NYTimes late to the story on ‘Women at the Pulpit’

Proving that when there isn’t really news, one can perhaps manufacture some, The New York Times is, once again, late to the story on a topic of religious significance. When last GetReligion examined the Times‘ timing on a story, George Conger found the Gray Lady, as the paper is known, to have just discovered the rise of Calvinism in non-Calvinist precincts — a good five years of so after many other media outlets had done so.

Now, the Times has made another one of these startling discoveries: there are women folk — yep, females! — in some of New York City’s pulpits! They’re actually preaching and leading congregations! The Times even has pictures! (Although, to be candid, the image shown here, of the late Aimee Semple McPherson, who was definitely a woman and definitely not a New York City pastor, isn’t among those photos.)

My gripe isn’t so much with the story itself, per se, but rather the “newness” of this, not to mention the tremendous assumptions buried in a paragraph such as this one:

Contributing to the growing numbers of women becoming pastors are real estate and denominations. Churches formed in nontraditional spaces, like storefronts, offer aspiring pastors more opportunities to preach. And in Holiness and Pentecostal churches, ordination and authority often come directly from the Spirit, said the Rev. Dr. Dale T. Irvin, president of the New York Theological Seminary.

Now that is quite a mouthful, isn’t it? They’ve had storefront churches in New York City for, what, 50 or 60 years at least? And only now are women empowered to preach in them? I’m sorry, but as a native of New York City (born in Manhattan in 1957 and having lived in the borough of Queens, chiefly, through 1985) who has returned scores of times since leaving, I recall lots of situations involving women in preaching situations long before this sudden “boom.”

In the 1970s, for example, the Episcopal Church had women as priests in Manhattan; I remember meeting one at a social gathering. By 1987, the Rev. Dr. Florence W. Pert, who had spent the previous 14 years as director of lay activities for Marble Collegiate Church, became the first woman ordained in the Collegiate (Dutch Reform) Churches of New York City and a senior associate minister at Marble Collegiate, renowned as the longtime home of the late Rev. Dr. Norman Vincent Peale.

And mention must be made of the Salvation Army, whose “invasion force” that landed in New York Harbor in 1880 consisted of one man, Commissioner George Scott Railton, and seven “Hallelujah Lassies,” also known as ordained women ministers in the movement. All of these examples — and I’m sure there are plenty of others — suggest that women have been preaching in New York City for far longer than, say, the past 30 years in Brooklyn. I’ll even venture a guess that Greenwich Village’s long-present Metropolitan Community Church congregation has likely had a female minister or two during its time, not to mention Unitarian Universalist and other groups in the city.

Also, while I understand The New York Times is a newspaper and not a theological sounding board, might it not be helpful to define, however quickly, words such as “Holiness” and “Pentecostal” and even “Spirit,” which presumably refers to the Holy Spirit, for an audience quite possibly unfamiliar with such terms? I’m guessing there are few, if any, Holiness or Pentecostal church members in the Times’ newsroom; how many of its readers are familiar with these groups or these terms?

While it is certainly laudable that The New York Times is turning its attention to the subject of women in the pulpit, and while I understand this is a photo essay and not an encyclopedic entry, I still have the feeling that a lot is lacking here. Some of those missing elements could have been supplied, I believe, without either compromising the overall integrity or turning this into a text of epic proportions.

About Mark Kellner

Mark Kellner has been interested in religion since his pre-teen years, and has written about religious news actively since 1983. His work regularly appears in Adventist World and Adventist Review magazines, where he is news editor, and in The Washington Times, where he has contributed since 1991, most recently writing about trends in religion. He and his wife reside in the Maryland suburbs, midway between Baltimore and Washington, D.C.

  • Brett

    It’s another one of those kind of “This didn’t really happen until we covered it” things, isn’t it, with a whiff of “Wild Kingdom” thrown in.

  • Laurie Goodstein

    This post is misleading. This was not even a news story, but a photo portfolio of quite moving and spirited portraits of women pastors in Brooklyn, all African American. It ran inside the Sunday metropolitan section. It was what most journalists would recognize as a photo album, an interesting feature. The text was 236 words and merely set up the photos. Please do take a look. Here’s a link if you missed it: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/12/nyregion/women-at-the-pulpit.html

    Laurie Goodstein, National Religion Correspondent, The New York Times

    • John Pack Lambert

      But the claim that the current realestate market is leading to store front churches is rubbish. The store front churches exist all over the place. Detroit has hundreds of them, and Detroit has no real estate crunch at all, in fact, it has huge amounts of real estate for the taking. Also when in the Suburbs we have mega-churches set up in strip mall and shopping center space, the whole process is clearly more complexed.


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