Carl Cooper, Bishop of St. David's in the Church of Wales, has written about his change of heart on the issue of ordaining women. The bishop, once a leading opponent of ordaining women, has become an ardent supporter.
What changed his mind? Why, it was that most powerful of conversion experiences – the incarnational experience.
Here’s what Bishop Cooper wrote:
“When the Church in Wales first considered the possibility of ordaining women to the priesthood I was one of the most vocal opponents. For reason of theology and Christian Unity I was convinced that it would be a disastrous decision. I campaigned against it and addressed the Church's Governing Body in April 1994 when the 'No' vote carried the day, much to the disappointment and annoyance of many, including some of my own parishioners.
“. . . whether one considers it a U-turn or a conversion, I came to change my mind on the issue of women in the priesthood. Changing one's opinion is never an easy decision for any person in public life. People will always suspect one's motives and question one's agenda. Ultimately, integrity can only be demonstrated by consistency of behaviour and character and I leave that judgement to others.
“Why did I change my mind? There are 3 reasons: 1) My own Church decided to ordain women to the priesthood. Either members of the Church in Wales believe that our Church is competent to discern God’s will for us, or it isn't. Even those who take part in a debate by opposing the proposal are part of the ultimate decision. We must all own it, support it and rejoice in it. 2) I came to see the inconsistencies in the theological standpoint I had espoused and proclaimed. However, no theological standpoint is ever perfect and without flaw. 3) The 'No' vote in 1994 brought home to me the pain and anguish we were causing to our sisters in Christ. I could no longer justify denying the validity of their calling.
“Ever since the ordination of the first women priests in 1997 it has been my privilege to minister with a number of close, female colleagues. The last 10 years have demonstrated that our Church has been enriched, blessed and made more whole by women's priestly ministry. It now feels as if the Church of the past was incomplete. [Emphasis added] I am looking forward to the honour of presiding at the Eucharist this coming Saturday in St Davids Cathedral (13th January), together with my women colleagues, to celebrate the historic decision taken a decade ago and all that it has achieved. . .”
And there you have it. It was the experience of working and worshipping with priests who are women that ultimately opened Bishop Cooper’s heart enough for him to re-examine his position.
The power of the incarnational experience is the reason Bp. Jack Iker is so desperate to keep priests who are women out of this diocese. Despite his references to what the Eames Report called a process of reception, Bp. Iker is not interested in the least in giving people in this diocese opportunities to actually meet, talk with, and most importantly, worship with a priest who is a woman.
It’s also why Peter Akinola is so terrified of actually meeting – heck, even shaking hands with – any gay men or lesbian women. It’s the power of that encounter they fear as much as the actual human beings involved. It’s so much easier if one can forget there are actual human beings involved.
But the Holy Spirit is not so easily corralled. She is like the Texas wind, blowing where she pleases, drifting in through the tiniest openings to breathe on us and change our hearts. Some of us have been working for years now to make as many of those openings as we can.
In 1991, Lauren Gough, a priest and a daughter of Fort Worth, returned to visit her family. Several of us invited her celebrate at the Marty Leonard Chapel, a non-denominational chapel in Fort Worth. She did so, with a full house of worshippers, and the local newspaper wrote a story about it. My husband and I were awakened the next morning by a phone call from a woman outraged that we would so “insult” our bishop – Clarence Pope, at the time. Other abusive calls followed.
In 1995, the Episcopal Women’s Caucus held its national gathering in Fort Worth. Not one Episcopal Church here had the courage to allow the Caucus to use their sanctuary for the meeting’s closing Eucharist – with priests who are women celebrating, of course – so Rabbi Ralph Mecklenburger invited us to use the sanctuary of Temple Beth El.
The Eucharist was open to all and many people from Fort Worth came, most of who had never seen a woman at the altar as priest. Cynthia Black and Terry Cairo concelebrated.
Terry lived in Fort Worth, but was not allowed to function as a priest by Bishop Clarence Pope, although he did offer to let her function as a deacon. Pope would not accept her letters dimissory because he did not accept her priestly orders as valid, because she was a woman.
[An aside to illustrate why what is happening in this diocese is a sin: Terry often celebrated at house masses with local Episcopalians who were hungry to see a woman at the altar. Her young daughter, who was about 3 when they moved here, was a little warrior for her mother. But after three years of living in Fort Worth, that changed. One time when she was tired and cranky and when Terry told her quiet down because we were about to begin a Eucharist, she said, “NO. You can’t. You can’t be a priest because you’re a woman.” We all were shocked into silence, and then into heartbreak.]
For many people – women and men alike -- at the Caucus Eucharist in the Temple that day in Fort Worth, seeing Cynthia and Terry at the altar was a transformative experience. For some, it was a shock to see how normal it was. Given all they had heard and been told by the many of the diocesan clergy – many of whom insist on calling priests who are women “priestesses” -- they had expected something strange and exotic.
For others, the most compelling reaction was one of completeness, a sense of rightness about the image of women at the altar. And for others, it was the first time they had felt really included in the Body of Christ.
Over the years, women have celebrated from time to time in Fort Worth, usually at Trinity Church in Fort Worth, St. Gregory’s in Mansfield, or St. Martin’s in the Field in Keller/Southlake. But the rector of St. Gregory’s who would invite women to celebrate has since moved on, so we are reduced to only two parishes with the courage to do so.
In 2002, the Rev. Barbara Schlachter came to Fort Worth for 59 days as part of the Caucus’ Angel Project, which allowed many people here enough time to build a relationship with her. She even attended our diocesan convention.
All of these events were in spite of our bishops, and almost all were arranged by lay people.
The result of all of these incarnational experiences is that there is a strong and growing number of people here who not only support the ordination of women, but who want to experience it on a regular basis. That’s why Bp. Iker fears and will not allow a real process of reception to happen here.
Bishop Cooper of Wales concludes by saying:
“What of the future? Despite the decision to ordain women priests, we still have some way to go before we can claim to be a fully representative Church. There are now women in very senior parochial posts. We have women serving as Cathedral Canons and Area Deans. However, the Church in Wales has yet to appoint a woman Archdeacon or Cathedral Dean, and it still prevents women from becoming bishops. Later this year we will begin the process of deciding whether or not to allow women to be bishops. I am convinced that this will happen, hopefully sooner rather than later. It will have my unreserved support.”
Bishop Iker does not believe women can be bishops, of course. But he is always quick to assure his female colleagues in the House of Bishops and the priests who are women in the Network that his rejection of their orders is “nothing personal.”
But of course, it is personal. Bishop Clarence Pope illustrated how personal when he dramatically left the Episcopal Church for the Church in Rome. He soon came quietly back, telling people in Fort Worth he had to return because Rome would not recognize the validity of his orders and that just too painful for him to endure. The irony was lost on him.
Still, I rejoice for the Church of Wales, and I pray daily that a similar change of heart may happen here. But I fear it will take a Texas tornado-sized gale by Holy Spirit to break through the hardened hearts, fearful souls, and closed minds of the bishop and nearly all the clergy here.