This week I’m excited to be part of the “blog tour” for There’s a Woman in the Pulpit, an anthology of writing by women clergy about being women clergy. And it’s a delightful book, with women from a wide swath of Christian denominations holding forth on everything from bedbugs in the parish library to high heels in the pulpit. I am grateful never to have dealt with bedbugs at my parish and I’d sooner crawl on broken glass than wear high heels, much less on a Sunday. But that’s what’s so lovely about the book—it’s like hanging out with friends. Some are older, some are younger. We are all shades of LGBTQ and some are straight (actually I’m not sure if there are any transwomen represented). Not the same as me, but also so much the same.
I grew up in an Episcopal Church in which I never realized until much later that women’s ordination had been a struggle: “Pastor Kay” came when I was in fifth or sixth grade. But it was a parish that never used inclusive language, so whatever the gender of the person at the altar, the wider church’s commitment to ur- patriarchy was not in doubt. I do remember the fracas that ensued when “Pastor Kay” tried to switch her title to “Mother Kay.” Reading the book, I found myself nodding along with women clergy who have been mistaken for the secretary, who are looked at as though they have two heads when they talk about their clergy spouse and “preacher kids” x2 (“How does that work?”). I can relate and am grateful for these women who so graciously can explain the shimmering abyss of transcendence that is this strange vocation. And I am profoundly grateful to be among their tribe.
“Should” we need a book like this? “Should” we be surprised that we have so much in common? “Should” it still be remarkable to have a woman in the pulpit? Of course not. And if “There’s a Woman in the Pulpit” included the voices of faithful Roman Catholic or Orthodox lay women, it would be a different collection. Would a book ever make it off a shelf if it were edited to include pieces about people who own red couches or have named their children “Isaiah?” I doubt it. Gender is as socially constructed and random a category as any of these. But the fact is that the dominant American culture can be toxic to women. My daughter won’t face the risk of acid attack or kidnapping when she goes to school, but she will still figure out her male peers are judged as “leaders” while she’s just bossy. Or, as contributor Rev. Kathryn Johnston put it, there are advantages to being on “Team Penis.”
Are we pastors or women pastors? Priests or women priests?
Yes, yes. Ten years into my work at my church outside of Boston, those who were a little worried about having a woman as their priest are over it. We get on with things, do the work. I remember a line of some postmodern theorist (Foucault, maybe? Probably) about gender and sexuality to the effect that “you don’t know the sex of the hand that touches you in the night.” And surely that is true of the hand that touches the forehead of the unconscious at the bedside. The grace of God is mediated through human bodies, but isn’t gendered in God’s own nature.
I’ve written about gender a lot in this blog—even 15 years after graduating with my degree in gender studies, it still organizes my thinking. Maybe when my daughter is my age the fact that her mother was in a book about the experiences of women as clergy it will seem like a strange artifact. This book, like all the ways we tell our stories, brings us further to the new day when we won’t need it.