“BUT YOU’Re JUST LIKE A PRIEST!”……“I AM A PRIEST.”
March 8 is International Women’s Day, celebrating economic, political and social achievements of women past, present and future. Dean Lucinda Laird reflects.
I was confirmed in the Episcopal Church when I was 10 ½ (OK, yes, a bit too young). That was 1963. One of my favorite pictures was taken that day: I’m standing in a white dress with my Dad, trying to look serious.
In 1963 I knew I could grow up to arrange flowers in the church, sing in the choir (if I could learn to carry a tune), and teach Sunday School. That was about it. I remember a Sunday School teacher telling us that maybe some of us girls would be lucky enough to marry a priest. Women couldn’t be deacons, priests or bishops; they couldn’t serve on the Vestry; they couldn’t usher or read in church; they couldn’t represent the parish at the diocesan convention, and they couldn’t be delegates at the General Convention – the highest decision-making body of the Church.
Oh, well. Truthfully, much as I would like to say I was a young rebel and persisted in asking “WHY NOT?”, I wasn’t and didn’t. The only thing that really bothered me at the time was that I couldn’t serve as an acolyte, and the boys I knew always boasted about it. (I finally did, when I came back to church in my 20s, if only to show them up.)
Fast forward to 2019. I am a priest and Dean of a Cathedral. Women can serve in all roles in the church – you can see it here with our women ushers, lectors, ministers of communion, vestry members, wardens, acolytes, and on and on. We have women in all roles in the church, including the highest: a woman (Katharine Jefferts-Schori) has served as our Presiding Bishop, and a woman (Gay Jennings) is President of the House of Deputies of the General Convention.
It seems in retrospect as if it all happened very fast, but the rise of women to leadership roles in the church was the fruit of over 150 years of work in the Episcopal Church – and, in reality, 2000 years in the Christian Church. I had no idea – and no idea how much we all owe to many devoted, and persistent, women. A very brief and very biased timeline:
1st century AD Jesus of Nazareth accepted and worked with women in a way startling for his time and place.
It was a woman, Mary Magdalene, who was last at the cross and first at the tomb – the apostle to the apostles. Women took leading roles in the earliest church. Sadly, after the first generation or so, the patriarchal culture of the Roman empire proved too strong and changed that. By the end of the 1stcentury the writer of 1Timothy could say, “I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent.” And, with some occasional blips, so it stayed for a very long time.
16th– 18th century The Church of England split from the Roman Catholic Church in the 16thcentury. The Episcopal Church in the United States was formed after the American Revolution, when we could no longer be part of an English state church and promising obedience to the monarch. Women, as always, were active in the church, and seen as a moral and cultural force within colonial society – that was it.
THEN CAME THE…..
I was at Barbara Harris’s ordination. I’d been ordained a priest in 1982, and I processed in with hundreds of other clergy. I remember standing on my chair to see everything. I remember the objections made, and how the Presiding Bishop dismissed them. I remember Barbara Harris’ answer to the question, “are you persuaded that God has called you to the office of a bishop?” “I am SOOOOOOOOOOOOO persuaded”, she said, and we cheered and cried at the same time.
I had left the church sometime in high school, and only returned after college and graduate school – which meant that I missed a LOT between 1966 and 1976. I walked in the door of an Episcopal Church again in 1976, just after the ordination of women had been approved. I thought it sounded like a good thing, but I had no idea….
In the first years of my ordained ministry, there were so few women priests that we all knew each other, at least by name. People would stop and stare at my collar. Some were hostile. I got so used to the statement “You’re the first woman priest I’ve ever met” that I developed a pat answer : ”I hope I’m not the last.” Now women are 50% + of seminarians, and moving toward 50% of active clergy. The younger women seem to take it all for granted, which leaves me feeling a bit irked – but it was what we wanted, wasn’t it?
2006 Katharine Jefferts-Schori is elected Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church.
So here we are, with shared leadership of women and men in the Episcopal Church, as laypeople, bishops, priests and deacons – representing the fullness of the Body of Christ. Obviously, not all churches have women in leadership roles, lay or ordained. Here in France, I sometimes feel that I’m back in my first days as an ordained priest as I encounter people who are astonished to see a woman at the altar here at the American Cathedral. My favorite response came after one service, with this conversation in French: (visitor) “That was just like a mass!” (me) “It was a mass.” “But you’re just like a priest!” “I am a priest”.
The Very Reverend Lucinda Laird is the Dean and Rector of the Cathedral since March, 2013. Read her profile.
(1) Darling, Pamela “New Wine: The Story of Women Transforming Leadership and Power in the Episcopal Church” (Cowley Publications, 1994), p. 13
(2)ibid., page 68