Friday, September 16, 2011

A table turning experience

Thirty-five years ago today, the General Convention of the Episcopal Church passed the legislation that made possible the ordination of women to the diaconate, the priesthood and the episcopacy.

I had an interesting conversation the other day with a family who are church shopping. It was a tables-turning experience. Here's why:

This husband and wife first came to Trinity while I was on vacation. They are both Roman Catholics who have reached their tipping point with the church of their birth. They are distressed about the decade-long scandals--in particular, the continued inability of the hierarchy to "own up" (as they put it) to their responsibility in the continuing problem. They spoke of the inherent sexism within that polity. These were former RCIA instructors who realized they could no longer tow the party line nor continue to raise their children there. They had been to some Lutheran churches, but felt that the Episcopal Church might be more their cup o' tea..

They really liked Trinity. They started visiting during my vacation. They came once or twice after I came back. Then they stopped. I happened to call them to invite them to our parish picnic and this was when the hemming and hawing began.

You see, when I was away, my supply clergy were all women. The couple realized that I would be the only priest for the bulk of the year. They didn't want to offend me, but after some patient coaxing they finally fessed up that one of the things that they want to demonstrate to their daughters and son is that women can serve at the altar, that priesthood is not reserved for men alone and that in the baptized life men are not privileged over women. They wanted to show their children a church where priests could be moms as well as "Fathers." So they were looking for a church with at least one woman priest on staff.

Ah, I said, I understand.

When I was a child, my parents--having grown up in the South during the Jim Crow era--wanted my brother and me to experience a church where racial integration was the norm and not a novelty. We lived in an all-white suburb that was fighting any hint of integration. They did not want to relive those battles. So they changed churches. (Eventually, we'd change towns, too.) To do that, we drove past two or three suburban Episcopal churches to get to my home parish in the city. So I appreciate what these parents are trying to do.

Looking at their address, I suggested three other parishes in the area which are multiple staff parishes with at least member of the clergy staff is a of these is a parish where all the full-time paid clergy are female. I told them that there are many parishes in the diocese where the only priest is a woman, some within driving distance. If their desire was to convey to their children a church where it is normal for women and men to serve together as equals, they had lots of choices. I'm curious if any these places become their new church home.

So, there it is. I have now had the experience of a family choosing not to come to my church based, at least in part, on my gender. But there is a difference: They didn't hiss at me, spit at me, claw my hands during communion, or tell me that my orders weren't real--as my sister clergy experienced in my seminary days and beyond. But the tables were indeed turned, and it was a blessing.

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