I am sure you may have heard more than once, the age-old adage which says that “A woman’s place is the kitchen.” This adage reflects society’s stereotyping of women as good for one thing: managing the home. A few weeks ago, during the announcements at worship, I inadvertently made a comment which sought to imply that women manage Sunday School. A parishioner confronted me about that right after worship. I apologized, though it wasn’t my intent to imply that. And I followed up with another email apology a day after that, which the parishioner graciously accepted. The point here isn’t the apology that was accepted, but that each of us can display unconscious bias.
Our issue here isn’t so much about unconscious bias - although that is unhealthy - rather, it is the blatant drive to place women in a particular box, or the desire of some to push women away from positions of authority - not because of competency, but simply because they are women.
Growing up, I remember the seminal role my mother played in faith formation and spiritual life. She would wake us - her children - up, and we would all pray together each morning. She required that my brother and I attend a midweek noonday service at a different church. Failure to do so would mean no dinner for us. At every moment, even to this day, she is central to my faith practice. She is no church leader and doesn’t hold any pastoral leadership in any church or denomination, but it surely wouldn’t have been a problem for me if she were a pastor. As a matter of fact, if faith were quantifiable, I would’ve said that she has more of it than many pastoral leaders that I know.
In the Anglican Church where I grew up, women served on the Vestry and played leadership roles, but not as clergy. It wasn’t until recently that women were permitted to serve as acolytes and be ordained - and that is progress. Although I knew of other protestant denominations, such as Baptists, which ordained women, it wasn’t until I walked into All Saints Episcopal Church in Atlanta, Georgia in January of 2001, that I first saw a woman celebrating the Eucharist. To say that was a cultural shock to me at that time would be an understatement. Even today, I am not sure I can adequately capture my emotional state from that Sunday morning. I struggled throughout the service, wondering if I was at the right place or if this was the right church, if God was present in this church, and if the sacrament was valid.
In my oppressed mind, something gave me a reason to even question the validity of the Eucharist because it was a woman who celebrated that Eucharist. And so, as I sat at the last pew of this beautiful church, I was dealing with the demons that made me feel that others - women - were not deserving of the privilege of ministry. But as the ushers slowly worked their way back, and when it got to my turn to go for communion, I stood up and walked past two other communion stations and went to the woman for the Body of Christ. It was that same woman who then took me through the Altar Book when I was called to serve at this church. Although she preached long sermons, she is an excellent and dedicated priest. In all my subsequent years of witnessing her ministry, there was not a single time that I had to question why Reverend Beth Royalty had been ordained a priest or why she was able to faithfully serve the church in that capacity.
I have, since my time at All Saints, served with many women in various leadership positions. Here at Christ Church, I have had the honor of serving with Denise and Marcia, and their competence and faithfulness to their call have never been in doubt.
It was, therefore, a huge shock when I recently read about the vote to deny women in Southern Baptist congregations the unique opportunity of serving as pastors. Those opposed to female pastors cite 1 Timothy (2:11-14) to make their point. It reads thus: “A woman is to learn quietly with full submission. I do not allow a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; instead, she is to remain quiet.” This rings of raw patriarchy and subservience. This text reflects the culture and social dynamic of a society we have longed to move away from.
St. Paul, who authored the above quote from 1 Timothy, isn’t shy about the extent to which women played leadership roles and contributed to the life of the early Church. Many were the women who ran their own house churches and therefore were pastoral leaders of those communities. He praised Phoebe for her hospitality; in the community at Cenchreae (near Corinth), Paul provided her with three titles: diakonos (deacon), sister, and prostatis (a female patron or benefactor). He praised Chloe and her people, which indicates that Chloe managed a household (1 Corinthians 1:11). These women were significant in the life of Paul and the communities they served.
In the most profound way, Paul - who believed that social conventions have been upended because of the Christ Jesus he has come to know - wrote this to the Church in Galatia: "There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
If we are all one in Christ Jesus, then why are there these divisions? Why are we so hell-bent on proving that some are deserving of leadership roles, but that some others aren’t? Why do we want to believe that some are more or less human than others?
The point is that we can all quote scripture to support any and all things we want to do - but scripture is more complicated, and to use a text to support the subservience of women is totally and absolutely wrong. I don’t think the good news of Jesus Christ supports any of this stuff; the good news is meant to set us free, and we cannot be free if we are subservient to others.
I learned that What hurts the tree isn’t the axe, but the fact that the handle of the axe is made of wood. What hurts ministry and the good news is not the women who preach it, lead faithful Christians, and support all of us on the straight and narrow path, but that those (men) with whom they preach the good news believe that they don’t deserve a place in pastoral leadership.
Many of us have come a long way in appreciating the gifts of women in ministry. Many are Christians who have been blessed, comforted, and supported by the gifts of women in ministry. Many are congregations that have been ably led by women. The question is, why now?
This decision takes us back to an era when women were not fully considered a valuable part of our society. It also says that we still have a lot of work to do in order to convince our fellow Christians of the value of each and every person and the unique gifts that each of us possesses in ministry, and elsewhere.
I believe that a woman’s place is everywhere. Women belong everywhere!!
Our ministry wouldn’t be complete without the pastoral leadership of women. Women do have a place in pastoral leadership, and no number of votes at a convention can stop that.
Episcopalians learned that a long time ago, and I think we are better for it. Thank heavens, I am an Episcopalian.