Editor’s note: Today we begin a Lenten series of reflections, essays, and meditations on sexual harassment and exploitation in the church. These articles may contain explicit or graphic descriptions of abuse and harassment and language that might upset or trigger some readers.
Most holy and merciful God: We confess to you and to one another, and to the whole communion of saints in heaven and on earth, that we have sinned by our own fault in thought, word, and deed; by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.
We have not loved you with our whole heart, and mind, and strength. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We have not forgiven others as we have been forgiven.
My bishop told me I would be more approachable as a woman priest if I looked more “feminine.”
A parishioner told me I would be more approachable as a woman priest if I looked less “feminine.”
The rector I worked for called me into his office, and when I opened the door, he was standing there with his pants down. When I shared this with a male colleague, he said, “Oh, that’s just the way he is.”
We have been deaf to your call to serve as Christ served us. We have not been true to the mind of Christ. We have grieved your Holy Spirit.
Having a deployment officer tell me, about more than one church, “This parish (almost always a larger one) is not ready for a female rector.” He then proceeded to show me several part-time positions in smaller churches who would be glad to get “anyone breathing.”
I was the only female clergy in the town where I served. At our regular clergy gatherings, the male convener called me, “Little lady,” or “Little gal.” He referred to all the other clergy by their title – Father, Pastor, etc.
My congregation hosted a luncheon for clergy, and a clergy colleague held out his glass to me, saying, “My wife usually gets my tea for me.” I told him my husband usually gets mine for me, but today we could both figure it out on our own.
We confess to you, Lord, all our past unfaithfulness: the pride, hypocrisy, and impatience of our lives.
The vestry of my curacy parish wouldn’t let me tell the parish I was leaving because they didn’t want me to take attention away from the rector’s going away party.
My diocese had several priests who didn’t “believe” in women’s ordination. When we had our convention at one of these priest’s church, no woman was allowed near the altar because we would “pollute” it. Not one member of the clergy who was a male saw a problem with this.
The countless times I have been called the wrong name, because apparently all young female clergy are the same.
Our self-indulgent appetites and ways, and our exploitation of other people,
Being asked during a job interview if I planned to get married soon, so I could go on my husband’s health insurance.
The church that paid the male rector $250,000 to leave, then cut my position from the budget without telling me because they couldn’t afford it.
A rector used to enjoy telling me how my breasts really filled out my clergy shirt. He usually did this in a meeting or around other parishioners. When I complained, I was told I’d need to develop a thicker skin if I wanted to be a “real” priest.
Our anger at our own frustration, and our envy of those more fortunate than ourselves.
I recognize, that because of my gender, I make less than similarly (if not lesser) qualified males who are ordained. That weighs on me at times when I hear the church call for equality in the secular world, ignoring the inequality in our sacred world.
I’m often at church alone at night, and I wonder if I were ever attacked, how many people would immediately say, “Well, if you hadn’t been alone, that wouldn’t have happened.”
I made an observation at a meeting that garnered no response. Several minutes later, a male colleague made the exact same observation. The bishop thought it was the best idea he’d ever heard. When I pointed this out, I was told my voice was too high and it made my words hard to hear.
Our intemperate love of worldly goods and comforts, and our dishonesty in daily life and work.
My bishop called a meeting with me to discuss my involvement in diocesan activities, in order to warn me that “I appeared too ambitious.”
I was told by a female colleague that my experience and knowledge in the church were a problem because they made our male colleagues look weak.
A member said to me, “How am I supposed to concentrate on the Bible when there are breasts in the pulpit?”
Our negligence in prayer and worship, and our failure to commend the faith that is in us.
The time the archdeacon slapped my ass at the West Door to celebrate a successful end to a beautiful liturgy.
Being told by the rector to apologize to the parishioner who was angry that we had only women on the altar during a Sunday morning service. I’m sorry, sir. We won’t do that again.
The time I got called into the rector’s office for using the feminine pronoun for God in a sermon and told suggesting God was a woman had no place in the church.
An elderly male member harassed me for months. My rector’s response, when I expressed my anxiety and distress, ranged from, “He does this to all women, even old ones,” to “Other women all just handle it. Your response is about you,” or, “He’s just an old man.”
Accept our repentance, Lord, for the wrongs we have done: for our blindness to human need and suffering, and our indifference to injustice and cruelty
I went to the rector to ask help with physical abuse at the hands of my then-husband. The priest listened, then patted my head and said, “Little lady, I think you’re making a mountain out of a molehill. This doesn’t sound like anything to me. You go on home, and everything will be all right.” Later that afternoon, he had a beer with my then-husband and shared all I’d said. Later that night, my then-husband put a fist through a wall and a fist through me. I left the marriage and that church.
My bishop announced my last day of work at a clergy day without talking to me beforehand about it. My Letter of Agreement had no end date specified.
When I shared explicit acts of sexual harassment I’d endured at the church where I served, the bishop told me, “Well, good luck getting another job if you make a big deal out of this.”
For all false judgments, for uncharitable thoughts toward our neighbors, and for our prejudice and contempt for those who differ from us,
The time the rector told me to make sure the youth group didn’t become too “chick.”
I have been told by at least five men that I am “too pretty to be a priest.”
The bishop who bragged about hiring me because he thought I would attract more young men to church.
A male parishioner had a key to my rectory (I didn’t know this for many months). When I discovered this and asked for it back, he told me I couldn’t have boundaries with him. When I reached out to my bishop for help, he suggested I should be more pastoral to this man.
As I walked into the lecture hall, my seminary professor commented, “there’s Rahab, the woman in red” (I had a red dress on that day). He laughed, but I wasn’t amused.
For our waste and pollution of your creation, and our lack of concern for those who come after us.
That moment when you read #metoo and cry, because you realize you aren’t alone. And cry because you realize all these things will happen to women who are in the ordination process and they, too, will be harassed and abused in and by the church.
Did what you read unsettle you? Bother you? Did you nod your head in agreement because you have had the same experience? Did you shake your head in disbelief, thinking, “But we only have part of the story,” or “Yes, but this only happens to a few women because of a few bad apples.”
Gender-based harassment and abuse are everywhere in our world, so it should not surprise us that they are also everywhere within the church. The examples you read are from real women who shared instances of sexual harassment and abuse in real church settings. Any woman who wears a collar has these stories, seething just underneath the skin. For most of us, we have so many they blur together into a giant mass of discomfort and scarcely-remembered sweeties, honeys, and forced grins at comments about our breasts.
The experience is so pervasive that we often feel overwhelmed as we attempt to examine it fully, because to examine gender-based harassment and abuse means we have to examine a long, systemic history of abuse and harassment on many levels — gender is but one.
To examine harassment and abuse means we have to meet our own sin in the bright light of God’s vision, especially the sin of pride, the sin of believing that some humans are entitled to more because of their gender. More attention, more status, more money, more benefit of the doubt, more seriousness, more bodily autonomy, more control, more everything. And women*, on the other hand, should take whatever crumbs fall from the table of pride and power and be happy.
Ash Wednesday reminds us on a theological level that none of us is entitled to more than anyone else. None of us. All of us are created of this same dust smeared on our foreheads. All of us are created in the image of the same God. None of us is closer or further away due to our gender.
This day also reminds us that none of us escapes the sins that demean and hurt others. We kneel at the Litany and confess — all of us. Too often, though, our confession of sin may stay on the intellectual level, ideas and concepts of sin, lacking the reality of human pain.
Each of these petitions of confession has a story: a story of women who were demeaned and hurt because of their gender by others who also confess the faith of Christ. Ash Wednesday calls us to put names to our sin, to recognize that our sins of omission and commission, of things done and left undone, have real-life consequences for beloved children of God.
Ash Wednesday, however, does not leave us in our sins. It reminds us we are capable of more than the acts and omissions that diminish love. Ash Wednesday calls us to be restored to mercy and, in this restoration, to accomplish works of love.
This Lent, how can we all hear the words of women who have been damaged by the sin of pride in the church? How can we allow those words to witness to a truth of our church, that we are, at times, overcome by this sin?
And how can we be restored to the wholeness that is the Body of Christ, the body that is both male and female and all the genders in between? How can we be restored to a Body that honors the gifts God expressed through our embodied beings? How can we remember we are all equal before God, and we have all covenanted with God to live this equality in our daily lives?
How can we invite this restoration to imbue us so we may accomplish works of love?
*We realize the sins of the Church run deep regarding discrimination. Race, ethnicity, class, sexuality, and gender are but a few of the many ways the Church has demeaned others in sin. We are, in this particular essay, focusing on discrimination against women.
The Rev. Laurie Brock is an Episcopal priest serving as rector of St. Michael the Archangel in Lexington, Kentucky. She is a deputy to the upcoming General Convention. She is a frequent contributor to various devotional books and online resources and blogs at www.revlauriebrock.com. Her upcoming book, “Horses Speak of God,” will be released in the spring from Paraclete Press.
The Rev. Megan L. Castellan is the assistant rector at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Kansas City currently. By the end of Lent, she will be the rector at St. John’s, Ithaca, New York. She blogs at redshoesfunnyshirt.com, tweets too much at @revlucymeg and throws jelly beans at politicians on TV.