|Vida Dutton Scudder|
Vida Dutton Scudder is a rare example of a modern lesbian who is a recognized Christian saint (recognized by the US Episcopal Church, not the Roman Catholics). Her work and message are particularly relevant to the twentieth century, as we grapple with an economic crisis triggered in effect by corporate and consumer greed.
She was born in Madurai, South India on December 5 1861, over a long life Scudder was an educator, writer, and welfare activist in the social gospel movement. Much of her thinking has particular relevance to us today, as we grapple with a financial and economic crisis precipitated in effect by a corporate and consumer culture marked by unrestrained greed. Throughout her life Scudder’s primary relationships and support network were women. From 1919 until her death, Scudder was in a relationship with Florence Converse, with whom she lived.She was one of the most prominent lesbian authors of her time.
She continued to be in the storm center of advanced thought in the church and in society, supporting by her name and by her writing such groups as Reinhold Niebuhr’s Fellowship of Socialist Christians and Rufus Jones’s Wider Quaker Fellowship. She worked closely with the Christendom group in England, encouraged Mother Pattie Ellis in her desire to establish the Community of the Way of the Cross, a women’s religious order combining active social work with monastic life, and followed closely the Reverend Frederick Hastings Smyth’s Society of the Catholic Commonwealth.
Her socialism was not simply a political impulse, but sprang from her deep religious conviction and Gospel values, seeking to implement God’s kingdom on earth. She valued her red Socialist membership card, but placed it in her personal oratory at home beside her crucifix. In the early years after the Russian Revolution she wrote that she “took delight in the Russian experiment”, but later recognized that it too, could not guarantee justice, writing in her autobiography,
“I’m afraid that Lenin would have scoffed at my treatment of the red flag given me at this time, which I placed beside the crucifix — where it still hangs — in my private oratory . . . I was doing my best to align a catastrophic and dialectical conception of history with my Christian thinking; and in communist revolution I discerned a Divine Judgment which was the sign of approaching redemption . . . But as coercion and cruelty were continuously impounded as means to reach justice and brotherhood, uncritical enthusiasm waned. Helped . . . by Franciscan studies, I became increasingly convinced that no revolution could bring ultimate salvation unless it proceeded from a Christian conception of man.”
As we now recognize the failings of the unrelenting pursuit of profit that have brought us to our present crisis, we would do well to reflect deeply on these words. It is not neither the capitalist “system” that has created the problem, but the failure of our values. As Scudder writes, we need to return to a Christian conception of what it is to be human, remembering all the many warnings of Jesus Christ on the dangers of riches and the pursuit of wealth. Just to make things a little more complicated, take a look at Lillian Faderman’s Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in the Twentieth Century. Faderman as the source for the information about Scudder and Converse’s lesbian relationship, but other historians of sexuality have often criticized Faderman’s work for counting women as lesbians who would not have counted themselves as such. In the case of Scudder, for example, Faderman first identifies her as a lesbian but then almost immediately has to admit that Scudder herself preferred terms like “romantic friendship.” While Scudder admitted to romances with women in this sense, she also insisted that these relationships were either non-sexual or asexual. She referred to Converse as her “devoted companion.”
She is recognized as a saint by the Episcopal Church (USA), with a feast day on October 10.
PRAYER to VIDA SCUDDER
Most gracious God, you sent your beloved Son to preach peace to those who are far off and to those who are near: Raise up in your church witnesses who, after the example of your servant Vida Dutton Scudder, stand firm in proclaiming the power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
(from a collection of lectionary resources for the Episcopal Church)