Not so nice

Nice girls aren’t supposed to be angry – even when they’ve grown up into not-always-nice women – neither, of course, are nice Christians and definitely not nice priests. So I am, just at the moment, failing the niceness test because I am angry. Specifically I am angry about the position of ordained women in the Church.

Partly this comes from watching the Church of England trip over itself in its wearily long drawn out journey towards having women bishops. But, before we pat ourselves on the back in the Anglican Church of Canada, it’s worth remembering that the numbers of women in leadership here are hardly stellar. Out of 42 bishops all of 5 are women. Even the clerical leadership in our diocese of New Westminster is overwhelmingly male.

There are four common responses I’ve encountered when this issue is raised:
1. We’ve had more women in the past, just not now.
2. Surely we’re beyond the stage of needing to look at gender.
3. We asked women but they said no/no women applied.
4. We just appointed the best individual for the job.

All very reasonable, all very persuasive on the surface. But none of these responses seems to be adequate enough to allow me to pack away my anger and revert to nice Ellen. Instead I want to answer:
1. So? A past justice only highlights a present injustice.
2. The numbers make it clear that no we are NOT beyond that stage.
3. What is it in the culture that makes women reluctant to take on leadership in the church?
4. What is it in the culture that makes it easier for us to see gifts in men than in women?

I would be very interested in people’s answers to those last two questions – do feel free to post them as comments.

So, for now, I’ll live with being angry. I’ll try and bring it into my spiritual practice – maybe using one of the angrier psalms as a way of finding words to express this in prayer; reminding myself that though the meek are blessed so also are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.

And, for now, I’ll carry on trying to be a woman leader in a male dominated environment without either becoming “one of the boys” or so alienated as to be unable to work for the change I hope to see.


7 thoughts on “Not so nice

  1. Thank you Ellen for the courage to write this. I’m appalled at the ‘boy’s club’ atmosphere of the church – particularly in the D of NW. We certainly ordain women here and have ordained women from other places assume ministry here – but I’d like to see the stats about full-time ministry. How many are women? Men? How many women are part-time? Men? There are all sorts of ways to marginalize that which threatens the status quo. I’m so pleased to have you as a colleague – to be a voice for women and others on the fringes. Thank you.

    As to the questions – the church isn’t the only place where women are reluctant to become leaders. From what I can see, leadership as we know it institutionally is built on a male paradigm – working excessive hours, extra activities that usually have less meaning for women (golf, etc) (or are organized around the desires of the leadership rather than the growth of community), a language of power that undermines a language of empowerment, the need to make family and relationships secondary to ministry. Men’s strength and gifts are defined by power and success. For women to enter this realm we sacrifice our approach to justice and fairness. I don’t see this as specific men or women but the system that doesn’t change no matter what critique. It is very difficult to let go of the standards of power for something we don’t know or understand and cannot predict. Therefore, both men and women are participating in a system that does not service the needs of either. The church is particularly vulnerable to this and it probably has to die in some way before it reaches out for any other way to do things. I’m not telling you anything new but I’ll keep watch on the blog to see if anyone else can come up with innovation.

  2. How discouraging that the church remains so backward. I was delighted to hear today that the new head of the tribunal of which I was a member is a youngish woman with 3 kids. She replaces a woman of about my age, who recently retired. Heading the Workers’ Compensation Appeal Tribunal is indeed a challenge, but many of the senior roles were held by women. So, there is hope in some sectors of society.

    Tribunals and the Public Service do attract female lawyers though, for various reasons. But, I don’t see why the church should be any different.

    • That’s a great article, Tasha, thanks for the link! Having caught some glimpses on the academic job market of what it would be like to work among the “time machos” of more prestigious institutions I have certainly learned to appreciate the less prestigious institution where I currently work. There, for one thing, no one assumes that a colleague who is not in the office on days he is not teaching is waisting time “playing with his kids”. So Slaughter is right to say that something about the way we as a society value time and labour would have to change in order for fewer women to shy away from demanding careers, and for the achievements of people who combine wage work with some form of family/care-giving commitment to be more easily recognized.

      But for me as someone not employed by the church, there is also something sad about hearing that things there are no better than anywhere else – somehow one would hope for commitments to fairness, justice, and self-examination to make a difference. Perhaps one of the specific issues in the church is that, back in the days before female ordination and dual-career couples, those churches that had married priests had a ready pool of informal female leaders. The wives of male clergy were an unpaid part of the package, involved in a great deal of activities (but of course always expected to subordinate their life choices to those of their husbands). So perhaps in some way churches are still struggling to adjust to a world where hiring a man no longer gives a congregation or diocese a man-woman package, but where gender balances have to be put together one individual at a time, and power relations are up for grabs.

      On a more cheerful note, having just left Russia after 6 months of studying the Russian Orthodox Church, where a priest’s maleness is still considered essential to his ability to present an image of Jesus, just being back in a small German village church and listening to a female pastor giving a sermon seems pretty good. At least where there is a rhetorical commitment to equality, there is also a lever to claim some real work toward equality.

  3. Ellen, I admire your grit as a clergywoman. Friends at seminary advised me to become ordained, as the only way to have any voice or “authority” in the church, but #1 I hadn’t a call to the priesthood and #2 I wouldn’t have lasted six months having to bite my tongue at all the overt and covert dimensions of male clerical privilege in the Church.

    As someone who came of “feminist age” in the 1970s, I admit I’m discouraged by the ongoing domination of male voices in academia, the media, politics, the church etc.

  4. A few years ago we had this problem at SFU in the selection of Canada Research Chairs; big long term government grants to leading scholars. I was chair of the Appointments Committee and we were supposed to review and approve the various departments’ nominees who were all men. Reviewing other unuversities’ appointments, I could see we were really at variance because other universities averaged a third women, and York was achieving half women.

    We were told: (1) the women candidates so far hadn’t been as good; and (2) the imbalance would be addressed the next year (as I discovered it was supposed to have been addressed that year). Long story short: I assembled a majority on the commIttee; we blocked the latest man’s nomination; we said we would approve no more till we saw some women coming through. To his credit, VP John Waterhouse supPorted us, and only the president of the faculty association (a woman) opposed our initiative.

    The next year there were plenty of competent women who were suddenly found to be good candidates. Go figure!

    Of course, I have never since been nominated for the Appointments Committee. Go figure.

  5. The numbers do indeed tell the story. But if you’re like me, and attend Christ Church, there is a strong institutional female presence, and so one tends to forget that elsewhere, the picture is not so rosy; a case of my not looking over the fence and out of the garden, I suppose. I know of one other parish where the incumbent is male and married, and it’s simply assumed that his wife will share the ministry with him. Of course, it isn’t a real sharing, in the sense of divided responsibilities (and payment for carrying out of same), but my sense of that congregation is, that that is indeed how they view it: the incumbent’s wife, and the various committees and groups, largely staffed by female parishioners, give the parish enough female “representation.” So the issue is not whether women are involved, but whether they are institutionally and systemically full partners, and, as I say, the situation at Christ Church, to some extent, has made it easy for me not to see the issue. I would say: stay angry, for now at least.

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