“Why don’t you leave the Church and get ordained in (insert other denomination here)? It’ll be easier.”
Those were the first words I heard from a priest after finally gutting up enough to go and talk to someone “official” in the Church several years ago about thinking I might be hearing God calling me to ordained ministry. The conversation got worse from there. I’ll spare you, and myself, a walk through that painful discernment experience. Opening your deepest spiritual wonderings to another person is never easy – doing it with someone who doesn’t honor the vulnerability of that act is traumatic. Suffice it to say by the end of the afternoon, I was curled up in the fetal position at home, sobbing like my dog had just died. Sorry I didn’t spare you that image, but there’s a reason why:
At home on the couch that evening, still crying, I said to me husband, “I can’t stop. I don’t understand what’s happening to me.”
Being at times a redneck sage, he nailed it right on the head when he thought a moment and said, “You’re grieving your call.”
And I realized that he was right. That was exactly what was happening. The best way I know to explain it is that it felt like a part of my heart was dying.
Today is the 40th anniversary of the ordination of women to the Episcopal priesthood. On this day, July 29, in 1974 in Philadelphia, a group of 11 women, known as the “Philadelphia 11,” stood, and then knelt, for ordination to the Sacred Order of Priest. The Church is celebrating this wonderful anniversary. Still, I can only imagine how many times before that July day that they must have felt like their hearts were dying.
Today is also the one month anniversary of my ordination to the priesthood at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Woodville, Texas, where I serve bi-vocationally as vicar in the Episcopal Diocese of Texas. It is because of those foremothers, and the people who supported them, and those who listened, finally, to their call, that I was finally able to answer mine at age 43. For all those who have supported me, and listened, I thank God for you.
My journey to ordination was a bumpy one, to say the least. Raised in and having left the Southern Baptist tradition after years of extensive involvement in children and youth ministries, I was deeply devoted to the Episcopal tradition I’d adopted in young adulthood. To have experienced a tersely closed door on my first attempt at approaching my own Church with an ordination discernment question was rough. But I am sure it was nothing compared to the huge splinters that were surely imbedded in the noses of those 11, who must have become well-versed at doors being slammed in their faces.
But I would also guess that they, like me, found a measure of strength that allowed them to keep moving forward by understanding that those were collective doors slamming – not a rejection of whether they personally were being called to ordination. The Church was struggling to free itself from the burden of holding all those doors closed, and those women were bearing the strain.
There is empowerment in realizing that a struggle is universal. In that, you feel less alone. But the good news is that if it is God calling you to serve, then God will make a way. Our work is in understanding that his time frame, and the grace and mercy he has to pour out on many along the way, will not be what we picture – it will be much more than that.
Obedient justice was one of the hardest disciplines I had to practice in my journey toward ordination. (I am sure God has much to teach me about it post-ordination, too.) Obedient justice means to work without fear or shame for what is right and good in the Church, while staying true to the form of Jesus Christ’s Church as we have received it. For me, that meant quietly taking another year of personal discernment, and truly honoring that, and all the other difficult tasks that first priest required of me, in order to follow my call. But it also meant reaching deep into that call for the boldness to ask for guidance from other leadership, and to continue to walk back up to that door – and knock. I remember having a dream during my discernment process about making my way around a huge castle wall filled with an endless row of doors.
The Church has a ways to go in accepting the ministry already being done by the women God is calling. Our sister priests in the Church of England have just this month been voted permission to put themselves forward for election to stand, and kneel, to join the Sacred Order of Bishops. My heart and prayers go out to those unknown women still standing silently behind a door. I encourage you to reach out and knock, and to keep knocking.
In the United States, our own Presiding Bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori, preached this week about the 40th anniversary of the Philadelphia 11. On the pulpit beside her was a pair of red heels, as she reminded the congregation how women priests have experienced even being told what not to wear, including red high heels and dangling earrings.
Those shoes were particularly interesting to me – I was part of a group of female students advised by a female priest a few years ago that we were NOT to wear red heels at our ordinations. Of course in my diocese, we’re likely to be wearing red cowboy boots! And I know a woman who gave away all her dangling earrings after a male priest told her she couldn’t serve with him at the altar if she was going to wear them. A long way to go yet.
“Women in all orders of ministry – baptized, deacons, priests, and bishops – can walk proudly today, in whatever kind of shoes they want to wear, because of what happened here 40 years ago. We can walk proudly, even if not yet in full equality, knowing that the ranks of those who walk in solidarity are expanding,” the presiding bishop said. “Try to walk in the shoes of abused and trafficked women. Walk on to Zion carrying the children who are born and suffer in the midst of war. Gather up the girls married before they are grown, gather up the schoolgirls still missing in Nigeria, and gather up all those lives wasted in war and prison. March boldly, proclaiming good news to all who have been pushed aside, and call them to the table of God, to Wisdom’s feast.”
Thanks be to God for honoring his call in me, blessing me with a strongly supportive husband and children, wonderful friends, loving and praying church members, two amazing groups of classmates in the Iona School for Ministry bi-vocational training program, bishops who are not afraid to be wise and bold iconoclasts for the good of the Church, and many good deacons and priests here in the Episcopal Diocese of Texas.
“I’ve never seen anyone so excited about their own ordination before. I guess it’s a women in ministry thing?” said a supportive community clergy colleague at our first ministerial alliance meeting after my ordination last month. “I wish all pastors were so excited about being ordained,” another minister said.
There is really no way I can fully explain the daily joy I feel in being able to live this amazing ordained life, after nearly 10 years of doors and doorways. It’s a women in ministry thing. It’s an Episcopal thing. It’s a bi-vocational thing. It’s a God thing.