For millions of American churchgoers, ordained women are old news. Mainline denominations like the United Church Of Christ and the Episcopal Church USA have been putting women in official ministerial positions for decades. But as Sarah Sentilles reveals in her poignant study A Church Of Her Own: What Happens When A Woman Takes The Pulpit, familiarity hasn't necessarily meant equality. Even in the most liberal churches, the challenge of a female minister divides congregations and uncovers deep ambivalence about gender and religion. Sentilles, at one time an aspiring Episcopal priest, talked to dozens of women who sought ordination, in churches from the far left to the far right. Some stuck it out, some found other ways to minister; nearly all have frightening stories to tell. While the book is aimed at an ecclesiastical audience, the conclusions it draws about the uncertain future of feminism resonate beyond the church walls.
Many of the women profiled weren't prepared for the level of sexism they encountered in the churches they served. Often, they started their careers as associate pastors, working under a male superior. Instead of getting their fair share of chances to preach and lead, they were relegated to what Sentilles terms "pink-collar ministry," like children's programs or pastoral care. If they failed to be as nurturing or caring as the congregation expected, it wasn't received as a failure by a particular minister—it was a failure by an entire gender. Ministers who got pregnant found that their congregations were disturbed by their bodily presence at the altar, as if their obvious fecundity took away from the spirituality of the moment. Males were treated as gender-neutral, while females bore the brunt of the label "woman priest" and were judged on completely different standards. Sentilles delves into the even more uncomfortable topics, like lesbian ministers, those undergoing sexual reassignment, and Catholicism's stubborn refusal to contemplate the ordination of women.
The book's style will put off many readers. Sentilles writes without irony of call, discernment, incarnation, and the like, making the experience of reading akin to joining a women's spirituality group. But bursting through her seminarian-speak are the angry, resigned, self-loathing, passionate, and above all diverse voices of the women whose portraits she sketches. By the end of her love letter to a church that let her down, Sentilles has rendered her opponents' arguments absurd and irrelevant. The answer to women's equality may not lie in a religious tradition rooted in patriarchy, but there's something inspiring about Sentilles' refusal to cede the field of religion to those old, destructive ways.