“Have you heard the news?”

Bellini praying hands sm

Giovanni Bellini, Madonna and Child with Saints Catherine and Magdalene (detail), c. 1500, Accademia, Venice

“Have you heard the news?” That’s the first thing the driver said when a friend and I hitched a ride out of Yosemite’s Tuolumne Meadows after hiking 150 miles from Lake Tahoe. We’d been in the wilderness for 20 days, so pretty much anything would be news to us. We shook our heads. What had we missed? “Nixon’s going to resign tonight!” he said, clearly savoring the pleasure of bearing glad tidings to fresh ears. That was August 8, 1974 (the President made the announcement that night on national television; his official resignation took place the next morning).

The sealing of Nixon’s fate wasn’t the only news I had missed in the Sierra wilderness forty years ago. Ten days earlier, when I was about halfway to Yosemite, three Episcopal bishops sped up the grinding wheels of ecclesiastical change by ordaining eleven women to the priesthood in a Philadelphia church. The ordination of women had failed to secure majority approval when the Episcopal General Convention gathered in 1973, and the next vote wouldn’t be taken again until the next convention in1976. The Spirit and the institution were clearly on different timetables. So the Philadelphia Eleven, and the bishops who ordained them, did what prophets do: they imagined an alternative future, which would remain contested and uncertain until the whole church could embrace its implications.

When the General Convention convened in Minneapolis in the summer of 1976, the ordination of women, along with a radical revision of the Prayer Book, topped the agenda. On the day the deciding vote was taken in the House of Deputies, ten thousand observers packed the hall. I was among them, and as the session unfolded I was struck by its overriding liturgical quality. This was not just another meeting with the usual amount of tedious verbosity and soul-sucking detail, but a solemn performance of a drama reimagining our collective identity. As in every liturgy, larger realities had to be contained within the imperfect significations of human language and ritual. And somehow – miracle of miracles! – a church convention became a place of theophany. I saw the Holy Spirit at work, not in spite of parliamentary procedure, but within and through that procedure.

The crucial session seemed to follow the shape of the eucharist. Once the assembly had gathered, the stories that brought us together were told. This “reading of the lessons” consisted of a long succession of speakers who had two minutes each to make the case for or against women’s ordination. This 90-minute “debate” was itself a kind of ritual, summarizing the now familiar arguments which had led to this moment. No new insights were expected – certainly no conversions – but it seemed important, before the vote, to tell the story of who we were – including our conflictedness – and the nature of the larger story we belonged to. Some told that story in terms of dwelling (tradition), while others described it as pilgrimage (innovation). But there was a sense that the story itself always exceeded our understanding of it. Many viewpoints, but still one church.

In the eucharist, the lessons are followed by the Prayers of the People, and so it was here. The resolutions committee, which had earlier reported its recommendation in favor of the motion that “no one shall be denied access” to ordination on the basis of gender, had reserved the right to present the final portion of its report just before the vote was cast. And that portion, we discovered, consisted of five minutes of silent prayer – fifteen thousand people filling the hall with a profound stillness. A large convention was the last place I would expect to experience prayer so fervent or so intense, but there it was.

Next in the eucharistic rite is the Offertory, where the gifts of the people are brought forward to the altar along with bread and wine. In this case, the gifts were the ballots filled out by the deputies. While their votes were being collected and counted, there was a Passing of the Peace. The presiding chair of the House of Deputies, the Rev. John Coburn, thanked the voting members for the courtesy with which they had treated each other in this potentially divisive process. The throng of observers rose to applaud them. Then Coburn thanked the observers for their courteous demeanor. We had refrained from any partisan displays of cheering or booing. The deputies rose to give us a standing ovation. Finally, everyone gave a standing ovation to the chair, who had so graciously guided the assembly through uncharted waters. In that moment, at least, we loved one another more than we loved our causes.

Something of that spirit remained when the results were finally announced. There was no outburst of applause or cheering. There were some quiet hugs, heads bowed in thanks, eyes moist with emotion. But as the multitude began to make its way out of the hall, most of the faces I saw appeared thoughtful, solemn, even stunned, like communicants returning from the altar, or Moses descending the mountain, glowing like fire.

For my part, when I first heard the tally and realized the motion had carried, I felt an inward elation, for this was a great and necessary moment. But mixed inextricably with my joy was a deep sense of the burden assumed by the losers in this long struggle. I couldn’t just exult in victory. I had to make room in my heart for the pain and disappointment of the defeated as well. This was surprising to me, for I have been too much a man of principle in my life, finding it hard sometimes to sympathize with incompatible perspectives and practices. That is one reason I am convinced that the Holy Spirit was blowing where she will that day. I couldn’t have come up with such sympathetic breadth on my own. Many of those I talked to later reported a similar experience.

Sympathy. Dora Greenwell, a single Anglican woman in Victorian times, wondered whether women have more capacity for sympathy than men. She had perhaps seen too many male clergy not in touch with their feminine side. She wrote about sympathy as an essential form of knowledge, without which any ministry is incapacitated.

… it is this ability to feel with others, as well as for them, that takes all hardness or ostentation from instruction and counsel – all implied superiority from pity and consolation. The woman, or man, of true feeling does not come down upon the sinner or sufferer, from another region, but is always, for the time being, on a level with those that are addressed – even able to see things as they see them.

Whether in sympathy or anything else, the Episcopal Church has been made incomparably richer by the gifts of its women clergy. I might add that I am privileged to witness this richness firsthand as the husband of a parish priest, whose singular gifts teach me about priesthood – and discipleship – every day.

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