An article in the Washington Post On Faith section in response to their question: Women are not allowed to become clergy in many conservative religious groups. Is it hypocritical to think that a woman can lead a nation and not a congregation?
On matters of women in the church, it’s time to take the lead from women themselves. To date, the lore and history of organized religion, not to mention the career of priest and preacher, has belonged to men. But what do women want? Contradictory ideas can be held at the same time. In politics, most female voters tell pollsters that they are in broad sympathy with feminist goals: equal pay, opportunity at executive jobs, the right to control their own bodies. Yet so-called security moms put Bush over the top in the past two elections, and the unexpected popularity of Sarah Palin suggests that social conservatism, combined with spunk and dedication to one’s family, fits the mold of a reformer.
In religion the contradictions are even stronger. The image of women in Christianity grew from Eve: temptress, sinner, fleshly, and disobedient. Yet at the same time the natural role of wives and mothers has always been nurturing and loving. It has taken centuries to unravel the knot that ties women to prejudiced, outworn roles that few want to play today. In the Middle Ages a martyred woman was a saint, now she simply possesses low self-esteem and puts up with abuse. Seduction and temptation lose their sinful connotation once sex becomes mutual between the two sexes and a natural response that deserves no shame or guilt. We tend to regard peace as a feminine quality. Yet conservative devout women, especially in fundamentalist denominations, often turn out to be supporters of the Iraq war and violence against abortion clinics.
It’s against this tangled web of values that the question of a woman as President or a woman as clergy exists. From the outside, it may seem a natural step for Episcopalians, traditionally the most liberal of Protestants, to allow women bishops, yet this is one of the chief causes for a bitter rift in the faith. Women priests in the Catholic church, again from the outside, seems like an innocuous reform. But to the Church’s hierarchy, it spells a tear in the fabric of tradition and male authority going back to Peter, founder of the faith. Electing a woman to be President is a progressive reform that has been a long time coming. It would strengthen the country and make our democracy more honest — as it is, women are grossly under-represented in Congress. Women in the clergy is also a much overdue reform, but one can’t equate it with politics. In conservative churches, a worldview is at stake, and in that worldview white male dominance has been the rule. Therefore, to a strict conservative, one can’t break rules simply to be fair.
I am making these points because the question of women in the clergy seems like a slam dunk; one can hardly imagine why any woman would be against it. Yet we cannot imagine why young Turkish women are fervent about bringing back the veil, or why the burqa should exist in the first place. Culture and tradition are as conflicted and entangled as human nature itself.
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