GC97: On the issue of ordaining women

Philadelphia: Saturday, 26 July 1997

Anyone with even a passing interest in this Church has been aware of the debates concerning the role of women in our conventicle, and of differing opinions concerning sexuality and homosexuality in Christian practice and belief. From the outside or the inside, the Episcopal Church may seem torn apart into yelling camps, each side declaring that God is indubitably and inescapably on their side.

I have never pretended not to be a liberal. Truth demands that I acknowledge this in case you haven't already figured it out from what I write. But I am no flaming liberal. I follow an Anglo-Catholic path by choice and by deep affinity. The majesty and beauty of our tradition, our language of worship, carry meaning that is grand and infinitely precious. But the events of my life, and the inner guidance of my God have convinced me that God's love is all-encompassing, that God knows us well indeed, and that God made us for a reason.

At GC97, resolutions were passed that mandate that women shall have full and open access to all the processes that lead to possible ordination in any and all dioceses of the Episcopal Church. We are a communion that ordains women, and this is now just how it is.

But I have spent hundreds of hours at GC97 listening to people talk about their positions and votes on these issues, and I have seen and heard what they have done and said in public and private. In this essay I attempt to summarize the feelings, processes, and emotions that swirled through the discussion and passage of these major resolutions.

Many people who do not agree with the outcome are suffering deeply. These decisions have been in deliberation for more than 21 years. In the heat of disappointment, opponents of women's ordination have been quoted as saying that "all is now lost," that now women have gained the right to ordination.

I don't think anyone has ever claimed ordination as an individual right, as in civil secular rights. The confusion seems to arise because the tools used by advocates in the struggle have been the same tools used by civil-rights advocates: communication, engagement, polite disobedience, and vocal lobbying. Both sides have used these methods to further their views. These are the tools of our time, for all of the 20th Century.

Advocates of women's ordination are not saying, "Hey--women are human, and they're being kept out of something ... this is unfair, so let's change it. Let's smash the walls!" Rather, they are saying that they believe that God does call women. They are also concerned with content, with inner meanings and ontological significance. We all wrestle with our conceptions of the godly nature of reality as revealed in our shared human life, and this process is every bit as strong or as difficult for both sides of the dispute. We ignore or belittle each other at our common peril.

NOBODY has a RIGHT to ordination in this Church, nor any other. God Calls, not the individual alone, no matter how strong and true and brave, male or female. To us Anglicans, those who have been tested in community and believe they are called to ordained ministry are those we endeavor to support and ordain. Those of us who believe women to be equally called by our God to leadership in the Church in all its varied expressions or paths respond to the identified call, not just to gender. And through our Baptism, we are ALL called to ministry.

Many people of our Church, fine and faithful servants of the same living God, do not and can not agree with the recognized ordination of women. Reasons vary: biblical interpretation, long tradition, and prayerful investigation. In their hurt and disappointment, many of those who cannot support the ordination of women now feel despised, alienated, marginalized, and claim the name of outcast. They cry, "No outcasts??? We are now the outcasts, the faithful remnant denied!", referring in pain Bishop Browning's famed declaration of inclusion.

Lost in the shuffle, as I see it and hear it around me here, is the fact that although these resolutions do guarantee the right of women to process, no Bishop can be compelled to perform an ordination that he cannot in good conscience perform, nor can any congregation be forced to accept or hire a woman priest. No parishioner can be compelled to receive the Eucharist at a woman's hands if he or she does not wish to, or if they believe that the consecration of the elements by a woman is by nature invalid. A peaceful coexistence of stances has been mandated, but the heart cannot be commanded. But: no official impediments to access to the path towards ordination for women may be erected or sustained.

These new rules, made via the traditional rule-making process of our Church, need not tear us asunder. Journeying down to Philadelphia last week, I too was filled with fear. I do not want even one person to feel compelled to leave this Church. I feared the signs of bitterness and enmity, raised voices and name-calling in our legislative Houses. I strive to keep my heart open, even to those with whom I feel profoundly uncomfortable. I claim no saintliness. We all, each and every one of us, are the products of our experiences, our education, the unfolding stories of our lives. We read the same Gospel. We carry in our hearts the light of the same Christ.

I applaud these decisions concerning the standardization of official recognition of women's ministries. The Flying Bishop solution never felt right to me, although it was an irenic solution. Nor is it a nifty idea to force women who feel a call to ordained ministry to leave their home communities in search of discernment. And I am rather tired of seeing some of our best female priests be told "over there you are a priest, but over here you are not.

As a member of a Commission on Ministry, and a person long involved in the work of discernment of priestly and diaconal gifts, I place utmost value in the role of the sponsoring parish in identifying and lifting up worthy shepherds for the flock. I look for the charisms of grace that I have been taught to watch and listen for. I cannot stop to see if God's grace is shining out of a male face or a male face. To see the evidence of a worthy priesthood or diaconate is miracle enough. God knows the Creation better than I ever shall. If women's Calls are indeed equal to men's, they must be identified and revealed in the same way as men's gifts are, or always have been.

Ordination is not a process of self-selection. The community of faith draws out the evident and provable gifts amongst them. Being forced to move from the church or parish of one's formation in order to obey one's Call is counter-productive. The weight of discernment does not lie mainly at the Commission on Ministry level, nor even upon the Diocesan Bishop. The COMs and Standing Committees and the Bishops certify and validate the discernment begun in the communities where that individual is best known: the parish, the parish discernment committee (of which there are still too few), the Vestry, and the Rector, or Priest-in-Charge.

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Copyright © 1997 Deborah Griffin Bly.
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