A HOST of women have led religious movements.
Ancient Jewish heroes Esther and Judith risked their lives to save their people. At the dawn of Christianity, it was a woman (Mary Magdalene) who preached the first Christian message that Jesus was risen from the grave. Through the centuries, St. Teresa of Avila and St. Catherine of Siena shaped the Catholic church so profoundly that they now hold the esteemed rank: Doctors of the Church. In colonial America, Lady Deborah Moody established a early community with interfaith freedom and Mother Ann Lee founded the Shakers. A host of church women led campaigns against slavery from the Grimke sisters to Harriet Tubman, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Sojourner Truth.
In May, Americans celebrate the holiday originally envisioned by churchwomen Ann Reeves Jarvis and her daughter Anna Jarvis as a time for honoring women—and performing community service. In fact, if the elder Ann Reeves Jarvis had her way, spring would be a time for what she liked to call Mothers’ Day Work Clubs. Women led the way, rolling up their sleeves and tackling the toughest problems faced by poor families, especially TB and other life-threatening diseases in her era. When her daughter Anna finally achieved a nationwide holiday, Anna was horrified to see it transformed into a commercial bonanza devoid of its original faith-based mission.
Even conservative popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI each promoted a woman to the rarefied status of Doctor of the Church. John Paul added St. Thérèse of Lisieux and Benedict promoted Hildegard of Bingen. The latter news surprised and pleased theologian Matthew Fox, one of Hildegard’s biggest cheerleaders. Fox admits he was surprised that Benedict let this feminist “Trojan Horse” into the highest ranks of the church.
So, why do most of the world’s 2 billion Christians refused to let ordained women into their pulpits? (That phrase “most of the world’s Christians,” of course refers to the roughly 1.5 billion Catholic and Orthodox Christians plus millions of evangelical Christians as well.)
Entire library shelves groan with books and journals arguing this issue, so we won’t repeat the classic pros and cons. In fact, what’s so delightful about Martha Spong’s new book, There’s a Woman in the Pulpit, is that she lets a little girl make the case in the book’s opening chapter written by the Rev. Ruth Everhart. Indignant at the injustice of her family’s church leadership refusing to ordain her mother—or any woman—young Hannah Everhart declared to her mother:
“Even a first grader knows you’re a good minister. Stupid-heads!”
In fact, if you buy a copy of Spong’s marvelous collection of nearly 70 true-life stories written by 52 clergywomen from 15 denominations, you may close the book repeating what Hannah’s Mom tells her family after the little girl’s outburst: “Hannah’s right. They’re stupid-heads!”
Lest long-time ReadTheSpirit readers object that we are unfairly criticizing traditionalist churches, we point out that American polling over the past decade by Gallup and Pew and other researchers clearly shows that even a majority of American Catholics support the idea of women’s ordination. Currently, about half of Catholics think the Vatican isn’t likely to make this change in their lifetimes—nevertheless, most Catholics say they like the idea of women in the pulpit. (Pew provides a helpful score card on what denominations are—and aren’t—ordaining women, as of late 2014.)
Whatever your opinion on women’s ordination may be, we guarantee that you’ll enjoy these inspirational, often downright funny and sometimes emotionally stirring stories. Read one a day for a couple of months. Martha Spong has found some terrific storytellers to share their real-life experiences in this volume.
ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm interviewed the co-writer and overall editor of this new book. Here are …
HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW
WITH THE REV. MARTHA SPONG
ON ‘THERE’S A WOMAN IN THE PULPIT’
DAVID: Help me introduce you to our readers. You have so many talents and projects! How do you typically describe yourself, when you step out to talk to a new audience?
MARTHA: I usually say I’m a United Church of Christ pastor. I’m a Mom. I’m a wife. I grew up Baptist and became United Church of Christ. I’m a writer, an editor—and a rather obsessive knitter, too.
DAVID: You’re best known as the director of the large online community known as RevGalBlogPals, which describes itself as “a supportive community for clergywomen since 2005.” This new book really is a collective creation from network of women writers. First, tell our readers what they’ll find if they visit RevGalBlogPals.
MARTHA: What they’ll find is both a collection of resources aimed at clergy and, as we say on the website, a supportive community for clergywomen. This all started as a group of bloggers but it’s not limited to bloggers anymore. There are many people who visit with us, participate in our preaching discussions and share comments. We’re also very active on Facebook where clergywomen from dozens of denominations all around the world participate. Facebook is a good place place for people to come with questions, prayer requests and stories from ministry and find support from others. We’re also active on Twitter. We’ve even gotten involved in Pinterest—and Tumblr, too. We’re all over the place now, wherever women gather.
DAVID: There’s a wonderful story in the book about ministry in the devastation of Hurricane Katrina by the Rev. Sally-Lodge Teel. In 1978, she was the first Presbyterian woman ordained in the state of Mississippi and, as you point out in the book, she was really the catalyst that got RevGalBlogPals started 10 years ago, right?
MARTHA: That’s right and for a while we mainly had a web ring that allowed us to connect our blogs into an internet circle. People continued to join and we decided to write a devotional book as a fundraiser after Hurricane Katrina. We formed a 501c3 and I was one of the original board members. About two years ago, the board began talking about creating a more professional role in the organization. So, at this point, I’m the part-time director, running our web activities and I organize and administer our continuing education events, which we’ve been doing since 2008. Today, there are about 40 women who contribute directly to our blog and more than 300 bloggers who are in our web ring.
A FAMOUS FAMILY
DAVID: Our readers are also likely to recognize your family name. For about 30 years, I’ve maintained a warm professional friendship with now-retired Bishop “Jack” Spong. I first got to know him when I served as an American newspaper correspondent in the UK in 1988 at the month-long Lambeth Conference where the world’s Anglican leaders debated women’s ordination. He was very active in that campaign. (NOTE: Interested in our past ReadTheSpirit interviews with Bishop Spong? A few of our more popular conversations were in 2009 talking about Eternal Life—A New Vision, in 2012 talking about Reclaiming the Bible, and in 2013 talking about The Gospel of John.)
MARTHA: Yes, we are related. Jack and my Dad are first cousins. We’re happy to claim each other. Jack baptized my oldest child and was at my wedding two years ago.
IS THERE A DIFFERENCE?
DAVID: I’ve already described the book, to some extent, but tell us more about what readers will find if they get their own copy.
MARTHA: The book contains stories that each are about 800 words long, so they’re perfect if people want to read one a day. They could be daily devotional readings for a couple of months. All of them are real-life stories by women who are juggling the work of ministry with the work of child rearing. Some of the stories tell what happens when these clergywomen go out into the community to do something not church related.Some of the stories are funny. Some are heart-wrenching. Each story puts the personality of the writer at the forefront.
DAVID: Let me ask you a question that, as a journalist specializing in reporting on religion, I’ve been asking for many decades now: Are women different than men as clergy?
And before you answer, let me tell you: Some famous women have either refused to answer the question or have objected to it. One of them is retired United Methodist Bishop Judith Craig who, for a while back in the 1980s, was the only woman bishop in a mainline denomination in the world.
When I asked Bishop Craig that question, she told me that she thought the question was a trap. If she said that women are different, that would label all women as identical in their talents and personalities. If she said women aren’t different, that would deny that women generally have developed some talents that may give them fresh insights into church growth. She didn’t want to group women as a homogenous gender.
I’m asking it because it’s obviously a common question, especially in churches that still refuse to ordain women. Are clergywomen different than clergymen?
MARTHA: You could say yes to that, because society expects women to have different skills and to fulfill different roles than they expect male clergy to fulfill. And people ask us questions they wouldn’t expect to ask male clergy.
But I agree with what you’re telling me about Bishop Craig. I don’t think the question of our gender or orientation is the significant one in terms of defining how we operate in ministry. If we assume clergywomen are different than clergymen, then that question presumes that we’re alike as women—and that’s not true.
‘A GENERATIONAL SHIFT’
DAVID: I’ll never forget the month I spent in Canterbury covering the Lambeth debates on women’s ordination. The whole world was represented there—even Archbishop Desmond Tutu—and the debates became very emotional. Flash forward 30 years, and I don’t think it’s as a big a deal in American culture to see clergywomen participating as local community leaders. Once it was so rare, it was surprising. What do you think? Are we seeing progress?
MARTHA: I think it is a generational shift. My own childhood denomination was the Southern Baptist Convention. But then, in February of this year, I was invited to come back and preach at the church where I grew up.
The pastor I knew years ago as a young man today is over 80 and he’s still preaching there. He invited me back to preach and he introduced me by saying to the people, “You may have heard that Southern Baptists don’t allow women preachers, but that’s not true.” And then he reeled off the names of a number of women who are serving Southern Baptist congregations—and he complimented their leadership and he finished by saying, “In the Baptist church, there are no absolutes.”
It was wonderful to go home to that church and to stand in the place in that church where I had never stood before. It was a tremendously positive experience.
DAVID: It may seem surprising to our readers that women do preach and serve in at least some Southern Baptist congregations, but I know that’s true. Southern Baptists are so loosely organized that there is more variation nationwide than people may think.
MARTHA: The problem is that, even in churches that ordain women, clergywomen often are limited to smaller churches or to part-time churches, because there’s still a demand for male pastors to serve larger churches. It seems like a no-brainer to me that women have the gifts for ordained pastoral leadership at all levels—but we still see resistance at the local level in a lot of congregations.
‘YOU ARE NOT ALONE’
DAVID: If our readers do get a copy of your book and start reading—what do you hope they’ll find between the covers of this book?
MARTHA: I hope this book will encourage women who are considering ministry to continue on in their dream. I also hope that it will show doubters how faithful women can be in ministry. And, I hope that it will show women in ministry that they have a lot of friends out there who are having similar experiences. I hope clergy women will realize: You’re not alone!