glory of god

glory of god

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Women, Ordination, and the Radical Fringe


Some years ago, before I had even heard of a town called Wakefield, I began to think about a vocation in ministry. In fact, all through high school and college I toyed with the idea. I even went to a high school student visiting day at Luther Northwestern Theological Seminary in St. Paul. But it wasn't until my junior year of college that I really began to think that this might be an option for me. So, I wrote to several of the seminaries of the Episcopal Church to find out what I would have to do, first to be admitted and then to pursue ordination.

Especially interesting to me was the varied responses I received. A few just sent me a catalogue. One sent me a copy of the canons, and a couple of the seminaries were very helpful. Interestingly, they were the schools closest to me: Nashotah House and Seabury-Western Theological Seminary. Nashotah House sent an encouraging letter and several back issues of their alumni newsletter, along with a catalogue. Unfortunately, when I read the Nashotah catalogue, I realized it probably wasn't the place for me. It had a quotation by a female graduate who said something on the order of "It's not really as bad for women here as I had expected." Not exactly a ringing endorsement. Seabury-Western was really great. They even called me. I'm not sure how they got my number, since I didn't include it in my letter to them. I guess they phoned the college to find me. They were very nice, but as I spoke with the admissions director, she made a comment about how Seabury served "the broad mainstream" of the Episcopal Church, and not the "radical fringe." Having always been liberally inclined, I wasn't sure what to make of that. I wasn't sure if I'd fit in there, and I thought that perhaps where I really belonged was the fringe. So, I gave the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge a second look, despite the lack-luster initial response to my inquiry.

I can't imagine having studied anywhere else. As it turns out, I was never as "fringy" as some there. In fact, my New Testament professor told me once that I was among the most conservative students there. I'm not so sure about that. But I definitely tried to learn from all of the voices and perspectives I could. I guess that's why I am so interested in the concept of comprehensiveness.

But as much as I have a concern for maintaining a delicate balance in the church between the various views, one of the issues I am rather uncompromising on is the ordination of women. I was born as a Lutheran and women were already pastors by the time I came into the world. Women were approved for ordination in the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada when I was less than 4. And Anglicanism had its first woman bishop when I was 16. So, it seems strange to me that this issue is still being debated, as it is across the Anglican Communion.

Today, July 29 is the anniversary of the first ordinations of women to the priesthood in the Episcopal Church. It happened in 1974. But not officially. Rather, it was an "extraordinary" or "irregular" event (some might and did call it illegal). On that day in 1974, in the city of Philadelphia, the face of ministry in the Anglican Church was forever changed. Eleven women deacons were "irregularly" ordained by three retired bishops. It was irregular, because neither the Episcopal Church, nor any church in the Anglican Communion, had yet approved women’s ordination; although, one courageous woman, Florence Li Tim Oi, had been ordained in Hong Kong in 1944, but was subsequently asked not to serve as a priest and was not recognized in other parts of the Communion. After years of working tirelessly to change the church through the usual power structures by appealing nicely to the men in power, by working through the democratic processes of synods and conventions, and after being turned down again and again, these 11 women and three men who were committed to living out the Gospel of Christ in its fullest sense decided to stop being polite and took matters, literally, into their own hands.

On this anniversary, I would like to share their story. The late Suzanne Hiatt, one of the 11 women, and the primary organizer of that historic event reflected on it in a letter to women working for ordination in the Church of England, published as "July 29, 1974--Kairos as Paradigm Shift," in No Easy Peace: Liberating Anglicanism, ed. Carter Heyward and Sue Phillips, (Lantham, MD: University Press of America, 1992).. This is an abridgment of what she wrote:


When we arrived at Church of the Advocate at 9:00 a.m., the feast of Ss. Martha and Mary of Bethany, it was already two-thirds full. The church is a barn of a building, holding in excess of 2000 people. We had contingency plans in case of a riot or an interruption of the service. There was a basement room where we met to vest and to take the oath of conformity and where we planned to reassemble (bishops and deacons), in case of emergency, to finish the ordination. Because the opposition was so shrill and violent, I was sure we had chosen the right course. I think we all felt the same steely determination that morning.

By 11:00, the church was packed--standing room only--and the press and TV cameras were adding to the general bedlam, heat, and excitement. Paul Washington, the rector of the church, quieted the crowd and began the proceeding with an eloquent welcome. He compared our situation to that of a pregnant woman - the church says it's an inconvenient time to have a birth, but the baby comes when its time is here. This analogy was followed by the opening strains of the hymn, 'Come, Labor On.' The accident of juxtaposition produced a roar of laughter and on that note the procession began, led by crucifer Barbara Harris, Warden of the parish, and later first woman bishop in the Anglican Communion.

The procession was slowed by people pressing in to embrace us and sustained applause and cheering when the bishops emerged. I remember my lay presenter shouting over the din, 'They're going to do it. They're really going to do it. The Holy Spirit has grabbed them by whatever hair they have left and they're actually going to do it!'

The sermon came first. The preacher, Dr. Charles Willie, an African American layman and Vice President of the Episcopal Church’s House of Deputies, spoke of justice delayed as justice denied and made the obvious parallels with Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement.

When the time came for objections there was a line of black-suited clergymen. When all had their say, the bishop who was presiding read a simple statement to the effect that we had weighed our action carefully in the light of Gospel imperatives and were not dissuaded. The opponents left after making their objections.

Then the ordaining began. About a hundred priests joined the bishops for the laying on of hands - the line stretching to the back of the church. The press contributed much pushing and shoving and flashing of cameras. The spirit of the day was high excitement and delirious joy. We had been prepared for just about anything, but the outpouring of love and support from so many people was astonishing. It was a sign that the time was right--a truth we'd sensed but now knew beyond doubt.

The ordination was only the beginning of 18 months of intense struggle. It was followed by a special meeting of the bishops, declaring the ordinations so irregular as to be invalid. Afterward we began functioning as priests whenever and wherever we could. Prior to that August meeting we had refrained from priestly ministry to give them a chance to decide how to deal with us. When they refused, we felt we had no choice.



A year later in 1975, four more women were ordained irregularly in Washington, DC. Women's full ordination was officially approved in the U.S. in 1976, and the 15 women ordained irregularly in '74 and '75 were fully accepted as priests. There were some who argued that the women would have to be re-ordained, as the first ordinations were not valid. The women obviously disagreed, and argued back that by ordaining them a third time, after their diaconal and priestly ordinations, it would not make them priests but, in fact, bishops! The men in power definitely didn't want to go there, so they were accepted “as is.” The Anglican Church of Canada also began ordaining women to the priesthood in 1976, watching events in the U.S., but without the catalyst of such revolutionary actions. Actually, Canada began ordaining women legally two months before the U.S. By contrast, it took the Church of England another 20 years, approving women’s ordination in 1994, and only now debating whether women can be bishops.

There are many Anglicans who look to these 11 women as prophets and pioneers. Others, even some who approve of women’s ordination, are still frustrated by this dramatic action, which broke the rules so precipitously. Anglicans, it seems, are by nature rule bound.

The author of this reflection, Sue Hiatt, and two of the other women ordained that day--Carter Heyward and Alison Cheek--were among my professors at the Episcopal Divinity School, part of that radical fringe. They have had a profound impact on my life, my understanding of Christian discipleship, and my own sense of what it means to be a priest, as I know they have for others as well. Bishop Ann Tottenham (retired suffragan in Toronto) told me once that she was opposed to women's ordination until she met some of these pioneering women, who obviously changed her mind. And consider the result: A small, radical movement that began with 11 women and three retired bishops ushered in a new age in our church, one which now, three decades later, includes thousands of women clergy, 25 women bishops across the world in the United States, Canada, Cuba, Australia, and New Zealand, including Bishop Gayle Harris, who ordained me, and even the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church.

I can't imagine the Church without the ministries of these women, and especially the women who have shaped my own ministry: pastors, field education supervisors, professors, bosses, rectors, bishops, and friends. On this anniversary day I say to them congratulations and thanks. And most especially I ask God to continue to bless them.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

On churchgoing

One of my favorite things about Sunday afternoons is the opportunity to listen to Garrison Keillor's radio program "A Prairie Home Companion" as I drive home from church. Unlike previous vicars of Wakefield, I live some distance, which has its advantages and disadvantages. One of the advantages is that it gives me the opportunity to take time out, breathe, and listen to music and interesting programs. Being a Minnesota native, my favorite radio show is Keillor's. He has a wonderful ability to connect me with my "homeland," even when I am so far from there.

This past Sunday, July 18, Keillor's show was a patchwork quilt of previous clips--something that's to be expect in the mid-summer, I suppose. As I was driving, he shared a beautiful piece on "Churchgoing" by the late John Updike. Keillor first read this on air just after Updike died in January 2009. I didn't hear it then, but I am glad I did this week. Here it is:

from Churchgoing

There was a time when I wondered why more people did
not go to church. Taken purely as a human recreation, what
could be more delightful, more unexpected than to enter a
venerable and lavishly scaled building kept warm and clean
for us one or two hours a week and to sit and stand in unison
and sing and recite creeds and petitions that are like paths
worn smooth in the raw terrain of our hearts? To listen, or not
listen, as a poorly paid but resplendently robed man strives to
console us with scraps of ancient epistles and halting accounts,
hopelessly compromised by words, of those intimations of
divine joy that are like pain in that, their instant gone, the
mind cannot remember or believe them; to witness the
windows donated by departed patrons and the altar flowers
arranged by withdrawn hands and the whole considered
spectacle lustrous beneath its patina of inheritance; to pay, for
all this, no more than we are moved to give-surely in all
democracy there is nothing like it. Indeed, it is the most
available democratic experience. We vote less than once a
year. Only in church and at the polls are we actually given our
supposed value, the soul-unit of one, with its noumenal
arithmetic of equality: one equals one."

--from "Churchgoing," from Pigeon Feathers and Other Stories, 1962, pp 249-250

I imagine that this is why a lot of us go to church. We go because there we are connected with something that just doesn't make logical sense, and yet, is very real. In church we are filled with that "divine joy" Updike writes about. The stained glass, the flowers and resplendent vestments, the old words and ancient creeds, they all connect us with something deeper and more profound than we find in our ordinary day to day lives. Or at least that's true for me. And maybe it's true for you as well. The church has its faults, there's no question about that. But it is also special and holy and sacred. It warms the heart. It fills us with divine joy. Most especially, it gives us life.

If you care to hear Garrison Keillor read this passage in his own distinctive voice, you can do so here.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Rediscovering Anglican Comprehensiveness

The recent Pentecost letter to the Anglican Communion by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the response by the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church have led to numerous reflections on blogs and various internet sites. Some hail Archbishop Williams’ fortitude in working to defend the historic faith and practice of the church in the face of Western modernizing tendencies, particularly regarding sexual ethics and the common mind of the world-wide Communion. Others, particularly in the United States, have taken great comfort and pride in the forcefulness of Presiding Bishop Jefferts Schori’s pastoral letter, in which she has sought to describe how the Episcopal Church has come to its current decisions and practice vis a vis sexuality, particularly in approving the consecration of a second partnered and openly gay bishop. Interestingly, both the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church appeal to the voice of the Holy Spirit as guiding the unity of the Communion and/or the prophetic but undeniably divisive actions of the Episcopal Church’s leadership.

As thoughtful and skillfully written as these primatial epistles are, it is easy to find fault with both letters. In the case of the Archbishop of Canterbury, he seems to place unity of belief and practice above all else, while failing to recognize that there is already a profound diversity within the Anglican Communion. In practice, his emphasis on unity likely serves to enshrine the most conservative perspectives, while minimizing or rejecting new perspectives and practices that arise in various contexts. If the church is to grow and adapt to new contexts and new situations, including new understandings of holy living in the contemporary world, a more open approach is undoubtedly necessary.

Toward that end, I would argue that some provinces of the Communion should be allowed a generous degree of freedom to explore these new developments and practices in the context of the Christian community, and then after a time be given the opportunity to share the results of this period of testing with the wider church. If certain provinces aren’t given this freedom, how else will the wider church ever know if it can move in a new direction?

The example of liturgical revision may be helpful here. The Episcopal Church did not just leap from the 1928 Book of Common Prayer to the 1979 Prayer Book over night. Rather, there was a long period of trial spanning several decades, beginning with a few parishes interested in the Parish Communion Movement and expanding to dioceses and the wider church. In 1976 a new Prayer Book was provisionally adopted by the General Convention, but even then was subject to a three-year trial period. Following that book’s final adoption in 1979, other churches of the Communion began to experiment with the prayers and liturgies found in it. It was not an immediate process and while the “radical” revisions of the 1970s are common across the Communion today, there remains a vibrant and lively diversity of practice in the world’s Anglican churches, some preferring the traditional language of our heritage, others embracing contemporary liturgies, and a great many striking a delicate balance, offering both within the same faith community.

While not “officially” approached in this way, the Communion’s handling of the issue of women’s ordination to all three orders of ministry largely has followed this path as well. A few provinces of the Communion adopted the practice in the minority, much to the dismay of many, only to be followed by more and more after they had seen the undeniable fruits of women’s ministries in those few contexts that led the way. Had the Anglican Church of Canada and the Episcopal Church in the United States been denied the opportunity to experience women’s ministries in the 1970s, the Church of England likely would not be debating the best way to adopt the practice of consecrating women as bishops today.

The fact of the matter is, the Anglican Communion has often held such open views when member churches have desired to push the boundaries of traditional practice. It has never required that all member churches come to the same conclusions, but rather has allowed for a significant degree of ambiguity, even with regard to very significant theological, moral, and liturgical issues. The recent attempts to clamp down on diverse practices with threats of punishment and exclusion are simply foreign to the long-standing ethos of comprehensiveness that has been so vital and life-giving within Anglicanism.

That said, Presiding Bishop Jefferts Schori’s Pentecost letter defending the actions of the Episcopal Church presents problems of its own. She is right to criticize the unprecedented centralizing tendencies of the Archbishop of Canterbury in his letter (and though unstated, in the work toward the adoption of the Anglican Communion Covenant). She is right to defend the autonomy of the Episcopal Church while desiring to maintain its strong “bonds of affection” with the churches of the Anglican Communion. However, her appeal to the Episcopal Church’s Baptismal Covenant is not theologically strong enough to justify her defense of the church’s actions, in my view. And as others have pointed out, her appeal to the Church’s history is not always accurate.

There is an unfortunate lack of theological grounding in the Presiding Bishop’s letter and also in the Episcopal Church’s regular appeal to justice as a defense for its actions. There’s no denying that a deep and abiding concern for justice has been a central facet of Christianity since the earthly ministry of Jesus and before him in the voices of the Hebrew prophets. However, for the concept of justice (which can be interpreted variously, depending on an individual’s or group’s point of view) to attain its most compelling meaning it needs a strongly articulated theological foundation. For many Anglicans, especially those inspired by the ethos of comprehensiveness, that theological foundation is the Incarnation.

The Presiding Bishop would have been on firmer footing if she had instead drawn more deeply from the rich well of the Anglican theological tradition, and especially the theologians of comprehensiveness, such as Richard Hooker, F. D. Maurice, B. F. Westcott, and even Charles Gore. In their own ways and contexts, each argues for the unity of the church in the face of diverse practices. For them, the central unifying force is nothing less than God incarnate in Jesus Christ. In and through the Incarnation of Christ, diverse persons, practices, and beliefs are ultimately reconciled and transcended. In and through the Incarnation of Christ humanity finds its true meaning—justice, love, peace, compassion, and unity in diversity.

In 1893 B. F. Westcott wrote (excuse lack of gender inclusive language):

However feebly we realize the fact, the truth, of the Incarnation, we find in it the inexhaustible spring of brotherhood. No difference which finds its expression in terms of earth can stay it. In this sense also, ‘brothers are brothers evermore.’ We spell out the Divine message little by little in thought and action, but the most rudimentary apprehension of its meaning brings home to us that man is bound to man, in virtue of his humanity, by that which is infinitely stronger than anything which tends to separate one from another: that in the reckoning of the great account the loss of one cannot be another’s gain…. We may be filled with shame and compunction for innumerable inconsistencies, failures, sins, but the motive which we have once felt loses nothing of its claim on our obedience. Christ—such is the formal confession of each one of us—took me to Himself when He took humanity to Himself, and I owe myself to those with whom He has united me.The Incarnation and Common Life, pp. 24-25.

Of course this idea presented so well by Westcott did not originate in the Anglican divines. It goes back to St. Paul, who argues that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female. This is not to say that these differences disappeared (men and women aren’t neutered after all), but that in Christ, through whom and in whose image we all are made, our true and lasting unity is discovered, even in the midst of our inherent diversity. In Christ, we recognize who we are and who our neighbors are, whatever differences may exist among us.

Generations of Anglican divines have elaborated on this foundational Christian principle to present it afresh in new contexts and situations, many of them as marred by division as we find ourselves today. It’s lamentable that their inspirational work has not been better utilized (by the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, and others) in defense of the embattled Anglican ethos of comprehensiveness and even more importantly in defense of today’s diverse practices and beliefs. Ultimately, the differences among us, vast though they sometimes seem, reflect the quest of every one of us to discern truth and holiness in our age as we attempt in imperfect ways to live the bold life of Incarnation in the Body of Christ.

Monday, July 12, 2010

The Post the First

So, until about 5 minutes ago I maintained that blogs are self-indulgent. I enjoy reading various blogs from time to time, but I never thought much about putting up one of my own. And I can't help but think that excessive blogging has contributed to the very polarized Episcopal Church and Anglican Communion that we know today. It's just too easy to compose sharply worded epistles to the world and to spend time and energy criticizing those with whom we disagree. None of that seems to serve the greater purpose of building up the Body of Christ.

So, this blog will endeavor to build up, rather than tear down. An appreciation of Anglican Comprehensiveness will be the theological and ecclesiastical bias employed here (coincidentally, that's the focus of my thesis, too). There will probably be lots of quotations from theological giants like Richard Hooker, F. D. Maurice, Charles Gore, A. G. Hebert, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Norman Pittenger, and the like. The occasional sermon may find its way here. And for a bit of levity, an appreciation of all things Scandinavian (except Lutefisk) will be featured, too.

The title, by the way, is taken from the 1766 novel of the same name by Oliver Goldsmith. It was a particular favorite in the Victorian era. I'm a Rector not a Vicar and I minister in Massachusetts not England, but the title is too perfect not to use. A parishioner gave me a copy of the book on my first day in the parish, so I feel a special connection with it. And my spiritual director always begins our sessions by asking "How is the Vicar of Wakefield," so I've begun to identify with it; although, I hope I'm somewhat less daft than the Rev. Charles Primrose, the novel's title character.