Anatomy of a Schism

How Clergywomen's Narratives Reinterpret the Fracturing of the Southern Baptist Convention

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Eileen R. Campbell-Reed
  • Knoxville, TN: 
    University of Tennessee Press
    , April
     212 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The struggle for Baptist identity that split the Southern Baptist Convention in the latter decades of the twentieth century has generated much discussion and analysis. The debate centered on the matter of women’s ordination and the degree to which Baptists would uphold the autonomy of local churches. In Anatomy of a Schism, Eileen R. Campbell-Reed notes, “almost all of the academic and partisan literature interpreting the schism lacks an adequate analysis of the roles, identities, or contributions of actual women” (5). To rectify this deficiency, Campbell-Reed attends closely to women’s stories through qualitative interviews, treating them as rich, paradigmatic readings of the schism. She thus moves “women’s narratives front and center” in the conviction that doing so “shows how clergywomen’s stories offer a compelling new structure for understanding the plot of Southern Baptists at the close of the twentieth century” (3). Through the analysis of the stories of five Baptist women, Campbell-Reed moves the conversation beyond the usual construal of the schism as an ecclesial power struggle, reinterpreting it through gendered, psychological, and theological lenses.

Through the lens of gender, Campbell-Reed interrogates the male normativity inherent in both sides of the schism by virtue of their shared social location within the Baptist context, and makes visible the agency and desires of the female others so often silenced (9-11). The psychological lens illuminates how the women’s presence and challenge to complementarian gender roles provoked fear and anxiety in the Southern Baptist Convention. This anxiety resulted in defenses of splitting and projection common in personal crises of identity, which in this case played out at the denominational level (11-12). Theologically, Campbell-Reed’s approach moves beyond common dueling doctrinal arguments and moral judgments to “focus on the everyday lived theology of Baptists, centering on the clergywomen’s narratives” (14). Ultimately, she aims—successfully, I would argue—to produce “a critical and constructive interpretation of Baptist schism as a psychological and theological struggle over what it means to be human, shown in fine-grain detail” (15).

Each chapter consists of an orientation to the chapter’s emphasis followed by the narrative of a particular Baptist woman (with identifying information altered to protect anonymity). The bulk of each chapter, however, consists of an analysis of how the woman’s narrative both images and informs the struggle for Baptist identity during the years of schism. The first three chapters place a general emphasis on psychological perspectives, while the final two emphasize the theological. Anna’s story in chapter 1 shows how the schism “cut a line right through her internal life and her relationships” (25). Clergywomen embodied the split, functioning as both symbols of and agents within the schism and, importantly, embodying the “servanthood dilemma,” which makes explicit the profound differences between the male and female experiences of self-giving servant leadership. Within male-privileging systems, men can “heroically” lower themselves to servant leadership, while women are expected to be servile by default. Thus “the stakes are quite different” for women, and they face a double-bind when pursuing a sense of call (43). Chapter 2 not only highlights how Martha’s psychological experience mirrors the schism’s characteristic problems and opportunities,  it also emphasizes the way that autonomists, despite their stated intention to uphold equality, ambiguously reproduced aspects of gender complementarity “in both their practice and rhetoric” (61). Chapter 3 engages Joanna’s narrative to explore the tensions between subjectivity and intersubjectivity, personal agency and relational space. The chapter views the tension of this period as both “a relational rupture and a time of renewal” (71-72). Joanna’s story further reflects how polarization impairs the creative tensions inherent in five distinctively Baptist tensions, and how psychological reframing can foster healing and creativity in the pursuit of call (90-91). Rebecca’s story in chapter 4 offers the opportunity to view the schism as a redemptive struggle, an opportunity “to confront both personal and communal brokenness and loss” and find healing (110), particularly in light of “the explicitly gendered character of church brokenness” (102). Finally, chapter 5 presents Chloe’s story, which highlights how generational changes have led to increased openness to embodied and emotive approaches to meaning making (117-18). This approach fosters creative space to explore new practices and models of ministry such as the mutually nurturing exercise of giftedness within multiple “relational, embodied, and situated” contexts (137).

Campbell-Reed’s integrative analysis is informed, richly, by leading scholars in diverse but relevant fields. She builds on previous studies in Baptist life and identity by, for example, Nancy Ammerman and Bill Leonard. Psychologically, her work emphasizes the analytic tradition of theorists such as Jessica Benjamin and Nancy Chodorow, as well Judith Butler’s work in gender studies. Theologically, she emphasizes the contributions of Edward Farley, Bonnie Miller-McLemore, and Molly Marshall, among others.

Campbell-Reed initially indicates her choice “not to embrace too closely the rhetoric of either of the main parties in the schism, and to signal an academic rather than partisan engagement” (8). She does this in part by referring to the factions by coining the terms autonomist and biblicist rather than using the more polarizing terms liberal/conservative. This is a helpful move. However, it is clearly implicit throughout the book that her theological perspective is consistent with autonomist principles. In light of this it would be helpful for her to incorporate reflexivity more explicitly in the text. This reflexivity would be particularly appropriate in light of Campbell-Reed’s emphasis on the “cultural shift away from rational deliberation toward situated knowing” (129). It would be helpful to know more about her situated approach to the research. Additionally, more attention to her research methods—perhaps in an appendix—would have been helpful. How were the subjects selected and interviewed? How was data gathered and analyzed? Did participants have a voice in the final product? A search of ProQuest revealed that Campbell-Reed’s dissertation—which provided the foundation for this book—engages extensively with her research methods. I think it would have been helpful to include some information on method and a reflexive component here as well.

These minor caveats notwithstanding, the book makes a vital contribution to analysis of the Baptist schism of the late twentieth century, offering a fresh, critical perspective, and privileging voices that research has heretofore neglected. The result is a probing, insightful, and creative contribution which provides both a model for subsequent practical theological research incorporating ethnography, and a fresh interpretation of a crucial period in the Baptist struggle for identity.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Matthew S. Beal is a doctoral student at Boston University School of Theology.

Date of Review: 
September 26, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Eileen R. Campbell-Reed is Coordinator for Coaching, Mentoring & Internship and Associate Professor of Practical Theology, Central Tennessee.


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