Yesterday, our family joined sisters and brothers from across the Episcopal churches of Madison to celebrate the Eucharist on the (almost) 40th anniversary (it's Tuesday) of the ordination of women in the Episcopal Church. While forty years represents a history recent enough that many people in and outside of the Episcopal Church still have concrete memories around these events, I am increasingly convinced that we should remember to tell stories like this one as if to those who were not aware of the history at the time of the history, and especially to those in the church who were not yet alive. The Jewish tradition has much to teach in this respect, because the community's chief practice in telling its most important stories is to its children.
So, if you're new to the Episcopal Church - as in, having come into the church (or the world) in the last 30 years, give or take - you may not know that, once upon a time, women were not ordained as priests in this church.(1) That you do not know this should not be for you a source of embarrassment. Rather, the extent of your surprise may be a witness to the tremendous work of the Spirit through women clergy in and for the whole Church since the day of those first ordinations.
I think, for example, of my own life in the Church and the women priests whose unique ministries opened me to God's possibilities at important moments in ways for which I am forever grateful and that changed me deeply: the joyful and exuberant priest who oversaw my campus ministry experience, invited me into positions of leadership, introduced me to the community at Taizé, and - as much as any of these things - taught me by her example the freedom to sing songs of praise when she was the only one in the church, even when she wasn't, lost in the sometimes invisible work of making holy preparations; the supervisor of my clinical pastoral education (CPE) at a psychiatric hospital, who gave me permission to love hymn 463, challenged my presumption "to be good enough to mess up your patients more than they already are," taught me that "the mentally ill are just like us, only more so," listened to my honest voice more than I knew how to listen to it myself, encouraged me with images that spoke fire and water and the adventure of God into my soul, and, thank God, never answered all my questions; my advisor and the director of the Anglican/Episcopal House of Studies at Duke Divinity School, whose knack for discernment and truth telling compelled me to be more truthful with myself and others and whose belief in me challenged the convenient excuses insecurities can supply, who lived compassion alongside challenge in the very best ways.
So I attended the service last night as two people at once. One the one hand, I came as a white, straight, thirty-something dad. In thirty more years, I'll be the caricature of a fallen Christendom's last hurrah. One more white old man at the theology conference. On the other hand, I came as a Christian whose vocation, life, and commitments have been shaped, even midwifed, by women priests who loved me and taught me the way of Jesus, how to live it more faithfully.
That my story is not unique I take to be one of the great graces God has worked over and through these last forty years. By definition, before there were women priests, lives shaped by the faith and witness of women priests were not possible. The beginnings of women's ordination in the Episcopal Church were difficult, and we rightly continue to tell the story of these difficult beginnings. But/and/also we also rightly tell the story today as if this difficulty, while still real and present in certain respects, is not as obvious as it once was. Because the Church has known the faith and witness of women priests. Put another way, I am not just grateful for the gifts of women clergy; I am the work of women clergy.
For many Episcopalians - those new to our pews in the last 30 years and those more recently born - this is the only version of the Episcopal Church we've ever known. This is the Church that made us. If this depiction seems overly optimistic and a bit of reach for my own generation, it is surely no reach at all for my daughter's. She will never not know a time when Mother Dorota and others like her were not an integral part of her weekly experience of worship and the Body of Christ. I wonder how this awareness changes the way the story gets told over time.
That younger adults and folks just arrived in the church have never known other surely does not diminish the importance of anniversaries like this one; rather, I believe this new reality points us to the best hope and prayer of changes in the Church's life that, in their day, came - and will come - with difficulty: namely, that the Spirit would use them to build up and flourish all of God's people in the simplicity and joy of the Gospel and more fully equip Christians in each generation a) to witness Christ's love for the world and b) for the good work of praise.
(1) Similarly, I was born in 1980. It's not just weird that we call the 1979 Prayer Book the "new" prayer book because it's old; it is also weird because it is the only prayer book of the Episcopal tradition in my lifetime. Note: most of my students think I'm old.