Eowyn Defines the Church’s Restrictions for Women

"Eowyn and the Nazgul" | Art by Deligaris. Used with permission.

As the niece of Rohan’s king, Eowyn is a leader of her people, one who is loved and respected. When their city is under attack, it is her responsibility to lead the people to Helm’s Deep for safety. Shouldn’t this be enough responsibility for her? Shouldn’t she realize how much her uncle and brother value her leadership by putting her in charge of the people, and how much they value her life by forbidding her to ride into war with them?

But Eowyn was born for battle. She is destined, through an ancient prophecy, to defeat the Witch King in defense of Middle-earth. Sheildmaidens are an actual thing in Rohan; they are a part of the culture and history of war in this kingdom. Her entire society is centered on defending their kingdom from the ever-nearing enemy that looms over their land.

Everything in Eowyn’s life points to her taking her place as a Shieldmaiden, except for one thing: the men in her life. Her brother and uncle don’t want to risk her death, taking the decision out of her hands. But, their loving care—though they didn’t know it—would have prevented her from turning the tides of battle in the war against Sauron. They would have kept her “safely” in a cage, where she couldn’t live out her passions and strengths.

When many people are invited to question what they believe, they may reconsider their actions.

I work for the Catholic Church, an institution that loves and respects women. We seek to protect the dignity of women, recognizing both genders as equally made in the image and likeness of God. We believe women are uniquely able to participate in God’s creative action on earth and celebrate that gift. I love the Church, and feel loved within it.

As with Eowyn, the Church puts women in charge of some of the most important areas of ministry. But, there are elements of ministry that women don’t have access to; there is no ordination of women, (not even to the deaconate for which there is historical precedence) and women are not allowed to preach. For some women, these boundaries present obstacles to their mission of fully living their calling. For me, these restrictions prevent me from living my ministry fully, not because I want to be ordained—I sincerely don’t—but because of how some people interact with me as a result of their assumptions.

Often—but not always—capable, effective, professional women in my Church’s ministry are looked upon with suspicion. In some areas of the world, women in ministry are highly valued. It can even vary from diocese to diocese, or parish to parish. In my case, throughout my career, rarely a week has gone by without someone suggesting I must want to be a priest, or hate men, or have some kind of twisted ambition—none of which are true. Sometimes, people are resistant to working with me because I know my stuff, which I suppose can be intimidating, and there’s still some underlying, unchallenged assumption among some that women are “misbegotten males,” or that my work in the Church is somehow unnatural because of my gender.

When I was studying ministry, my grandfather’s cousin, who was a priest, tried to talk me out of it. He made no bones about his belief that I had no place in the ministry of the Church. Even after I had a pastoral associate position for years, he wouldn’t acknowledge me as anything other than a secretary. Ironically, throughout the years, in a room full of ministry people, I’d be relegated to secretary simply because I was the girl in the room. When my pastor became ill, he asked me to provide a Communion Service because he couldn’t celebrate Mass. Most of the congregation was delighted, but of the few who were offended by my presence, some were women. The prejudice doesn’t reside only with the male species, but is far more institutional.

There had been days where it was a struggle to go to the job that I loved because of the sexism I faced. But, I have a fighting spirit and a real belief that I have been called to ministry, so I stuck with it. And I have the support of several truly excellent men, particularly clergy, who encourage my vocation—not that I need their approval—but their support helps me to ignore those who don’t value what I have to offer.

Often, professional women in my Church’s ministry are looked upon with suspicion.

While I don’t view my gender as a disability, others sometimes treat it as one. I tend to view most of these individuals (in my better moments), not as misogynistic monsters, but more like the men in Eowyn’s life. Sometimes, if I challenge their assumptions, they discover that what they’re putting out isn’t what’s really in their hearts. For some, their ignorance is a default position that never gets too much thought but isn’t what they believe.

Our culture has a long way to go in restructuring the language we use about gender and the assumptions we hold unchallenged. I have faith, however, that when many people are invited to question what they believe, they may reconsider their actions. In looking at individuals, evaluating specific situations, and taking inventory of how intentionally they are functioning in that moment or relationship, they can discover that many of their words and behaviours come from ignorance.

I find that when many get to know women in ministry, they come to see that they are very capable. Nobody knew what Eowyn was proficient as a shieldmaiden until she was tested in battle. She did what no man could do—defeated the Witch King. As more women are welcomed into different positions of ministry, I hope their contributions will be appreciated for the unique perspectives and gifts that they have to offer, and the stigma will disappear.

Jennifer Schlameuss-Perry

Jennifer Schlameuss-Perry

Contributing Writer at Area of Effect
Jen is a pastoral minister, wife, mother, ninja and writer. She loves sci-fi, superheroes, and classic literature, and prefers to share her Catholic faith through such lenses. Her book, "Comic Con Christianity" is available from Paulist Press.
Jennifer Schlameuss-Perry

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