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Austin Chronicle Women of the Cloth

By Cristina Smith

JANUARY 20, 1998:  In fourth grade, I got to do something that no other girl in my school had ever done before. I got to be an altar girl. It was a Catholic parochial school, and we kids had to go to Mass every morning before school. Yes, every morning. That's Monday through Friday, and then, of course, on Sundays with the family. For years, I watched Father say the Mass while the white-and-black cassocked boys stood by to assist.

When I was a fourth-grade nothing, I asked Father X the million dollar question: "Why can't girls be altar boys?" I don't remember the response, (maybe because it was some drawn-out historical explanation sure to make a 10-year-old snooze), and I don't remember exactly what happened next, but I do know that one fine morning, not too long after, another female classmate and myself donned the fabled cassocks and proceeded down the aisle with Father and two other altar boys. Ever since then, girls have been altar servers at that church. While I certainly don't purport to be the sole instigator of such a change in the church's tradition, I do believe what I said reflected a feeling of inequality that many women of all ages have felt (and still do feel) not just about church, but about life.

Here in the United States, we live in a patriarchal society. Look up patriarchy in the dictionary. There's no question about it; we're in it. Legally, of course, women are supposed to have equal rights. But laws don't change the attitudes and ingrained ideals of American culture. In a traditional marriage, for example, a woman is given by her father to her husband-to-be, and she is expected to change her name. How many men out there would be so willing -- or so eager -- to do the same? Not too many, I bet.

The way some people feel about men changing their names is how others feel about women in the ministry. Fundamentalists believe it clearly goes against Scripture and against God's will, even though most denominations today ordain women. The debate over women in the ministry stems from different Scriptural interpretations. Fundamentalists believe that the Bible means exactly what it says. For example, opponents of women in the clergy often cite the following passage as evidence of God's intentions:

"Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law. And if they will learn anything, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church." -- I Corinthians 14:34-35

Pam Rivera knows that Bible quote well, but she also knows something else. She knows God has called her to preach, and she won't let anyone tell her otherwise.

"It's never been a problem for me because I'm sure of who I am," says the Austinite about being a woman preacher. "I don't feel like I have to prove myself to anyone." Rivera grew up in the African Methodist Episcopal church, and has been preaching at Grant AME Church in East Austin for six years.

"Sometimes I get a negative reaction from men, especially male ministers of other denominations," she says. They quote some Scripture passages, she says, but forget about other ones. Rivera says she believes in a literal Bible, but that it is an understanding of the entire Bible, not just certain quotes, that holds the message. "If we did understand everything," she says, "there would be no need for faith."

Biblical interpretation divides many Christians. For example, most Baptists believe in a literal Bible, says the Rev. Sue Enoch, associate pastor of education and administration at Highland Park Baptist Church in west Austin. Having the freedom to interpret Scripture non-literally is one thing that sets apart Enoch's congregation from other Baptist churches.

Rev. Sue Enoch, associate pastor of education and administration at Highland Park Baptist Church in West Austin
photograph by Kenny Braun

"Scripture, though inspired and true, is also a product of its culture," says Enoch, who says she uses Scripture as a guide, but interprets it in context. Enoch does not believe that women are to remain silent in the churches and, like most, if not all, women ministers, Enoch says she believes she is doing God's will.

"I have to be faithful to what I believe," says Enoch, "I have never thought that God didn't call me."

Enoch's Scriptural philosophy falls in line with that of other denominations such as Methodist, Lutheran, and Presbyterian, which teach a critical/historical interpretation. This approach looks at what was happening in the world when the Bible was written and takes that into consideration when interpreting passages.

Take the time of Christ, for instance. It was chaotic and revolutionary, says Barbara Ruth, senior pastor at Oak Hill United Methodist Church. As people converted from Judaism to Christianity, they needed stability and order. What they needed was rules. Women's silence was one such rule created for the rapidly changing church. But over the years those rules became laws, and continued well into the 20th century.

"You can't keep the spirit and intellectual gifts of women completely cloistered," Ruth says. "I believe that it is the work of the Holy Spirit in our time," she says. "It's a breath of fresh air, a new spirit, that has been able to ordain women."

Although some churches began ordaining women in the 1950s, the breath of fresh air for many women came in with the feminist movement of the Seventies. Even fourth-grade Catholic school girls in the late Seventies were getting a whiff of the change.

"I know I wouldn't have had the opportunity to go into ministry without the political change of the era," says Ruth, a self-proclaimed feminist. "Having women in other professions, where they have authority, that has helped me." When people begin to see women leaders across various walks of life, she says, they begin to lose some of their stereotypes about what women can and cannot do. You'd Make a Great Pastor's Wife Back in the not-so-olden days, women in the church who displayed that special something were often told: "You'd make a great pastor's wife." Enoch says she recognized her calling as a teenager but was confused as to what that meant. Coincidentally, people kept telling her she would make a great pastor's wife. But Enoch says she knew God was calling her to something more.

"I didn't start doing ministry to prove women could do it," Enoch says. "I started to do it because that's who I am."

It wasn't until the early Seventies, however, that Enoch really understood the gender barriers. Then in her mid-20s, Enoch went to a religious conference, hoping to get recognition for her years of church service. "The basic bottom line was -- there was no room for women." She says one man pulled her aside and said, "You must be mistaken, Sue, God would never call you to this." Enoch says she was shocked. "That's when I understood that gender made a difference."

Even though many women have been told that their gender rendered them incapable of answering their calling, little by little, women have ignored those social messages, spurred on by their convictions. But the perseverance didn't necessarily come out of an overt feminist consciousness.

"I'm not concerned about me being a woman," says Beth Marie Halvorsen, associate pastor at Shepherd of the Hills Lutheran Church in Westlake. "I'm concerned about the Gospel." Though Halvorsen says she holds feminist beliefs and is a strong advocate of women, it is not her motivating factor. She says she wants everyone to be able to follow their callings, whatever they are.

Halvorsen says she remembers a childhood calling to ministry. She was at a church function, and everyone was asked to give their own mini-sermon. Afterward someone said to her, "Too bad you're a girl because that's the best sermon I've ever heard." She didn't realize the significance until later, Halvorsen said. Her sophomore year in college, she was given an assignment titled, "Where do you see yourself 20 years from now?" Halvorsen was then dating a man studying to be a pastor. She said she suddenly realized, "I didn't want to be the pastor's wife -- I wanted to be the pastor."

Helen Osmund, communications director for the Diocese of Austin
photograph by Kenny Braun

The History of Ordination

Although branches of some denominations still deny women ordination rights, most faiths allow women in positions that used to be "male-only." The Methodist and Presbyterian churches first ordained women in 1956; Baptists, Lutherans, and Episcopals followed suit over the next 20 years. In the Jewish faith, the Reform branch has been ordaining women rabbis since the Seventies and the Conservative branch since 1985. Although altar girls have made the cut, the Catholic Church is one of the few religions that still denies women ordination.

"As far as the Pope is concerned, it's a closed issue," says Helen Osmund, communications director for the Diocese of Austin. "The Vatican's position is that it's Scriptural. It has nothing to do with culture." The Catholic Church bases its stance on its 2,000-year-old history.

"For the Catholic Church, the Eucharist is essential," Osmund says. Catholicism centers around the consecration, when the bread and wine are turned into the body and blood of Christ. Granting women this power would directly contradict church teaching that the first priests were the 12 disciples, who happened to be men. Catholic faith teaches that priests are standing in for Christ, therefore it is not appropriate that a woman perform that role.

"It is frustrating sometimes," Osmund says, "especially when I look at my daughters and wonder whether they feel the church is listening to them."

Charlene O'Connell is the associate director of religious education for the Diocese. She says women in the Catholic Church should educate themselves and find other ways of being influential in the church.

"What we need is a conversation about a different kind of power that for many women, it doesn't really reside in the decisionmaking process, but in influence." She says plenty of women, especially locally, hold important church positions. Nonetheless, the bottom line is that women, by the simple fact of biology, are not allowed to be priests in the Catholic Church.

Some Catholic women end up leaving the faith for other denominations such as Episcopal or Anglican, O'Connell says. In those faiths, women are declared equally capable and worthy of performing the sacraments.

But not all Episcopals agree with women's ordination. In 1994, in my very own hometown, an entire parish converted to Catholicism -- for the first time in Texas history. The 100 parishioners of the then-Episcopal Church of St. Mary's in Arlington got permission to convert. The Rev. Hawkins of St. Mary's stated in a news article that the Episcopal Church was losing touch with its heritage, and he cited the acceptance of women and homosexual ministers. Hawkins said these changes were symbolic of a deeper problem with Episcopal faith: The Church was straying from its roots and making decisions based on trends instead of Biblical authority and tradition.

This goes to prove that just because the laws change, the attitudes often remain the same. Even in churches where women can be ministers and rabbis, reactions can sometimes be harsh. This is especially true for Baptists, where women pastors make up only one percent of the total pastors in Southern Baptist Convention, according to Enoch.

"We're still a rarity," says Enoch, who describes her road to the ministry as sometimes tough. There were people who hated her without even having met her, she says, for simply being a female pastor. Enoch explains people's negative reaction as resistance to change. "When you begin to mess with religion, you're messing with our values," she says. "People get angry, defensive." She says people begin to think: "If that's not right, then what about everything else?"

Elizabeth Dunkser, Austin's first woman rabbi and assistant rabbi at Temple Beth Israel
photograph by Kenny Braun

Austin's First

Not everyone reacts to change so severely. In fact, in the Reform Branch of Judaism, change is welcome, according to Rabbi Elizabeth Dunsker, Austin's first woman rabbi and assistant rabbi at Temple Beth Israel.

"My gender has not been that big a deal to my congregation," Dunsker says, explaining that the Reform Branch of Judaism is dynamic and open to change. She explains that Judaism is not just a religion, but a system of law, and that political change plays an important part in Jewish life.

"If Jews are not politically involved, we die," Dunsker says. Study and discussion are very important to the faith, and argument is encouraged, she says.

Even though Dunsker says she hasn't really had to fight battles other women have, there was something in her life that she targets as having a profound impact on her life's direction.

"I met a woman rabbi and she blew me away," Dunsker said. "She was the most intelligent person I had ever met in my life." Dunsker said she decided then to become a rabbi. "What it's taught me is how important role models are."

Lack of role models may be one reason why women of the cloth have had to fight so many social battles as well as inner ones. Many women in the past may have turned their backs on their callings for lack of encouragement. Because they didn't see any women doing it, they couldn't see themselves doing it.

"I grew up in a time when, if you were a little girl, and someone asked, 'What do you want to be when you grow up?' The three answers were: a mommy, a teacher, or a nurse. And that was it." Now, things are different, says Ruth. "My girls, they can answer anything. Nobody faints. Nobody says, 'Well, honey, that's not possible.'"

Back in the Seventies, Ruth attended seminary, where women comprised 10% of her class. "There were men in class with you who didn't believe women should be in ministry." She compares it to any other profession where women have had to prove their capabilities. "The initial reaction was, 'You don't belong here'." Now there are about 40-50% women in seminary, she says.

But even today, Ruth says eyebrows still raise when she tells people she is a pastor: "If you meet someone and are identified by profession, then there's still a sense that you're an oddity." Though the reactions may not be negative, she says, they can be bizarre.

Dunsker says she doesn't like to tell people her profession because they always react so strangely. One day she was visiting a congregation member at the hospital, and she parked in a clergy spot. Dunsker said someone yelled out, "That's a clergy parking spot!" She replied, "I am clergy!" The response was, "Don't look it!"

Black Jesus Syndrome

How we expect a priest, minister, pastor, and rabbi should look are based on experience and religious tradition. The Bible is full of masculine images. God is Father. Jesus is Son. The gospels are written by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. And we can't forget the 12 disciples. Religion affords a safe place for many people, and part of that safety comes from the familiarity of symbols, rituals and traditions. When those things get tampered with, people react.

In early spring, for example, the Parks Performing Arts Center in Union City, New Jersey, announced the casting of Desi Arnaz Giles to play Jesus in its 82nd annual Passion Play. Days later, some ticket subscribers called to cancel their orders. The young actor received death threats -- all because he was black.

Just as many white people get uncomfortable when you mention a black Jesus, so too do many Christians get when you mention a female God. A rigid attachment to a picture of what God or Jesus looks like can sometimes shadow the real meaning of who and what God is.

"If I use a male image, I counter it with a female image," Enoch of Highland Park Baptist says. We limit God with our language, she says. "God transcends all that. God is so much more than male or female, than mother or father.... Somehow, we've got to quit putting God in a box."

Enoch works for women's rights in the Baptist church. She says a friend calls her a pioneer, telling her that "the pioneers take all the arrows." Even though Enoch says she doesn't feel comfortable with that image, she recognizes not just the positive changes women have brought, but the battles that lie ahead. And she says she is hopeful.

"When we hear each other's stories," she says, "we begin to see not only who we are, but who God is and how God works in our lives."

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