Bearing Much Fruit: Women in Ordained Christian Leadership

Friday, July 27, 2018

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.