Saturday, May 17, 2008

REVIEW: Women in the Christian Clergy

A Church of Her Own: What Happens When A Woman Takes the Pulpit by Sarah Sentilles (Harcourt 2008)

This book is at once big and intimate – big not only in number of pages (310 plus several pages of back matter) but also in scope. Its main emphasis is the challenge awaiting women who attempt to become ministers or priests, but it also brings into the picture gay, lesbian, and trans issues. Its feeling of intimacy arises from the author basing the material on her story, her experience, as well as anecdotes from many other women.

Author Sarah Sentilles tells how, a decade ago, she geared her entire life toward becoming an Episcopal priest, attended Harvard Divinity School, where she was a founder of a WomenChurch group , entered the ordination process, but in the face of obstacles dropped out of the process and at least at one point, lost her faith entirely. At first she thought she was to blame for what happened to her. Then, she writes, she started

paying attention to the experiences of other women from my divinity school....Either they struggled through the ordination process in mainline Protestant denominations ...or, once ordained and working in churches, they were silenced humiliated, and abused....Many were depressed. Some were angry. Most were ashamed.
A Church of Her Own began as an attempt by Sentilles to figure out what and why this was happening. She interviewed women in Christian denominations, both Protestant and Catholic. Their stories, interwoven with Sentilles' experience, are told in this book.

In the Introduction, Sentilles writes that listening to other women’s stories helped her understand that the "good-girl" part of herself was "a dangerous myth"; that the assumption by women in the clergy that if they can get people to like them, this will solve their problems, "is not a good recipe for resisting oppression. It is however, a good recipe for shame." She describes sexism in the church as "insidious," and writes:

It dresses in garments we all wear. It speaks our language. It works in concert with other forms of discrimination. It blesses some of the most fundamental ways we have of understanding ourselves and each other.
Though they may be accepted into the ministry, women clergy continue to be paid less and are offered part-time or interim work more often than their male counterparts. When women clergy do find parishes, even with many years' experience, they are very unlikely to be hired as senior ministers of large churches. Rather, they are stuck as either solo ministers in small churches or assistant/associate ministers in larger ones. When they try to change ways of thinking (about God, about church, about "ourselves") they are often "punished by their congregations." They are also punished when their "bodies become too female to ignore," such as when pregnant or lesbian, or single – or when they are not female enough ("too loud, too proud, too strong, too brave").

Many of the problems encountered by female clergy will be familiar to women in any number of professions (there is even an analogous term to the corporate "glass ceiling" –in the church it’s called the "stained glass ceiling"), but there is one important difference that makes the situation of women clergy worse: In the U.S. in most other workplaces, women now at least have the law on their side; they can bring legal actions against employers who discriminate on the basis of sex, as well as religion and race and several other classifications. But churches are apparently exempt from these laws. Sentilles says this is because the churches can claim "we are following the will of God." But I would add that more precisely, this is a (probably unintentional) outcome of separation of Church and State in the U.S.

Sentilles writes:

...our relationship with God and our relationship with women are inextricably linked.... We have been told that religious sexism is supported by the Bible.... Historical critics, progressive biblical scholars, and feminist theologians try to explain away sexism in our sacred texts, putting offending passages in context, redefining words, pointing out mistranslations, and claiming God and Jesus as essentially liberative. But what if you can’t erase sexism?
In Part One, Sentilles examines "Vocation" or "the call" to be a minister or priest, telling how various women experience it, and continuing through the ordination process, mentoring, the difficulties of actually getting a church position, and the relegation of women to assistant or associate minister status in large churches. She gives useful info on when various Protestant denominations began ordaining women and points out that mainline Protestant denominations’ beginning to extend ordination to women in the last few decades

...wrongly suggests that ordination of women is a modern problem, a result of the women’s movement...with which churches are just beginning to wrestle.... Historical evidence, however, reveals that leadership of women in church communities is not new at all.... What is new–at least relatively– is refusing to allow women positions of authority in churches. Given the evidence, you might argue that ordaining women is more orthodox than not ordaining them.
In Part Two, Sentilles looks at "Incarnation: The Body" and includes "Inclusive Language" as well as sex, and gay and trans issues. She distinguishes gender (as in masculine and feminine), from sex (as in male and female). She and many others including me consider gender strongly influenced by society’s expectations and rules. Sex, she says, is biologically based but not as clearcut as was once assumed. She writes that

Christianity has played a huge role in collapsing the difference between biological sex and gender.
She goes on to explore the two creation stories in Genesis, and the Vatican’s (and the present Pope’s) use of these and other biblical texts to keep women out of the ministry/priesthood, concluding:

It is no accident that God happens to exhibit qualities ascribed to "man" (spiritual, intellectual, rational, strong) and human beings happen to exhibit qualities ascribed to "woman" (embodied, physical, emotional, weak), no accident that God is called "He." Men created a god to do the work they needed him to do a long time ago.
She discusses attempts of Christian clergy, mostly women, to use alternative god-language, such as "Creator" instead of "Father." The aim seems to be at inclusive language rather than asserting the female/feminine divine. Yet, Sentilles points out, as evidenced by at least one survey in the Episcopal Church in 2003, that even though survey respondents supported inclusive language in other contexts, "inclusive language referring to God is less acceptable than ever..." The experience of the women ministers Sentilles interviewed supports this. When they attempted to change god-language they became targets of nasty emails and secret meetings. What is Sentilles personal opinion on inclusive god-language? She writes
Inclusive language...does not mean that churches stop calling God "He" and start calling God "She."...Inclusive language is more expansive than that. It requires that we use multiple images , metaphors, and analogies when talking about God....God is not only Father, Lord, or King. God is Mother. God is breath. God is rock and tree and wind. God is mystery. God is creativity. God is light. And God is darkness, deep and infinite.

Sentilles then moves on to a chapter on clothing, whose arguments I felt were the weakest in the book. First let me point out that if you look at the way men and women dress for business, for example, you will see that women have more leeway than men. The requirements for men’s dress are quite rigid: men must wear a shirt, usually long sleeved and buttoned up to the neck (ouch), plus a tie (double ouch) and pants fastened at the waist with a belt (really comfortable, right? especially after lunch), and totally closed, hard-soled shoes with appropriate socks. OTOH, women are usually considered suitably dressed when any of the following: a skirt with a blouse or sweater, often with or without a jacket; a dress, often with or without a jacket; or a pants-suit. Types of shoes usually acceptable include flats, "heels" of various heights, and often boots and lace-up hard-sole shoes as well. Frankly, I don’t think we can say that most dress requirements in the business world, as well as the professional world (including clergy), oppress women more than men. If you are a woman who becomes a letter carrier, police officer, or firefighter, or other vocation requiring a uniform, you are expected to wear it, as are the men. To me, the garb of a minister in many denominations falls into this category. In other denominations it is similar to dress for business. Sentilles tells of her own and other women’s experience being instructed, for example, not to wear open-toed shoes; or feeling constricted by the requirement to wear a clerical collar, robes, and other clerical garb. She tries to tie this into bias against woman, because, I guess, these requirements were set up by men for men. She and other women interviewed, especially younger women, feel that they should be given more leeway to be different: to wear short skirts with no outer clerical garb, nose rings, fashionable but non-minister-looking hairdos, etc. Now I have nothing against women dressing however they want to dress, but it seems to me when we select a profession we know what the dress expectation is. It shouldn’t come as a news flash that women are expected to wear clerical collars and robes if the men are. Re: open toe shoes – Wouldn’t there also objection to male clergy wearing sandals when officiating? So here’s my sermon: When you enter a profession or a corporate culture where there are dress expectations, it seems to me that when you accept the job, you accept the cultural expectations – at least until you have established yourself within that profession or culture. I must also say that I don’t understand the objection to robes that Sentilles and some of the other women express. Isn’t this an equalizing form of dress since both men and women are wearing robes? And isn’t this a case when, at least in our culture, the form of dress is more feminine than masculine (robe=long dress, no?)?

I found the next chapter, on Sex, to contain some of the most moving stories in the book, and some of the most astute language. For example, Sentilles writes
The dominant religious voices shouting that birth control, homosexuality, and sex outside marriage are sinful pretend to be protecting the sanctity of marriage and the holiness of sexual intercourse. The words, however, do the opposite. By supporting only a narrow sliver of sexual behavior, these voices have perverted our understanding of healthy human sexuality, a perversion that has contributed to the AIDS epidemic and to behaviors that put everyone at risk....
Moving stories include those of Irene, who was left in a trash can when she was six months old, yet went on to attend Wellesley College, come out as a lesbian, and eventually establish a health ministry in the African American community in New York that addressed the problem of HIV at a time when it was not being given attention either by the white medical establishment or by the African American community itself. She framed the ministry as part of "overcoming the trauma of slavery."

Another is Monica’s story: Raped during her seminary years, Monica tried to discuss her experience with a number of ministers in her denomination. But the ministers either ignored her or expressed discomfort with the subject. Apparently because of her rape experience, Monica had difficulty finding a placement in a church of her preferred denomination. She finally found a spiritual home in an interdenominational church with a more sensitive minister, where "liberation theology was preached from the pulpit, and the liturgy used only inclusive language." Eventually Monica established a ministry in the church around sexual violence and wrote a handbook that inspired similar groups to form in other churches.

Part Three of this book, "Creation: Ministry," includes the story of "Catholic Womenpriests, who have found a way to be ordained despite the Vatican’s opposition. This blog had a post about the rancor that just the mere existence of this group raises in the male establishment.

Until the second chapter in Part Three, Chapter 21:"Minister (N.) vs To Minister (V.)," I was fine with this book being limited to the Christian clergy without any reference to the path that many women disillusioned by Christianity eventually walk: Goddess spirituality. But in Chapter 21, Sentilles veers off into non-Christian traditions, especially when she spends 8 pages on "The Church of Craft, founded by Tristy Taylor and Callie Janoff. The Church of Craft (not to be confused with "Craft" as in Witchcraft) is a ministry totally without doctrine or formal ritual, in which the main activity is gathering with other people and doing your craft – whether it be knitting, sewing, scrapbooking, egg-dyeing, etc. People in this church experience their craft as spiritual. This church is not specifically Christian, nor are its founders fleeing from Christianity. Taylor comes from a Unitarian Universalist background (her father a UU minister) and Janoff is daughter of a secular/agnostic Jewish father and secular/agnostic Protestant mother. Here’s my point: To demonstrate an alternative to the mainline Christian Church, Sentilles has selected a not-necessarily-Christian group with non-Christian leaders whose mission, as far as I can tell from the way it’s described in the book and on its website, is not particularly feminist. Since she has strayed from focusing just on Christians and Christian churches, why is there no mention of the most obvious, most populous, and most widespread alternative: the Goddess path and its many and varied groups? The word "Goddess" is never used in the book, even in Chapter 2, when discussing alternative language for the divine. Why? It can’t be that she is ignorant of the Goddess path. She attended Harvard Divinity School at a time when Goddess was part of the discussion. She interviewed a number of UUs, whose denomination has offered courses on feminist spirituality (both in Abrahamic and Pagan religions) and on the history of cultures that worshipped goddesses. Why not mention Goddess? Was this Sentilles decision or the publisher’s? Was the decision based on fear? On snobbery? If fear, what are they afraid of?

To Sentilles credit, among her endnotes is mention of an interview with Starhawk in a book edited by Derrick Jensen, and her extensive and excellent bibliography lists WomanSpirit Rising, an anthology edited by Carol P. Christ and Judith Plaskow, which includes early Goddess material (including Christ’s renowned and still timely essay "Why Women Need the Goddess"), two of Christ’s Goddess books, and several books by Mary Daly. Perhaps Sentilles and/or her editors felt this covered it. But I still think "Goddess" deserves a mention in the text of this book, and could have been easily inserted in Chapter 6, "Inclusive Language" (even if she were to explain why she doesn’t like the word or concept) or in Chapter 21. Just one sentence would be enough to put a smile on my face.

A Church of Her Own should be high on the reading list of any woman attempting to enter the Christian ministry. It is also of interest to Christian clergy in general and to Christian congregations. Female rabbinical students, rabbis, and some Jewish congregations may want to read the book and compare it to issues they are experiencing. It fact, it's of interest to anyone interested in women’s roles and difficulties in these religions today.


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Judith Laura

More blogs about /goddess/feminist theology/spiritual feminism/pagan/feminist spirituality/.