Monday, April 23, 2012

Would You Want To See Your Pastor In A Speedo?

I've been attending various clergy gatherings for decades. Such events are enjoyable, despite my own reticence in large groups to do more than hang back and people-watch. One thing I've learned over the years is clergy come in every shape, color, gender, size, and attitude. All the same, the stereotype - at least among we people called Methodists - of the older, bearded, white guy who has grown hefty on all the church dinners we serve, is still present. While on the wane, there are still many who fit the picture in our heads of the local pastor as precisely that: older, white, and fat. The variety and diversity of who are clergy are has not quite erased that image.

I got to thinking of that tableau when I read this article from the New York Times.
But somehow, despite our belief that both sexes can serve the church, it seems there’s still something unnerving about a priest who is a woman. It has to do with having a woman’s body.

A parishioner told me that he thought I was a great priest, but that if I became pregnant, it would be too weird for him to see me at the altar. Merely holding hands with my husband, even when I am not in clerical clothes, has elicited the comment “Can you do that? I mean, in public?” Another parishioner told me I was too petite to be a priest. I’m 5-10. I have never been called “petite.” I think he meant “female.”

What about when a priest wears a bikini? What if she complicates the picture by having sizable biceps or well-defined lats? Can “buff” and “holy” go together? “Ripped” and “reverend”? If the “reverend” is a woman?
Demonstrating the kind of discipline and self-care necessary to compete, even at an amateur level, in body building is something to celebrate. Were the clergy in question male, there would be little to no discussion of the appropriateness of him doing so. Would a man have the kind of guilt-laden thoughts Rev. Dr. Richter had as she thought about what she was about to do?

We seem to have little problems picturing our clergy as men doing all the things men do. Including, it seems, putting on weight. Women clergy face so many hurdles, not least the pressure to desexualize themselves (Rev. Dr. Richter's report of a parishioner's comment about how his feelings toward her possibly becoming pregnant is so familiar) as well as strip themselves of culturally-defined womanhood (except, of course, motherhood, housekeeping, and being supportive of her husband's life and career; even with women clergy a commonplace, there is still an assumption among many, both in local congregations and the hierarchy, that she will subsume her own career desires to her husband's), even the thought of discomfort caused by the desire to body-build should be evidence enough that we have a long way to go in our thinking about what it means to be clergy. Enforcing a series of behavioral and physiognomical norms upon clergy rooted in social and cultural reification of maleness is an on-going issue for so many in the church, even generations removed from the first female ordinations. Rev. Dr. Richter deserves all our support and gratitude for demonstrating that a ripped, bikini-clad priest is still a priest.

Virtual Tin Cup

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