Does My Faith Have Gender? By Brooke Nelson

The following is a guest post by Brooke Nelson, a  Ph.D student in Religion at Claremont Graduate University. She is interested in themes of feminine agency, authority, and textual representation in early Church texts, and how these themes intersect with the contemporary need to create a canon of legitimate examples. Her current research project is focusing on the ways that women were represented as taking control of their lives, their deaths, and their salvation through feminine martyr narratives.

For many people, the academic study of religion may provide an opportunity to pursue (or find) a theology in which women play a major role. I, however, hit the books for a very different reason. I grew up in a “Christmas and Easter” Catholic family that subscribed to the larger sense of the faith without worrying too much about the details. I went to Catholic schools, learned my catechism, memorized the ways to spot a heretic, and associated predominantly with my Roman Catholic schoolmates. I never, however, boldly flew the Papist flag. I often failed to identify with the larger Catholic community because I took a rather free, grab bag approach to the Latin Church, taking what I wanted and leaving behind the strictures that I thought were too backwards to apply to modern life.

A few months ago, I had the great joy of planning a small wedding ceremony. I wanted to hold the ceremony in a church of some form, but I was not overly concerned with whether the church was Roman Catholic, Methodist (the faith of my fiancé) or even, some form of non-demoninational building with stained glass windows. At the end of the day all I wanted was a pretty church that would look nice in pictures and provide a cozy little retreat for a very small exchange of vows. When looking at the different options, however, I discovered that I had an immediate, violent, and visceral aversion to churches where a woman ruled the pulpit. I am sure that the ministry of these individuals was laudably selfless, that their theological knowledge was enviable, and that any service they conducted would be irreproachable. But these female pastors and ministers were not for me. They were, after all, women and women are not priests.

I knew this was wrong. At the most harmless level my gut wrenching reaction was a reiteration of 1950s gender roles, when the only service a woman could control consisted of forks and knives. At the worst, my almost-unconscious reaction signified the fact that I didn’t think women should have a theological role. I had known women religious figures all my life, and was taught by nuns in my formative years. I never remember hearing or consciously conceptualizing an idea that female figures were somehow less than their male counterparts.

When forced to make a choice, however, I consistently chose male religious figures and felt myself recoiling from women in positions of religious authority. My belief in religious gender values had somehow become an intrinsic part of how I practiced my faith. Quite simply, I found myself with an embedded view of religious gender values that was anathema to everything I believed otherwise. Why was I so willing to discount other expressions of the same basic Christian creed because of the gender of the figure at the front of the church? My current academic study of women in the church is an attempt to understand what has gone into my bedrock of belief. Why does my faith have a gender? Why is that gender male? Why do I assume that standards are acceptable in a church setting that I would never dare to uphold in secular life? Why do I contribute to the perpetuation of these religious standards while fighting so hard for my independent agency and authority outside the church doors? Studying the women of the early church will be a way to reconcile my deeply embedded gender views of the sacred and the secular that I never realized, until recently, conflict.


Categories: Catholicism, Feminist Theology, Women's Spirituality

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7 replies

  1. Wonderful realization. I would love to know who you are studying and how they change you.


  2. Brooke, this is not a great mystery. It is simply patriarchal indoctrination that makes women unable to see women in sacred roles. I meet a lot of straight women who are male identified (socially). They’ll obey men cooperate with men, but have a hard time with women in authority.
    It’s often subtle, but one of the main reasons women aren’t farther along in the world. The boss men just rule, women go along, trusting women in sacred roles might be scary, because patriarchy thrives on making sure the slaves don’t leave Egypt or stay in the corral. It’s why the “love” language that male priests use kind of hooks women into this system… the male leaders seem loving, they seem godly, but catholic priests are about male supremacy, and they totally support the male dominant system… it’s much more in your face, and yet women are hooked. Hard to get off the drug of “kind men” or “pastoral men” …

    It is simply very hard to break out of the male supremacist mindbindings. Why else are malestream churches so bent on indoctrinating children? If you had been an adult, and first encountered the male supremacy of the catholic church, it would have shocked you. But you were indoctrinated as a child, and in catholic schools, and I’m guessing you are older than 45??? Maybe 55.

    So you don’t have to be obligated to go to any church you don’t want to, and if you can’t break out of the mindbindings, don’t worry about it. To have true women’s freedom in a woman hating world, with woman demeaning “priests”… well we’ve been working on the feminist revolution for a very long time. It all depends on how important it is to fully support the freedom of women, or what you’d have to give up to get that. Freedom is not for most people, the great majority of women are owned by men and controlled by them. To overthrow this system takes a revolution, and it is a work in progess. So yes, to you faith has a gender. Or maybe you haven’t met and studied with many women priests or pastors before. I’d look for a few workshops or retreats… do a lot of reading.

    I must admit, I enjoy reading atheist’s books a lot of late, because I want a challenge to religion itself, so it is freeing just to move to other ways of thinking or being. Don’t know if this will help or not, but again, if you are satisfied with male priests, then stick with the guys. Just knowing this contradiction and writing about it might take you in new directions in small ways step by step.
    Or not.


  3. Brooke, it is refreshing to see your honesty. As we know there has been very little progress made in changing the gender of God in Christian worship as well. Most who are not overly worried about this say that they know God does not have a gender and language does not matter. I have always suspected that many of these people, women and perhaps even women ministers and priests, in fact are comforable with images of male authority and power. Thanks for opening up these questions.


  4. Wonderful post. It’s really interesting the ways that our upbringing and faith can unconsciously creep into our minds in ways we wouldn’t expect.

    On a side note, I saw you’re working on a project with the female martyr narratives. I did my graduate thesis on the female martyrs of the early church. It’s a fascinating topic – I think you’ll enjoy it and get a lot out of it, too.


  5. Great post! I thoroughly enjoyed it.


  6. Thanks for an honest sharing.

    Re: “Why do I assume that standards are acceptable in a church setting that I would never dare to uphold in secular life?”

    It seems this question might be re-framed as “Why is there a church-setting part of me that accepts the gender-based norms of the church and a secular part of me that rejects those same gender-based norms?”

    When framed in this way, the answer to you question can be pursued through the lens of Internal Family Systems. One possibility would be that the church-setting part of you is a Protector part trying to protect a wounded child (called an Exile) in the IFS model. The secular part of you may be a more mature Manager part.



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