming’ their vaginas, it seems a woman doesn’t need a vagina at all, and it’s totally cisgenderist to suggest you’re not a woman if you’re hung like a horse.

It is not so much as blunder, but a vulgar act of very poor taste for the bishop to participate in a play that glorifies beliefs about sex and the body at odds with the doctrine of the church and violates criminal and ecclesial law.

One must have a heart of stone not to laugh at the Episcopal Church. In some quarters it has become rather silly indeed.


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