The minister of music was waiting impatiently and he let me know it. He wondered how long it would take for God to send him his wife, his helpmate, the woman who would support him for the rest of his life. This is the kind of small talk young people engage in at church mixers. I was at a reception following a crummy lecture on Gnosticism and Dan Brown, a lecture preceded by fifteen minutes of slick, percussion-heavy praise and worship before the presenter came out, adjusted his casual button-down shirt, and opened with the line "Leonardo da Vinci was this guy who lived about a thousand years ago."
I was here because I was working on Sundays, feeling underchurched, and had taken two buses and walked fifteen minutes to an advertised weeknight young adult service. Federal Work Study required that Marymount University offer me a job, but students without need-based financial aid got first pick and the student employment officer had nastily told me that either I took the job that started at 3am or I turned down Work Study. I spent the wee hours sitting at the reception desk of the men's dorm, chanting "Please swipe your ID. Please swipe your ID" at teenagers waddling in with cases of Bud Lite tucked into their clothing. Usually the first words I heard on a Sunday morning were a variation of "Go fuck yourself, bitch."
So here I was in the basement of a strange church, juggling a drafting tube, lemonade, and a plate of cheese while the music minister complained about the single women of our culture and said that he was having trouble being patient while he waited for God to give him a family to be the head of.
Well, I stepped right into that. A couple of minutes later, he was explaining to me why it's a heavier burden on the husband to lay down his life for his family than it is for the wife to stay in a submissive role, and how blessed by God women are to be created to follow instead of lead.
"But not all women should be living as a support to men," I said, and began to tell him about my grandmother and about my mother, and their skills and their ministries and the lives they blessed. He cut me off.
"Women lead when men aren't fulfilling their role as Christlike leaders," he said. "It's not their fault that they take on men's roles; it's the fault of the men. It sounds like you didn't have strong men in your life. Did your father let your family down?"
My father was a schizophrenic bipolar pedophile, a compulsive liar and a compulsive spender and a compulsive thief, a strict believer in his male headship over my family. The past slammed into the present, and I stood like an idiot with my mouth agape, unable to inhale, blood spreading up my face. After a few moments, I whispered:
"That was a low blow."
"You're right," the minister said, "I shouldn't have asked that. I'm
sorry." I excused myself and went outside to exhale the anger and grief
and frustration and all the pent-up stories. The tears spilled out and I knew I'd lost any right to talk to that man. I'd proven his point. My family was flawed, and so my stories about female leaders weren't valid. I couldn't point to a sinless example.
Sometimes church leaders hit the mute button on women. When it happens to me, I'm blindsided and dumbfounded. My story is not allowed. My story is foolish. I am listening to a man who says he speaks with Bible authority about God's will for all women. If my story doesn't fit his single model then my story isn't relevant; it's anecdotal; I'm interpreting my experiences incorrectly because of my sinful nature. It's happened in churches, in theology classes, in my living room, in the basement of a cathedral. It's about women pastors and women businesspeople, about engendered souls and vocation and pregnancy and sexual assault and I have something to say about these things, I have lived some of these things, they are not abstract philosophical exercises or remote theological principles, they are in my veins and bones and breath.
Of course, that minister was wrong. My father wasn't so important as to explain away my experience as a woman. I had a complex childhood in a complex family. I review my womanhood differently over time, reading it through new commentary: Baptist commentary on egalitarianism, feminist and gay commentary on the nature and purpose of family, Catholic commentary on the holiness of labor. I listen to stories that are unlike my own, and I sometimes change my mind and read my own story in a new way.
But when it comes to being a woman in the Church, my unfolding story is not always welcome. My voice doesn't always chant in unison with the voice of self-proclaimed authority. Sometimes my story collides with the belief that there is only one truth about being a woman, only one correct teaching (although every denomination has a different one correct teaching). Where that belief exists, the desire for knowledge isn't "tell me something that I don't know about God," but "tell me more about why I'm right about God." So my life isn't helpful for that exploration. All I bring is a challenge, and not a good one: a story, a single person's experience, only an anecdote.
But then, that's exactly what our Gospels are: at the heart of Scripture is an anecdote, a story, four parallel tales of one life. It's teased out in epistles and creeds and doctrines, and these are all ways of unpacking the story that we begin and end with. My life, my stories, my experiences, are one of the ways that the Gospels are still being teased out. If a religious leader is going to discard my story because it doesn't fit the model he requires, if he has to explain my life away by saying I can't see the beauty of the life God intends for me-- if my story is misread through his commentary, then how can I trust the story of Christ he reads through that same commentary?