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Carol Howard Merritt

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Uppity Women And The Church

Posted: 04/08/10 02:05 PM ET

Christian women have shown amazing resilience in the last few weeks. We began with health care reform, when sixty leaders of religious orders representing 59,000 courageous nuns sent a letter encouraging lawmakers to support health care reform. Even though Catholic Bishops were concerned that the abortion restrictions were not strong enough, the Sisters made the common sense argument that the reform would give pregnant women the care that they need to carry an infant to term. This was welcome defiance for young women and men who represent our nation's largest uninsured demographic. Our Saint of Hopeful Snark, Maureen Dowd, feigns confusion after causing a ruckus by responding to the clergy pedophilia crisis by calling for a "Nope" -- a Nun as a Pope. Now she wonders how a woman can be adversarial and Catholic. (As a Protestant, we have a different understanding of sainthood, so I stand by the title, Saint Maureen.)

In another spectrum of Christianity, the Georgia Baptist Convention (GBC) is "defellowshipping" congregations that refuse to demote their female pastors. The Convention seems to be working against the Southern Baptist ideal that the local church is an autonomous, democratically run body (so the local church ought to be able to hire any pastor that they want). But the GBC is upholding theSouthern Baptist Faith and Message, a non-binding statement that was revised in 2000 in order to affirm the headship of husbands in the home and to clearly state that the office of pastor is limited to men. Pastor Mimi Walker is the latest to receive the news that if her church does not demote her from Co-Pastor to a subordinate position, then the church will lose its voice at the Convention and will no longer be able to contribute to Southern Baptist mission offerings or use the GBC curriculum. Yet Pastor Walker and her congregation see no reason for her to step down.

In my own corner of Christendom, the Mainline Denominational Church, women aren't making shattering headlines. Most of our congregations have accepted women as pastors, but if we're honest, we'll admit that we have not always allowed women to fully inhabit our pulpits. Women's jobs are often limited to smaller churches and assistant positions, not by rule or church law, but by unwritten tradition. Even though women have been going to seminary in the same numbers as men, prestigious churches pass over the applications of my gifted female colleagues, and only a handful of women have become pastors of large churches. We don't make the news; we just keep working in spite of hearing whispers that the hiring committee was looking for someone who "looks more like a pastor." As a minister in my thirties, this reminds me that I will probably spend the rest of my career banging my head up against the stained glass ceiling, as many men rise above with ease.

So why do women persist in the religious life, or as members of congregations, when the church is so often a test of our resilience, or when our opinions are seen as defiance? The answer differs for every woman. For me, it's because I know what it was like to see a woman in the pulpit for the first time. I had spent a lifetime hearing that women could not be ministers, and yet when I listened to that sermon, it almost felt like the voice of God whispering, "You ought to be preaching as well." I came to a new understanding of myself that morning. The answer is also because when I picked up the words of Elizabeth Johnson, the Catholic theologian, she inspired me so much that I began to read the Bible with fresh eyes and a deepened intellectual thirst. The answer is because when I learned more about Dorothy Day, she motivated me to care for the poor and to write with vigor. The answer is because when I watched Pastor Mimi Walker and my Southern Baptist friends who worked with tenacity and courage, even when they were not always appreciated within their denomination, it stirred me to do what was right even when I met resistance. Just as every human has the propensity for good or evil, the church does as well. Within Christianity, sometimes our greatest progress and liberation happens when women and men question the injustices, stand their ground, or simply go to work. When we do, the church can become a beacon of hope for the larger society, because when dignity and equality become encouraged in our faith communities, they can also become norms in culture. So women work, not because of what the church is, but because of what the church can become.

 
 
 

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