Sarah Sentilles set out to be an Episcopal priest, attending Harvard Divinity School, and seeking ordination in that denomination. She found the ordination process difficult, because she did not conform to some rather narrow expectations of what a priest should be. She blamed herself for not being good enough, and so great was her pain, she completely withdrew from the Church.
In A Church of Her Own, Sarah Sentilles studied in depth a problem that she sees to be of major importance in organized religion. She found that although more and more women are entering divinity schools and the ordination process, these same women are leaving the Church in even larger numbers. She wanted to find out how and why called and committed Christian women were becoming so discouraged and disillusioned in a very short time. [inset as quotation] "...I realized that the brightest, most creative women I knew were having trouble. Either they struggled through the ordination process like I did, or, once ordained and working in churches, they were silenced, humiliated, and abused. These women—women who were faithful, who brought the house down when they preached, who had dedicated their lives to serving God—were being driven out of churches or were leaving the ministry altogether." (p. 3)
When I read this, I became very defensive and wondered if I wanted to read further. Having been in churches with female pastors and counting several as friends, my experience seemed the opposite of Sentilles'. Surely she exaggerated. But I read on—and as I read, I became persuaded. I also became angry and disillusioned. If churches can treat people like that, what hope is there for the world?
The interviewees, from across the country and from different denominations, were honest and frank and needed little prompting to talk about their experiences. Some were still in the church and their real names were not used—their real feelings, however, came through in heartbreaking detail. They reported many incidents of sexism. One of the most common, seemingly harmless practices involved a woman pastor being complimented or criticized about her clothes, her hair style, her weight, or her "time of the month." Male pastors seem never to have that experience. Interesting, isn't it?
Almost all women were offered lower salaries than their male counterparts because (it was rationalized) men were known to be the breadwinners of the family. Many congregations could not deal with a pregnant pastor. It makes everyone uncomfortable, they were told, to bring that "sexual connotation" to the pulpit. Do these same congregations think their male pastors are celibate? Of course not, but their sexuality was not so overt.
Many women—and some men—come as new pastors, fresh from leading seminaries with a passion to serve. They might use what is called "inclusive language," terms which do not exclude or demean on the basis of race, religion, or gender. Most often, the women's efforts to speak inclusively were rebuffed. They were told that no one wanted to call God "She." (Sentilles argues that this misses the point, anyway: "Replacing one form of gender-exclusive language with another does not solve the problem." p. 138) The way we speak of God, she feels, goes to the heart of theology, regardless of denomination. "We will have to trust that God is bigger than anything we can say or write or sing about God. We will have to have faith in God."
What first seemed to me to be Sentilles' angry and bitter criticism of an institution that failed her turned out to be a clearly stated and researched study, not just of the institutionalized church but those who attend and manage those churches. It truly does go to the heart of belief. What is religion? What is the Church? Who can fully participate? And, most important, what do our attitudes toward the clergy say about Christianity and those who profess to be Christians? Sentilles and the women she interviewed were very specific about ministry being a call to action—this is not religion of which they speak, but service, ministering to others. "Ministry is theology in action." (p.244) Sentilles and the other women ask this of organized religion, from which they often felt excluded or alienated: "What might empowering people to live their ministries in daily life look like? How would it change the church?...What might be lost? What gained?" (p. 247)
Many of the women remain hopeful about the future. Many continue their ministry outside of the church, working with the homeless, abused women, the elderly. Interestingly, more than one finds she is most accepted in women's prisons. "It is a population that is vulnerable and needs help and is easily accessible...Women want to tell their stories. This is a place to hear women's stories." (p.278)
Sentilles concludes that she has found a kind of faith in the writing of this book. "Yes, the church is sexist. Yes, the church is racist. Yes, the church is homophobic and classist and oppressive...and exclusive. And, at the same time, the church is filled with human beings ministering to one another, nourishing one another, challenging one another." (p. 309) "When I began writing this book, I was extremely angry. I was grieving. I wanted to write a book that would reveal how terrible religion is...But the women I interviewed changed my mind. Their stories, their energy, their commitment converted me. I began to feel strangely, unexpectedly hopeful." (p. 309)
Having read this book, I feel hopeful, too.
Saran Sentilles earned her Master of Divinity degree from Harvard. She grew up in Texas and received her BA in Literature from Yale. An award-winning speaker, she focuses on people working to create a more just and life-giving world—and the obstacles they face when trying to do so. She lives in Camarillo, California. Visit her website. She also has a blog at this site.
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