Here’s the main result of my writing career:
“Lady Father” is a narrative account of my journey through the ordination process in the Episcopal Diocese of Southern Virginia of the 1980’s and the subsequent years of ordained ministry. As the first female admitted to the ordination process by the Rt. Rev. C. Charles Vaché, seventh Bishop of Southern Virginia, who was then a strong and vocal opponent of the ordination of women, I was a “reluctant pioneer.” Dubbed “the Lady Father,” I have served the church for 33 years and I am offering my experiences and the insights I learned from them to others who feel a similar call and who may find themselves on a similar journey “against the flow.” “Lady Father” is filled with anecdotes that will ring true with many clergy, bring hope to those aspiring to ordination, and shed light on the continuing debate in the Church over who should be ordained. “The Process” described in the book is a journey most clergy have traveled, but my story is a unique blend of the obstacles, denials, and rejections I faced and overcame, along with the uplifting moments and spiritual growth that came out of the struggle. It is truthful and so, at times, it is painful; it is often light-hearted, even humorous; it is moving as it deals with real people, real events, and real emotions; and, most of all, it is mine – my story, my journey, my life.
My experiences as an ordained woman are a mixed bag of satisfying and fulfilling moments as well as agonizing and painful ones. I was adored and hated, extolled and maligned, trusted and questioned at every turn. I was appreciated for my gifts and accepted for my shortcomings by many while my gifts were ignored and my shortcomings were accented and publicly denounced by others. I was yelled at, accused, and castigated for “trying to steal money from the church” because I dared to suggest a reasonable salary package and when I defended my original package from attempts to decrease my benefits. As I have pondered and assessed these experiences, it is clear to me that I would not have been treated as I was if I had been a man.
I was also accepted by many as a priest with no regard to my gender and I know that I made a difference in the lives of many faithful Episcopalians. I continue to hear from people to whom I have ministered over the years and for 12 years I ministered to a tiny group of United Methodists in upstate New York who loved me and treated me like a pastor – period. They never yelled at me, rarely criticized me, and they didn’t complain behind my back (mainly because they just didn’t do that but also because I told them that I would leave immediately if they did!). I have been hurt too many times by the “closet complainers” and I was not willing to be the object of such secretive and destructive behavior in the church ever again. I truly found my niche in my semi-retirement and, as I have reflected on my ministry, I have discovered a strength that almost always comes from adversity along with a burning desire to share my experiences with other women (and men!) who may be facing the same or similar treatment as an ordained person or anyone facing discrimination in the church or any place.
I want desperately to help anyone who finds themselves the object of such unconscionable treatment to deal with it, rise above it, overcome it, and process it. My negative experiences no longer control my life and I would love to help others come to this point. I have written this book on my experiences in the ordination process and in parish ministry as a woman in a male-dominated field in the 80’s, 90’s, and into the 21st century. That just means that I’ll never stop writing and that I already have other writings you may be interested in – so keep reading on this site and on Facebook (http://facebook.com/ladyfather! Thank you for your interest and if you haven’t decided to buy my book yet, now’s the time!
Susan Bowman+ “Lady Father”
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I’ve Been to the Mountain
It’s November already and my long-awaited and much-anticipated trip back to “The Holy Mountain” is a sweet memory. I took off on October 26th at the ungodly hour of 6:00 am (Yes, my son was just thrilled to pick me up at 4:30 am) for the annual William Porcher DuBose Lectures at the School of Theology, University of the South in Sewanee, TN. I graduated in 1984 – 27 years ago!! – but true to form, Sewanee hasn’t changed much. Woodlands still houses seminarians in little bungalows built by the owning dioceses about 60 years ago, the fog is still as thick as pea soup, and when it rains, it really rains. The one thing that has changed drastically is my beloved St. Luke’s Chapel.
I walked in out of the pouring and freezing cold rain on Friday morning for a special Morning Prayer service and was appalled to see regular chairs arrayed in rows, like any ordinary church. Gone were the facing stalls in “choir” and the rood screen, the organ, the altar, and the “Court of the Gentiles” or “the peanut gallery.” Front and center below the stained glass window (which blessedly remains the same) is now a stately grand piano, since this sweet house of worship is now a concert hall. Oh the pain of it all! I started to leave but remembered how much cold rain I had walked through to get there and how long I had looked forward to “Moaning Prayer” in my favorite place. So I took a deep breath and looked for a place to sit. Not many people had braved the weather – probably because most of the alums in attendance were way-post-1984 – so I had my pick. Suddenly I realized that the faculty pews along each wall had been left in place so I decided that at least I could get the same feeling if I sat there – at least I’d be facing the right way.
The first seat I got to still had the name plate on it – The Very Rev. John Booty, Dean – be still my heart!! I said a quick “Thanks” and sat down where our beloved Dean had sat – I knew he would approve. Except for reading the psalm and other things I couldn’t quite remember, I kept my eyes closed, trying to bring back the feeling I had cherished for 3 years – a sense of communion with God and community with those worshiping with me. They were friends, professors, classmates – all who had lived with me through my difficult journey to ordination. It wasn’t quite the same as not a one of them was there in person, but I was quite aware of the “Spirit of St. Luke’s” as we knew and loved it and was grateful that God’s Holy Spirit was still front and center in Sewanee.
The lectures were top-notch – you just can’t get better than Barbara Brown Taylor! She’s my preaching hero and it was an absolute thrill to see her again in person (I attended one of her workshops at the College of Preachers some years ago) and she is still the best preacher I’ve ever heard. After the first presentation – it was all about embracing the darkness in our lives to find the light – she invited feedback and comments and I was the 2nd one in line. I began by informing her that my father was the undisputed founder of the ecological movement as he had insisted that we ALWAYS turn off the light when we left a room – even if we were going right back in. If we didn’t, he somehow magically appeared as we left and when we’d come back – lo and behold the room would be dark! I then said that my sister and I in our old age had finally rebelled by becoming (and here my lame brain could do nothing but make up a word) “lightleaveroners.” Yes, I really said that to one of the top 20 preachers in America! Well, she cracked up – laughed so hard she had to turn away from the microphone. Then said, “I’ll have to get you to write something for my next book!” I almost fainted – of course, I really will faint if that happens – but it sounded great at the moment.
The rest of my comments were anti-climactic and predictable – that I had lived through the darkness and learned to not only embrace it but to be thankful (to some extent) for it. I quoted Maya Angelou’s “Wouldn’t Take Nothin’ For My Journey Now” and said that her amazing biography was the inspiration for my acceptance of my own painful journey as a necessary part of who I have become. I felt myself choking up a little (as I still do all these years later) when I said, “As dark and painful as it all was, I wouldn’t take nothin’ for it now.” The next day, I got up all my courage and asked her if she would accept one of my books. She gracefully agreed and while she signed my new copy of her book “From the Altar,” I signed her new copy of “Lady Father.” What a thrill!
The next day I held a book-signing of my own at a sweet little cafe/gift shop in Monteagle – Lorena’s – and then went out to St. Mary’s Convent to visit Sister Lucy and to meet the new owners of the retreat house. They are wonderful people and they agreed to keep six of my books to sell and were interested in my idea for a retreat about Journeys. I left Sr. Lucy in her wheelchair (from a fall) after a delightful visit and the next day I was up early and off to the airport in Nashville – looking forward to being home at 2:25! Oh…the best laid plans…
My flight was delayed because of the thick fog blanketing all of Eastern Tennessee BUT Sewanee and then delayed even further when we landed in Baltimore. I did make the connection so was only 4 hours late getting home. A nasty travel day but all-in-all, it was a wonderful trip back to “The Mountain.”
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Out of the Mouths of Bishops
For the past 24 hours I have been attending a clergy conference. It’s a wonderful opportunity afforded to the clergy of our diocese by our Bishop to get away from it all in a spectacularly holy place called Christ the King Spiritual Life Center in Greenwich, NY. This is an annual event, which I have attended many times during my ministry in the Diocese of Albany. It is really a gift to the clergy as the Bishop not only makes it affordable, even free if you really can’t afford it, he provides a quality speaker and his own gentle presence and spirituality. We have been fortunate to have people from all over the world come and share their spiritual wisdom and God’s message of love and hope for his ministers. This year, Bishop Santosh Marray, Assisting Bishop of the Diocese of East Carolina has been our retreat leader and what a gift!
He started out talking about “stretch marks,” which had everyone, including our Bishop, wondering at the wisdom of bringing this guy in to talk to us. But he quickly put our minds and hearts at ease when he explained that most of what we go through in life causes our spiritual stretch marks, the sign that God is stretching us to learn and grow in some kind of new way or direction. He told us how God had stretched him by sending him to a diocese which had spent the money that had been set aside to build a new church for his congregation. He described how God had stretched him by teaching him to wait while he dealt with the difficult people in his ministry.
This morning he began his message by talking about what we call God. He talked about how the people of the 1st Century didn’t really call God “the Father” because they had grown up with the image of Abraham as the Father of God’s chosen people. For him, the word that Jesus used to talk about his Father in heaven was what worked for him – “Abba.” That’s an Aramaic word that is pretty much untranslatable but is best rendered as “Daddy.” It’s a very familiar form of address that has become a meditative and prayerful word in a lot of contemporary Christian music.
In the middle of all of this, he spoke about the culture he came from and what people called priests. He said that it was interesting to him to find our part of the church in a huge dispute over the use of “Father” as a title. Of course, in the past 20 years, the dispute has been ratcheted up a notch by the ordination of us women, many of whom decided that if the men would be called “Father,” then they should be called “Mother.” If you’ve read my book, you know that I have consistently resisted that moniker as, in my mind, that makes it a gender issue and when God made me a priest, the Bishop didn’t ask God to make me a “woman priest.” I was made a priest by God, just as every other ordinand has been throughout the history of the church.
Well, Bishop Santosh had seen my license plate and he started to talk about it and how I had certainly dealt with the issue for myself since I proudly displayed the name “Lady Father” on my car. He said, “I haven’t read the book but I can tell that this Father thing is not an issue for you – you’ve worked that out haven’t you?” I nodded, dumbfounded that he had so easily and freely advertised my book for me. Suddenly everyone was aware that I had written a book that was for sale. I couldn’t have afforded to pay for an advertisement that good!
When the session was over, I got a book from my car, inscribed and signed it, and when I encountered the Bishop on the way to lunch, I presented it to him as a thank you gift for lifting my book up for everyone in the room to see. I even marked the pages where I tell the story of how I got the name “Lady Father.” I hope he likes the book; I know that I am honored that he might just read it. If you haven’t, I’d be honored if you would read it too.
BUDDING AUTHORS FACEBOOK GROUP
This group is for people who like to write, who make a living writing, write just for fun, have published a book or books, want desperately to publish a book, or have published one and need to figure out how to sell it.
That last one would be me. I wrote my memoir in 2011 and it has been languishing in the publisher’s waiting for people to buy it. Unfortunately, I am not the sharpest marketing knife in the drawer so I am starting this group looking for like authors who would like to help each other out with tips, etc. and with sharing lists or posting others’ books on their own page or website. For instance, I have a website where I would start a column for Budding Authors and list your book and where to buy it.
If you are interested, please reply. As far as group guidelines are concerned, all the normal non-abusive, verbally haranguing, rude comments, etc. etc. are banned and will result in removal from the group. We are all responsible adults and everyone is expected to act as such. If not, your posts will be removed.
Hope to hear from all you Budding Authors soon.
Rev. Susan Bowman
July 6, 2019
Susan Bowman, is an ordained Episcopal Priest, a Grandmother, and a Professional Writer. She was ordained as an Episcopal priest in 1986 and has a story to tell that will speak to all women who are functioning in a traditionally male role. She has written a book about her experiences of discrimination within the church’s ordination process and in the parishes she served. Sign up for her “Announcement List” to keep track of Lady Father’s progress and to be notified when the book is re-published. Fill out the form below to enter contact information securely.