LETTER FROM AMERICA

Twenty-five years on. by David Mills

Faced with your own difficult decisions, readers of Directions may want to know of the progress of women’s ordination in the Episcopal Church. Our experience suggests that the cheerful welcome and pained concern you now hear from the innovators will not last.

Before your own fateful vote, Episcopalians told you repeatedly that women’s ordination had been accepted enthusiastically and proven a great blessing, and that those who still opposed it were able to live in happiness and peace, except those whose conscience or emotional fragility would not let them stay.

This really isn’t true. And that is why tolerance has not lasted in our case, and I do not think will last in yours.

Resigned acceptance

Many seem to accept the innovation in the sense one accepts bad weather, as something about which there is no point in complaining. Outside the feminist partisans, and the many, many good “company men” among the clerics who will support almost anything the Church does, most clergy and laity seem to accept individual women priests because they know and like them, but are not so enthusiastic about “the ministry of women,” as our liberals revealingly put it.

There is in fact a “glass ceiling” in the Episcopal Church. The Episcopal Women’s Caucus has complained (and have the facts to prove it) that even liberal suburban parishes tend to call men rather than women as rectors, and that women are most often given positions as vicars (priests-in-charge appointed by the bishop), chaplains, curates, or diocesan officials. This despite all the efforts of bishops and others to advance ordained women.

Only three women have been elected bishop (all to extremely liberal dioceses) of the twenty or so who have run, several of whom were expected to win.

Even Barbara Harris barely beat out a local priest nominated from the floor, whose name the nomination committee had refused to put on the official ballot. As far as one can judge, she would not have been elected had he been on the official ballot, or had not the large number of ordained women in secular employment voted for her as a bloc.

The feminists ascribe this glass ceiling to the ineradicably patriarchal nature of the Church, I to an instinctive if unrecognized desire for male headship. In either case, the failure to achieve numerical equality in twenty years, and the unexpected persistence of the dissenters, has led many feminists and their allies to demand that women priests be imposed on parishes and dioceses.

This was said repeatedly during the several debates on the subject at our General Convention last summer. One purely practical reason for this is that the number of ordained women has increased while the number of jobs has not, and leading women have not achieved the posts they understandably feel themselves entitled to.

There are other reasons as well, not least that ideologues get angry when their attempts to bring about the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth are resisted.

A recognized position

I do not think things will get better. Near the end of Convention, the Bishop of Milwaukee told me - knowing who I was and speaking for publication - that they had gotten what they could in 1976, which was permission to ordain women, but now were able to make it mandatory. He is usually described as a moderate or even a conservative in Church affairs.

As a bishop who had tried to balance the unity of the Church with his calling to ensure justice for ordained women, the Bishop of Rhode Island told his diocese last fall, “In reclaiming my true identity as a child of God, I believe it is time for us as a church to make our decision with regard to this balancing act.” The Church “must decide for justice and act on that decision ... If this means that some in conscience must leave this fold, then we must bid them Godspeed and offer our prayers for them as the continue to follow what they believe to be God’s will.

“Justice in this matter has been postponed for almost 2,000 years,” he declared. “it is time to fully implement the decision the church has made. To do less would not only cloud our vision for justice but ultimately undermine the deepest unity we share while compromising the integrity of the whole church”

The Convention did declare that we hold “a recognized theological position” (the word “valid” was rejected early in the debates), but it also established a committee to study how to “implement” the ordination of women in all dioceses. This is probably not as helpful a development as it may seem, but the committee meets for the first time Easter week, and I will report on it in the next letter.

David Mills, the author of this letter, is the editor of The Evangelical Catholic, the journal of the Episcopal Synod of America, and director of publishing at Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry, one of the two conservative Episcopal theological colleges.

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