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A Church of Her Own: What Happens When a Woman Takes the Pulpit Hardcover – April 14, 2008
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From Publishers Weekly
Ordained women pose a revolutionary challenge to traditional Christian beliefs about God and male-female relationships. Virulent and ingrained discrimination against these pioneers thrives in many Christian denominations. So argues Sentilles (Taught by America), a former aspirant to ordained ministry in the Episcopal Church. After interviewing Protestant (and, to a much lesser extent, Catholic) women of diverse denominations, races, ages and ordination status, Sentilles contends that sexism is woven through Christian practice, distorting everything from worship to creeds to human relationships. Fueled by empathy and appreciation for the women whose stories she narrates, deep disillusionment with the established church and a search for meaning in the wreckage of her own vocational discernment process, the volume is alternately sobering, deeply disturbing and hopeful. It is unclear, however, whether the writer bothered to converse with those who might have challenged the inevitably one-sided perspective of the women she portrays as victims. The book is also marred by the author's polemical tone and personal agenda, which often make it read more like a crusade than an analysis. (Apr.)
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"Hauntingly eloquent."Janie Victoria Ward, author of The Skin We're In
Top customer reviews
Turns out, writing the book was healing for her. In the final pages, she comes to realize her interviews with the women for this book have washed over her soul and made her long to be accepted or requested by a congregation. Her bitterness turns to grief. I was sorry she hadn't spent more time on this discovery, less on all the negative aspects of women in ministry. (I do know women who are serving, loving it, but have also had frustrations. That seems rather typical, I think.)
This was not the kind of book I was expecting when I bought it. Often I wondered how young this author was--her contemporaries were women in their 20s. And, I'm sure it is hard to receive respect when one is a woman, that young, and as some of her friends did, look and act so contemporary that some might have thought they still belonged on a college campus.
Still, she is a fabulous writer (or she has a fantastic editor, or both). She's obviously done tons of research that's invaluable. For years I struggled to find something contemporary on the shelf about women in the ministry... so a book like this was/is sorely needed.
The slant is overtly liberal and gives ample space to the disenfranchised (gay/lesbian/transgendered/etc.). I did feel much compassion for, and learned more about those who are frustrated because the traditional church will not ordain them, yet God is calling them to serve in some meaningful way.
I totally "get" the inclusive language she talks about. I'm a Cady Stanton fan, sat through many women's studies classes--yet I can't say that I have as strong of a revulsion to the male-only language (Father, Son, etc.). Although I do love the NRSV and the fact that it uses "brothers and sisters"!
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.
by Susan Ideus
for Story Circle Book Reviews
reviewing books by, for, and about women
This book was a fantastic read as I began my ordination process and helped me further articulate my own call and claim my own ways of being in ministry. It also helped me consider the role of the institution church and ordination in ways that even divinity school had not previously asked of me. It offered me the support I needed as I was making some important decisions regarding my ordination. I have chosen to continue towards ordination but with a new understanding of what it means and how I define it.
I strongly recommend this book to other young women who are attempting to follow their call to ministry as well as any who hope to make the church a more relevant, creative, just, and inviting place.