Post Author: Stephanie London
I spent the last two months leading up to maternity leave serving at All Saints’ Cathedral. It was a short interim, just enough to bridge their staffing gap, that allowed me to work a little longer after my previous parish was filled. Two other women in a row – both under the age of thirty – had held the same position. Down the hall, the first woman ordained bishop in the Anglican Church of Canada had her office. If my gender was an issue for anyone, I never heard it. I have benefited from much progress since the first ordinations of women forty years ago. Most of the controversy that raged through the church in 1976 has died down.
On the other hand, being female and nine months pregnant in that early parish was more of a stretch. Trying to arrange the chasuble when I sat down so it wouldn’t get wet in case my water broke was only a young clergywoman problem! I will never forget the Sunday a young parishioner brought her Roman Catholic boyfriend to church. Imagine how it threw him to see someone preside at the Eucharist who was dressed as an ordinary priest and praying using familiar words – but sporting a very large baby bump. We had a good laugh about it afterward. I never saw him again because I welcomed a healthy baby girl four days later. For much of the global church, I’m an oddity. But most of the time, in a diocese that has been led by female bishops for coming up on twenty years, I hardly notice.
No, my femininity isn’t the main challenge I see to the traditional view of priesthood. I stand on the shoulders of women who fought those battles in their own generations and so paved the way for me to serve God and the church in this way in mine. In this culture, people are put off more by a church that does not have women in leadership. At least in my part of the world, at least on the surface, we have progressed. Most congregations in my denomination accept me as a priest without question. Even my youthfulness, perhaps worn down by a decade of motherhood, no longer attracts the kind of dismissive comments it did when I was twenty-three and trying to fill my first clergy collar. I have grown into it. I have learned better to speak the language that people expect of leaders. I know more of how to attend to the liturgies, committees, and community rhythms that keep the institution of the church humming along. I can preach the life of Jesus in a way that is inspiring with just the right amount of challenge, and listen with the right blend of pastoral concern. In short, I fit.
But though a woman wears the vestments, how much difference has that really made?
The dignified, authoritative country parson still inhabits our institutional memory. I have seen him live on in a church whose drive to spiritual maturity and collective imagination was crushed by a particularly harsh version of Reverend-knows-best. Stodgy women’s groups fill our caricatures and, whether or not they are real, they limit women in the church to bake sales and gossip. We second- and third-generation ordained women find ourselves – still – with the task of gently and intentionally laying down what has held us back from fully following the call of God. As we do, we find that the only church most of us has ever known is still deeply burdened, still stumbling through an incomplete story, still fallen so far short of reflecting the life of Christ. I and my daughters have the privilege of being educated and of choosing to pursue any vocation, but deeper sin-bound patterns still affect us.
I sat in a gathering of our national church in 2001, as Archbishop Michael Peers offered an apology on behalf of the Anglican Church of Canada to those who had been devastated by the Indian Residential Schools and their terrible aftermath. He had first spoken those words eight years earlier to an indigenous council, and now it was time to renew them before the whole church. As I heard the Rt. Rev. Gordon Beardy, our first Indigenous diocesan bishop, receive the apology and embrace him as a brother, I did not understand that we were watching an empire crumble. I didn’t realize that this was the mighty falling and the wealthy being brought low. I couldn’t know how much this marked the church beginning to turn aright.
The legal settlements that followed required millions of dollars. The church sold buildings and drastically cut programs. Several dioceses were decimated. It did not make up for such a great evil, or begin to pay for our healing, but it forced us to sit and listen to those whose voices we had too long ignored. It forced us to be honest: we can no longer claim to be righteous, or even right. Though we have been given the hands of Christ, we have used them for violence. We may not now believe the lie that our empire is the hope of the world, or that divine favour will guarantee us material success, or that our sin does not matter. If we are honest, we cannot deny our need for grace and forgiveness, for Jesus.
When I stand at the altar with baby spit-up on my shoulder and wearing robes not made for my body, I hope that I will remember that I am not there to fill a mold that looms large with authoritative confidence, but to point to a life that leaves no wounds forgotten and untended. Jesus has always led away from our comfort and security. When I get comfortable with the church of the empire, I risk losing sight of him. Not with our power, but from the humble, forgotten edges, he will make all things new. I hope the church will remember this, too.
A friend took on holy orders this spring. Before the service started, as we always do, the mass of clergy, presenters, acolytes, and ordinands gathered outside the cathedral doors to pray. But this time, there was sweetgrass burning alongside the incense. Before the organ swelled, the surrogate grandmother to several clergy families’ children rose and offered blessings in an ancient language that most of us do not yet understand.
I can only bear witness to what has already begun.
The Rev. Stephanie London and her husband serve an Anglican church in Sherwood Park, Alberta, Canada. They are raising three children, who manage being double-PKs just fine most of the time. Someday, her introvert side will come out of hiding to paint and lead art retreats.
Image by: paramentica
Used with permission