2. Systemic sexism in the Church
Saturday, November 12, 2011
New Church Perspective in Brian Smith, Kristin Coffin, male vs. female, ministry, ordination, sexism

Brian Smith and Kristin Coffin offer a dialogue-style collaborative piece dealing with five subtopics as follows:

  1. The ramifications of an all-male priesthood.
  2. Systemic sexism in the Church.
  3. The burden of proof and the status quo.
  4. Doctrinal arguments.
  5. The role and purpose of the clergy.

This is the fourth piece in the series: Women as Ordained Priests (or Not). -Editor.

Kristin, speaking on systemic sexism

You’ve expressed your doubt that my grievances can be conclusively linked with the all-male priesthood. All I can say is, I perceive it to be so. I won’t spend many words trying to convince you; maybe our readers can offer some evidence one way or the other. I agree that it is an oversimplification to say that all the sexism in the church can be blamed on this policy. But I really do believe that the policy stands as an impassible barrier to healing in the church today. We’ve got sexism; it’s our legacy. But we need to combat it, and I don’t see how we can move forward while the leadership of the church not only excludes women, but they do so on the premise that every man has some special quality and ability that is superior to any woman’s. The policy is fuel to the fire of sexism and inequality. Anyone who holds a sexist view (even if they’ve come by it honestly) is reassured by the Church: “Men and women are just different and good for different things. So I’m justified in my attitude.”

I can practically hear readers protesting that the Doctrines do indicate that men and women are suited to different things, so I’ll take a moment to acknowledge that a traditional and conservative reading of the Doctrines will support the traditional and conservative culture of the Church. But I believe it is a misapplication. It is the nature of a sociological disease like sexism to replicate itself. People will embody it, affirm it, and reproduce it in their children. Nothing else has a chance to grow. But there is more than one reasonable way to read Swedenborg; I think that a change in approach will undo many barriers to progress and healing, and allow space for social change.

In the meantime, Brian, I admit that I cannot defend my fatalistic statement about the future of the General Church. But I can speak for the dwindling population of devout 20-somethings, and say that my peers and I have grown up in a culture that is increasingly progressive and unwilling to tolerate exclusion, bigotry, homophobia, or sexism of any kind. Furthermore, my generation sees these failings in our church culture in a big way. Hundreds of young adults who loved the Church have left it over this issue, and others like it. Policies need to be reevaluated in changing times, not to blindly conform to change, but to apply a new and better understanding.

Brian, in response to systemic sexism

Perhaps the divide is so stark that there must be a parting of ways—certainly the policy on ordination of women is an either/or decision.

If a church has an unassailable difference across clearly divided lines, I am not at all opposed to a parting of ways. I think this can sometimes offer the greatest opportunities for harmony and working together on common cause rather than worrying over differences. Divisions are not easily managed and rarely done well, so this approach to a problem is not to be taken lightly either. But if there are droves of devout young people leaving the General Church, wouldn't it be great if they used their enthusiasm for the doctrines to form a new movement which more perfectly fit their reading of the Heavenly Doctrines? Maybe the General Church is traditional and conservative, maybe we should just let it remain that way as it is what some people like.

As much as I am uncomfortable with it, I do believe that a church’s approach to ordination is very symbolically significant. I’d just as soon have far less emphasis placed on the role of the ordained priesthood, but for the moment, it is clear that the priesthood is often seen as the face of a church.

My strongest area of conviction on this issue—of whether or not to ordain women—lies in the confidence that some people (both men and women) read the sacred texts of the church to support an exclusively male clergy and are comfortable and happy with this arrangement. Whether or not this is the superior reading of the sacred texts is another question, but it is clear to my mind that many people enjoy clearly distinguished roles between men and women and do not find this to be an expression of negative sexism.

Kristin Coffin

Kristin lives in Austin, TX, working as an assistant for the newly planted New Way Church. She grew up in Bryn Athyn, and studied religion at the college there. Kristin has great affection for Swedenborgian teachings and the General Church, and hopes to see it move in more progressive directions in the coming years.

Brian Smith

Brian continues to thrive in his marriage to Janine. He loves his growing son Kai and new daughter Adelaide. He tries to minister in Toronto, Canada where they live. He is trained and employed to study sacred scripture with the purpose of empowering people in their desire to live well. Brian enjoys complaining, reading, writing and dreaming of what could be.
Article originally appeared on New Church Perspective (http://www.newchurchperspective.com/).
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