A CONVERSATION: The Rev. Beatrice Blair and Merle Hoffman

A CONVERSATION: The Rev. Beatrice Blair and Merle Hoffman

by Merle Hoffman

The Rev. Beatrice Blair has served as Executive Director of National NARAL and as chair of its Board. She presently chairs the Board of New York State NARAL and the Policy Council of New York Metropolitan Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights. An Episcopal priest, she serves on the staff of St. Mark’s Church in the Bowery in New York City. She is mother of four and grandmother of five.

MH: Were you the first female Episcopal priest?

BB: I was in the first group. There were some before me, but when I went into the seminary, women had not yet been allowed to be ordained priests.

MH: Does the Episcopal religion have nuns?

BB: Yes.

MH: What was it in your makeup that made you decide to become a priest as opposed to a nun?

BB: That’s really kind of in the realm of mystery. I had a “call”. Nobody wrote me a letter and said, Dear Bea, You’re to be a priest, signed “God”. You have to be called by God and by your community.

MH: Do you think that there’s something that would psychologically differentiate a woman who wakes up and says “I’m not called to be a nun, I’m called to be a priest”.

BB: When the feminist movement went underground -in the ’50s, it went into the family planning and reproductive rights movements. Margaret Sanger said “If you can’t control your body, there’s no point”.

MH: That’s the bottom line.

BB: As the feminist movement became powerful, everything about it just reverberated in me. I was a feminist for a long time, not knowing that there was such a word.

MH: Were you a feminist first and a religious second or do you think feminism has an intrinsic spirituality in it?

BB: Any movement that has to do with human feelings, the freeing of the human spirit as a human responsibility -its growth, fulfillment is spiritual. For example, the black movement in the ’60s had a deeply spiritual meaning and I think it’s not surprising that much of the leadership came out of the black church. A lot is being done now. Women are assuming more and more powerful roles in the church.

MH: Are they looking to make God “He” into a “She”? I know some of the earliest religions were matriarchal. Are we going to move back to having God as a woman?

BB: I think we’re going to move ahead to having God as neither male or female to being both male and female. I don’t think of God as Father, I think of God as Creator, as beyond sex, and in the German Old Testament, wisdom is always “she”. But, first you have to stop calling people “men”.

MH: You mean redo the language? “herstory” instead of “history”?

BB: You have to start changing your God language and stop calling God “Him.” If you go back, our translations of the Bible are more sexist than the originals.

MH: When I debated Falwell and he asked me “How would you feel, when you meet your God, with the blood of thousands of babies on your hands.” and I said “When I meet Her, I’ll be very proud”, he absolutely freaked out because the concept of God being a woman was just too unbelievable for him to accept. How realistic do you think it is to change the concept of the greatest power in the world, to a non gender personna?

BB: It may not happen overnight, but if the Church wants to keep attracting people, they have to stop using this language because it turns people off.

MH: But the Pope says that even if it is unpopular, the Church has to reflect absolute unchanging truths.

BB: I don’t know where he gets this absolute unchanging truth business from. It wasn’t until the late 1800s that they promulgated this idea that you’ve got a person from the moment of conception. I really wonder where he gets off -a celibate male -making these judgments.

MH: The issue of abortion now revolves around viability. The question is, does a woman still have a right to a late abortion if the medical profession can keep that fetus alive (even below 24 weeks)?

BB: With fetuses of 24 weeks their chances are pretty poor and the outlook for their lives tends to show all kinds of damage. I wonder about the Baby Jane Doe case on Long Island. I think the parents have a right to decide and government has no business getting in there. They’re not going to care for the child, or have the financial burden.

MH: Do parents have a right to say “do not give this child treatment?”

BB: Oh, absolutely. Each set of parents has the right to make that decision themselves. What right does any government or person who is not going to be involved, is not going through the emotional suffering, and the physical and financial burden have to interfere?

MH: What we’re really talking about is that individuals have power over themselves and their families as opposed to the State, that women have the right to have abortions, and parents have a right, after a child is born if it’s enormously damaged, to say “Do not try to save it.” You agree with that?

BB: Yes.

MH: Are you an anarchist?

BB: No.

MH: What we’re talking about is the lessening of government in all areas of moral choice.

BB: Moral choice belongs to the individual and it’s up to the church to teach this. That’s our job.

MH: Do you think there can be morality without religion?

BB: Of course.

MH: Do you believe in absolute good and evil?

BB: Yes.

MH: Then not in situational morality?

BB: I believe in situational ethics because I don’t think that we always know what absolute good is. To me, God is good. God is love.

MH: This is why I see abortion as a very moral decision, because it’s made -I’ve seen it often- out of love for the family that exists, for the children and for the woman herself. Now, explain to me the difference between peace and justice and how you see the use of violence to achieve the concept of justice.

BB: I think it makes a difference whether you’re living in an open or a closed society. This country is an open society and I think to use violence in any way in this society is absolutely wrong. For example, I think the bombings at the clinics and the threats against clinic personnel are wrong. There are non-violent ways of achieving goals. You can get people elected.

MH: So, you don’t buy the concept that anti-choicers are answering a higher moral call by attacking clinics?

BB: No, because they have non violent ways of responding to this call. If there are situations where it is an absolutely closed society, where everybody doesn’t have the vote, where you can’t speak freely -(for example, South Africa), then sometimes, ultimately, you have to resort to violence. But, there’s a big conservative trend in this country now and I think it’s a backlash against some of the black and women’s liberation movements. The fundamentalist churches are getting a lot of people and one of the reasons is that they promise absolute security. They say “do what we say, believe what we say and we’ll take care of you. We promise you salvation”.

MH: Yet, there are people who give these preachers millions of dollars, and say that their lives are changed; that they are born again. This may have to do with the response to materialism, and the decadence of this society. They want to have values other than “Three’s a Crowd” and “The Price is Right”.

BB: Right. I think our materialistic society really leaves people feeling very empty. This great “sell” that all you have to do is have a lot of good sex, make a lot of money and you will be happy. Well, you grow up a little bit and you learn that isn’t true.

MH: Maybe happiness itself is the false value.

BB: It’s not something you can pursue. It’s a by product.

MH: I read a column by Russell Baker which said “We make Gods out of stars like Elizabeth Taylor and rock stars because we want to make Gods after our own image. We’re totally ordinary, so we make ordinary people God.” Are we so extraordinary that we can imagine that we’re the ultimate expression of God?

BB: There’s a reason for things. One of the reasons that we do have this sense of the spiritual is because we’re given the capacity. Human beings are at the top of the evolutionary ladder, if we don’t blow ourselves up. I don’t think this is the end. I hope to God that we can get a lot better.

MH: What bothers me about a lot of people’s thinking is the idea that we’re already on the highest level of the evolutionary scale. That all “the beasts of the field” are under our control. What we do with them is use them as a resource, torture them, etc. People should have more humility and respect for other life forms.

BB: The Bible uses a very interesting word…stewardship. We weren’t given control, we were given stewardship which means that we’re supposed to take care and I don’t think we’ve taken very good care of our environment, of life around us in whatever form. I mean it’s really appalling what we’ve done to God’s world in many ways.

MH: Are you optimistic or do you think it’s possible that we will have a nuclear war?

BB: Of course, it’s possible. I’m not a complete Pollyanna. But, I’m very hopeful. I think the women’s movement, all the movements that move toward freeing the human spirit help us toward peace and away from the demonic which is nuclear war and towards a more highly spiritual life.

MH: Any last thoughts?

BB: The Episcopal Church is not the only church that has women ministers. Most of the Protestant denominations have had women as ministers, and are in favor of legal abortion. So many people think the church is opposed to abortion. The Roman Catholic Church is, and the fundamentalist churches are, but the great mainstream of American Protestant churches are in favor of legal abortion.

MH: Right. And, we’re going to fight to keep it that way.

BB: Damn right.