Tainted Love


Post Author: Jenn Strawbridge


a shorter woman with glasses, smiling, standing in a circle with several male colleagues, all dressed in various church vestments

Jenn at work

I was already a little anxious before the service began. I was the only female priest in a sea of men and a few were audibly unhappy that I was in the sacristy. We were gathered for the institution and installation of a new priest in the parish and, as chaplain of the college which was this parish’s patron, it was my role to present the new priest to the bishop. This was a parish that had passed what in the Church of England are called “resolutions” concerning the ministry of female priests, and this parish had passed all of them.

I had spent time in a number of “resolution parishes” before this service. The College where I served had deep roots in the Oxford Movement and thus, of the almost 70 parishes of which it was patron, more than half were opposed to the ordination of women (note that essentially every parish has a patron whose main role these days is to assist with the appointment of a new priest). During my time as Chaplain, I represented the College at the appointment and installation of clergy in 33 different parishes. It was a wonderful though hidden part of the job since most of it took place outside the College.

Until this particular service of installation, I had never felt unwelcome in a parish with resolutions. My encounters time and again as patron’s representative and even preacher, had been filled with graciousness and collegiality. But this time felt different. And it was. As I processed into the church next to the new priest called to serve in that place, something hit my shoulder. Instinctively I knew what it was without looking. I knew I had just been spat upon by someone in the church.

When we reached the first set of pews, the Master of Ceremony stepped in front of me to ensure I didn’t follow the other clergy and pointed me to a seat next to the new priest’s mother. A glance at my shoulder confirmed my suspicion and I tried to wipe off the spit with some tissues that I’d thankfully left in my cassock pocket. When it came to the peace, only the bishops, the new priest and his mother shared the peace with me. While almost every other priest present shared the peace with his mother next to me, they made a point to make eye contact, turn the other way, and not shake my hand. At that point, already feeling incredibly unwelcome in that space, I found myself moving between confusion and profound sadness that those who refused to share the peace were not only fellow Christians but fellow priests. Much of the talk in the Church includes an assurance that no one opposed to women’s ordination holds a theology of “taint” and yet, after being spat upon and refused the peace, I couldn’t have felt more tainted.

Perhaps naively, it never occurred to me that there would be any difficulty moving from the Episcopal Church in the United States to the Church of England. In my experience of parish ministry in two different dioceses, I had always felt welcomed and surrounded by supportive colleagues. As one of the rectors I worked alongside liked to say, “A priest is a priest is a priest, end of story.” I didn’t realise how much I took this for granted until this transatlantic move.

I knew in this new reality I was being called to offer grace and hospitality to those who didn’t think I should be ordained and those who would never receive the sacrament from me. And I readily admit that this wasn’t easy. Almost every term in my time as Chaplain, a guest preacher would let me know (often right before a service) that they wouldn’t be receiving communion since they could see that I was celebrating. And yet I was convinced that the way through the brokenness was continued conversation, building relationship, and prayer no matter how difficult such actions felt at times.

What I continued to struggle with was those who were not so kind. As the first female priest to serve as my College’s Chaplain, I received my first hate mail. Some of it was indirect and sent to the College itself. In one letter to the College’s president, the writer concluded by wishing him luck with the unfortunate new chaplain since “it is a woman.” Some of it was creative, including a poem about how female priests are as unstable and unreliable as a “straw bridge” (see my surname). Some gave female priests weird powers, like the accusation that as a female priest I made “martyrs weep” and “angels cry.” I relied heavily on my spiritual director.

And what I struggled with the most had little to do with taking these words personally (those who wrote these things had never met me!), but rather with the reality that those who were actively unkind claimed to be fellow Christians. The hateful words were difficult to reconcile and to forgive. Yet I knew I had to try, not only for my own spiritual grounding, but also because this was now a church—the Church of England—that over the course of seven years as Chaplain, I came to love.

In 2015, my situation and call changed rather drastically. The college where I worked decided to convert my accommodation into a robotics lab and I had to move. As a side note, I don’t advise telling an estate agent, when they ask why you are looking to move, that robots are taking over your flat. The only place I could find that was affordable and allowed a dog was a few miles outside the city. It was during this move, and after years of discernment, that I also accepted a full time academic job at the university and resigned as Chaplain. Suddenly, after 11 years of ordained ministry, I was no longer connected to a church or community as their priest. And the new parish to which I had just moved had resolutions.

Given the above experiences, it might sound ridiculous when I say that I started to attend my parish church each Sunday. Though the church did not recognise the full ministry of women, this time, being in the pews felt different. While I mourned not being able to preside at the Eucharist anywhere on a regular basis, it was strangely comforting to be in the pews of a parish where I knew I could not. In a way that I can’t explain, almost 18 months in the pews of a parish publically against women’s ordination offered some healing for the exclusion and hurtful words and actions of others in the wider church.

Last summer, at a set of meetings that I did not attend, the parish decided to embrace the full ministry of men and women. Shortly thereafter, the vicar invited me to join the clergy team and when he did, no one left and no hate mail was received. The first Sunday that I was invited to concelebrate the Eucharist was Christmas Eve and for me, it truly was a celebration of new life and God’s love. After so much discernment, conversation, prayers of forgiveness, and of repentance, God was still present and still calling.

I’ve now spent more time serving as a priest in the Church of England than the Episcopal Church, a reality that continues to surprise me. And the only way I can continue to stand and to devote as much energy as I can muster to reconciliation and radical hospitality in the Church I now serve is with thanks to the colleagues, friends, and prayers that have helped me hold onto hope and to see God’s presence in the midst of the brokenness.


The Revd Canon Dr Jenn Strawbridge is Associate Professor of New Testament Studies at the University of Oxford and Caird Fellow of Theology at Mansfield College. She also serves as a Wiccamical Prebend of Chichester Cathedral (which is an ancient way of saying “honorary Theological Canon”) and with the wonderful people of St Andrew’s Headington, where she is an Associate Priest.


Image by: Chichester Cathedral
Used with permission
4 replies
  1. Thomas Peters
    Thomas Peters says:

    I cannot imagine having someone spit on me in church, let alone in the middle of a procession! Very well written article. Thank you for sharing it with us.

    Reply
  2. Deborah Meister, BDS 2002
    Deborah Meister, BDS 2002 says:

    Jenn, I am so sorry you have had to deal with such hostility, but grateful for your love and grace. When I was in the Bible Belt, there were a few (blessedly few!) older women who were hostile to women’s ordination, but not whole parishes. I took the same approach as you —being unfailingly gracious. It did win some over, with time.

    Reply
  3. Richard Fleming
    Richard Fleming says:

    Well done and proud of your Oxford position. George Caird taught me New Testament at McGill 1951-1954. He was incomparable and made a profound impression on all. As to your ordination – I voted at the Canadian General Synod for the ordination of women in the early 70’s
    One of my better decisions. Thanks for sharing your +/- experiences!

    Reply

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