When I got an email from a publicity group asking if I would review Sarah Sentilles' new book, "A Chuch of Her Own," about women in the church, I jumped. [Buy at Powells, WCF, Amazon]
I've been pretty darn busy lately and that is why I haven't read every page of this book, but I have to admit that after chapter one I felt like I could write an amazing & glowing review. It will engulf you and not let you go.
I grew up Catholic and call myself a recovering Catholic as well as a tree-hugging goddess worshiper. Back in undergrad I took a class on women in religion and my professor asked me why I left the Church. Honestly there wasn't anything there for me to fight for. I just couldn't identify with a system that thought I was a second-class citizen where women had no authority...at least on paper. Not to mention my mother told me when I was a kid that "they wouldn't let me take the pill, so why should I go to church?"
Sentilles profiles many women who have become priests in a number of Christian denominations. Sentilles herself walked the road toward ordination and it did not go well. She spent plenty of time blaming herself before setting out to write this book full of anger, love, and rage. Sentilles first outlines what it means to be called. As someone who has never been attached to a house of worship it has always been hard for me to understand why someone would want to be a part of a system that so actively worked to keep them out. The description of "a calling" or "being called" to be ordained is moving. I am in fact envious. To honestly feel that your God is pulling at you, poking you this way, and 'talking' to you...well, I really can't envision a stronger force.
Although many women knew from a young age that they wanted to be ministers, most did not know any female ministers, making it hard for them to imagine themselves as ministers. Because either they did not know any female ministers or they did not know women could be ministers at all, their feeling that they wanted to be ordained sometimes made them feel crazy.
Most of the women I interviewed remember the first time they saw an ordained woman and how this vision opened up their sense of vocation. Jamie Washam, an American Baptist pastor in Milwaukee, grew up Southern Baptist in Texas and didn’t see any female pastors. The women she did see in church, women who were shut out of most leadership positions even though they practically ran the church, didn’t look like her. "Zipper Bibles, elastic pants, big ol’ white sneakers, what would jesus do bracelets," she said. "I mean, that’s not what I look like."
It might at first seem shallow, the idea that somehow you need to see someone who looks like you, even dresses like you, to be able to imagine yourself doing a certain job, but seeing a minister who looked like them or talked like them or had theology like them signaled to these women that there was a place for them in the church. It was a kind of welcome, and it was only when they felt this welcome that they realized how shut out they had been feeling. When you belong to a group that religions hate and ostracize -- or just ignore -- you have to be able to imagine what you have not yet seen or heard. This is holy work.
And it is work these women did. Called to be something they had never seen, something their families, their denominations, their churches, and their congregations had never seen, they chose ordained ministry. For every single one of the women I interviewed, it was Buechner’s definition that shaped her vocation. I have seen many of them at work. Watching them celebrate weddings, preach sermons, share communion, march in protests, lead congregations in prayer, speak out against injustice, I had no doubt in my mind that they were meant to be ministers. They seemed to glow, as if all the molecules in their bodies had lined up to say yes, this is what I was made to do. This is what brings me alive. This is where the world’s greatest need and my deepest joy meet.
Sentilles then outlines through her own experience and others have to endure to "prove" that they do "deserve" to become ordained. OH F-ING GAWD. It was infuriating to read the trials and the hazing that occurs in the name of God. But it was the outright sexism that really got my blood boiling.
Sentilles makes some great points about women in non-Catholic churches, mainly that by focusing on just becoming priests, it keeps us from dealing with the sexism in other churches. The sexism that percolates in churches is exactly the same type of sexism we face in our every day lives except for one thing. Within the walls of a church, women have no remedy, no back-up as churches do not have to abide by non-discrimination laws.
After struggling through divinity school, a woman may take a job that is paid less, is in a smaller parish or is in disarray. Sound familiar? Women are used and spit out by some parishes like they are disposable...and the parish members smile & wave as she drives off.
For me this book reinforces why I stay away from organized religion, but more importantly it reminds me (with a huge slap across the face) that in our fight for equality we can not forget to fight for our sisters of the cloth. They face discrimination due to them being women - remember Eve was a woman! They face discrimination because they want to welcome LGBT members with open arms, they want the church and its member to practice what it preaches (working against poverty), really get to know their congregation, and even get pregnant (FMLA doesn't cover pregnant pastors).
This isn't a book for those interested in church issues, this is a book for feminists plain and simple.
Other reviews of "A Church of Her Own":
Disclaimer: The only payment I received for this review was the review copy of the book.
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