Come Right In

Volume 48, Issue 1, Michael J. Crosbie

Perhaps the antenna was just more in-tune with the topic of accessibility, hospitality, and inclusivity, but while this issue was being produced it seemed that there was a buzz in the religious architecture world about this subject. We were careful in planning this issue that it not be just about accessibility for the disabled, but consider access to sacred space being granted or denied based on a variety of circumstances, such as gender, sharing of faith, or comprehension of sacred space. Who is welcome and who is not, and why? And who decides?

First there was the news report about the new pastor of a San Francisco Roman Catholic church who had banned altar service in the future by young women, who have served this church since 1994. The reason, according to Fr. Joseph Illo of Star of the Sea Church, was that in an inclusive altar server program the young men usually end up losing interest because, in the Father’s words, “girls generally do a better job.” No good deed goes unpunished.

Banning young women from altar service would allow the boys, according to Fr. Illo, to “develop their own leadership potential,” although one wonders what kind of a leader is being cultivated at Star of the Sea. Maybe it’s the kind that excels when people who can “do a better job” are excluded from being leaders. Another reason Fr. Illo gave for the new policy was that altar service is a pathway to the priesthood, so why bother with the ladies if they haven’t got a prayer to enter the priesthood? There’s always the altar guild, right? (Fr. Illo’s boss in Rome might have a different take on this.) Finally, Fr. Illo cited the 1,900-year tradition of female exclusion in the Church as precedent for banning female altar servers. There was no word as to whether Star of the Sea is planning to bring back slavery.

About 400 miles south of where female servers were being escorted off the altar by Fr. Illo, women opened an all-female mosque in Los Angeles—the first ever in the U.S., according to press reports. The mosque is the creation of a comedy writer and a lawyer (Hasna Maznavi and Sana Muttalib, respectively), who said that their motivation was to redress the inhospitability that women often encounter in mosques, from back-door entrances to a lack of leadership roles (there’s that L-word again). They saw this new mosque as a space where women could have not only a place to pray in peace, but also a voice.

The topic of access and hospitability in the mosque is addressed in this issue in Tammy Gaber’s excellent article (page 10) about the space allotted to women in mosques and how it needs to change. Gaber notes that there is nothing inherent in the teachings of Islam that relegates women to second-class status in terms of space, just as there is nothing intrinsic to the Christian faith that necessitates banning women from the altar, or as priests. These barriers are man-made and they have nothing to do with a particular belief system. They are just more evidence of how we fail to live up to our faith if we continue to perpetuate a “tradition” of exclusion, inaccessibility, and unwelcome–no matter what reason we give.  And the problem isn’t religion, either. The problem is with the people at the front door with the keys.

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