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.