Sunday, August 27, 2006

And God Created Women. And Said Unto Thee, "Shhh."

I was interested in this Times article partly because my mother has always been very involved in her church, but also makes impassioned arguments against allowing females to hold the highest positions in that church. The basic issue, for those who don't believe in checks on female power in the church, is summed up in the paper like so:
Whether they come from theologically liberal denominations or conservative ones, black churches or white, women in the clergy still bump against what many call the stained-glass ceiling —- longstanding limits, preferences and prejudices within their denominations that keep them from leading bigger congregations and having the opportunity to shape the faith of more people.
Later in the article, we're shown how -- surprise, surprise -- arguments for and against female empowerment can be found in the Bible:
Conflicting interpretations of the Bible underlie debates over women’s authority and ordination. Opponents of their ordination cite St. Paul’s words in I Timothy 2:12, in which he says, "I permit no woman to teach or have authority over men; she is to keep silent." But proponents point to St. Paul again in Galatians 3:28, which says, "There is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus."
Let's leave aside those charming words of St. Paul in Timothy for a moment. I suppose the debates that seem to eternally spring from the Bible are what has caused Christianity to remain so vibrant; it could be that many raised in the faith stick around because they want to figure out what it's saying. After all, it's not like these women are fleeing when they read St. Paul's words (which shocks me) -- they're just forming splinter groups that interpret that issue differently but still stick to the religion's other teachings. Andrew Sullivan often writes of the ways in which he tries to reconcile his complaints about the Catholic Church -- including its treatment of homosexuals -- with his membership in it.

But Sullivan and many others have also written about the unyielding, pathological lack of comfort with females that constitutes some of current-day Islam. And from this paragraph in the Times, it seems Christianity isn't far behind:
At a large church where she was an associate pastor, a colleague told her that when she was in the pulpit, he could not focus on what she was saying because she is a woman. A man in the congregation covered his eyes whenever she preached.
Covered his eyes? This is like some kind of demented adoption of the burka, requiring no extra clothing for the women, just blindness for the men.

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11 Comments:

Anonymous Nick said...

That's an interesting idea - that the Bible's many inconsistencies and self-contradictions make Christianity inclusive (and presumably help encourage membership): Believe what you want; it's in the Bible somewhere.

12:47 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

jesus christ!

11:21 AM  
Anonymous jpw said...

A suggestion to ASWOBA: please add a link to the letters-to-the-editor in response to this piece, mostly penned by clergy. They are very insightful. It continues to amaze me that, despite the efforts of so many faithful to battle the sexism of the church while still adhering to its tenets, there remain countless women willing to accept the "stained-glass ceiling". In fact, they defend it with a fierceness that defies logic. The hold-out conservatives cast their stubbornness as a noble fight to protect their "embattled" and "pure" traditions. In reality, this rhetoric is simply another means of perpetuating a rigid hierarchy based on nothing more than the mutual insecurity of both genders. The men are fearful of ceding power to women; and the women are insecure enough to accept their "place" (namely "second place") despite all the "heavy lifting" they do to support their congregations. The basis for female insecurity is anyone's guess, but perhaps the men have good reason to be fearful. Aren't women the more peaceful sex? The less violent? The less warring? The more likely to take sole responsibility for children if a marriage goes south? The more likely to excel in college (according to recent statistics)? WWJD, indeed. If Jesus was the person Christians believe him to be, he would surely espouse these kinds of values and traits. I can only imagine the smug satisfaction enjoyed by the male leaders of conservative churches: by simply citing a few vague--and sometimes appalling--biblical quotes, they manage to convince women to run the coffee hours, teach the Sunday school, head the fundraising efforts, and fill the pews without any expectation of earning a top post. The great irony, of course, is that a majority of these women would bristle at a female corporate executive being restricted to middle-management without a shot at CEO. Do we want women banned from the Senate? From the professions? Why does the church deserve a pass in this regard? What if the bible advocated slavery? Since ASWOBA and I share the same mother--who has contributed her boundless energy, limitless compassion, and enviable smarts toward a conservative Anglican tradition intent on keeping her down--this really rankles us. I think we both harbor hope that she will repudiate her branch's draconian conservatism and join a church that not only welcomes her ample contributions but rewards them commensurately. Mom: become a minister, for heaven's sake. Throw off that burka. It doesn't take a penis to be a great spiritual leader. It takes a heart and a mind like yours.

1:32 PM  
Anonymous lfw said...

um, yeah. what she said. sing it, sister.

--the third sibling

2:36 PM  
Blogger JMW said...

Um, er, Mom, if you're reading this, I promise I didn't mean for this to turn into a family colloquy on your role in the church. I swear.

2:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

jpw:
It continues to amaze me that, despite the efforts of so many faithful to battle the sexism of the church while still adhering to its tenets, there remain countless women willing to accept the "stained-glass ceiling". In fact, they defend it with a fierceness that defies logic.

I think you misunderstand. They defend it because they think it's what they're called to do. To most people, religion isn't about picking the system that best serves your interests. It's about choosing the religion that you think is True. Based on that one huge decision, you're bound to follow the other, smaller tenets of that religion. If I'm a Hasidic Jew, then I don't get to choose my own hairstyle, no matter how much I like Ryan Seacrest's new 'do. Similarly, if you're a Christian/Muslim/Jew, then you should honestly read the Bible/Koran to try to understand God's commands for you. And if you honestly believe that the Bible/Koran says that women shouldn't lead the church, then aren't you bound by those Biblical commands? Even if they don't serve your immediate best interests?

The men are fearful of ceding power to women; and the women are insecure enough to accept their "place" (namely "second place") despite all the "heavy lifting" they do to support their congregations. The basis for female insecurity is anyone's guess, but perhaps the men have good reason to be fearful. Aren't women the more peaceful sex? The less violent? The less warring? The more likely to take sole responsibility for children if a marriage goes south? The more likely to excel in college (according to recent statistics)?

Ahhh, yes. We must battle against stereotypes that cast women in a less favorable light. And apparently, the best way to do that is to advance stereotypes that cast men in a less favorable light. Was Joan of Arc more peaceful? Was Margaret Thatcher less warring?

I can only imagine the smug satisfaction enjoyed by the male leaders of conservative churches: by simply citing a few vague--and sometimes appalling--biblical quotes, they manage to convince women to run the coffee hours, teach the Sunday school, head the fundraising efforts, and fill the pews without any expectation of earning a top post.

I suspect that you can "only imagine" it because you've got no real experience within a church. Anyone who actually had real experience within a church would know that, even in churches that ban women in the ministry, women are not 2nd class members. WOmen aren't the only people that teach Sunday school, etc. And for Christians, the "top post" of which you speak isn't being the guy in a robe who gets to talk to everyone else; it's something called Heaven. And I'm unaware of any churches -- even [gasp!] conservative ones -- that say women are barred from Heaven. The church is not a corporate board room where women are working to get better pay/benefits. They're working because it's what God calls them to do.

What if the bible advocated slavery?

The Bible doesn't advocate slavery, but it certainly seems to condone it. In fact, some books of the Old Testament give instructions on how slaves are to be treated. That may not be as horrible as advocating slavery, but it's plenty bad.

I think we both harbor hope that she will repudiate her branch's draconian conservatism and join a church that not only welcomes her ample contributions but rewards them commensurately. Mom: become a minister, for heaven's sake. Throw off that burka. It doesn't take a penis to be a great spiritual leader. It takes a heart and a mind like yours.

Once again, the church doesn't work like a corporation. The people in it aren't (supposed to be) concerned primarily with their own advancement. They don't choose their churches based on who is going to give them the best goodies.

If your mom feels called to become a minister, then I'd encourage her to follow her heart and join a church that will accept her as one. I'm a Methodist, and we allow female ministers.

But maybe your mom doesn't want to become a minister. In which case you might be projecting your own political desires onto your mom.

-- Comish

6:34 PM  
Blogger JMW said...

Well, I find this all very interesting. In fact, it probably deserves a follow-up post, but I'll do this here instead.

Matt -- sorry, "Comish,"

First, I like it a lot when you comment. Keep it up. I know I'm not giving you many meaty subjects -- for instance, you probably have lawyerly duties that keep you from writing 500-word treatises about Monty Python clips -- but still.

You bring up a point that I often do when I'm (very rarely) in a mood to defend organized religion, which is that mundane technicalities about earthly subjects like political correctness and gender equality are obviously not the central matter if you believe you're behaving in a manner that would please THE DIVINE, ALL-KNOWING RULER OF THE UNIVERSE.

Where I run into a problem, of course, is that I think that all-caps character -- at least as envisioned by us unimaginative humans -- is bunk.

And there's a second problem, or litmus test, which I think privatization doesn't completely absolve institutions of passing, which is one of general fairness. In other words, for the sake of broader freedom, I do think that churches ("no women pastors") or clubs ("no one under 25") or even very well-organized tree houses ("no girls of any kind") should be ALLOWED (up to a point) to do what they please. As long as they're not actively hurting anyone, to use that old saw. And of course, even then there's ample opportunity for some awfully grey territory, as the civil rights movement and others would mightily prove. The problem is, where do you draw the line in what you'll defend? I don't want to be the guy speaking up for some fringe cult (and I'm not saying that's what Christianity is; if only) when it starts blurring the line of what's acceptable in a decent society.

Which is all to say -- on one level, I'm nodding my head as I read your comment. Yes, the church is a closed society with its own rules, and if women like my mother don't mind being disallowed the opportunity of clerical advancement, so be it. That's their choice, however misguided I think it is. Or to use your apt phrase, I don't want to be projecting my political desires on to other people. But then I realize that many branches of that SAME closed society would allow my mother to advance, and I feel some itch that borders on obligation to speak up for the branch I think is right, since over time such speaking up, on a massive enough level, might help change the institution without gutting it of its core beliefs.

My personal belief is that the church was established by a certain group of men, and the men's fingerprints are all over the institution's guiding documents. Those men were human, fallible, and like all of us, very self-interested. My mother might believe that all those men were doing was writing down, word for word, some dictation from God. And she might -- in fact, she DOES -- wish that I would just see the church for what it is, which is a handed-down, unalterable, pretty much perfect institution. But then she would be projecting her political desires on to me.

8:38 PM  
Blogger lmha said...

I am also a Methodist, in as much as I can be labeled religiously, in the same way that I consider myself a Democrat, in as much as I can be labeled politically. But I purposely chose that denomination precisely BECAUSE women are ministers. I can't stand any denomination or religion that excludes women from taking the lead, and that ranges from Baptists to Catholics to Muslims, etc. It's ridiculous and totally illegitimate. In fact, although I know it is a work of fiction, one of the things I enjoyed MOST about the Da Vinci Code was the treatment and attention that it gave to the slandering of women historically (not handed down from on high, but politically within the church). It was almost a relief to me reading it. At the same time I was reading Da Vinci Code, I was reading another book about women in Islam, called The Nine Parts of Desire by Geraldine Brooks. Fantastic book. She's an Australian reporter who lived throghout the Middle East, interviewed many women and wrote a fascinating book explaining not only the basis of their religious beliefs but the cultural and political differences (or lack thereof) between Middle Eastern women and westerners. What struck me was the similarity in the ways the Catholic church and Islam deliberately and pathetically decide to ostracize women. For example, and it's been a few years since I read the book, but I remember one interesting thing I learned was that Muhammed's first wife, who was his wife for 25 years or so until she died, was a business owner, a property owner, and actually at one point, his BOSS. Not only was she a business owner, but she never veiled herself, and that wasn't part of Islam or his religion (and he began having his religious epiphanies when he was with her). When did the veiling and isolation enter into it? Well, after she died, he started to marry for political gain, as many people did and let's face it, still do. He began taking on many wives who, not surprisingly, didn't really like the fact of the other ones. Some of them really hated each other, and fought publicly. This was embarrasing to him, and people started to tell him, "Hey man, you really need to shut this down. This fighting is getting to be a problem." And then, guess what happened. No, really, you'll never guess. Muhammed had a vision--an inspiration like a bolt of lightening--that women really should stay home. How lucky for him to have that divine vision in the nick of time. I wish I could apologize for being totally disrespectful, which I know I'm being, but come on. I'm not saying the man never had a divine vision. I'm not saying the Pope is evil. But I ain't buyin' it. I loved the Da Vinci Code so much on a personal level because it was the first book I've read that satisfied me in this regard--to really accuse the church of deliberately tarnishing the image of women. And we don't have to write that off as a work of fiction, because that part REALLY happened. Pope Gregory, wasn't it, that decided Mary Magdaline was a prostitute, and she never was? Now whether she was Jesus's wife or Jesus's CEO, I think it's beyond question that she was right up there next in line, the "right-hand man" so to speak. In fact, I think it's as likely if not more so that she was just a powerful disciple, and that it's almost equally sexist to assume she had to have had a sexual relationship with him--why else would she have been there, in other words. Well, maybe she was there because she was brilliant. And we couldn't have that, now could we.

So yes, that shutting out of women from power within religion all IS a bunch of crap, I don't think it has anything to do with God or Jesus or any deity's true desire for humanity. And I think the women who tolerate it are, at a minimum, in the same category as black Republicans, or women who campaigned against sufferage, etc.

To say these ideas aren't political, or that churches aren't run like corporations is naiive. They are both political and corporations. I think the goal of religion, or spirituality, is to try to divine the true message, like panning for gold buried in the historical bunk in which all religious (and historical) text inextricably exists. The fact that you have to pan through the dirt in the stream doesn't mean there isn't gold there. You just have to know the difference. So that's my rationalization for why I don't give up on all of it entirely. There IS a good message in there. And while I cringe at most of organized religion, the genuine message of Jesus--tolerance, kindness, generosity, honesty and accountability--those are my core values, and I'm fine with giving credit where credit is due. I guess it used to bother me, and sometimes it still does, that I can't wholly embrace any religion without slicing and dicing it. Occasionally I think, why not just say I can't go along with it for it's obvious failings. But I can't wholly embrace anything. Not politics, not music, not literature, not law, not people, not anything. Nothing's perfect because it's all through the filter of imperfect inhumanity. So that leaves us all mining for gold, and really, I think that's okay. What's not okay is people thinking that because there's gold in them thar hills, that the dirt surrounding it is equally valuable. I just don't think God gave us the ability to reason for us not to use it.

That's my take on it.

11:32 PM  
Anonymous jpw said...

Wow--not sure ASWOBA knew what he was getting himself into with this entry! A very interesting, and endlessly debatable, issue. Comish and Laurie: so glad you both responded at length. I'm going to jump back into the fray tomorrow when my brain has had a chance to re-boot.

11:54 PM  
Blogger JMW said...

ASWOBA knew very well what he was getting into -- he was lobbing a ball at his very smart, engaged, polite friends and family. They, in turn, god bless them (hee hee), are spiking said ball.

Carry on...

12:10 AM  
Anonymous jpw said...

OK, next spike coming up. Since the tennis is rained out for the night, might as well engage in some philosophical volleyball.... First, just for the record (Matt!), I have loads of experience within a church.
I was enrolled in an Episcopalian grammar school for eight years and attended "chapel" every morning. Further, my family went to church on the majority of Sundays until I left home for college. My feelings about the church are based more on experience than inexperience. That said, I admit that I am quite rusty on my scripture. :-) Granted, my beliefs are more atheistic/secular and I understand that folks who consider themselves religious argue from an entirely different vantage point. I agree with Laurie that no human endeavor is "pure" or worthy of our wholehearted endorsement. Organized religion is no exception, regardless of the claims it makes to being an embodiment of the Truth. I can appreciate that a lot of people like Laurie and Matt want to preserve their connection with the "gold" of Christian faith while keeping in historical perspective the dross and flaws of the system (see the movie "Trembling Before God" for a heartbreaking look at gay jews who are struggling to retain their religion convictions and traditions within a subculture that vilifies them). At some point, though, one must consider throwing the baby out with the bath water. Here are some random thoughts that I don't have time to shape into a coherent argument:
--I'd like to address this whole "corporate" analogy that I unwittingly drew. I didn't mean to use corporate language as if to imply that churches should operate like companies or that parishioners are simply employees looking to climb the ladder. However, as Laurie points out, it is naive to ignore the obvious parallels. Both are engaged in making money for the purpose of self-perpetuation/survival; both are structured as hierarchies of power and influence; both have employees who enjoy things like rank, salary, and the ability to hire and fire others; one "competes" for customers, the other for parishioners. As we've witnessed, the heads of churches and denominations are as susceptible to corruption and abuse of power as Enron's execs.
--When I argue for a woman's right to be a leader within the church, I am not, as Matt suggests, talking about "the immediate best interests" of an individual woman in the church or a selfish interest in attaining power for power's sake. I'm talking about the long-term effects of ingrained sexism on future generations of Christian girls and women. What does it say to young girls sitting in all those pews that the "spokesman" for God is always a spokes-MAN? I'm not suggesting that people choose a religion by "picking the system that best serves their own interests." i'm saying that people should choose their religion by picking a system they believe to be best for the world and and best for the human spirit. If one's reason and heart tells one that women should be treated with equal respect, one should question one's endorsement of any religion that undermines this basic belief.
--My mom wants to believe that the church is "different"; that it exists outside the realm of modern life and its "questionable, anything-goes, liberal" values. But if you believe that Christianity is truly your bedrock value system--if it is the guiding force in the way you live your life--then should it be exempt from something as basic as equality for women? Women should be able to lead in the church not out of a selfish need for power but because they are equally passionate about their faith and equally capable of leading.
--OK, Matt: you say that "even in churches that ban women in the ministry, women are not 2nd class members." Huh? Do you really believe this makes sense? Anyone who's not the boss or the leader is, um, not the boss or the leader. Anyone who is "banned" from something by someone else is inherently and involuntarily a "2nd class citizen." They don't have equal say; they don't garner equal respect; they don't represent the parish in the most important way; and they don't get to shape the congregants' faith with their own interpretation of scripture. To call the head of a parish "the guy in the robe who gets to talk to everyone else" and to say that women should just be happy that they get to go to heaven in the end is a terrible insult. Maybe you would feel differently if you were a girl sitting in the pews all those years listening to "guys in robes." We were taught that they were very important and worthy of our utmost respect. Who could be more important than God's spokesperson? And what could be more of a statement to an impressionable girl about her place in "God's world?"
--Speaking again about "choosing" a religion, let's face it: most people don't choose theirs. Most people are born into a religion and simply accept it as Truth. The best argument against organized religion is the fact that there are Jews, and Christians, and Muslims and Janists (Jainists?) all believing that their system and their story is the "True" one and that all others are simply misled.
--Matt, you are right that my mom has a right to belong to any church she wishes. However, I continue to press her to re-consider her choice. You might consider that an "agenda", but who has more of an agenda than the Church? The more conservative branches promote homophobia, for crying out loud. Yikes. Anyhow, off to sleep. If I muster the energy, I'll write more tomorrow about why the "story" of Christianity doesn't appeal to me.... and why it shouldn't appeal to others. As Laurie so aptly puts it, we have to use our reason!
Goodnight. ZZZZZzzzzz.....

12:08 AM  

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