Living with the messiness: Experiences of ordained women in the Episcopal priesthood

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Julia Loughlin


Women religious, Ordained women, Episcopal, Priesthood

Subject Categories

Religion | Social Psychology and Interaction | Sociology of Culture | Women's Studies


This is a qualitative study of the lives of women in the Episcopal priesthood. These women exist in a religious tradition where religious images have been decidedly masculine as well as in a church structure where women are under-represented. Their lives are spent interpreting religious teachings and living out those teachings in a world where gendered expectations of religious images, economics, and church structures intersect in a complex of ritual, tradition, family and faith. This study investigates the ways these clergywomen negotiate these complex worlds.

In-depth interviews were carried out with twenty Episcopal priests from diocese around the country. The participants vary in their ages, their ordination dates, when they attended seminary, and the size of the congregation where they are currently serving. The majority of them are currently employed in parish ministry and those who are not working in a parish, did so at one time. Management of parishes differ as does the management of each diocese, but the policies and procedures of the Episcopal Church are generally the same throughout the country.

The findings are organized around three main issues. The first examines how these women manage rituals, titles and representations of the priesthood which are deeply embedded in society. The connections between gender, religion and social change are illustrated in the ways these women go about their everyday activities. Second, this study looks at how these women "become" priests. This transformation can be seen through the ways language becomes organized. Their telling of their way to the priesthood, their calling narratives, are structured in such as way as to be acceptable in the Episcopal tradition as well as in other main-line Protestant denominations, while being attentive to the history of women in the Episcopal Church. This language, created over time spent as a postulant and in seminary, serves as a way to legitimate their belonging behind the altar. Finally, this study looks at how these women priests think about "what they do" and their vocation. Through their daily activities they produce a type of faith rooted in equality and social justice.


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