Women's Ordination

November 16, 2014

Susan Adams

On return from Boston and the celebration of 40 years of ordained women in the Episcopal Church.


Many years ago, 30 years, I had the privilege of meeting the Rev Alison Cheek, one of the first group of women to be ordained in the Anglican Communion, in Philadelphia, USA. She became a very dear friend. I met Sue Hiatt too, another of this group of courageous women. She was known as the 'women's bishop' even without being formally ordained as a bishop! This began my friendship with women from the group that became known as the Philadelphia Eleven; their ordinations were considered 'irregular' and not recognised by the church for the first two years – that is until 1976.


It is true a woman was ordained before this, and we should not forget Florence Li Tim-Oi who was ordained in 1944 in the Diocese of Hong Kong during world war II in order to meet a need during the war years - but she resigned her license, once the war concluded, not wanting to be part of any controversy in the church.


I went to Cambridge, Massachusetts in October this year to celebrate with the women from the group of eleven who are still alive and able to travel. We were marking and remembering that event 40 years ago - 40 years full of change and controversy since those first ordinations of women by the Episcopal Church in the USA in 1974, followed by it's reluctant authorisation of them to speak and preach in the public sphere in the name of the church two years later in 1976. Sitting at the front table was the presiding bishop of the Episcopal church USA, the Rt Revd Kathryn Jeffert-Schori whom some of you may have met when she visited NZ - there have been many changes!


Here in Aotearoa NZ, as we became the second church in the Anglican Communion to ordain women, it seemed to many that we had a relatively smooth run to the ordinations. A group of women who had previously been deaconesses were ordained priest: here in Auckland they were Wendy Goldie, Heather Brunton and Jean Brookes. In many ways it was straight forward! By that time the Episcopal church in the USA had regularised its irregular ordinations, and much of the debate threats and upset amongst the Bishops who gathered at Lambeth had settled down a bit – not that there was agreement on the matter, far from it! The theological arguments went on for many years.


The women, and the men who acted with them in these first ordinations, are today expressing surprise at their 'honouring', and at the number of invitations they are receiving to be present and to speak in parishes and to groups – “after all” they say, ”we were reviled and accused of heretical behaviour 40 years go” –and there were 'godly admonitions', trials and many protests. It was not easy for them.


All who spoke at the event in Boston, and all with whom I have spoken over the years, believed they had no choice but to act as they did: that to go ahead with the ordinations was to act in obedience to the 'will of God', as they said then; to take a stand for the inclusion of all who were excluded from the ministry of Christ. But most particularly it was very costly for the Rev Peter Bebe. He was the rector of the church where two of the women presided at the Eucharist after their ordination - he lost everything; home, family, friends, ministry, income, health .....


But what seemed even worse to me, and shocked me even more was that just 4 years ago, 36 years after the Eucharistic celebrations, he was asked by a bishop to renounce his priesthood before being allowed to conduct a wedding in that Bishop's Diocese! The tail of anger and resentment has been very long. But, he declared "it was the right thing to do and I would do it all again if necessary. It was a matter of justice and the time had come to put things right."


Bishop Tony Ramos, one of the bishops present at those 'irregular' ordinations said, at the celebrations in Boston, "justice delayed is justice denied". It was time for this injustice, the exclusion of women, to be put right, even if it required some bishops to be courageous and act outside the due processes of the church's governing body. The General Convention and various synods and commissions had been discussing and debating for a long time and had still not acted. After all, he went on to say, "if it had not been for the women in the garden that first Easter morning there would be no church for the men to govern, to hold power over"! And, the women too felt they had to act on what they believed was a clear call to the priesthood even if they risked losing their little toe-hold in the institutional church. They had to use the gifts, they believed they were given for priesthood: to use them in priestly service to the people of God and the church.


In NZ we are familiar with the phrase "walk the talk". Again, Bishop Ramos used it when urging the church to model in body language what it proclaims. He proclaimed passionately, "if we are really the diverse, hospitable body of Christ that we say we are, then we must reflect the diversity of the human family."


It seems to me, that this is a challenge for us here in NZ today! It seems to me, these words are a direct challenge to our Anglican Church to once again find the courage it exhibited when it ordained women as priests in 1977 and later redrafted the constitution of our NZ Anglican Church to enable us to be a three tikanga church embodying Maori, Pacific and Pakeha ways. Now courage is needed again to enable gay and lesbian people to be included in the ordained leadership of our Anglican Church here.


In the USA this is not an issue, and there are many gay and lesbian people in leadership positions including one married lesbian woman being the president/dean of the theological school where the celebrations I was participating in were being held. Somewhere along the way we, in NZ, have lost our courage to be what we say we are.


Over the 40 years since those 'irregular ordination' the church has seen many changes, and for many of us it is hard to remember what it was like back then when there as an all male, predominantly white priesthood here in NZ, when the language of the liturgy was male gendered, triumphalist, bloody, admonishing, and belittling of us poor sinful human creatures. We surely did need a God then, who could, if HE only would, gather us in one day - notwithstanding the miserable achievement of our best efforts - and we did try very hard to get our behaviour and our liturgy right so we would have a good chance of getting to heaven.


Since then theology and liturgy and the body language of the church has shifted, and nowadays, we celebrate the love of the God Jesus proclaimed; the God who is well pleased with creation; the God who celebrates with us our efforts to live together with kindness and cooperation and compassion; the God who works through us to gather in those who are in need - be that need of healing, of resources for living, or of a place to call home. The God we celebrate is the God of freedom and healing; the God who calls us by name, the God who invites us to use the gifts and talents we have on behalf of the community.


Sometimes, if we can overcome our fear of seeing what we might rather not see, and dare to look closely at our institution and at those who exercise leadership amongst us on its behalf, we see a lack of courage. We see a loss of the memory of inclusive love, a failure to remember the stories healing and the hope filled proclamations that inspire us to respond. Again, I am drawn to Bishop Ramos that 'young bishop' who is still carrying the wounds of his 'outrageous action' 40 years ago of standing with the retired bishops who ordained these outrageous women to the priesthood - he resigned his episcopacy and has, he said, never since been appointed to a significant office within the church in the US. That bishop, who was known as a powerful speaker against injustice, dares even today, to say that he does not believe in the same God as those who would discriminate against people who are different from them, that he does not believe in the same God as those who would use the law (state or church) to support the exercise of power over others in ways that marginalise, and discriminate.


To quote, "We don't worship the same God, me and them. My God is not homophobic, sexist, blind to injustice. Diversity is a gift. If we only embrace the past our arms won't be free to embrace the future."


He said this at the same time, the same week, as an announcement was made: that for the first time in its history (apart from during war) the Lambeth Conference is to be postponed for fear of discord and violence over the the inclusion of gay and lesbian people in our Anglican expression of the body of Christ!


It seems to me, the power for liberative action; the imperative to 'walk the talk', is power we need to embrace again. The ordination of women whether in the USA or here in NZ, was not a singular, once only act - it was a symbolic act of courage the memory of which can empower us today if we dare to remember. Today we need a church and a leadership that can find courage again to do what needs to be done to right continuing wrongs: in our time now, it seems to me, that would be to ordain gay and lesbian people, whether single or married, and to celebrate the gifts and diversity they bring to us.


So I am compelled to ask, "Do we have any bishops courageous enough to step outside the self-imposed prohibitive moratorium, and take the next step for freedom and healing?"



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