Prejudice and discrimination is alive and well in our society and, unfortunately, it also flourishes in the Church where it makes many people into victims. In my mind, this is the one institution where we should be able to operate freely without prejudice and discrimination – where ministers of the Gospel should be victors instead. We should be accepted in the Church just as Jesus accepted all people, especially women, during his earthly ministry.
In my positions as a municipal employee, I encountered some initial hostility by the men I worked with until I proved myself worthy. In both positions, I was holding jobs for which I had no previous experience and for which I had not been formally trained. In one case the job I was hired to do was unique and I had been hired in a pay grade that had always been for a highly technical position, so some skepticism was understandable. In both cases, once I showed I was capable and more than willing to learn and to pull my weight, I was accepted and respected.
In my experience as an ordained woman in the Episcopal Church, I found such acceptance to be spotty at best, mostly conditional, and at the worst, just the opposite. Generally speaking, I was neither totally accepted nor respected by the majority of people I worked with or the members to whom I ministered.
In the ordination process, I found people in positions of authority over me and my standing within the process, as well as people in the pews, who fell into five general categories:
- Totally accepting and supportive – These were few and far between and they tended to be people who either blindly supported the equality of women in every facet of life or those who had thoughtfully and prayerfully considered the ordination of women and come to the conclusion that it was part of God’s plan for the Church. They also tended to be vocal in their acceptance and in their support of individual women whom they thought were suitable for ordination.
- Accepted the idea but with reservations – There were many good church people who wouldn’t dream of being prejudiced against women or any other group and so they called themselves supporters of women’s ordination. They were inwardly unsure of the wisdom of upsetting the Church’s traditional heirarchy and of their own comfort zone with women functioning in a traditional male role on a spiritual level.
- Accepted the person’s qualifications but not the concept of women in ordained ministry – These people often were heard to say, after an encounter with an ordained woman, “I don’t think much of the ordination of women, but Xxxxx Xxxxx is OK.”
- Rejected the idea of women’s ordination, but were open to change – These were also thoughtful and prayerful churchpeople who just were not able to accept a female in spiritual authority or were uncomfortable with women functioning as priests (celebrating the Eucharist, absolving sins, and pronouncing God’s blessing, etc) but were willing to discuss it rationally – at least most of the time.
- Totally rejected the possibility that women could function as priests – Many in this category were hostile, either openly or passive-aggressively and most refused to accept a woman’s ordination as valid. There were many clergy in this category and there still are a good number of Episcopal clergy who will refuse to accept communion from a woman.
During my journey through the ordination process, I encountered some of all of the above categories. The most difficult to deal with were the people who had no rational reason for rejecting women as priests; they just couldn’t “deal with it.” I found many women in this category. Their questions were many times strident and pointed: “Why can’t you do ministry in the church as a lay person like I do?” “Why do you feel like you have to be ordained?” “Who will take care of your child while you’re in seminary or running out in the middle of the night for pastoral emergencies?”
Have you encountered these folks in your own journey? Have you been hurt by such thoughtless words, even when uttered by a friend or family member? Have you dealt with clergy and bishops who could not accept your call or your ordained status? Write to me with your experiences – I’ve found some healing in sharing such moments with others and I have found ways to co-exist with the prejudice and discrimination of women clergy in the church.
Also, stay tuned for my eBook entitled “Lady Father: How I Overcame Outrageous Discrimination in the Church,” in which I detail my experiences, good and bad, as a priest of the Church and how I moved from “Victim” to “Victor.”
Susan Bowman, is an ordained Episcopal Priest, a Grandmother, and a Professional Writer. She was ordained as an Episcopal priest in 1986 and has a story to tell that will speak to all women who are functioning in a traditionally male role. She is writing a book about her experiences of discrimination within the church’s ordination process and in the parishes she served. Sign up for her “Announcement List” to keep track of the book’s progress and to be notified when the book is published. Click here to enter contact information securely.