Bearing Much Fruit: Women in Ordained Christian Leadership

This is an essay Stacy wrote to be included in the appendix of the Da Vinci Code-like thriller, Deborah’s Number: A Bank Heist Mitzvah, by Ezra Barany, along with other essays about women in Islam and Judaism.

I knew I wanted to be a pastor when I was ten years old. I was a shy, nerdy, earnest child, who loved singing in the choir, and who—respectfully—talked back to the pastor when he seemed to have missed an important point. That was 1974. We were not yet Episcopalians, the denomination in which I would eventually be ordained, and the Episcopal Church did not yet officially ordain women to the priesthood. But it never occurred to me that I could not serve God and the world in that way. I had never met a woman pastor, but neither had I been told that being female kept me from the ministry—or anything else, for that matter. For that I thank my parents. They had the traditional white middle-class marriage: Dad worked outside of the house and my mom stayed home. It worked for them. But never did either of them tell me, either implicitly or explicitly, that any work in the world was unavailable or unattainable for me. It was my Dad, in fact, who, despite being a very traditional guy, taught me that all rules are meant to be questioned and that it is the quality of one’s work, not what is or is not in one’s pants, that counts.

My family moved a lot as I was growing up, and we attended a variety of mainline Protestant churches along the way. When we moved to Seattle and I began junior high school, we visited several congregations, including a period at the local Roman Catholic church, before my family found a home with the Episcopalians.

Around that time, my parents sent me to a local evangelical summer camp, where we had Rapture drills (games that prepared us for being taken up into the sky at Jesus’ return) and learned how to evangelize our friends. This was also where I fell in love with the Bible, a romance that deepened in college when I joined a student-led evangelical group and learned to lead Bible studies, and which continues today. Conservative evangelical theology worked for me, giving me clear answers—until I began to have the feeling that there were questions that weren’t supposed to be asked, or for which I was given unsatisfying answers, questions like, “Why is there evil in the world?”, “Is Jesus the only way to God?” and “What about my gay and lesbian friends?”

It was here that the Jesuits at my university “saved” me. I encountered men who were passionately in love with a God who was big enough for any question, any objection, any doubt they could throw. I was encouraged to take on spiritual leadership and learned how the rituals of the faith could include my body and heart, as well as my mind and soul. I fell in with a group of Roman Catholic women who wrestled with the Church’s teaching about women’s ordination and experimented with rituals and prayers that affirmed them, just as Jesus had affirmed the women who followed him. I attended a debate on women’s ordination. Of all of the Jesuit priests at my college, only one was found to argue against it. When I told a chaplain of my desire to be ordained, he proclaimed that he would be in the front row, cheering me on.

But it was also here that I saw that the institution of the Church would fight change. While I was in college, Pope John Paul II declared women’s ordination to be a closed topic. People I loved and respected, particularly the women, struggled to be faithful to the Church they loved, even as they felt betrayed that their sense of call had been definitively negated. I saw a beloved mentor be maligned and discredited for revealing that she had been assaulted by a priest.

Through all of this my own sense of call did not waver. It seemed inevitable, although the path ahead was not always clear.

In my first parish, it took a little while to figure out how to embody my priesthood. I already had had my first child, and became pregnant with my second while I was there. I preached Christmas Eve with my swollen belly (and ankles!) and performed a baptism (which is a ritual full of birth imagery) the Sunday before my daughter was born.

In my tradition, clergy are referred to as “icons,” windows through which the faithful can see the possibilities for faithfulness and redemption. It has been so important for members of my congregations to see a woman do priestly things, and for their priest to speak of womanly things. When St. Paul talks about caring for the community like a nursing mother (1 Thessalonians 2:7), I preach as one who has nursed her children. My experience as a mother enabled me to preach not just the nurturing, gentle side of God’s parenthood, but also the protective, frustrated, broken-hearted side. One day a parishioner told me that her daughter had put a towel around her neck, superhero style, and paraded around the house, declaring, “I’m Mother Stacy!” She wasn’t pretending to wear a superhero cape, though, but rather a cope, the ceremonial cape I would wear on special occasions. This little girl, no matter where her path leads her, will always have that image of a woman, garbed in robes of both authority and beauty, preaching the Gospel and leading her community in worship.

As a female priest, it has been important also for me to talk openly, from the pulpit as well as in one-on-one conversations, about the fact that my first marriage was abusive and dysfunctional. Domestic violence affects and traps women in particular ways, and without women with authority and a literal pulpit, those experiences will always be pushed to the margins, flattened, caricatured. Speaking from my own experience, I can be clear both that I was not to blame for the abuse and also that I am accountable for ways in which I allowed myself to be passive and ruled by fear. I can name some of those things as sinful, while affirming that the decisions I made for my self-preservation and that of my children—including divorcing my husband and remarrying—were virtuous and right.

Many Christian communities do not have women in leadership. Many actively limit women’s voices and circumscribe their behavior. But the witness of Jesus himself and of the early Church show us another vision, one of strong, vocal, empowered women, and the ministry and witness of female leaders today show that the Gospel calls all of us to freedom, all of us to tell our stories. Without those stories the Body of Christ, the Church, will not be complete or whole. As Paul writes, “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’” The work of proclaiming the good news of God’s love for all, embodied in Jesus, requires the full participation of all. No matter what they have in their pants.


Women in the New Testament and Early Church

Some argue that women ought not teach in the Church—or at least not teach men. They forget the time when a foreign woman (Syrophoenician in Mark, and Canaanite in Matthew) asks Jesus to cast a demon out of her daughter. He responds, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs,” a shocking statement for those of us who treasure Jesus’ kindness and generosity. The woman replies, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs,” a gentle but firm challenge to his limited vision. Jesus sends her away with the word, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” Some argue that he was testing her, but a more compelling interpretation is that he allowed this woman to teach him, to open his mind and heart to his own prejudices. She had faith that he would do the right thing. They also forget the Samaritan woman who engages in a theological argument with Jesus next to a well and literally brings her whole village to listen to him.

There was something in what Jesus did and taught, and something in the early Christian communities, that drew women from all levels of society. Women responded to him, even challenged him, and women were essential to the growth and stability of the church in its early years.

Women followed Jesus to the very end, staying with him even as he hung dying on the cross, after the men had fled. They were the first at the tomb. Some (too many) are nameless, like Peter’s mother-in-law and the Samaritan woman at the well, and some are named but underappreciated, like Mary Magdalene, and the sisters Mary and Martha. (Note that Mary and Martha have long conversations, even arguments, with Jesus, while their brother Lazarus never speaks a word.)

Paul’s statements about women in his letters can be difficult, but his references to actual women in the Church show that he clearly saw women as co-workers in proclaiming the Gospel and caring for the community. Well-off women like Phoebe (Romans 16:1-2) and Chloé (1 Cor. 1:11) offered their homes for the local Christian communities to meet. Prisca and Aquila, a married couple, are mentioned several times in the New Testament as missionaries and fellow workers with Paul. Prisca’s name is always listed first. Paul calls Phoebe a deacon (not a deaconess) (Romans 16:1) and Junia an apostle (Romans 16:7). The fact that Paul mentions the conflict between Euodia and Syntyche (Philippians 4:2-3) and asks them to reconcile tells of the influence of these two women in their community.

The Church eventually succumbed to the pressures of the prevailing culture, particularly after it became the religion of the Roman Empire, but Scripture still holds clues to the influence and authority of women in the founding of the early Christian communities and the spread of the Gospel.

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Men’s Group: “Objects of Desire”?

What is the line between fervent passion and callous objectification? We have no idea. Well, we have three ideas. We need more. Come help us navigate what it means to be a man in the era of #MeToo.

(This is one of a series of conversations for the men of the Brent House community, exploring ways for men to do their part to dismantle misogyny and toxic masculinity.)

We’ll post links here to articles, videos, etc. to help get the conversation started:
1) From Raja Halwani, professor of philosophy at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He is the author of Philosophy of Love, Sex and Marriage (2010): https://aeon.co/ideas/why-sexual-desire-is-objectifying-and-hence-morally-wrong
2) Rowan Williams’ profound reflection on sex, desire, and grace: https://www.anglican.ca/wp-content/uploads/2010/10/the-bodys-grace.pdf
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Advent 3 (2017) Sermon by Kyle Rader

Kyle Rader
Sermon for 5pm Mass
Church of the Transfiguration, NYC
December 17, 2017 (Advent 3)

Texts: Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; Magnificat; 1 Thess. 5:16-24; John 1:6-8, 19-28

At the beginning of this mass we prayed “Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us.” What exactly were we praying for?

What power does God have that we expect God to give to us? I want to suggest to you this evening that God has given us the power of prayer. This may sound rather trite. I could sit in this chapel praying all day while the world goes by with all its pressing needs, including the needs of people in great distress. And you would be right to look askance at me if I offered to pray for any of them without doing what was in my power to provide for their material needs. Or you might be skeptical if I told someone who was demanding that their rights be respected and their legitimate needs be provided that they just needed to go and pray more. The Bible itself pronounces harsh judgment on these attitudes. But consider the power of the prayer of the virgin Mary, who was overshadowed with the Holy Ghost after giving nothing more to God than the simple ‘yes’ of faith. With God literally inside of her, she pronounces this song and prayer of vision and strength. “My soul magnifies the Lord,” for the Lord has magnified me!

Prayer is how we access God’s power to help us survive, grow, and become holy. There was a woman named Corrie ten Boom who, along with her family, hid Jews in her home during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. Her guests miraculously escaped when the Gestapo raided her house, but she was arrested along with her sister and father. Her father died in prison, and she and her sister were eventually sent to the Ravensbrück concentration camp, a women’s camp about 50 miles from Berlin. Corrie’s sister eventually died in the camp, but she was mistakenly released, and able to tell her story. She recounts that when the two of them were first shown the crowded cots upon which they would sleep with several other prisoners, they noticed that they were infested with fleas, and that was the moment when she was most tempted to despair. But they had smuggled in a Bible, and her sister remembered the passage they had read the previous night, which happens to be our New Testament reading today: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”

This might not have been the right advice for everyone in that situation, and we must remember and celebrate all of the tactics that helped people survive in places like that, or other situations of extreme cruelty, oppression, or trauma. But it worked for them. They made it a daily discipline, not to find something to be thankful for in some trite way, but to give thanks for everyone and everything in their experience. They started with what was easier to thank God for, like each other, and moved to what was harder, like the women in their crowded beds, and the fleas. Let me be clear: they were not thankful for having to share a tiny, wretched bed with too many other women and with fleas. But they were thankful for each of those women, and each of those fleas as God’s creations in their own right. Their prayers were an exercise in learning to turn their whole existence into prayer, without ceasing, they accessed God’s power to give life and dignity to the powerless.  And that is what we are expressing and cultivating when we pray.

“The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me.” Jesus read these words at his home synagogue and proclaimed their fulfillment. Anointed is the meaning of the Hebrew and Aramaic word messiah. He was the anointed one because his life was a perfect communion with the one he called Father through the Holy Spirit before the worlds began. And so, whatever Jesus did or endured in the world, he transformed it by exposing it to the hidden current of generosity and justice that runs deeper in creation than any of us are able to see. But he knew about it and could always access it because he was its source.

And he did this because he wanted us to have the power that he has. And the more he initiates us into his relationship with the Father and the Holy Spirit, the more we do have it. The Spirit of the Lord God is also upon us, because the Lord has anointed us. “He has clothed me with the garments of salvation,” Isaiah says. That means that our communion with God is natural and particular to us as a set of clothes we’ve been wearing for a long time, perhaps days on end. The power of prayer can make us holy and draw others into the life of God. But first and foremost, it’s like those clothes. It’s how we survive the cold. And when we can, we share it with others so they can survive too.

The power of prayer is the power to transform whatever we experience. It will exalt the humble and meek and–eventually–cast the mighty from their thrones, so that they too may be truly lifted up. It fills the hungry with good things, and sends the rich empty away–so that they might hunger and be filled. Through it, we too may be anointed and overshadowed by the Holy Spirit like Mary. We too may have God inside of us, and be the gateway through which God comes into the world.

Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory, now and forever. Amen.

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Thrive! Fall 2017

Thrive_F17_32_E final
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State of the Chaplaincy 2017: “It is God who gives the growth”

An end of the academic year update for alumni, friends, and supporters of Brent House

State of the Chaplaincy 2017 for webpage
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