I am working – twice a week – with a personal trainer at the local YMCA. It is a fringe benefit of being a geezerand being on a Church Pension health insurance plan – it’s called Silver Sneakers.
But this post has nothing to do with either being retired or working out. It has to do with a theological/scriptural question which my trainer posed to me. He knows that I am a retired priest, so he took the time to ask me a question. It had arisen in the local Session of Elders of his Presbyterian congregation.
He asked me what I thought about 1 Timothy, Chapter 3, and its prohibition on women teaching in church (It is actually 1 Timothy, Chapter 2 that deals with that messy issue; I did not quibble). It seems that his pastor had professed support for the ordination of women when the congregation was interviewing him, but since he arrived, he is showing other inclinations. My trainer supports the ordination of women (his wife is a Presbyterian elder) and he was truly vexed by his pastor’s change-of-heart.
It’s not often that I am posed such questions. Outside of Sundays, I keep a low profile. But I was happy to address this issue, especially in light of a recent personal ahamoment.
I told him that much of the instructions written in the epistles was contextual in nature, and that the society of that era was radically different from our culture. I also voiced the perspective Rachel Held Evans articulated in her excellent book Inspired:Paul’s primary concern was the message of salvation and new life he had found in Jesus Christ. Every other cultural stricture was secondary.
But I went beyond that argument, to a much more practical, existential point. This was my personal aha moment that had cemented my previous commitment. I told him that I had recently worked with a fellow priest – a woman – in conducting a funeral for a very good friend. That experience, I said, had been a moment of renewed awareness of how many women are remarkably gifted for the ordained ministry.
I have since written a note to that priest, telling her how deeply moved I was by how she conducted very difficult and sensitive conversations with the grieving family. I had stood and watched as she did that, and asked myself, “How would you have done in such a situation?” The answer in my heart was “Not nearly as well.”
I am grateful that the ordination of women in the Episcopal Church came even before my own ordination. In fact, the very first ordination service I ever attended was for two women in 1984. But, my thoughts go well beyond that gratitude.
I told my trainer that women are more-than-qualified for the ordained ministry – they actually bring gifts that frequently are woefully absent in men who serve in the same roles. Women, in many cases, bring perspectives, relational skills, and sensitivities that are much-needed in the ministry.
As I assisted in the funeral with a female colleague, I was struck: Perhaps many of the men have not been good stewards of the gifts of ordination. Look at the trajectory of the church. It has shown a deficit of some sort – and leadership, in many nuanced forms, may have been what was lacking. Not allmen, but many – maybe myself included.
I review my own history in the ordained ministry. I know there are many times when I failed to provide the creative, finely-tuned leadership that was needed. I wonder if I was the right person (or right gender) for those situations. Perhaps a woman possessing different perspectives and gifts would have been much more suitable in those circumstances.
I look back and see other facets of the situation. On many occasions, I was required (because of my roles) to intervene in cases of clergy misconduct. In all but a few cases, those clergy who had acted outside of appropriate boundaries were male. The damage by the clergy misconduct was frequently significant. Those experiences left gaping wounds in people’s souls.
I also reflect on deployment, and the difficulties I faced in helping women receive calls. There is one situation which stands out in my memory: A congregation chose to call a much-less-qualified male when they also had a very gifted woman as a candidate. The chosen relationship did not work out well, and the congregation suffered from their ill-informed choice. An opportunity was lost.
As Martin Luther King said, “The arc of moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” My viewpoint is somewhat analogous. I think we might be seeing a divine correctionin the arc of the church. God, in seeing the ruins that have been left by centuries of male-dominated leadership, is giving the ministry over to those who are able to speak the Good News with fresh perspectives and new voices.
The fact of my trainer asking me the prompting question is a quaint artifact of a settled question in the Episcopal Church. But his question brought to the surface renewed realizations.
It is my hope that the centuries ahead will reflect the best, most-authentic, gifted people serving in important ordained roles. I hope that it will result in the gospel being proclaimed with balanced perspectives, informed by the richness of gifts of both genders.