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Sunday, August 27, 2006

Earth Moving Day

The New York Times (08 26 06) headline read: CLERGY WOMEN FIND HARD PATH TO BIGGER PULPIT

It was, of course, no surprise, but it was still startling. Earlier that morning, a friend had tipped me off to a very conservative Episcopal blogsite which had posted the service of celebration of the 30th Anniversary of the Ordination of Women which Marge Christie, Janet Brocklesby and I had put together for the Diocese of Newark.

It had been posted on the EWC (Episcopal Women's Caucus) web page and "discovered" by one of their members who often 'troll' (see my essay "Bottom Feeding") for whatever they consider fodder to fuel their distress and as evidence that the progressive path being followed by The Episcopal Church is "walking away" from the rest of the Anglican Communion.

It should probably come as a surprise that the person who "found" the liturgy which was excoriated on that blogsite as something close to neo-pagan, was a woman. Indeed, while the overwhelming majority of the commentators were men who oppose the ordination of women, there were several other women whose anger was palpable.

It's called "oppression sickness." It's a bit like "Stockholm syndrome" wherein the survivor begins to have a close bond with their captors.

It all reminded me of an essay I wrote about my own path to ordination, and what I have learned, on my journey, about oppression and how it makes us all sick.

Here it is.

On July 29, the Feast of Mary and Martha of Bethany, Episcopalians will note - some with great joy and a small remnant with chagrin - the thirtieth anniversary of the ordination of women. It was, as one of the eleven women "irregularly" ordained that day called it, "an earth-moving day." As memories of that day surface, it continues to be so.

On July 28, 1974, the news came to me as if from outer space. There, on the front page of the New York Times, the headlines called to me from the steps of my comfortable suburban home. Eleven women had been ordained by three retired bishops at the Church of the Advocate in Philadelphia. I remember reading the story with a mixture of intense curiosity and foreboding. Women? Priests? Impossible! Foolish! I crumpled up the paper and threw it in the trash.

When I had finished reading the story I remember feeling inexplicably but undeniably angry. I was a very unhappy housewife, mother of two small children, and a miserably lapsed, spiritually malnourished Roman Catholic. On the surface, the story had nothing to do with my reality. So, why was I so angry? I wouldn't know the answer to that question until I, myself, was preparing to preside at my first Eucharist as a woman ordained priest.

I was six or seven years old when Sr. Mary Augustine, asked the First Communion Class of St. Elizabeth's Roman Catholic Church in Fall River, Massachusetts, what we wanted to be when we grew up. She was "fishing for vocations," as I later learned it was called, looking to find the boy she could refer to "Father" and the girl she could recommend to "Mother" to begin cultivating them as the priests and nuns of the future.

It was the fifties and gender role stereotypes were already firmly embedded in our cultural psyche. All the boys wanted to be doctors and lawyers, and all the girls wanted to be nurses and teachers. Except me. I knew clearly what I wanted to be and said so boldly and clearly when it came my turn to be asked.

"I'm going to be a priest!" I said, distressed at the wave of giggles that seemed to set off among my peers. Sr. Augustine joined them in the way adults laugh and you know it really isn't funny. "No, dear," she said gently but in an undeniably condescending way, "Only boys can become priests. Girls become nuns."

"But, I want to be a priest," I insisted. Sister began to look annoyed, which was blood on the water to the shark children in my class. "No, no." Sister intoned as if to a small child, incapable of understanding the simplest concepts. "Boys are priests. Girls are nuns."

"But, I'm going to be a priest," I said, with the resolve of innocence born of belief in possibility. Sister's face turned red with anger and the class fell suddenly silent. Wagging her finger inches from my face, she said forcefully, "You are never to say that again! You will NOT become a priest." Then, moving her face close to mine she raised her voice and said, "Do you understand?"

I do not know where the words came from, but as they made their way out of my mouth, they strengthened my body to stand firm, and locked my eyes to hers as I said, slowly and clearly, "You. Can't. Stop. Me." The response was swift and wordless. Whap! Sister slapped me across the face. Hard. And that was the end of that.

I went home and told my mother who shrugged and said, "Well, what did you expect? Never disobey Sister, ever again." And, I never did.

I didn't remember that experience until years later. I was ordained to the priesthood on the Feast of St. Luke, October 18, 1986. The next day, I was to complete my ordination by presiding at my very first Mass at the Church of St. John the Evangelist on Bowdoin Street in Boston where I had been seminarian and deacon. It was the custom in that church that, at the passing of the Peace, the priest, deacon and altar party went down both sides of the aisle to greet people, ending at the back of the church where they then lead the Offertory procession back to the altar.

As I turned around and made ready to make my way to the altar to preside at my first Eucharist, the memory of that encounter came cascading in front of my eyes like the flipping pages of a photograph album. I had a crystal clear image of Sr. Mary Augustine's face, red with anger, just inches from my own. And, I heard myself say, "You can't stop me."

If there was a moment of victory, it was so fleeting that I missed it completely. Instead, another image intruded on the scene. There I was, an unhappy, spiritually depleted young woman, reacting in anger to the ordination of the women who became known as "The Philadelphia Eleven." I began to weep as my heart flooded with understanding - and forgiveness.

I came to understand something about the nature of oppression. Rather than extending invitation, it creates wedges. Frustration and anger are the forces that drive the victim down into the apex of its cuneiform shape, dividing and ultimately conquering any who challenge the status quo. My anger had been no different than that of Sr. Augustine, and I was compelled to forgive her if I was going to find forgiveness for myself. That forgiveness led me to an important insight: my ordination would never be complete as long as any woman anywhere was being denied the opportunity to fulfill her vocational call in the institutional church.

It is said that whenever a decision is made to end violence, something in the cosmos shifts. On July 29, 1974, Alla Renee Bozarth, one of the eleven women ordained that day wrote, "The earth-moving day is here." A generation and a half of women who have followed her live and know that to be true.



Another "let the people say AMEN" moment ... thank you, e!

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

I have been emailed privately about this essay more than any other. It appears to have struck a very raw nerve.

Someone wrote that whenever one of the LGBT leaders in the church says something like, "we'll never see an end to oppression in our lifetime," we are, in fact, exhibiting signs of "oppression sickness."

I think that's true.

As Mother Thunder used to say, "Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living."

Let the church say, "Amen."

Lisa Fox said...

Stunning, Elizabeth. Just stunning. I can only imagine that moment.

Thanks for sharing this story with us. I've sent it on to many friends.

Oh! and did I mention it was just stunning?

Incoherently yours -

Saint Pat said...

Thank you, thank you.

From one who knows about oppression sickness.