“Per Ardua” (Through Adversity)
by The Rev. Susan B. Bowman
Printed in The Episcopal New Yorker – Women’s Issue
I am a cradle Episcopalian who grew up at St. Paul’s Church in Petersburg, Virginia. My parents sang in the choir and, until I was 12, I sat in the pew with my grandmother and wished I was a boy so I could carry the cross, and that I’d grow up to be a man so I could do what the minister was doing. Little did I suspect that this was the beginning of my call by God to be a priest in his church. I must have known it at some deep level, though, because one day at the School of Theology in Sewanee, Tennessee, it came to life. I was listening to a young man tell of how at his son’s baptism he became undeniably aware of God’s call on his life, when I suddenly remembered all those long-ago Sundays and childhood yearnings. I knew then that God had much more for me to do than “just” go to seminary, which is what I had told my bishop in my interview.
The Rt. Rev. C. Charles Vaché, then bishop of Southern Virginia, was a staunch opponent of women in any leadership role in the church. He had adamantly refused every woman who had approached him for admission to the ordination process. But he had recently licensed a woman to serve as an interim priest, so I’d figured maybe he’d look differently on my request to “just” go to seminary. When I brought my request to the bishop, he thought for a moment and said, “I’m a little concerned that, if you weren’t ordained, you’d have a hard time getting a job.” He thought for another moment, then said, “Well, I will send you to seminary for a year and we’ll see how it goes.”
I was speechless! He just smiled at me and asked, “How will that be?” Needless to say, I agreed, and floated out of our meeting about a mile off the ground. The ensuing uproar around the diocese was thunderous. I was the first woman ever to be allowed to go to seminary and when, three months later, I returned to meet with Bp. Vaché to tell him about my life-changing experience and my new mission to become a priest, he looked at me and said, “I knew that.” At that moment he became my hero!
I’ll never forget the moment he looked at me and said, “There will be a lot of flak flying around here, but it is not yours to deal with. This is on me. You just have to be a good seminarian.” In 1984, I graduated in the top five of my class, having served as student body president, and receiving a high recommendation for ordination from the dean and the entire faculty. I had somehow survived a contentious interview with the commission on ministry/standing committee during which I was initially floored by the statement, “We understand you aren’t a very good housekeeper,” and then asked such questions as “Who’s going to take care of your son while you’re working?” It should have been an omen of things to come but I innocently thought, “Well, it can’t get any worse than this, can it?”
Well, I was wrong; and over the next several decades of ministry, through good times and bad, I kept saying to myself, “I should write a book.” So, in 2011, I did. The result, Lady Father, will speak loudly to anyone who feels called to ministry, is in the ordination process, or is serving in ministry in the church, as well as those in any profession who find themselves in an uphill battle against tradition and discrimination. I lived through it all, and have survived and grown and blossomed, even though there was a moment when I almost gave it all up.
Lady Father begins with the moment when the president of the standing committee told me that they had decided not to approve me for ordination to the diaconate. I was devastated; but in the following hours and days, I felt the unbelievable strength of the seminary community gathering around me. My fellow students, the dean and the faculty were all outraged. The dean, clergy and friends from home, and even the chair of the commission on ministry got on the phone with the bishop—to no avail. As supportive as he was of me and my call, he told me that the advisory groups of the diocese were there for a reason, and he respected their recommendations; therefore, he would not overturn this one. The standing committee only said they would re-interview me in a year.
I still thank God for the commission chair, who convinced the diocesan girls’ home to hire me as chaplain—unordained. To this day, I’m not sure if I would have continued if I had known what lay ahead. After seven almost peaceful years following my eventual ordination, with only a few nay-sayers marring two otherwise comfortable ministries, I took a call to a medium-sized parish in the Diocese of Albany. When I told Bishop Vaché about it, he chuckled and said, “Susan, that bishop doesn’t ordain women.” “Well,” I chuckled back, “I’m already ordained, thanks to you.”
I was sad to be leaving home, but looking forward to what seemed to be just what I had always dreamed. And for the next eight years or so, things at this parish went fairly well. It wasn’t until I began to hear rumors of meetings being held in secret to discuss “what to do with Susan” that I knew I was in trouble. I didn’t know what I had done because nobody would tell me, but when a member of the vestry called me and suggested that I take three months to find a new church, I fell apart. With my son urging me to get serious help, I checked myself into a psychiatric hospital for eight days.
People came to see me who were in on the secret meetings and I could hardly look at them. The bishop came and said they wanted to have one last service with me— but no part of me could face that congregation across a pulpit or an altar again. There were people who had called me a child abuser, a racist, and an uncaring priest, all wanting to gather to say good-bye with a big church dinner. Everyone acted as if nothing had happened, except for one woman who took me aside and profusely apologized, begging me to forgive her for her part in it.
It was all I could do to keep smiling, but when one of the youth group girls sang to me “You are the Wind Beneath My Wings,” I knew that all had not been in vain. After two weeks in a “Broken Priests Retreat” in Pensacola, the bishop declared me ready to supply, which I did for a bit and then was called by a small parish to be priest-in-charge. Again, things went well until some four years later, I was accused of preaching the worst funeral sermon ever and it was downhill from there. I later learned that opponents of women in the priesthood had been sowing seeds of discontent among a number of very faithful parishioners. After a particularly hostile meeting, we somehow came to a relatively quiet parting of the ways, but I was done.
I had come to the point where I just couldn’t believe Christians could treat Christians the way I had been treated. I was quitting—the priesthood, the church, Christianity even! I’d had all I could take. But I soon discovered that God wasn’t through with me. A short while later, I was approached by some Methodists in White Creek, New York to be their Sunday pastor, and I found that I just couldn’t say no. I became a “Pastor-on-Loan” from the Episcopal Diocese to this congregation of the dearest, most faithful bunch of Christians I have ever known. They treated me like gold and I pastored them for all I was worth.
We became a symbiotic congregation with me putting my Episcopal touch on the communion service and them teaching me their favorite hymns. Along the way, I was healed; and twelve years after we began, I knew that I had nothing left to give. So, we planned a last service during which they offered a moving tribute to me and I happily went off into retirement heaven. As I look back now, I know that, in the words of Maya Angelou, “I wouldn’t take nothin’ for my journey now.”
The author is a retired priest in the Diocese of Albany. For more information on her memoir, Lady Father, visit https://ladyfather.com/.
He’s Gone Too Far!
It’s taken hundreds of years and probably millions of words dancing on the edge of total heresy but finally – he’s done it! The Pope has gone over the edge with the Vatican’s latest Normae de Gravioribus Delicti document! In this document the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has put ordaining women or being ordained and being a woman right up on the list with sexual abuse of children and the mentally challenged.
Through my disbelief and rage, I can still manage to ask 3 questions:
1. Who do they think they are?
2. What Bible do they read?
3. Did they ask God about this?
Let’s take the 3rd one first – I know they craft these highly religious documents in an atmosphere of prayer. Also, I am certain that those prayers include asking the Holy Spirit for guidance. I don’t claim to be God or anything but the God I do know wouldn’t have steered them anywhere near this rocky and treacherous shore.
The God of love whom I worship sent his Son to eradicate this kind of condemnation. I believe that Jesus was following orders when he flew in the face of every discriminatory practice of the day. He ate meals with women, he talked to them in public, he touched them and let them touch him, no matter what time of the month it was. He encouraged women to be real and he even entrusted – you got it – women! with the first news of his resurrection.
So that brings us to the Bible – neat huh? Have any of you ever read anything in the words of Jesus or even in the whole Bible about ordination? Folks, we made that up! We picked up on the whole anointing and setting apart and raising up from the selection process God put in place from the days of the early kings. There was no Commission on Ministry, no Standing Committee, no elaborate service with incense swinging and multiple holy hands weighing down on one head.
If Jesus didn’t tell his future church leaders how to “ordain” priests, how can anybody read anything he said and conclude that he would exclude women from such a process, which he didn’t set up in the first place? What Jesus DID set up was a standard for treating women as intelligent and valuable members of society. So can you even imagine what he’s thinking now?
The Bishop who ordained me was a very wise man. Many of you knew the Rt. Rev. C. Charles Vaché, 7th Bishop of Southern Virginia as a I did – warm, caring, with a gift for storytelling and a clever turn-of-the phrase. He was known for his gift of understatement with a touch of humor. One of my favorites was his quick comeback to what I know was an often repeated request every where he went. “Bishop, can’t you do something about this weather?” His stock answer was: “Sorry, I’m in sales, not management.”
After his long struggle with the question of the ordination of women, he became very clearly convinced that the ordination of women was “of God.” I remember someone asking him one time, “How do you know that?” And, I had to pick my lower jaw off the floor when I heard him say, “Because God has made effective and faithful female priests for more than 10 years now.” Then, with that subtle twinkle in his eye that I had come to really appreciate, he looked at me and said, “And there’s no doubt that Susan Bowman would not have made it through the ordination process without God’s help.”
He was so right! I knew from the beginning that I needed God to survive the male-oriented system still present in Southern Virginia in the early 80’s. I also knew that, after 13 years away from academia, which I didn’t conquer too strongly during my first assault, I was in serious need of divine inspiration and intervention.
This brings us to the final question: “Who do they think they are?” This is one of my favorite responses to the outrageous and it is close kin to “What were they thinking?” Of course, it’s a rhetorical question and I’ve no doubt that the literal answer is “God’s Church” or “God’s Servants.” After all, these committed and concerned prelates seem to feel called somehow to serve as “guardians of the faith” in a faithless or at least a “faith-challenged” world.
The faith they are called to protect, however, is not theirs. They don’t own it. Faith is a gift from God to fallen humanity and, even as we seem to be constantly struggling with it, questioning it, and in some cases, rejecting it or modifying it to suit our tastes, it is the bedrock foundation for our lives. Everybody has to have faith in SOMETHING.
Our Christian faith is constantly under attack from all quarters, even from within our own denominations. So it is clear that we humans need help with such crucial theological concepts as the Trinity, redemption, and the list goes on . . . .” I don’t claim to know everything about God. In fact, I’m not even sure that any of us can really KNOW things about God – I think we “faith” them. And I’m certainly teachable and ready to learn but I learned in seminary to check everything against Scripture. While I’ll certainly admit that there are tons of unclear and even contradictory evidence in the Bible about the role of women, there is no doubt in my mind about three things:
1. The Pope and the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith think that they are the absolute and final authority on “things of the Faith.” They also claim to speak for God in all matters of the Faith. The first time there was an attempt to “play God,” two people got thrown out of the Garden.
2. The Bible that I read speaks loudly of God’s love for every human being. There is no doubt about or Jesus’ love and respect for women, and for his fair treatment of every kind of person – even sinners. It speaks loudly of God’s hatred of evil and humans hurting each other. Nowhere does the Bible I read equate the most despicable treatment of God’s most vulnerable with a woman’s sincere desire to serve God.
3. If the Pope and his CDF asked God about what to write in this newest piece of religious teachings, they either didn’t listen to the answer or they heard it wrong. I don’t know – maybe they made up the answer they wanted to hear.
I don’t want to stoop to their level and call them unfit or unsuited. I certainly will not call them names or impugn their character as they have done to me and thousands of women like me. I will leave them to God.
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WOMEN PRIESTS – VICTIMS OR VICTORS
Prejudice and discrimination are alive and well in our society and, unfortunately, it also flourishes in the Church where it makes many people into victims. In my mind, this is the one institution where we should be able to operate freely without prejudice and discrimination – where ministers of the Gospel should be victors instead. We should be accepted in the Church just as Jesus accepted all people, especially women, during his earthly ministry.
In my positions as a municipal employee, I encountered some initial hostility by the men I worked with until I proved myself worthy. In both positions, I was holding jobs for which I had no previous experience and for which I had not been formally trained. In one case the job I was hired to do was unique and I had been hired in a pay grade that had always been for a highly technical position, so some skepticism was understandable. In both cases, once I showed I was capable and more than willing to learn and to pull my weight, I was accepted and respected.
In my experience as an ordained woman in the Episcopal Church, I found such acceptance to be spotty at best, mostly conditional, and at the worst, just the opposite. Generally speaking, I was neither totally accepted nor respected by the majority of people I worked with or the members to whom I ministered.
In the ordination process, I found people in positions of authority over me and my standing within the process, as well as people in the pews, who fell into five general categories:
- Totally accepting and supportive – These were few and far between. They tended to be people who either blindly supported the equality of women in every facet of life or those who had thoughtfully and prayerfully considered the ordination of women and come to the conclusion that it was part of God’s plan for the Church. They also tended to be vocal in their acceptance and in their support of individual women whom they thought were suitable for ordination.
- Accepted the idea but with reservations – There were many good church people who wouldn’t dream of being prejudiced against women or any other group and so they called themselves supporters of women’s ordination. They were inwardly unsure of the wisdom of upsetting the Church’s traditional hierarchy. They were also unsure of their own comfort zone with women functioning in a traditional male role on a spiritual level.
- Accepted the person’s qualifications but not the concept of women in ordained ministry – These people often were heard to say, after an encounter with an ordained woman, “I don’t think much of the ordination of women, but Xxxxx Xxxxx is OK.”
- Rejected the idea of women’s ordination, but were open to change – These were also thoughtful and prayerful church people who just were not able to accept a female in spiritual authority. They were uncomfortable with women functioning as priests (celebrating the Eucharist, absolving sins, and pronouncing God’s blessing, etc) but were willing to discuss it rationally – at least most of the time.
- Totally rejected the possibility that women could function as priests – Many in this category were hostile, either openly or passive-aggressively. Most refused to accept a woman’s ordination as valid. There were many clergy in this category. There still are some Episcopal clergy who will refuse to accept communion from a woman.