The Role of Women in Church Essay Sample

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Introduction of TOPIC


The bodies and behavior of human beings are interpreted through historical, ideological processes that divide our experiences along racial and gender lines. Because we are immersed in these ideologies, they often seem inevitable and immutable. However, at moments of profound social change, “gender” and “race” emerge as unstable signs. This infusion of the cult of manhood into the training of preachers marks a shift in the tradition. Prior to the nineteenth century, homileticians argue that preachers should concern themselves with personal piety, since their behavior provided a mirror for their words. Augustine established the homiletic practice of arguing that the preacher should be a good man, because his life choices and character were a powerful witness to his congregation. Throughout the history of the art of preaching, the status of the preacher is not in question; Augustine argues that God can speak even through a preacher whose motives and life are ungodly. The people will listen because the preacher is a member of the clergy, sanctioned by the institution of the Church to speak to them about their eternal salvation.

Women as Preachers in Churches

The preaching manuals assume the preacher’s cultural status: they focus on the selection of texts, the arrangement of sermons, and the style of preaching. They divide the sermon into five parts: the exordium (or introduction), the explication of the text, the application of the message, the appeal for repentance, and the conclusion. In the eighteenth century, faculty psychology is imported into lectures on preaching to help the preacher analyze the mind of the sinner. The preacher is considered an unquestioned authority; his sermons are based in divine truth and are delivered in deductive form, applying the truth to the lives of individuals.

Preaching as a Public Sphere and Not a Gendered Issue

In the United States and Great Britain, the mid-nineteenth century was a period of reinvestment in the masculinity of white male citizens. Ordained ministers were regarded as part of the overall leadership structure for both nations, and therefore the overall movement toward shoring up the normative gendered behavior of male citizens also reached them. Bederman argues that American culture maintains a troubling association between masculinity, race, and civilization, with the power of white men equated with nationhood.  (Bederman, 1995) Women’s bodies are associated with natural inferiority and reproductive functions, and their confinement to the private spheres of community has been predicated in part on their sexual difference. Because preaching primarily occurs in the public sphere, women have long been banned from participation. (Allen, 1943)

 Indeed, religion has been an important site for the disciplining of women’s bodies; every Catholic girl who was asked to kneel so that a nun could check her skirt length understands this point implicitly. World religions enforce chastity through restrictions on the bodies of women—where they can go, with whom they can associate, what they can say, and what they can wear in private and public. Medieval Christian mystic Margery Kempe is an especially interesting case precisely because she reports breaking so many rules of travel, clothing, and association while justifying these transgressions through divine revelation (Glenn, 1997). When women preachers have challenged these same restrictions, they have risked banishment or death.

Remarkably, despite these risks women preachers have emerged persistently throughout the history of Christianity. Their presence has most often coincided with the founding of new religious movements, when greater egalitarianism marks the movement as set apart from established religious traditions. An early example of this pattern occurred among the followers of Peter Valdes, who began a lay movement around 1173 in France. Known as Waldensians, Valdes’s followers apparently included a number of women. They sought the approval of Pope Alexander III, who offered his support of their lifestyle while cautioning them not to preach without authorization. The Waldensians refused to submit to the Catholic Church, arguing as Protestants did centuries later that God could be known by laypersons outside the hierarchies of the church through direct revelation. “After the preaching every day feasting splendidly; almost every night we were choosing new lovers” (Kienzle, 1998). In this example, it is especially noteworthy that Geoffroy focuses his attention on sins of the body: women speaking in public in ways threatening to authorities are often accused of promiscuity. If women are found outside the private domain engaging in activities considered inappropriate for their sex, authorities surmise that their bodies are engaged in other unchaste activities as well.

Historical perspective of Women’s Role in Church

This pattern repeats itself throughout history, although in some periods—for example, during the Inquisition in Europe—women were so persecuted for any public activities, or indeed any nonconforming private activities, that they engaged in preaching at great risk. The Inquisition began as an effort of the Roman Catholic Church to rein in its bishops and priests and thereby regain religious control over Europe. After the eleventh century, popes sought to enforce priestly celibacy, sending preachers into villages to preach “frightening sermons about the evils and dangers of female sexuality, calling the clergy to celibacy, and placing before them the choice of either losing their positions and livings or renouncing their mistresses and wives” (Torjesen, 1995). Their rhetorical strategy was to denounce women’s bodies as innately evil, the conduits of sin and damnation.

Despite the efforts of male church authorities to suppress women preachers, women have found spaces from which to preach throughout history. Indeed, in her study of more than one hundred women who preached between 1740 and 1845 in America, Brekus discovered that most women preachers who left records were isolated and unaware of other women like themselves. There were two key reasons for this historical amnesia. (Brekus 1998)

When new religious movements became formal denominations, historians erased the contributions of foremothers. Forefathers of the movement who left memoirs were more charitable, and it is primarily through study of their papers that feminist historians have discovered the existence of women preachers. The case of Methodism has been well documented (Chilcote, 1991). John Wesley appointed women as deacons and itinerant preachers in the early years of the movement, but when the Wesleyan Methodists became a formal denomination in the early nineteenth century, clergymen voted against allowing women to preach under any circumstances, and church authorities wrote histories that agreed with this perspective. The result is that such important Methodist preachers as Grace Murray, Sarah Crosby, Elizabeth Ritchie, and Mary Bosanquet were erased from public memory. A second problem is that secular feminists have preferred to recuperate secular foremothers rather than study women who, no matter how pioneering they were, preached a message that could not always be squared with contemporary feminism. Avoidance of religious subjects, no matter how important to cultural history, has prevailed in the humanities for much of the twentieth century, and feminist scholars are no exception to this practice.

In a review of all the literature on working conditions for American Protestant clergywomen, Mark Chaves agrees, arguing that ordination rights for clergywomen are sometimes little more than institutional window dressing. He points out that the majority of Protestant denominations voted for ordination rights in response to “normative pressures emerging from the denomination’s cultural environment” (Chavez, 1997)and not out

of appreciation for clergywomen’s innate value to the organization, a situation that remained

unchanged at the end of the twentieth century.

Nevertheless, women are effecting some change in their denominations through ordained leadership, and a few women are beginning to break through to higher levels of their denomination’s hierarchy. Feminist scholars in theology, homiletics, and folklore have explored some of the theological perspectives and metaphors in the sermons of these clergywomen. This work suggests the importance of women’s preaching for the future of Protestant Christianity, especially in the articulation of a theology that includes the full range of human experience.

Sacred Rhetorical Space: The Pulpit and Gender Hierarchies

Pastors and preachers have a real authority from God to rule. But a woman is not to have authority over men, and so a woman could not be a pastor of a church, or a preacher of the gospel, in the ordinary sense. (Rice, 1941) The recurring trope of location in this passage is worth noting: “A woman’s place was to be taught. A woman’s place was to be silent. A woman’s place was to be in subjection.” (Rice, 1941) The trope is such a familiar part of the ideology of gender roles that we overlook its spatial dimensions. To have one’s place be silence makes no sense unless we imagine silence attached to a rhetorical situation that necessarily involves material space: a woman sitting silently in a church pew while a man preaches. The trope of place makes social position and physical location interchangeable.

Despite the astonishing number of women who have preached in spite of injunctions against them, (Rebecca. 1999) the idea that “woman’s place” is not in the pulpit has had surprising resonance throughout the centuries, particularly in fundamentalist, Catholic, and other conservative Christian sects. Even groups who relaxed literal enforcements of Paul’s injunctions have had a tendency to withdraw them. Despite the history of women evangelists beginning with Susanna Wesley, the Methodists voted to prevent women from preaching in their pulpits at the beginning of the nineteenth century, an event that is portrayed in Adam Bede. At the time of this writing, the Southern Baptists have voted on an article of faith limiting the office of preacher to men, despite the fact that their seminaries have been ordaining women preachers. (Lieblich, 2000) Since Southern Baptist Convention representatives voted in 1998 to adopt language reinforcing gender hierarchy in marriage, this move is consistent with their reinforcement of conservative gender ideologies.

The trope “a woman’s place” suggests how persistently gender hierarchies are associated with geography. Throughout history and across cultures, women have been excluded from certain sacred places. Women were banned from all but the outer courtyard in the temple of Jerusalem, and Orthodox congregations continue to practice the mechitzah, or ritual separation of the sexes. (Manning, 1999) In ancient Hawaiian culture, women were prohibited from entering a range of social spaces.

In the United States, this extreme form of segregation is more commonly associated with Jim Crow laws and racism than with gender bias. Nevertheless, in Christianity throughout the Western world, sacred areas of churches have traditionally been off-limits to women of any rank. In Roman Catholic churches prior to Vatican II (1963), women were prohibited from entering the sacristy (the location of the altar, pulpit, and the host) except to perform domestic chores; for this reason, there were no altar girls in Roman Catholic churches until the 1960s. In many Protestant faiths, women were seated separately from the men; for example, the Quakers and Puritans located women in separate sections of the nave. In Anglican churches in England, the separation of the sexes has been theorized as the reason for the varying locations of pulpits.

Feminism and Liturgical Churches

Feminist and postcolonial geographers have long noted that women, racial “Others, ” and the poor live—literally—on the borderlands, “across the tracks, ” as it were, from the kapu, the sacred or privileged people. In fact, it is geographies that often tell where each are located in the cultural hierarchies that interested Claude Lévi-Strauss. But from the eye of a person outside of the sphere, these geographies often seem arbitrary.

In liturgical churches, the priests wear vestments (long robes, over which they wear ornate clerical stoles) that are meant to highlight their authority and office. Deacons and lesser officials often wear robes of subtly different design, not unlike the system of academic garments in colleges and universities. To burn the vestments of a priest is to symbolically destroy the priest’s authority. In Breadsall and Clevedon, women trespassed on the spaces set aside for men, a dramatic form of protest that illustrates the connection between gender and space. (Nesbitt, 1997) So while we may never know what was preached from the pulpits at Breadsall and Clevedon as well as the many other churches that were picketed in 1914, it is clear that for the suffragists who participated in the bombings, gender hierarchies were being enforced from and/or represented by the pulpit? Burning the magnificent pulpit at Breadsall, painstakingly recreated with bench-ends from the sixteenth century, was an act of trespass upon male authority. Of course, such symbolic trespasses always are met with outrage by those who endow with meaning the “micro-adjustments” of the objects and creatures in sacred space. (Glenn, 1995) Churches, like all sacred spaces, are designed to embody—and produce—particular religious beliefs, in part by acting as a stage for the rituals involved.

Celebrations of women’s entrance into the churches occur in isolated pockets of denominational organizations, while most clergywomen continue to experience the reassertion of traditional gender roles or outright resistance. Churches where women have won over their congregations re relatively rare; movement from smaller to larger churches over time, the traditional path of clergymen’s ministries, is rarer still. At the same time, young men are no longer entering the ministry in the liberal churches in strong numbers, a process of feminization that has tended to downgrade the prestige of the profession. In citing this data, Nesbitt writes:

As long as greater social esteem resides with male gender attribution, and where religious organizations do not have a surplus of economic resources, membership likely will remain politically hesitant to entrust women with positions of power and leadership, despite historical and contemporary evidence that women have capably built congregational memberships and improved their financial circumstances. (Schell, 1997)

Pastor Janet and Reverend Barb both greatly improved the financial health of their churches, and Reverend Barb also increased membership more than tenfold. Pat now leads her own small church, where she has maintained a steady membership. Nevertheless, in the larger context, Nesbitt argues, preference for male leadership of churches is an intractable structural problem: “While the exodus of young men from the ordained ministry and priesthood has been strongly lamented over the last decade 1980—90, nowhere has the arrival of women clergy been celebrated” (Nesbitt, 1997). Indeed, no celebration attended the arrival of Pat, Reverend Barb, and Pastor Janet: they were not the first choice of their congregations.

Indeed, gender lies at the nexus of culture and personal identity, making changes in structural conditions a threatening prospect for both religious organizations and individual parishioners. Given generations of backlash against women preachers, it is not surprising that as more women seek ordination, religious organizations such as the Southern Baptist Convention and the Episcopal Church are breaking or weakening protections against gender discrimination in the local churches. As Nesbitt points out, liberation theologies (including feminist, womanist, and mujeristas) challenge the nature of authority, including the link between male status and clerical authority. But real transformation will not come until this link has been broken. Until then, “women remain either exploited or expendable” in religious organizations. (Nesbitt 1997)


Women preachers throughout history have fought against the presumption of male authority and status in Christian life by claiming that God was not bound by human institutions and could speak through anyone. Nevertheless, even churches founded by women eventually discouraged women’s ordination, usually after the death of their founders. America has not invested in the idea that civilization can be built around women leaders. Nesbitt argues that secular organizations that have been feminized, that is, have been evacuated by men and populated by women, quickly lose status, so that even after their occupational presence has become accepted, women do not receive the respect and economic benefits that once accrued to their male counterparts. Such has been the case with teaching.

Those who study gender and culture find the connection between masculinity, leadership, and national life intractable. Indeed, Johnson asks, poignantly, Feminists and womanists who have studied women ministers are optimistic that their increased presence will begin to transform the association of white heterosexual manhood and the public sphere. Since religion has been the foundation upon which character—including instrumental assumptions about gender roles—has been built, women ministers have an important opportunity to redefine cultural assumptions that make “a good man” someone to emulate and a good woman someone to marry. Women preachers have much to teach us about alternative models for theological purpose, audience construction, and rhetorical performance; they also offer us a glimpse into the movements available to a rhetor whose place has not been inscribed in sacred space.


Allen, Arthur. The Art of Preaching. New York: Philosophical Library, 1943.

Bederman, Gail. Manliness and Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States, 1880 —1917. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1995.

Brekus, Catherine A. Strangers and Pilgrims: Female Preaching in America, 1740 —1845. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1998.

Chaves, Mark. Ordaining Women: Culture and Conflict in Religious Organizations. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1997.

Chilcote, Paul Wesley. John Wesley and the Women Preachers of Early Methodism. Diss. Duke University, 1984. ATLA Monograph Series 25.Metuchen, NJ: American Theological Library Assn., 1991.

Glenn, Cheryl. “Remapping Rhetorical Territory.” Rhetoric Review 13 (1995): 287—303.

Glenn, Cheryl. Rhetoric Retold: Regendering the Tradition from Antiquity Through the Renaissance. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1997.

Kienzle, Beverly Mayne, and Pamela J. Walker, eds. Women Preachers and Prophets Through Two Millennia of Christianity. Berkeley: U of California P, 1998.

Lieblich, Julia. “Southern Baptists Retreat on Allowing Female Pastors.” Arizona Daily Star 15 June 2000: A6.

Manning, Christel J. God Gave Us the Right: Conservative Catholic, Evangelical Protestant, and Orthodox Jewish Women Grapple with Feminism. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 1999.

Nesbitt, Paula D. Feminization of the Clergy in America: Occupational and Organizational Perspectives. New York: Oxford UP, 1997.

Rebecca, Larson. Daughters of Light: Quaker Women Preaching and Prophesying in the Colonies and Abroad, 1700—1775. New York: Knopf, 1999.

Schell, Eileen E. Gypsy Academics and Mother-Teachers: Gender, Contingent Labor, and Writing Instruction. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook, 1997.

Southern, R. W. Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages. New York: Penguin, 1970.

Torjesen, Karen Jo. When Women Were Priests: Women’s Leadership in the Early Church and the Scandal of Their Subordination in the Rise of Christianity. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1995.

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