Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Book Review: A Church of Her Own

As a feminist with a strong interest in how religion and spirituality can perpetuate and counter sexism and misogyny, it was with much interest that I read Sarah Sentilles' A Church of Her Own: What Happens When a Woman Takes the Pulpit. [All quotations from this book unless otherwise noted]

For this book, Sentilles interviewed a diverse collection of aspiring and ordained female ministers within various Christian denominations. As a preface, I should be up front about the fact that I am not a Christian, for both feminist and rational reasons. Yet, Christianity has an incredible influence on American society and, as such, I do see value in the work that some women and men are doing within Christianity to try to make it more inclusive, loving, and feminist (and Christian?).

So, interspersing the stories of the women she interviewed, her own experience in the ordination process, and eloquent commentary, Sentilles' result is an at-times enraging portrait of that subtle, hard-to-pin-down sexism that stifles women's careers while enabling non-feminists to back up with their hands in the air and declare that Nothing Is Wrong Because Sexism Has Already Been Solved. That was my greatest take-away from the book. While it seems to be a popular perception that feminist work is over when women achieve ordination in a particular denomination, the reality is that, as Sentilles writes, "ordaining women is not the end of the struggle but just the beginning" (4).

1) Subtle Sexism

Sexism in the church is not the result of a secret conspiracy of men "late at night in hidden rooms where people strategize about how to ruin women's lives or keep the church a males only club" (5). (Wait, doesn't that almost perfectly describe the Vatican?). Anyway, Sentilles' continues, that fighting sexism is much easier when there are obvious sexist policies that people can rally around, like the Vatican's ban on female ordination, and when there are actual, tangible patriarchal cabals. Unfortunately, "[s]exism is more insidious than that. It dresses in the garments we all wear. It speaks our language" (6). And, it is evident in the job search, in language that genders god male, and in Bible-based ideology that posits that men and women are complementary (ie, women are inferior to men)- in other word, evidence of sexism that is not readily apparent in quotable statistics.

Through various interviews, a picture began to emerge that although a denomination may ordain women, men more easily got jobs, got better jobs, and got higher-paying jobs than did women. Women talked of going to job interviews with their husbands [Note: Is bringing a spouse along a common hiring practice in ministerial appointments?!] and having the interviewer address the questions to their husbands, under the assumption that the men were the job candidates. Other women reported being appointed to near-failing congregations, where the church hierarchy didn't know whether the congregation was "going to live or die," under the belief that having a female pastor couldn't be any worse than any of the other shit that had happened (68-69).

One woman reported going through the job search process with her husband, who was also seeking an appointment. Out of three interviews each, he got two job offers, she got none, and "the entire process was radically different for each of them" (71). Whereas the husband would get multiple page emails where the rector really tried to connect with him, the woman got one-line notes asking for a resume.

The younger ministers noted that age often compounded their lack of authority, especially once they were in the pulpit. Whereas women in our society are encouraged to look as young as possible for as long as possible, looking young is, for women especially, a career impediment as it equates with a lack of authority. As an attorney, I get this too. Just as many have a picture of a man in some sort of robe when they picture "minister," many people have an image of a man in a suit when they hear "attorney." Even though I'm in my 30s, I still sometimes get "doesn't she look young to be an attorney?"

Whatever that means.

In another instance I can relate to, one woman noted that the dynamic between a senior male minister and a more junior female one can lead to a really "messed-up dynamic" where it is difficult for the woman to be perceived as anything other than the man's "eager assistance" or "little helper" (97). In short, like in so many other areas of life, men are the default in ministry. A minister is automatically a man, unless someone clarifies that it is a female minister. This is one root of much of the "subtle sexism" experienced by these women.

2) Suppression of Women and the Feminine

The interviews are also stories of repressed and minimized female talent. Historically, women have always ministered, whether or not their ministries are institutionally legitimized. She notes historical examples like Anne Hutchinson, who was not ordained but who nonetheless held weekly religious meetings in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 1600s and Jarena Lee, the wife of an African Methodist Episcopal preacher, who delivered sermons yet was long denied ordination by the church hierarchy.

She notes a woman in her twenties who asked her home Southern Baptist Church if they would license her after she spent two years in divinity school and they said no. Meanwhile, they regularly licensed teenage boys who came back from youth camp and said they had "felt God's call" (51). She notes another lady minister who went to seminary after an unfulfilling career as Minister's Wife. Before seminary, she used to attend meetings with other minister's wives in the area who, she said, were "a bunch of depressed women who had probably been called to be in ordained ministry" but were steered out of it because of their gender (35).

And indeed, talented women whose talents go to waste because of the Necessity For Women To Support Men And Babies have good reason to be depressed. It's an old story, that story of Great Men getting to do Great Things because the world is their oyster in which to do them. It is an old story of men creating clubs and only entitling other men to join them, effectively cutting in half the number of people against whom they have to compete for resources, jobs, and power.

3) Conclusion

In addition to discussing barriers to ministry solely in terms of gender, Sentilles explores the additional challenges that women of color, lesbian/bisexual women, and transgender men and women face in entering the ministry. Perhaps ironically, those chapters were less interesting to me, as those barriers are somewhat more obvious and thus easier to rally around than more subtle forms of sexism. She certainly discusses these issues in a skillful manner, but to somebody on the receiving end of some of these other Christian -isms, you aren't likely to come across any new Startling Revelations.

To end, I appreciated the final chapter on what she is for. It is easy to be against things in the world, and many Christians are defined almost entirely by all that they are against. Thus, I can appreciate Sentilles' belief that "Christian theology that does not contribute significantly to struggles against inhumanity and injustice has lost sight of its point of being" (244).

Amen, sister.

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