A recent article in the Washington Post reported that last year women surpassed men being ordained in the Church of England, with 213 women ordained and 210 men ordained as priests in 2006. However, there are still five times as many male priests compared to female priests, and even in the incoming class of newly ordained priests, men are receiving paid positions more often than women. The church is currently debating whether women should be able to serve as bishops.
I found this article particularly interesting as a woman clergy person. In recent years a growing number of articles have appeared in backlash against women's rising leadership within the church. This "feminization" of the church is a problem to many men (and many women), and it is cited as one of main reasons that membership is dwindling in many denominations.
Feminization of/and the church is not a new topic used by people (mostly men) who are looking to blame something for religion's lack of ability to transform and renew culture. In the 19th century American Victorian culture, women were looked to and lifted up as having special abilities to mold and nurture spiritual health. However, their sphere of influence was relegated to a "helpmate" position - as mothers, wives, Sunday school teachers, and occasionally missionaries. They were not to be ordained. Women were not to usurp the roles of men or to enter into the sphere of influence set aside by and for men. Women who stepped beyond their allotted roles found themselves facing incredible obstacles. To move out of their sphere was not perceived as advancement for the woman or for women; such movement was understood as a challenge to men's power and to social structure in general.
Women in the early years of the Enlightenment faced similar difficulties. In the Methodist movement, women initially experienced a taste of religious leadership and freedom that was quickly taken from them by the patriarchal structure that was invested in maintaining power and privilege for men. The same is true for women's roles in the early church.
Each time that women move forward in answering their calls to leadership within the church, they are met with resistance. One of the arguments used to marginalize women's leadership rests upon the assumption of male dominance and the inherent division of labor between the sexes. Women who dare to challenge either of these deeply ingrained assumptions strike fear because they shake the order upon which society is built. In consequence they are blamed for the church's inability to transform or renew culture. Rather than welcoming women as people with a new message of change and transformation, they are scapegoated for the church's shortcomings.
And yet, the problem in the church isn't women's leadership; the problem is a lack of leadership in general. The church desperately needs passionate, capable, and prophetic leaders. Men who have difficulties with women's leadership might benefit from a deep investigation into their insecurities and their taken for granted privilege. Men who struggle with "feminized" language in the pulpit might ask themselves how women have withstood centuries upon centuries of metaphors and imagery that don't connect to their lives. Men (and women, I might add) who struggle with women in the pulpit might benefit from an exploration not only of the feminization of religion but of their own ingrained sexism.
It's time that we took a look at our prejudices and our assumptions - it seems that more women are entering seminaries and divinity schools, more women are becoming ordained, and more women are entering positions of leadership. We have to learn how to respond to women in leadership rather than blaming them for the institution's inability to change.
For more information on feminization of religion:
JSTOR (membership required)
Encyclopedia of Religion and Society
Encyclopedia of Religion in America
The Church Impotent
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