Saturday, January 13, 2007

The Power of The Incarnational Experience

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.


Timotheos Prologizes said...

Thank your for the meditation about incarnational experience. It can indeed hold transforming power in a way that no other experience can.

When I first started attending the Episcopal Church, I was supportive of the ordination women. There were women serving as priests in three parishes I attended. I probably experienced the sacramental ministry of a dozen or so others all put together. It was only after the incarnational experience of female priests that I began to have second thoughts about the matter.

After a while, I started to have that gut feeling that something was out of place or just not right about it. I didn't know then that the Holy Spirit was leading me to a deeper understanding.

I had always though that opposition to the ordination of women came out of prejudice. I was learning more and more about all areas of the catholic faith, discovering the "Whys" of the faith that had previously eluded me. Part of that was discovering that there was and always has been a theological reason for the traditional practice.

Next I figured that it might be a matter of adiaphora--that those who wanted it and those who didn't were free to have it their way. And then it occurred to me--Who are we to make these decisions? Do we thing we can improve of what Jesus did? We didn't create the ordained ministry; why do we think we could recreate it.

I got to the point where I could no longer receive Holy Communion that had been consecrated by a female priest. When I would receive Communion, instead of being a means of closer union with God, it was more and more a reminder of our prideful rejection of God's original plan.

Years of prayer later, with a lot more theology, close study of the Bible, and more than a little help from the Holy Spirit, I have come to appreciate and understand God's will in creation for his holy orders in his church.

I am sincere in saying that it all really began by experiencing the ministry of several women priests. All of them were and are good preachers, caring ministers, and very competent professionals. It took some time for me to figure out that it wasn't about that; it is about God's will. Women cannot be fathers; men cannot be mothers; women cannot be priests; men cannot be priestesses. We don't know better than God himself.

I realize now that I would not have come to an orthodox view of the ordained ministry without them. If there is a larger providential purpose in the time of discernment that the Anglican Communion has entered into about this question of holy orders, it is to be a witness to the whole church of discovering what priesthood really is and of casting off the vanities of this world in order to embrace obedience to God.

Timotheos Prologizes said...

Also, Alice Linsley has a moving testimony of her incarnational experience of being a priest in the Diocese of Lexington and of then coming to a deeper understanding of holy orders which meant that she renounced those orders as a matter of conscience.

Anonymous said...

Funny thing that. I always thought of Christianity as the religion of the powerful and successful, or at least the way that the powerful and successful make suckers of those with less or no power. An all male priesthood/ pastorate merely reinforced the point. It wasn't until I saw feminist theology and women priests and active lay ministry that I reconsidered my young-adult judgement that Christianity was for men, against women.


Weiwen Ng said...


"I am sincere in saying that it all really began by experiencing the ministry of several women priests. All of them were and are good preachers, caring ministers, and very competent professionals. It took some time for me to figure out that it wasn't about that; it is about God's will. Women cannot be fathers; men cannot be mothers; women cannot be priests; men cannot be priestesses. We don't know better than God himself."

there's pretty good evidence that Jesus treated women as equals and that women served in prominent leadership positions in the early church, but that attitudes towards women deteriorated with time as people's prejudices took over. unfortunately, they succeeded in passing off their prejudices as God's will. just as you are trying to do.

Timotheos Prologizes said...


It is true exactly as you said that Jesus treated women as equals (and so should we, btw) and that women served in prominent leadership positions in the early church (and should now, btw) and that attitudes towards women unfortunately deteriorated with time as cultural prejudices took over.

The Church has struggled with the zeitgeist in every period of her history. Just as the corrupting cultural influence of that era should be expunged, so should the Church today guard against cultural distortions of the gospel. We should indeed not allow people (however well intentioned) to pass off their prejudices as God's will.

Jesus, of course, did not pass off any prejudice as God's will. He entirely submitted to the will of the Father and, as the Word incarnate, is the fullest expression of God's will. There is strong evidence that Jesus only set apart men to minister as the Twelve. Should we not consider that also to be a revelation of God's will?

Lisa said...

Timothy, stop! You are cracking me up!!! If Jesus instituted the priesthood as we now understood it, then only Middle Eastern circumcised Jewish males who wear sandals and abandon their homes can be ordained. Do you fill the bill, Timothy??

But, no. You have decided the only really "significant" issue is that he picked males to be his disciples.

You are too, too funny!

I love how you guys get to decide which things you'll take literally and which you'll take figuratively!

Ann Marie said...


Could you please explain to me, why if God did not wish to have women in the priesthood, the Spirit calls women to the priesthood. I did not choose this vocation. I fought it tooth and nail and still the Spirit called and called.

I was not ordained in a vacuum. The decision to accept me as a postulant was one that was made by various groups of people, all surrounded by prayer. At the end of it all was the decision that, yes, God was calling me to the priesthood. The process was good for me as well, as I gained peace within myself and with my relationship with God and accepted my call.

If we close our hearts and our minds to the possibilities God lays before us, we miss so much opportunity to work with God in the bringing about of the kin-dom. It is when we open ourselves to the possibilities of what God can and will do that the opportunities become limitless.

As Lisa pointed out, Jesus did call women to positions of leadership. Emerging scholarship shows that Mary Magdalene may have played a much greater role (and not as Jesus' wife as so many like to think) that has been suppressed over time. There is the woman at the well in Samaria who brought people to Jesus. As well, Paul writes about Junia as an Apostle. These are all things that have survived inspite of centuries of men trying to write them out. It is not God who wills that women not be priests, it is humans who will it. My experience is that God allows no barriers in calling those to work for the bringing in of the kin-dom. God, throughout the Bible has worked with those who are open to God.

It is interesting that we talk about the God of our forefathers, of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Yet, in the Bible, God is called the "Fear of Isaac". Isaac did little. The person who accomplished things was Rebekah. It was Rebekah that God worked through to continue the story of Israel. (Thanks to M. Ritley and her book God of our Mothers for the above insight.) God does let gender be a barrier to calling those who have something to give to God's people.

As has been pointed out - to say that Jesus only called men and then to translate that to the only males been called to the priesthood is a big jump in logic. Jesus did not call priests. That is a later development of the church as it became clear that the growth of the church required that there be more workers.

Ann Marie said...

Oops. The last sentence in the second last paragraph should read that God does not let gender be a barrier. And I even proof-read that a number of times.

Love and Prayers,
Ann Marie