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Ordaining Women by Mark Chaves: A Response

Updated on December 28, 2013

How Enlightening Was the Book Anyway? Not Very.

2 stars for Ordaining Women
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Chaves's Premis and Argument

Chaves’ focus in ‘Ordaining Women’ is on how external cultural forces have affected the practices of religious denominations, specifically when it comes to allowing women to become clergy. He argues that the formal rules about women's ordination can be primarily attributed to external pressures on denominations rather than from changes within the denominations themselves. This became apparent to him when he found that when Methodists and Presbyterians formally allowed women to become full clergy in 1956, there seemed to be very little demand for the new law to be put into effect. Women within those denominations, it seems, didn’t have any burning desire to become clergy and thus were unlikely to have agitated for the change - whatever pressure felt must have been from outside forces. (The two primary denominational subcultures that resisted the change were biblical inerrancy and sacramentalism, incidentally).

Chaves points to the Women’s Lib movement as the primary facilitating factor because “it transformed the meaning of women’s ordination into a question of gender equality” (63). Thus, before the heyday of the women’s movement made it a “statement” to go into such male-dominated fields as law and medicine, women didn’t seem to have much interest in becoming clergy (Chaves cites the US census, showing that more women became lawyers, judges, clergy between 1970s and 1980s (15)). Here, when he’s discussing the changing meaning of "female ordination" (if that's a usable phrase), I think his argument gets a little weak. He focuses on qualitative historical data from a limited time period and doesn’t appear to get much supporting evidence from individual women and their families (particularly from periods before the 1970s). His focus on the macro/organizational level is a little limiting to his argument, though certainly compelling.

The main points Chaves seemed to make revolve around relationships between internal institutional pressures and external cultural factors. Amusingly enough, his data shows what he calls a “loose coupling” between pressure from women inside the denomination who want to be ordained and whether or not the denomination grants women access. The “loose coupling” also went the other way: denominations that claimed ‘equal opportunity’ didn’t supply it in practice and those who claimed to be restrictive were more open than they let on. From that, I understood that internal pressures seem only barely reflective of purely external forces, and can pander without making any substantive change - or can loosen strictures without holding a freaking press conference about it.

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