Thursday, February 18, 2016

A visit from an Angel

The Rev. Dr. Barbara Schlachter died peacefully at her home on February 16, 2016. She was a founder of the Episcopal Women's Caucus and a woman of valor who played key roles in advancing the role of women -- lay and ordained -- in The Episcopal Church. More people owe her a huge debt than will ever realize it. I count myself among them.

In the Fall of 2003, Barbara was chosen by the Episcopal Women's Caucus to come to the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth as the first Angel in their Angel Project. Her job was to be a pastoral presence as a priest who is a woman, to incarnate the idea of women's ordination in a diocese whose leadership adamantly opposed it. She was the perfect choice. Her calm centered presence was balm to hurting souls. She brought us the best gift of all, the bread of  hope in the knowledge that we had not been forgotten by the wider church.

Barbara stayed with Gayland and me at our home, and so we were privileged to spend a lot of time with her, over breakfast, strolling the garden, playing with our dogs, and with our first grandchild, Curran, who we kept every day while his parents were working. We were glad we were able to provide her with a comfortable safe space while she was here.  But we are clear that we received much more from her during that visit than she did from us. 

 After her visit, she reported on her experience in RUACH, the Caucus' publication. That report is reproduced below. Also in that issue were reports from folks about their encounters with her. They speak to the power of her ministry. Some of those are reproduced below as well. 

She was a gift to The Episcopal Church, but particularly a gift to Episcopalians in this diocese. We are bereft. 


Encounters with an Angel

RUACH, Winter 2003

I met Barbara Schlachter on two occasions --both were meetings of our Book Club composed of about 15 Trinity women. She was the stranger who fit right in immediately. Her insights into our discussions were both helpful and interesting.

As a relative newcomer to the Diocese of Fort Worth and having come from the Diocese of Virginia, I found it reassuring tosee the response of our small group to a woman priest. What was her background? How long would she be here? What were her reactions to Fort Worth? etc. They were not only interested but also eager to hear of her experiences. Her visit was not only helpful, it certainly made me feel connected once again to the larger church. I also had the pleasure of hearing her inspiring homily. I hop ethat many others at Trinity came away feeling the pride of hearing and seemg this gifted woman share her knowledge and background with us.
Sue Pratt,
Trinity, Fort Worth

For the first time within this church setting, I felt I was standing in the center rather than on the periphery 

For the first time within this church setting, I felt I was standing in the center rather than on the periphery ---welcomed rather than simply tolerated. Speaking to the Rev. Schlachter without fear of reprisal or judgment- to not have to explain certain feelings – to know that she recognized my heart-- that was the crux of it. She simply understood. This gift I received - for I do feel it to be a gift  - was precious. I do thank Barbara and all those who made it possible for her to visit the Diocese of Fort Worth. Both have given me hope that one day “angels”  will not have to be imported.
B.G. Click
Christ the King Episcopal Church, Fort Worth

In the Rev. Dr. Barbara Schlachter I met an angel, a messenger who brought good tidings to those of us in Ft. Worth who hunger and thirst for the full ministry of women and men. And the message she brought in a firm, loving, humorous, challenging, articulate,  moving, and inspiring way is that we are all God's people and that women can minister o us in ways that are different from the ways of men. Having her in our presence was (and continues to be) a blessing for which we are all grateful to the Episcopal Women’s Caucus. Her day of reflection for women was among the spiritual highlights of my life, and the people coming for communion after her sermon reflected hope and joy and a sense of connection.

“I want to tell you that you are the best argument for the ordination of women that I have ever seen.”

One of our male parishioners said to her after her sermon and during her forum presentation, “I want to tell you that you are the best argument for the ordination of women that I have ever seen.” That statement, I believe, represents exactly what the EWC hoped for in developing the Angel Project: the incarnational presence of an “angel” has allowed people of faith to experience the ministry of women in a way presently not allowed in our diocese.
Priscilla Tate
Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Worth

Barbara’s visit was a powerful message. The National church had not, after all, forgotten about us here in Fort Worth.  They had not written us off, or assumed that all was well. Barbara’s visit communicated hope that there were possible solutions to reunite us with the Canons of the National Episcopal Church. My family sends their deepest thanks to the Episcopal Women’s Caucus for designing and implementing the Angel Project, and for sending Barbara Schlachter to Fort Worth. It is our hopw that you will continue this and other projects which seek to unite us with the larger church.
Ruth Barnhouse Story

This was a very personal and comforting experience. She brought with her the perspective of the experiences of other dioceses of the National Church and provided understanding and hope for those present who expressed frustration about our concerns. She provided the group with suggestions for mutual support and hope about how our diocese might in the future rejoin the mainstream of the National Church.

We have been blessed to have had such an outstanding and spiritual person as our visitor. We are indebted to those who generously provided the support for her visit. 
Sylvia and Tim Stevens
St. Christopher, Fort Worth

While it is probably true that several of the Episcopal churches in the diocese strongly resisted her outreach to them, they were the ones to miss a golden opportunity. The ones of us who did allow her to minister  to us are far richer for the experience. After she spoke to the congregation at our Adult Forum, I felt that she really was an Angel sent to help open ourselves to a larger faith experience. 
Charles Weidler
Trinity, Fort Worth

Finally, the best way that I can express her impact on our worship is this: the Sunday after she preached and worshiped with us, there was an empty place where she had been.

I met Rev. Schlacter at our church, as she was invited to take part in several parish functions. I found her to be fair spoken, gentle and wise, even in the midst of a diocese about which, I'm sure, she could have found much to say of a corrosive nature. In fact, even when invited to be critical of this diocese and its bishop by those who are convinced of the validity of women's orders, she responded in a manner that was even, fair, and caring. 

Her children's homily  at our church was very well done, and demonstrated an empathy with our kids that our priest said he hopes to achieve for himself. Her sermon was more existential than I'm used to, but it did make me think, rather than doing the thinking for me. That kind of preaching takes a lot of faith. 

Finally, the best way that I can express her impact on our worship is this: the Sunday after she preached and worshiped with us, there was an empty place where she had been.


Winter, 2003


by The Rev. Dr. Barbara Schlachter

The Episcopal Women's Caucus' first angel reports on her experience in the Diocese of Fort Worth and the welcome she found there.

This angel has flown home after fifty-nine days in the Diocese of Fort Worth. I arrived on St. Michael's and All Angels (transferred) and left on the Feast of Christ the King. Added to the three days I spent there earlier in September, it was a total of fifty-nine days, the canonically-allowed length of time a priest may function in a diocese other than her own without that bishop's permission.

The Rt. Rev. Jack Iker would not have given me permission because his position on the ordination of women to the priesthood is the reason I was there in the first place. Fort Worth is one of three dioceses that, more than 25 years since the canon on ordination was changed, still do not ordain women to the priesthood. The people who live there are divided between those who support Bishop Iker's position, and those who want to have ordained women serving in the diocese and to experience being part of the rest of the Episcopal Church.

It was to these latter, loyal people that I was sent. Some of them are members of the Episcopal Women's Caucus, and it was their request to the National Episcopal Women's Caucus that brought me there. I felt called to this ministry of pastoral presence. I had recently moved to Iowa from Southern Ohio and was between positions, so I had the time available. More importantly, I had been through a similar time in my life thirty years before when I helped found the Episcopal Women's Caucus. I spent three and a half years as a deacon going to any parish that would invite me to show them that a woman could wear a clerical collar and serve as well as a man.

In Fort Worth I felt in many ways that I was stepping back in time. Not only is the ordination of women a non-resolved issue in Fort Worth, but also inclusive language has far to go. In some services I felt I was at a mid-l950s liturgy. Women there are supposed to believe that they are included in the word "man"—as long as they aren't called to priesthood, that is.

The title for my article comes from an e-mail that one of the clergy opposed to the ordination of women sent to a public Internet site. He said that the Rev. Barbara Schlachter was 'hanging out" around the Diocese of Fort Worth and wasn't it nice that the Episcopal Women's Caucus had nothing better to do with its money than provide me with a vacation in Texas.

Well, one of the things I most admire about Jesus' ministry was his ability to hang out and be available to people. I took that statement as a compliment. And if this clergyman had been English, he would have used the word "holiday" instead of vacation. That of course, comes from Holy Day.

And indeed, I did have fifty-nine Holy Days in Fort Worth. It was, however, not a vacation. The last time I checked under the rubrics of clergy wellness: preaching, teaching, counseling, planning liturgies, celebrating house Eucharists, encouraging the faithful and being generally available to all who wished to spend time with me individually or in small groups, is not considered vacation.

When I went for my three day initial "plunge" in early September, I returned amazed at the depth of the pain and anger I heard from both clergy and laity. I wondered if indeed I could offer healing and encouragement in the face of such despair. I wondered if I would in fact face hostility from those opposed. I asked for prayer from Caucus members and friends, and the parish where my husband is rector commissioned me for this ministry and joined in the prayers for me.

I believe in the power of prayer! I never experienced any hostility even from those who were opposed to the ordination of women, and I was warmly greeted and received by people wherever I went. There was a hunger and a thirst to be part of something beyond their diocese that touched me deeply. There was a desire for the wholeness that the rest of the church has found m the ministry of ordained women. We lived that as fully as we could for those fifty-nine days.

There were a number of clergy in the diocese who were quite supportive of my being there and wished things were different so that they could have women colleagues. Even the most supportive, however, realized that an invitation to me to preach or celebrate constituted a risk with their bishop. My presence was a mirror for them-how far were they willing to go support something they believed in? I do not judge any of them. It is an isolating place for clergy who do not believe as the bishop believes. In fact, it is a dangerous place. More than one clergy person has been removed from his position because he was too outspoken, others have been forced out by vestries because the bishop chose not to support them.

I did celebrate the Eucharist once and con-celebrated another time in an Episcopal church I preached in two different parishes, and there was a great deal of enthusiasm and support from the lay people in these churches. I attended two meetings of a deanery clericus, a book club, two meetings of a woman's guild, celebrated house Eucharists in the homes of people from four different parishes, led a quiet day, taught a class at Texas Christian University, had lunch with a number of clergy, including a group of clergywomen from Dallas, made several presentations during the week or on Sunday mornings, and met with many people over meals. One woman I had lunch with has experienced a call to priesthood. She told me that our visit was the first time she had ever talked with a woman priest.

I also met with Bishop Iker. When Dr. Doug Newsom, my scheduler, went to tell him I was coming, he indicated he wanted to meet with me as soon as possible after I arrived. That turned out to be October 31. Someone laughingly suggested I wear a pointy hat. Someone else replied that he would see one on my head whether I wore it or not.
It was obvious that he was not pleased I was there, even though I assured him I was not there to act politically but pastorally. My impression was that he is opposed to the ordination of women because if we were ordained soon all priests would be women. That has hardly been the experience of the dioceses that have ordained women, however. The feeling I received was that he sees ordination of women and homosexual persons as one and the same issue.

I read some of the Forward in Faith material about ordination of women and found it to be very selective scripturally. It does not allow for any cultural relativism or interpretation, nor does it admit standard Biblical criticism into its arguments. It believes that the Christian Church is called to maintain patriarchy. Christ is the head of the man and the man is the head of the woman, and only a man can be the head of a church. Obedience and control are big issues, and it doesn't take much reading between the lines to find a great deal of fear. Bishop Iker serves on the Board of Forward in Faith.

While I was there I also attended the Fort Worth Diocesan Convention. It was a celebration of the twentieth anniversary of the diocese since it divided from the Diocese of Dallas. It was apparent there was to be no discussion of any controversial items. At one point a woman from Sewanee addressing Convention about the University of the South was stopped from talking about the Seminary. No one would be allowed to go there from Fort Worth anyway. Yet, there was much that was good about the Convention. It seemed to me to have a strong mission emphasis, and perhaps that is where some of the frustration and energy of the diocese is going- into good mission outreach to their companion dioceses in Malawi and Mexico and to Food for the Poor in Haiti.

I had gone to convention with considerable trepidation, but again, everyone was cordial, and many were very welcoming. The fact that there were about a half a dozen women deacons in clerical collars may have helped my reception. I also enjoyed a warn conversation with Donna lker, the bishop's wife. I had been praying for the bishop and his family every day, and it was good to put a face to a name.

The report of the A045 Committee came out while I was in Fort Worth. It was received with sadness and a sense of betrayal by those who felt they had risked a great deal to tell what they wanted the national church to hear. What they said was not reported, and several clergy I spoke with felt they had gone out on a limb only to have the national church chop it off. I don't think that most people have any idea how hard it is to be a priest in the Diocese of Fort Worth and be loyal to the canons of the Episcopal Church. We have to find a better way to support the clergy and laity of this diocese.

One of the recommendations of the A045 report is to have a day of dialogue at the General Convention in 2006. First, not only would the deputies from Fort Worth not attend-they do not go to convention Eucharists but have their own-but no amount of talking is going to convince this group. The fifty thousand dollars the committee recommends be used for this dialogue would be put to better use sending in angel after angel, ministering to the clergy and laity of the diocese who feel abandoned and on the edge of being taken out of the Episcopal Church altogether.

My presence there, more than anything else, was a sign of hope, of connection, that people from the Episcopal Church care about the people of Fort Worth. Hope, healing, and empowerment was experienced by many. I was there long enough to begin to establish significant relationships with people. I hope that the Angel Project will continue. As long as we permit a bishop to stand in disdain of a national canon, we need to find ways to minister to the laity and clergy who want to be faithful to that canon.

I met many wonderful people whom I shall remember, continue to pray for and hopefully see again someday. These are bright, articulate, passionate and faithful women and men, who bear for all of us the tangible sign that we are still a church that has a long way to go before women and men are on equal footing. There are lessons for all of us in Fort Worth, lest we get too confident that the battle has been won.

So many people I met there wanted me to know that they had lived in other dioceses and experienced the ministry of women, or that they had visited Episcopal churches while they were on vacation. They said that they always got this startled reaction from people, as if they must be one of those people who don't believe in the ordination of women. The estimate I heard several times is that the laity is probably half in favor and half against. The people that show up in our churches are probably at least the ones open to it. If someone shows up at your church and says they are from the Diocese of Fort Worth, please welcome them warmly and tell them you have heard there are some really great people in that Diocese.

I would like to end with a note of thanks to the Caucus for the opportunity to serve in this way, and for all the prayers said for the Angel project. I also thank Katie Sherrod and Gayland Pool, with whom I stayed while I was in Fort Worth. Their loving presence, which included Gayland’s fresh-baked bread almost every day, helped keep me grounded. Their four wonderful dogs, grandbaby, and beautiful home and gardens contributed to my sense of being cared for even as I was caring for others.

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