On February 23rd (yesterday), I celebrated another big anniversary – 25 years ago, I was ordained a Deacon in the Episcopal Church by a Bishop who was a leading opponent of women’s ordination. What a miracle! I’ve told you all about him – Bishop Charles Vaché, 7th Bishop of the Diocese of Southern Virginia, who died on November 1st, 2009. It was not only an amazing February day in southeastern Virginia – 72 degrees, bright sunshine (we had the windows open in the church it was so hot in there, not only because of the temperature outside, but because it was PACKED! – it was a life-changing experience for a number of people.
Not in any order, these people were: Bishop Vaché, my mother, two other women in the Diocese who were awaiting the Bishop’s decision on their admission to the ordination process, some people in the parish who were very unhappy about my ordination, and – of course – me. Let’s start with my mother.
Mom was a cradle Episcopalian (like her mother and her siblings and me and my siblings – not my Dad – he was a Baptist who hated the Baptist church so he became an Episcopalian when he married my Mom), raised in the south (like all those other people above), and very conservative (again like all of the above). Until I announced that I was going to seminary, I don’t think she had ever entertained the idea of a woman being a priest – I know my Dad hadn’t. Of course, she would have never used that word – in the Virginia and North Carolina of the 1950’s, 60’s, & 70’s, we called them “Mr.” and they were “ministers,” not priests. None of us knew that there were Episcopalians who called ordained ministers by such a “Romish” word as “priest” and if we had, we would have been horrified.
So, when I made my big announcement, my Dad said, “OK,” and my Mom looked at me like I had 2 heads and asked, “How are you going to do that?” She couldn’t fathom the idea of me quitting my great job with the City of Petersburg (after all, I had a badge and a city car and everything) and traipsing off to God-knows-where for 3 years! After I explained it all, Dad said, “OK, how can we help?” and Mom said, “Well, we sure are proud of you.” I was blessed with the most wonderful parents in the world, wasn’t I?
I’m not sure that either of them really understood it all, but my mother slaved for months on a beautiful red stole for my ordination (red for Holy Spirit) and, as she tells it, she “nearly lost her religion making this thing for a minister!” It was a gorgeous material onto which she cross-stitched a silver descending dove with shimmery thread that looked great but was nigh unto impossible to draw through the material! She blistered the walls of their living room every day for almost 6 months trying to get that stole to look just right. And she did!
The day of the ordination, she was beaming!! You’d have thought I had been elected the first woman President of the United States – I don’t think she would have been any prouder. She cried, of course, and even my Dad teared up – although he’d never admit it – and when it was all over and I was standing with the Bishop (whom she loved!) in the parish hall with my crisp new clergy collar around my neck and greeting old friends and introducing the Bishop to all my family, I saw her over by the window watching. She had a look on her face that I had never seen before and I knew that she got it!
The people in the parish who were horrified at what was going on in their church that day stayed away, as I’m sure you figured out, but I have to say that they didn’t take too long to come around. There were two people, a man and a woman, who had refused to received communion from me as a lay person and they just couldn’t believe that our Rector had been so supportive of me before he left for Nags Head NC during my first year. I think they were glad he was gone because they were so angry at him. But by the time, my ordination took place, they had mellowed somewhat and when I went back to the church some months later as a visiting clergy, they showed up at my end of the communion rail like nothing had ever been wrong. Go God!
There was one woman waiting to be ordained (and she was about 3 months later) and several more waiting in the wings to be admitted to the process and they were so happy for me and I know when the Bishop laid his hands on my head, they could feel it as well. They walked around beaming the rest of the day too.
The Bishop was also changed that day. Although he had ordained a woman to the priesthood about a year before, I was the first woman he had allowed to go through our process and I know he felt very much like I was “his first.” Sounds like a date or something, which couldn’t have been further from reality, but there was a connection between us that is very hard to describe. He had told me when I started seminary that he had been through all the Biblical and theological arguments for and against women’s ordination and he was convinced that there was nothing in the Bible or in the history of the faith that prevented women from being ordained. That was a long process for him but in 1980, he was still caught in the emotional struggle between his head and his heart and his hands. He said that at that point he just couldn’t bring himself to lay his hands on a woman’s head and say the words of ordination. He freely admitted that it was an emotional issue that he just hadn’t resolved yet. He also said that I was the first woman who had knocked on his door without trying to break it down and that helped him come around. On February 23rd, 1985, it was resolved and he was free from the tug of war. Not only was he free, he won! Actually, I think God won because I’m convinced that God had been working on him for years and his efforts finally bore fruit.
Finally, I’m sure that I was the most blown-away person in the church that day. I went into the church a lay person who loved my church and supported it and went to church every Sunday, gave a little money, and sang in the choir – and I came out a Deacon – a clergyperson with a collar around my neck that screamed to the world, “be good – this woman is clergy!” I remember the moment it happened. It came shortly after my dear friend and most favorite professor Don Armentrout had finished his dynamite ordination sermon. The Bishop and I had been through the question and answer thing, we had all done the Litany for Ordinations, sung by the Rector of my parents’ parish, and I was kneeling (ouch!) on my bad knee in front of the Bishop (who was well over 6′ tall so my eyes were directly in front of the end of his stole) while he finished the first part of the ordination prayer. I remember I started to sway a little if I closed my eyes like you’re supposed to during prayer so I concentrated on the end of the Bishop’s stole which had alternating batches of silver and gold trim – I counted them and there were 18 – 9 gold and 9 silver!
Then he put his hands on my head and at that moment God touched me – I know that because I began to burn inside – like I was on fire. I felt like my face was flaming red and that there was a torch inside of me. After it was all done and we were passing the peace, I asked the priest who had done the prayers if my face was as red as it felt and he looked shocked and said, “No, you were cool as a cucumber.” NOT! Just goes to show you how God works sometimes. As the Bishop lifted his hands from my head after pronouncing that I was now a Deacon in God’s Church, I knew that my life would never be the same – I knew that I had been transformed into God’s newest servant and it was the happiest I had ever been in my life.
Twenty-five years – it hardly seems possible that it has been that long and then it seems like yesterday. I can close my eyes and picture the entire day with all the people I loved and still love all around me and my favorite Bishop grinning like the proverbial Cheshire cat and I know that we both became new creatures on that day. What a blast!
Susan Bowman, the “LadyFather” has written a book on her experiences in the ordained ministry. Aptly named “Lady Father,” it is slated for re-release in the near future. Subscribe now to receive a publication announcement and check out Susan’s Facebook page at www.facebook.com/ladyfather.