“Clergy are encouraged to keep learning new things by doing continuing education, and rightly so. There are a wide variety of classes, conferences, and other educational programs clergy can choose from to do this. I recently got some mail about a seminar on how to increase church growth, and it said on outside of the envelope that the seminar included a special session for women. So I open the envelope and I’m reading through it, and it’s telling me all about how it’s going to give me strategies for church growth, and it’s going to make me a more effective pastor, and it’s going to increase my leadership skills, and the seminar even includes a special session for women to teach them how they can support and encourage their husbands’ ministries, with the strategies pastors’ wives need most. I read it again: the seminar even includes a special session for women to teach them how they can support and encourage their husbands’ ministries, with the strategies pastors’ wives need most. It took me a minute to remember: I don’t exist. Female clergy simply don’t exist as far as these guys are concerned.
When we get to passages like today’s gospel in which Jesus prays to God that Jesus’ followers are one, just as he and God are one, it is common for preachers to say that it is a terrible scandal that Christians are not one, and how do we expect to do reconciliation in the world if we can’t be reconciled with each other, and we need to stop arguing over controversial topics so that we can achieve the unity Jesus talks about.
I have the highest respect for pastors’ wives. There is no doubt in my mind that the world is a better place because of them, and there is no doubt in my mind that the Church is a better place because of them. They do very important service, sometimes under very difficult circumstances. And I am grateful for my husband and his support for me and my ministry. We have a lot to be grateful for in pastors’ wives.
Seeing that mailing reminded me that to many of my fellow Christians I, a female clergyperson, don’t exist. And it reminded me that there are many more of my fellow Christians, who firmly believe that I, a female clergyperson, shouldn’t exist. They firmly believe that my ministry with this congregation, which I love so dearly, shouldn’t exist because it is a direct violation of the will of God. They firmly believe that in order to be one with them, I must be silent in church, as the verse in 2nd Timothy says. And they tell me I must not argue about that, because to argue over controversial topics gets in the way of achieving the unity Jesus talks about.
And if I were to do what these men say, and sacrifice my vocation, in which I find so much joy, silence my preaching of the gospel in church, then what? Then there are other Christians who say that to be one with them, I have to give up not only what I value most in my vocation, but also what I value most in my marriage. I love the fact that my husband and I treat each other as equals. But there are other Christians who tell me that husbands and wives who treat each other as equals are in direct violation of God’s will, because scripture says wives must be submit to their husbands. So they tell me that in order to be at one with them, I must give up the equality in my marriage. And they tell me I must not argue about that, because to argue over controversial topics gets in the way of achieving the unity Jesus talks about.
And if I were to do that, and sacrifice not only what I love in my vocation, but also what I love in my marriage, what then? Then there are Christians who would say that the fact that I went to seminary and became a working mother is in violation of God’s will, and that the reason American society is going to hell in a hand basket is that mothers aren’t staying home with their children. And if I want to be one with them, I need to repent myself, and I need to train my own daughters that God’s will for them is to submit to a man. My daughters, who are so bright and capable and strong, well on their way to becoming, as Maya Angelou says, phenomenally woman, should be taught to submit themselves to what a man says. And they tell me I must not argue about that, because to argue over controversial topics gets in the way of achieving the unity Jesus talks about.
After a while, it begins to seem that what some of these guys want is for women to cut off more and more parts of our souls, to cut off more and more parts of our lives, because their concept of what a woman should be is so small, that we can only fit into it once we have cut off so much of ourselves that we are a mutilated stub. And then, we will have achieved the unity Jesus talks about.
I wish I could say that this is not happening in my generation, and that it isn’t happening in my denomination. But in following the debates about whether the Church of England will “let” women become bishops, I have been startled to hear even men who support women’s leadership in the church, even men I respect, men who ought to know better, who simply don’t see the damage that is so obvious to me, and keep talking about how women ought to be making sacrifices for the sake of unity.
And since I see the problems of asking women to cut off parts of their lives to fit into what someone else thinks they should be, in order to meet someone else’s standards for unity, I see the problems of asking gay people to cut off parts of their lives to fit into what someone else thinks they should be, in order to meet someone else’s standards for unity. It’s wrong. And it doesn’t work.
The root of the problem here is that we let the people who have the narrowest idea of what’s acceptable set the price for unity as high as they want to, and expect the rest of us to pay it. Why should they get to set the price of unity? Why couldn’t someone with a gracious idea of what’s acceptable set the price for unity? Why not, for example, me?
There’s a quote from the writer Byron Katie that says, “Everyone loves me. Some people just don’t know it yet.” That approach to life appeals to me. Along the same lines, I could say, “Everyone is at one with me. Some people just don’t know it yet.” You might say that that makes no practical difference, since people still think they hate my guts, since people still think I’m a heretic. But whether or not it makes a difference to anyone else, it makes a difference to me. It enables me to keep my sanity. Otherwise, when someone told me that I shouldn’t exist as a female priest, or ought to be silent, or ought to be submissive, I might be inclined to tell them….something involving profanity. Instead, I can simply say, “pfft” and roll my eyes and put the seminar mailing in the trash where it belongs. And I can and get on with my ministry. Why should they get to determine whether or not I exist? Even if they don’t know it yet, I do exist. And as far as I’m concerned, we are all one, even if some people don’t know it yet. If they want to think of me as separate, or non-existent, or bound toward hell with my hand basket, that’s their business. If they’re angry or judgmental, that’s their problem. I don’t have to be angry or judgmental, I can just go along my merry way, at one with everyone whether they know it or not. There are some wonderful folks along this merry way, the beloved people of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, all the newcomers who like the welcoming, joyful tone of our congregation, brothers and sisters from a variety of denominations, friends of various kinds, and especially Jesus himself, who loves us all.”