On The Loss Of Privilege In The Church
It would be one thing if the ordination of women in mainstream Protestant denominations were a new thing. It’s been forty years for the Episcopalians. The first Methodist woman was ordained in the 1950’s, but women had served in vital capacities in our denomination since its founding. I am the husband of a clergywoman. She is a District Superintendent. We are in a Conference led by a woman bishop. While I am sure there are both clergy and laypersons who are unhappy with the fact that women are so prominent in the Northern Illinois Conference, they are a distinct minority and, I would add, really don’t have serious concerns to which the church should pay attention.
Yet it isn’t much of a surprise that the comments on an article about the stained-glass ceiling cracking, a reader can find comments that refer to women clergy as “pastorettes”, that “the God of Christianity hates women”, and that women in large Episcopalian pulpits are the source for that denomination’s on-going demise. It isn’t a surprise because everyone has an ox gored when it comes to religion, and so everyone believes they have the right not only to be heard, but to be taken seriously. It isn’t a surprise because as we see the shrinking of adherence to the Christian churches (my wife recently purchased a book entitled The Rise Of The Nones on how we should communicate to those for whom even the most basic religious idea and vocabulary should not be taken for granted) people become scared, lashing out at anything and everything that differs now from when they were younger and churches were more prominent, clergy more influential, and even the biggest city included a couple congregations with prominent individuals who served in very visible offices as a way of bolstering their images among the people.
My wife forwarded the article to me, after asking me why the commenters were so hateful. I told here, and I continue to insist, they are not hateful. Not really. They may use a vocabulary of dismissal and belittling; they may treat the Bible as a rule book, or proof-text without thought; they may insist that mainline malaise rests at the feet of these and other prominent women clergy who serve without what they consider the imprimatur of God. The truth is, however, they are just frightened. The whole world has changed substantially in the past quarter century, in ways that seem to have eliminated what were thought to be certain givens. Not the least of these givens is the privilege men, white men in particular, took as a birthright to lead any and every organization around. Most especially our Christian churches, in which women were rising steadily to prominent prior to the late 1980’s, but have accelerated the pace of their success as more women enter the clergy and excel at their calling.
Behind the hateful and dismissive words, however, lies the terrible fear that the future will look nothing at all like the world in which they were born, a world in which certain rules were taken for granted. I have said many times that our present moment, despite its terrors and crises and wars, is one of the most exciting in which to live. Not only are new technologies providing opportunities for human beings to connect with one another; not only do these same technologies provide opportunities to life the veil illegitimate authorities have attempted to oppose on humans connecting with one another; not only are we standing on the threshold of a whole new era of space exploration; all this is true, of course, but the most amazing thing about our current historical moment is the collapse, at least in some places, of millennia-long structures of male privilege that have limited our perspective on what is possible.
The on-going demands for equality and justice among minorities across the globe, among women regardless of nationality, religion, or race; for sexual minorities; all these have created the conditions which are squeezing out so much dross, letting the open windows and doors allow fresh air in the shape of different perspectives, histories, and realities shape our emerging social and cultural and political realities. This is true in secular society and the churches. The process in the churches, however, is far slower not least because the accumulation of social and cultural flotsam and jetsam later baptized as faithful living has been going on far longer and is therefore far larger. It takes more effort to bury all that nonsense because it has been piling up for 2000 years.
The best thing we can do for such folks as those whose comments are linked above is continue to show them love. We must hold the door open for them. We must give them space to air their views, to vent, to spew even the most hate-filled words. Then and only then can we hear them and respond to them in love. We do this because that is who we are. We do this all the while continuing the work of being the Church as God calls it to be in this time of change. Rather than fear it, we should embrace it and encourage everyone to embrace it, because it is the world God loves, God saves, and God will redeem in the New Creation.