UC Observer logo
UCObserver on SoundCloud UCObserver on YouTube UCObserver on Facebook UCObserver on Twitter UCObserver's RSS Feeds

Observations: It’s a long road toward full equality for women

'It’s a wonder that we continue to see male ministers as normative and attach shame to female ministers’ biology and sexuality.'

By Jocelyn Bell

Reading through old Observers is always eye-opening. Some stories show how much has changed; others, quite the opposite. Our March 1986 cover story about barriers to women in ministry seems to defy either category.

The article, by Gillian Sniatynski, describes the discrimination female ministers faced, whether it was being told not to serve communion while menstruating or being admonished for wearing red in the pulpit (too erotic, apparently).

These attitudes rang through my mind as I edited Rev. Trisha Elliott’s cover story this month, “Pregnant in the pulpit.” While much of the current conflict between pregnant United Church ministers and their congregations appears to stem from the cost and duration of a maternity and parental leave, I wonder if that discomfort with women’s bodies still clouds our dealings with pregnant ministers.

Historically, it most certainly did. A 1927 United Church report stated that women could not be ministers because they are “biologically predetermined to fulfill their lifelong vocation: motherhood.” In 1947, Margaret Butler became the first mother to be ordained in the denomination after initially being denied the year before. But 10 years later, when London Conference ordained Elinor Leard, a missionary to India and mother of three, the moderator sent a telegraph to the Conference in protest.

In the decades that followed, the church became more accepting of ordained mothers, but prejudices remained. As Sniatynski wrote in 1986, “The fact is that a pregnant woman in the pulpit makes some people very uncomfortable. Women can be ministers, women can speak from the pulpit, as long as they don’t bring their bodies with them.”

The quote initially struck me as outdated. I was all set to drop it into the “How things have changed!” box when Elliott sent me an interview she gave to CBC’s Tapestry in 2016. Speaking to host Mary Hynes, Elliott said, “Many women [ministers] have had that experience of [congregational] attitudes changing when they become visibly pregnant. . . . Suddenly there’s evidence that their minister is sexually active. . . . Women are, in a sense, double-whammied: they’re associated with sexuality, and then sexuality is deemed sinful.”

Do these theologies continue to shape our reactions to pregnant ministers? You won’t find hard evidence in this month’s story. But knowing the history makes it hard not to surmise that this is one more hurdle in a long road toward full equality.

As Mother’s Day rolls around this month, here are some facts to ponder as you honour the mothers in your life. Today, women make up 55 percent of ministers in the United Church. Both our moderator and our general secretary are moms. I’m not a minister, but I am a mom. It’s a wonder that we continue to see male ministers as normative and attach shame to female ministers’ biology and sexuality.

To paraphrase the old Virginia Slims slogan, we’ve come a long way. But we still have a long way to go. 

This story first appeared in The Observer's May 2018 edition with the title "Body politic."

Author's photo
Jocelyn Bell is the editor-publisher of The Observer.
Readers’ advisory: The discussion below is moderated by The UC Observer and facilitated by Intense Debate (ID), an online commentary system. The Observer reserves the right to edit or reject any comment it deems to be inappropriate. Approved comments may be further edited for length, clarity and accuracy, and published in the print edition of the magazine. Please note: readers do not need to sign up with ID to post their comments on ucobserver.org. We require only your user name and e-mail address. Your comments will be posted from Monday to Friday between 9:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. Join the discussion today!


Rev. Don Collett had a hand in writing the document that paved the way for the open ordination of LGBT folks in the United Church of Canada. (Credit: Bayne Stanley)

For me, the landmark United Church vote on sexual orientation came at a high personal cost

by Don Collett

"Justice was served at General Council. Yes. And harm was also done," says Rev. Don Collett.

Promotional Image


Editor/publisher of The Observer, Jocelyn Bell.

Should we apologize for the hurt surrounding the 1988 decision?

by Jocelyn Bell

The groundbreaking United Church vote on gay and lesbian ministers has transformed the denomination in the years since, but there's still work left to do.

Promotional Image


Meet beloved church cats Mable and Mouse

by Observer Staff

They're a fixture of Kirk United Church Centre in Edmonton.

Promotional Image


September 2018

11 Ontarians share their opioid stories in this powerful project

by Mugoli Samba

The Opioid Chapters hopes to add nuance to the public discussion on opioids.


September 2018

Do we face a future without Down syndrome?

by Kevin Spurgaitis

Advances in prenatal testing mean parents can detect the chromosomal difference earlier. What does this mean for the future of Down Syndrome?


September 2018

I send my kids to Catholic school, but I'm not Catholic

by Pieta Woolley

A lifelong United Church member explains why she's embracing lessons in reading, writing and rosaries.

Promotional Image