Rise of women in religion something to encourage

by Bill Tammeus

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I grew up with three sisters and no brothers. I fathered two daughters and no sons. Probably no male fully understands what it means to be female, but I like to think I may be half a step closer to grasping that than some other men (which, no doubt -- d'oh -- makes me a lot like other men).

My desire that women be all they can be is why I teared up with joy when the first female editor's name was added to the masthead of The Kansas City Star, where I spent most of my career. And it's why I was thrilled when my congregation first called a female associate pastor in the 1980s.

In both instances, I thought about how my daughters now have another model. They now could see women succeeding in fields that might one day interest them.

As it turned out, neither of my daughters has entered ministry as a profession. And although one did graduate from journalism school, she and her sister have chosen to work in different areas of the education field. Still, it was important for them to see that other women were being successful as editors and pastors and that their options were open.

I've been thinking a lot about all of this lately as I've worked on a story about the 40th anniversary of the ordinations of the first female priests in the Episcopal church. NCR plans to publish it next month, closer to the July 29 date on which that will be commemorated.

I've been speaking with women involved in that 1974 event and with women whose lives are quite different today because of what happened at the Church of the Advocate in Philadelphia that warm summer day about two weeks before President Richard Nixon resigned in disgrace.

And what I've decided is that human beings sometimes confuse custom and culture with divine mandate.

Even though I'm a Protestant, I'm well aware of the arguments used to justify an all-male priesthood in the Catholic church. And it's certainly not up to me to change any Catholic rules. But I can find no convincing rationale, biblical or otherwise, for limiting the priesthood to males.

And yet religion seems to fall into the trap of patriarchy for many reasons and over terribly long periods of time.

It took my own Presbyterian denomination until 1956 to ordain a woman as a pastor, Margaret Towner, who, at age 89, still is active in church work in Florida. She has been a gift to our branch of the faith for a long time.

But male dominance certainly has not been limited to Christianity.

For instance, when the Prophet Muhammad introduced Islam to the world in the early seventh century, it was quite liberating for women. The Quran, after all, is the only sacred text to give women rights to inheritance, to own property, to keep their own wages, to create marriage contracts beneficial to themselves, and to receive material and physical support from husbands.

But what happened when Islam began to move out of the Arabian Peninsula and into other territories? The patriarchal culture deeply embedded in many of those lands eventually overwhelmed the message of freedom for women inherent in Muhammad's teaching -- so much so that today, we find extremists who believe Muslim girls shouldn't even go to school.

Despite that, many women from Islamic cultures now are claiming their own liberty to be full human beings. At least one woman has even published her own translation of the Quran, one that offers a persuasive alternative reading of a verse that men sometimes have used to justify beating their wives.

I have no idea what women will achieve in religious life in the years ahead. But the arc of history bends toward justice, and someday, we will look back on the oppression of women of faith with shame and remorse.

[Bill Tammeus, a Presbyterian elder and award-winning former faith columnist for The Kansas City Star, writes the daily "Faith Matters" blog for the Star's website and a monthly column for The Presbyterian Outlook. His latest book is Woodstock: A Story of Middle Americans. Email him at wtammeus@gmail.com.]

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