A day without women...in church

March 14th, 2017

Last week on March 8th, International Women’s Day, the group that put together the Women’s March on Washington led a one-day demonstration of economic solidarity – A Day Without A Woman. Some women did not go to their jobs, closing down a couple of school districts. Other women opted to refrain from buying things, except from small women-owned businesses, or wore red in solidarity. While it’s unclear how much of an effect this strike had, the purpose was to highlight the enormous value that women add to our economic system while receiving lower wages and often suffering discrimination and even harassment.

As Wednesdays during Lent are not an opportune time for a clergyperson to take the day off, I did not participate in that aspect of the strike; but I did think about what a day without women might look like in the church. In denominations like mine, that strike would include ordained women. Per the latest statistics from the Church Pension Group, in the Episcopal Church forty-percent of priests are women, while only twenty-percent of Head-of-Staff clergy are women and fewer than ten-percent are bishops. A day without clergywomen would be more likely to affect youth and pastoral ministries, chaplaincies, smaller churches, and interim positions.

More importantly, when I think about my church and the other churches I have known, the truth is that women do a vast amount of the unpaid labor that keeps the church going. Women provide the food for funerals. Women teach Sunday School, set up the altar, and clean the vestments. Women are the first to arrive and the last to leave. Women answer the phones and take casseroles to the person recovering from surgery. The prayers of women undergird the mission and ministry of the church. It is not that men do not also do these things, but without the commitment and dedication of women, the work of the church would grind to a halt.

Going back to Scripture, we can apply the same “Day Without a Woman” lens. Where would Christianity be without Mary, the mother of Jesus, without Mary and Martha of Bethany, without the women who were the first witnesses of an empty tomb and a risen Christ, the first evangelists of the good news that God has overcome death and the grave? Paul’s letters include the names of women who were crucial to the spread of Christianity in their support of the early church – Prisca, Phoebe, Euodia, Syntyche, and Junia. While the history of the church has privileged the stories and authority of men, without the women going to tend to Jesus’ body and finding the stone rolled away, we might not even have a church.

If the Day Without A Woman strike was intended to disrupt the economic status quo, just imagine how a Day Without A Woman would disrupt the work of the church. Particularly in churches where the leadership is mostly men or where women are not allowed to pursue ordination, the work of women still undergirds the mission and ministry of the Body of Christ. Without women, what percentage of your pews would be empty? Without women, how many men would come to church by themselves?

The women I know who faithfully serve the church do not do it for recognition or for their own benefit; they do it as disciples of Christ and members of a community. This does not mean that their contributions should not be lifted up as an example for the whole body. At the same time, the church can take advantage of the sacrificial service of women, both lay and ordained, leading to resentment and burn-out. Without others to pitch in and pick up the slack, we may very well find out what a church without women looks like.

Imagine arriving at church on Sunday to a mostly empty parking lot. You enter the sanctuary and notice there aren’t any fresh flower arrangements. Your children show up to teacher-less Sunday School rooms and no one is available to watch the nursery. The altar coverings are askew, and the candles haven’t been replaced. There are no musicians, so everyone fumbles through the hymns a capella. After the service, people gather normally, but no one has made the coffee or provided snacks so everyone stands around awkwardly chatting until people drift back to their cars and head home. Perhaps only in their absence are the contributions of women noticed and appreciated at all.

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