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Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Abigail Painter Hamilton

I was “fighting the good fight” in Columbus and missed the retirement party for Abby Hamilton. Had I been there, I would have said this:

You only had to be with Abby a few minutes before her eyes would sparkle.

Before the sparkle, however, came the scrutiny.

She has this way of looking deep into your eyes which is momentarily disconcerting. ‘That look’, combined with her razor sharp wit and distinctive voice gone all gravely from years of “I-don’t-give-a-damn-what-you-think-I-enjoy” smoking could wilt the knees of lesser beings in a flash. The encounter is made even more intense by the fact that she stands just a bit more than four foot something (okay, maybe five feet even).

The over-all effect is like standing in the presence of a small, tightly packed stick of TNT. You don't want to light a match or do anything to ignite a spark in her presence. But, in that moment of your vulnerability, she saw something about you – something real, something true – which was what she had been looking for in the first place. And then, her eyes would sparkle and you knew that she had seen the Christ in you and you were being bathed in the light of Christ in her.

Her pulpit told another story about Abby. Stuffed animals were stuffed to the brim on the shelf just below the surface of the pulpit. She used them to illustrate gospel stories for the children, but children of all ages came to understand the good news in a deeper way because of her creativity.

She was one of the first women to be ‘regularly’ ordained in the Diocese of Newark – I believe she was the third, being preceded by Nancy Wittig (one of the Philadelphia Eleven) and Martha Blacklock. When I asked her if she would preach for the 25th Anniversary of the Ordination of Women, she not only agreed, insisting that we invite Nancy and Martha to con-celebrate, but also invited everyone to come to the church where she was rector, Holy Innocents, in West Orange, where the gracious hospitality of her congregation was exceeded only by their fabulous cooking.

I had come to know that hospitality and cuisine when we worked together on the Search Committee to elect the 9th Bishop of Newark. Meeting weekly, the committee was, without fail, welcomed to a room filled with tables properly covered with table cloths, each adorned with a small vase of fresh cut flowers. No plastic for us, we were served properly with china and cutlery, each table complete with a carafe each of white and red wine, as well as water and soda.

So it was when the Women’s Commission gathered to celebrate the brave and bold event when eleven women, already ordained deacons in the church, gathered together at the Church of the Advocate in Philadelphia to be “irregularly” ordained as priests on July 29, 1974.

I have the Religion Section of the Washington Post, dated February 22, 1977, given to me by Kay and Joe Liedy, which hangs framed on my wall here at Llangollen. It was the year I was officially received as an Episcopalian at the Cathedral of St. Luke, Portland, Maine.

The headlines report the climate of those years far better than I ever could: “Hans Kung Says Christianity Obscures Christ.” “Catholic Bishops to Study Change in Communion.” “Evangelical Christians Claim Vast Growth in Numbers, Income.” “Nude Therapy Sessions Put (United Methodist) Minister on Leave of Absence.”

At the bottom of the page is a picture of a rather frail-looking Negro woman (as she preferred to be called). The headline reads: “First Negro Woman Priest Holds Service in N.C.” The story goes on to say that the Rev’d Dr. Pauli Murray had presided at worship and Service of Holy Communion in the very chapel where her grandmother had been a baptized as a slave in 1854.

It was then that I knew I had to be an Episcopalian. It was at such a time that Abby was ordained.

The institutional church had chosen to mark the anniversary of the ordination of women in accordance with when it begun to "regularly" ordain women in 1977 (General Convention had officially "regularized" the ordination of women at General Convention, September, 1976).

Not so in the Diocese of Newark where many of the ‘foremothers’ like Fran Trott, Marge Christie, and Page Bigalow, along with men like Bill Coats, Joe Liedy and a whole host of others whose identity escapes me now but whose names are written in the palm of God’s hand had labored long and hard to make the 1974 ordinations in Philadelphia become a reality.

When God calls you to labor in the vineyards of justice, you know when to celebrate.

Abby’s sermon that night was, simply, amazing. Her entire countenance sparkled with wisdom and wit as she spoke in that marvelous gravely voice – without notes, as I recall (always miraculous to me) – about how hard it had been to work for the ‘uniform’ of alb and stole and collar, as she slowly, carefully, reverently, as she spoke, took each one off, revealing the most important thing we bring to ministry: our baptized selves.

Of course, she had it right. I have come to know that Abby most always has it right.

Abby was one of my role models in urban ministry, she, like me, having been assigned in the early years of her ordination to a small inner city congregation which had fallen on hard times and where hers was often the only white face in a sea of color from Africa, the Caribbean, West Indies, and those African-Americans who had tenaciously survived the Newark Riots.

She didn’t do it the way the ‘boys’ did at the time – all vigorous program development through large church and government grants. She did congregational development the old fashioned way. She loved her people. And they loved her back. It’s a model I followed when God called me to work in Newark. I have found that it works well in the serious suburbs, as well. Miss this piece, and all the fancy congregational development programs in the world won’t do you a bit of good.

I don’t know that the Diocese of Newark yet understands the loss of Abby Hamilton in active, full time parochial ministry. These are rather strange times for us, intensified by a time of transition when we are, seven years later, in the process of electing the 10th Bishop of Newark.

Great hymns of praise will be sung about our departing bishop as well as the newly elected incoming bishop. And that will be as it should. Before I can add my voice to that great celebration, I need to sing the praises of a faithful daughter of the church and this diocese, who worked quietly and compassionately in the fields of justice – in the inner city of Newark as well as in the serious suburbs in the “church on the golf course.” She served the Diocese of Newark as well as the National Church, having been elected to serve on the Executive Council with then Presiding Bishop Ed Browning (who, like me, remains a loyal fan).

The Diocese of Newark will be a bit less bright without the constant presence of that sparkle in her eye. And yet, as she preached to us that night, it is the light of Christ which will continue to shine in and through her that will quietly and effectively carry on the important work of drawing people to come to know the Good News of Christ Jesus wherever she may be – and whatever new work of ministry she chooses in her. . . (ahem) . . . “retirement.” (If you're thinking Abby will simply fade away into the woods of Western NJ, well, think again.)

Thank you, Abby. From my heart, I thank you.

Let us join with God and Jesus, the Holy Spirit and all the angels and archangels, and the entire communion of saints who have been, are now and are yet to come, who sing their songs of praise and thanksgiving:

“Well done, thou good and faithful servant. Well done.”

1 comment:

Marie said...

Beautiful post. Makes me want to meet her.