Breaking the Stained Glass Ceiling? Conflict in Religious Histories by Meagen Farrell

Meagen Farrell, women's ordination

In attempting to research and write about the process and arguments in the development of women’s ordination in the Anglican Church of Ireland (which I first wrote about here on Feminism and Religion), I am frustrated by the polarization of language. While “objectivity” is fruitless, I strive for what Warren Nord calls philosophical fairness: when teaching about contested religious territory, to characterize each position in the terms they would choose for themselves.

How do I fairly label an historical debate on whether or not to admit women to the diaconate and priesthood? Using the phrase “women’s ordination” in my current Kickstarter campaign already puts me in a particular camp. The constraints of the medium require brevity. I have to make a choice.

I fret about using dualistic gendered language because of my increasing concern for the marginalization of people who do not easily fit gendered categories. I attempt to overcome some of my language difficulties through code-switching and using different words in multiple contexts.

This is easy to do as I have individual conversations with friends and family, explaining my intent and asking for their support. In one conversation, we discuss the leadership skills we use as mothers. In another we focus on whether I plan to remain a Catholic in good standing. Some want to discuss ecclesiology and others are more curious about the details of crowdfunding.

But what will I do when the time comes to craft a holistic narrative into one written document intelligible for my diverse supporters? Is this story just a collection of glass fragments, broken meanings and uprooted identities? Will my emotional and personal admiration shine through as a triumphalist historian, lauding the victors who became pioneering women religious leaders? Or by seeking to maintain my communion with Rome, will I privilege positions that are now marginalized in Ireland, but still dominate in other setting?

This is the kind of struggle, on a small scale, that I imagine must challenge any person or community attempting to codify a religious, historical narrative. Scripture can at times appear fragmented and contradictory, yet narrative aids us to become conscious of the Divine Presence in our own lives as we remember stories of past revelatory encounters. In order to write, we have to make choices.

So I am praying now to keep my various identity commitments in tension and not let the conflict tear apart my sense of self. I am praying to unlearn, to look beyond the polarities of language, to tap into the relational and connecting spirit that kept the Anglican Church of Ireland whole through this season of change.

I have to ask: Was the “stained glass ceiling” broken, or merely moved? Or can we use narrative to preserve the stained glass ceiling in some way intact, a reminder of a shared and imperfect past, without using it to bar others from encountering God?

Meagen Farrell is an author, educational consultant, and parent in Cleveland, Ohio. She is collecting pledges for her current book True Story: How Women Became Priests in Ireland until 11:53am on April 18, 2013. You can connect with her on Twitter, Facebook, and WordPress.

Categories: General, Reform, Women in the Church, Women's Ordination

Tags: , , , , , ,

11 replies

  1. Megan, I agree with you that one part of the “hermeneutical process,” for example as explained by Majella Franzmann in her book Women and Religion, is to think about and describe the positions the researcher thinks she disagrees with as fairly as possible–in the process of being fair, the researcher’s own position might change. “They all just hate women” might become a more nuanced statement. However, the hermeneutical process as described by Franzmann also requires the scholar to make a discernment, take a position, make a judgment at the end of the research process. This judgment might be stated at the end of a book or essay or it might be stated up front at the beginning of a book or essay.

    From the point of view of feminist hermeneutics, I would argue that all tales are tales with a point of view, disguised or not. Being fair does not mean not making judgments. There might be reasons, cultural and historical, for denying women the priesthood, for slavery as the spoils of war, for forced marriages, for stoning adulteresses, and so on. As feminist scholars we attempt to understand those reasons, while at the same time, making our own judgments that these practices are wrong.

    I am not sure why you are so worried about letting your interests and even your anger shape the story you tell. If “God” really is “God,” then I would assume She is on the side of those who protest injustice. In that case, I would not worry that protesting injustice will hide the face of God. On the other hand, confronting the injustice of human institutions could cause some people to leave them. But I would counsel you to trust that God will be God with or without a particular institution.


  2. Thank you, Meagan. I have been mired in how to frame my research on how the leadership of women in the Anglican Church of Canada has contributed to addressing sexual misconduct in our church. What does ordination have to do with it? Although it happened here in 1976, the leadership that brought forth meaningful policies and procedures in response to clergy sexual misconduct came from lay women, strongly influenced by second wave feminism in North America. My sense is once I receive some
    input from others commenting on your question, such as Carol Christ who has already done so, my quest for an interpretative feminist perspective will be illumined.
    Great to have this blog!


  3. Megan, I have learned in my life that it’s impossible to use language that’s always inclusive. I try, but my point of view in life is determined by the choices I’ve made in how I live and that will — by definition — color what I say. I remember once when I delivered a talk at a feminist conference (this was in the 1990s) and used the term “husband.” I was immediately taken to task by a lesbian who asked why I used that term when marriage was denied to her. She thought I should use the word “partner.” So I made the switch. When my (feminist) daughter came out a decade or so later, and I described her partner as a “partner,” she asked me not to use that term, because it made her feel like a middle-aged lesbian. She wanted me to speak about her partner as her “girlfriend.” Now “girlfriend” was anathema to me for two reasons: 1) it used the word “girl,” and my daughter was in her twenties, obviously a woman; and 2) friend didn’t describe the depth of her relationship. But it was her life, so I used the term “girlfriend.” What is fair, what is dualistic gendered language, as you ask? I always go with the self-definition of the person involved.

    I also agree with Carol that as feminists we need to make our perspective known, to declare ourselves on the side of women/lesbians/gay/queer/etc. people. Our opponents don’t have the same scruples that we have, not that understanding this should change our scruples. But it should make us take a stand, even if we have to change that stand when we discover more information that we hadn’t known, from people who have other perspectives. Bending toward justice — it’s not a linear path.


  4. “I fret about using dualistic gendered language because of my increasing concern for the marginalization of people who do not easily fit gendered categories.” Since women have been excluded from christian priesthood for the better part of two millennia, we ourselves have been marginalized. It seems fair to me to address that in its own right, without agonizing over the legitimacy of naming it, and to give due attention to the way the sexual double standard has worked to keep women down is way overdue. (I use ‘sex’ here and not ‘gender’ because that is what the rigid gender system is politically based upon, the colonization of females). That does not mean that gender variant and same-sex loving people should not be considered; only that women don’t need to apologize for knocking over the longstanding barriers used to keep us down. ‘Women’s ordination’ is not an offensive term; it is a watershed change.


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