“How long will women’s ordination last?”

The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church of the United States.

Last?” I asked the woman. “Did you say, ‘How long will it last?'”

After three services at All Saints Church today (two with the Dean of Canterbury Cathedral, the Very Rev. Robert Willis, and one as preacher and celebrant at our Spanish service), I was breezing through the church to have a quick word with an altar guild member. I encountered a woman touring the church with her young daughter, and I chatted briefly with them. I invited them to attend our church the next Sunday, and then the mother looked me up and down in my priest garb and asked me, “How long will women’s ordination last?”

I have to admit that the question confused me. No, it was more than that: the question took the wind out of my sails for a minute. Having come from the Roman Catholic tradition, which does not ordain women, I was delighted to find my spiritual home–and my priestly vocation–in a church that has ordained women for forty years. (Sidenote: The first women were ordained in 1974, a controversial move in the church, and those ordinations were “regularized” by the General Convention of the Episcopal Church in 1976. The vote to allow women’s ordination also allowed for women in all orders, which means that women can be deacons and bishops, too. Nevertheless, the first woman bishop in the U.S. church was not elected until 1989: The Right Rev. Barbara Harris of Massachusetts. Now, two out of the three bishops in my diocese are women, and the Presiding Bishop of the United States is a woman.)

I finally responded to the woman, “Our church has been ordaining women for almost forty years. We’re not going back.” I pushed back in my mind all the theological arguments about ordination (that one is a priest forever, that one’s vocation has nothing to do with gender, etc.) to try to understand the origin of her question.

And then she said, “But the Church of England said that women can’t be bishops. So won’t that call into question all women’s ordinations?”

Ah. Funny she should have asked this, because only last night, I was chatting with the Dean of Canterbury Cathedral, the Very Rev. Robert Willis, about this very topic. After a short visit to Los Angeles, he was rushing back to England to vote in the Church of England’s synod again on the issue of women bishops. She was referring to the vote against women bishops several months ago–a proposal that was voted down despite the overwhelming support among priests and bishops for women bishops. They needed only four more votes among the laity to pass the resolution last year. And somehow, they have managed to revisit the matter this year. Dean Willis explained to me that this is only the first stage of the process, and he (along with nearly all the clergy of England) hopes it will pass this time.

And yet here I was, thousands of miles away, standing in front of an American woman, trying to convince her that my collar was going to stay on. I explained all of the above to her quickly and also explained that the Episcopal Church of the United States, like the other member churches of the Anglican Communion, makes its own decisions about such matters. I told her that churches all over the world, including in Africa, Asia, Europe, Australia, New Zealand and the Americas have authorized the ordination of women. “Churches in Africa?” she asked in disbelief.

The Rt. Rev. Barbara Harris, first woman bishop in the Anglican Communion

“Yes,” I replied. “The Church of England is arriving at this decision much more slowly than other national churches–including Wales and Scotland.”

She looked at my collar and said, “That just goes to show you that people don’t take it seriously.”

Okay, I thought. Okay. I thought I was inviting you to worship at my church and showing your little girl the nearest restroom, and somehow I have ended up feeling the need to defend what I believed I no longer needed to defend. I’ve never considered myself on the forefront of this ordination situation. It was women generations before me who carved the way, and I just sallied right in. Right? Right? And it is 2:30 and I need lunch.

In truth, I did not feel highly defensive, because a comment from someone wandering through a church has more to do with some unnamed situation in her own life, and not with the presenting issue: her doubt about women’s ordination.

“Well,” I said politely, “we’re here to stay in the United States.”

And then, we discovered that her little girl was having trouble unlocking the lock on the bathroom door, and so we worked together to get her daughter out of that locked bathroom. The little girl skipped out with delight once she figured out how to unlock the door.

I know that feeling well. I hope the women of the Church of England know that feeling soon.

8 Thoughts

  1. While women’s ordination is a long-established fact in Canada, I think the upcoming episcopal election in the Diocese of BC demonstrates that we cannot become complacent about it. The seven candidates (including me) are all middle-aged white males. This speaks to a real problem in the nomination process (namely, that there is no search committee actively nominating candidates from diverse backgrounds), but also to how quickly the system can perpetuate old biases without any one person actually intending to do so. It is not enough to have persons of good will and the right opinions – we need to change the systems within which we operate.

    1. Yes, Bruce, it does take intentional planning to change the system. My sense from friends in the Church of England is that there are women waiting in the wings with a sense of vocation to the episcopacy, and others there sense that call as well. It’s sometimes hard to see how old biases are perpetuated. However, calling together a group of women leaders in the church and asking them about their experiences would probably help.

  2. Brilliant …. the perfect measured response. Nice job keeping from having a “gut reaction”. I am not that evolved. when I was a little girl, I was a devout Catholic and truly wanted to be a priest. The option was unthinkable at the time. I am a “blooming: Episcopalian now – wishing I was younger so I could full fill that youthful dream.

    1. Sue, I applaud your “blooming.” There are all types of ways to address a hunger for ministry, study, prayer, etc. Education for Ministry (EfM) is considered a compression of seminary education for laypeople. It tends to lead to a blossoming of ministry in all sorts of ways.

  3. I have observed over the last few years that Bruce’s comment about who gets nominated is true. In Australia we are still a bit enthused by women bishops and maybe a tad pro-active …but it’s taken a long time to get a woman to actually be a Diocesan bishop. (though there are some fine auxiliaries …plenty of archdeacons …and
    Of course women are over-represented in small country parishes which are struggling, many don’t have full-time positions. Even when Sarah is consecrated early next year the metropolitan of her province will not be the consecrating bishop because that mega-Diocese still doesn’t ordain women to the priesthood.

  4. I was the “altar guild member” …from inside the sacristy I heard that question…..it was a sacred moment..the closing metaphor…. first her daughter can’t open the lock then she finds a way and springs out!!!!!!!!! wow!!!!!!!! Hopefully whatever is locked up in her mom who asked the question, will find a way to spring it open so she can be free within herself! Wow. Thanks for sharing! Amazing!

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