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Monday, October 18, 2010

Twenty-four years later

I was ordained to the sacred order of priests on the Feast of St. Luke at St. Ann's Episcopal Church in Lowell, MA, by the Rt. Rev'd Frederick Barton Wolf, retired bishop of Maine, for the Rt. Rev'd Ed Chalfant, bishop of Maine.

It was a long, difficult, five year road to that day and that place.

It's been a longer, sometimes more or less difficult road to where I am now. The church has grown and changed, as have I, these past twenty-four years.

Bishop Wolf had voted against the ordination of women. Indeed, many will not forget his argument on the floor of the House of Bishops before the vote was taken.

I was not there to hear it, but +Fred did tell me about it in one of the many discernment sessions we had together before he finally supported my vocational quest.

"Can you imagine," he asked his brothers, "a crucifix with the corpus of a half-naked woman hanging from it? Why, the very idea is obscene!"

+Fred shook his head sadly as he recounted his words. "Never mind the very obscenity of the crucifixion," he said. "The real obscenity was me - a drunken, misogynist, self-loathing, closeted gay man, inadvertently exposing myself publicly in front of my brother bishops and God. Everyone knew exactly what I was saying," he added, sadly, "except me."

He also "confessed" that, when his former seminary roommate and bishop in the church died in a plane crash on his way to the Port St. Lucy gathering of bishops to negotiate a 'gentleman's agreement' of conscience about the ordination of women, he wrote a letter to the women known as 'The Philadelphia Eleven', blaming them for the death of his brother bishop.

As he explained, "See also: drunken, misogynist, self-loathing, closeted gay man."

It was one of my first lessons that homophobia and heterosexism go hand in hand with misogyny and sexism. Indeed, I have come to believe, over the past twenty-four years, that misogyny and sexism are the origins of both homophobia and heterosexism.

Indeed, as +Fred warned me, "Once you have been dismissed by the institutional church, you've been dismissed. You are 'dismissed but tolerated' for being a woman in the church. The fact that you are a lesbian only confirms for some that you ought to be dismissed."

Over the past twenty-four years, I have found that to be a very true statement about the institutional church. Which, interestingly enough, provides an avenue of great liberation.

What's the line from "Me and Bobby McGee"? Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose.

That particular philosophy was, I believe, the underpinning of the advice given to me by one of my professors at EDS (The Episcopal Divinity School), Suzanne Hiatt, who was also one of the Philadelphia Eleven.

As I was heading from Cambridge up to Portland, ME to meet with the Standing Committee for Ordination, she said, "Remember: it's always easier to ask for forgiveness rather than for permission."

+Fred's advice to me, whispered in my ear before I went into the room to meet with the Standing Committee, was, "Remember: if you're being run out of town, get in front of the crowd and make it look like a parade."

I've tried to remember both of these important pieces of advice, lo, these past twenty-four years. It's made for quite a ride - even in the face of the many obstacles the institutional church continues to set before women who seek to be Servant Leaders in the Body of Christ.

I have many wonderful stories I've collected over the years. Perhaps because today is a day remarkably similar to the day of my ordination - sparkling, crisp, clean skies and perfect, bright autumnal light - I'll tell you about what happened on that particular day.

St. Anne's, Lowell, is sometimes known as "The Mill Girl" church. Lowell was one of those New England "Mill Towns" with lots of windowless factories where "landed gentry" brought over poor women from England and Ireland to work for pennies while the owners raked in fortunes.

Indeed, as the online history of the church states, "St. Anne's was the first building dedicated to religious worship in the section of Chelmsford that later became Lowell, and, as far as is known at this time, was the first church to be established and supported by a manufacturing company rather than a group of worshipers. The Parish was formally organized February 24, 1824 as the Merrimack Religious Society."

One of the stories told about this time was that Kirk Boott and the directors of the Merrimack Manufacturing Corporation levied a "tithe" on the salary of the "Mill Girls" in order to cover some of the construction costs. That was done entirely without their permission, of course.

The cornerstone of St. Anne's was laid May 20, 1824 based on plans drawn by Mr. Boott similar in design to St. Michael's Church in Derby, England, where he had been married to his wife, Anne. Hence, the name of the church.

I am the daughter, granddaughter and niece of "Mill Girls" and I was the first woman to be ordained in that church. We gathered together before the service in the Historical Room, which was filled with glass covered exhibit tables containing various pictures and documents attesting to the building of the church. The atmosphere was thick with irony. Someone commented that you could almost hear the ancient voices of the Mill Girls cheering us on.

The worship style of St. Anne's was, at least at that time, very "low to broad church". Morning Prayer had been the Sunday norm, and they were still in transition from the 1928 BCP to the eucharistically-centered worship of the 1979 BCP. It had been less than a decade since the change, and the rector was still negotiating his way through the difficulty of that transition.

However, +Fred was a "nose-bleed high" Anglo-Catholic who insisted that we use incense during the ordination service. The folks at St. John's, Bowdoin Street in Boston, which had been my field education site and had become my "home" church, gladly brought along a thurible and a whole box of incense.

+Fred led us in prayer and then, just before the organ began to play, "Lift High The Cross," he stoked up that thurible with incense right to the brim. Soon, lovely white-gray clouds of sweet-smelling smoke were billowing up and around us, as the thurifer swayed the thurible gently back and forth.

Suddenly, the most ungodly noise filled the room. We couldn't hear ourselves think much less speak. Slowly, as if in slow motion, it came to us: the incense had set off the fire alarm in this historic building. Seconds after that, we heard the unmistakable sound of the Lowell Fire Department barreling up the street.

What had, moments before, been an orderly, dignified liturgical procession, instantly dissolved into a comical chaos, rivaling something out of a Marx Brother's movie. White-robed people seemed to scatter everywhere all at once, like so many dots on an electronic game board which was popular at the time.

Someone later likened the scene to "Ms. PackMan" meets "Super Mario Brothers".

+Fred rolled his eyes.

The rector ushered us all outside - giving first priority to getting the thurifer and the thurible out of the church.

My crucifer, a very tall woman who had typed my GOEs for me - back in the day, before computers and laptops, when that sort of thing was done - tucked the processional cross under her arm and sprinted for the street.

I can still see her clearly, standing in the middle of Kirk Street, cross in one hand like a stop sign in the hands of a school yard Crossing Guard, the other hand up like one of the Supreme's during a performance of "Stop in the name of love".

The fire trucks stopped a few feet in front of her.

+Fred rolled his eyes again, then whispered in my ear, "I don't think the church will ever be ready for you, my dear."

I don't think She has.

Hopefully, I've helped make Her ready for other women - strong, independent, feisty women who love the church enough to challenge Her to continue the struggle to bring about the Realm of God.

All in all, it's been a wonderful first twenty-four years. I'm looking forward with great energy and passion to the next.

Having said that, if you listen carefully, you can hear the sirens of fire trucks wailing in the background.

And if you look, that would be me, out in front, turning it into a parade.


it's margaret said...


Lordy, I love you, and I am so grateful for you and your presence and ministry!

"Remember: if you're being run out of town, get in front of the crowd and make it look like a parade." --will be my new mantra.

(And some day I will tell you the story of setting the church on fire while preaching --only a deacon, of course... the earthquake came when I was ordained a priest!)

Kirkepiscatoid said...

Why does it seem fire trucks are the PERFECT item in this story?

Oh, just a hunch I guess.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks, Margaret. Can't wait to hear the story. Soon.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

You got it, Kirke -

Muthah+ said...

Ahhh yes, and you have been putting their feet tot he fires ever since, Elizabeth. Happy Feast Day, Happy anniversary!


whiteycat said...

Great story! I can just picture it ... priceless!

Bruce said...

Best wishes on your ordination anniversary, O woman of fire!

Mark Harris said...

U da one! Best for 24 and 24 more and great story, great presence, and when will we have coffee?

Your admirer & humble servant.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks, Whitey and Bruce.

Mark - I'll give you a call this week. Would love to see you again.

Jeffri Harre said...

Thank you, Elizabeth. You remind me that there is always hope, and that the way in which it realizes itself is often a surprise.

Blessings and Hugs,

Hutch said...

What a great story - I can see it happening before me. You know
She occassionally rolls Her eyes and sighs over some of us - but then is proud as only a Mother can be! You have always strived to make Her proud, Elizabeth.

harvey said...

Got to this a day late. A wonderful recap of the demonic, scary, joyful, freeing journey of those 24 years. Thanks be to God for people like Sue Hiatt and you, Elizabeth, for hanging in and redeeming the time.

Göran Koch-Swahne said...

Lovely story - and most graciously told at that!

Elaine C. said...

Congratulations on your anniversary and thanks for your wonderful story.

In my own case, the very conservative, as in "anti-woman priest", rector for whom I worked as a college peer minister -- suggested I should go to seminary and become a priest, in 1979.

I didn't go right away because I'd been so ingrained with sexism that I couldn't imagine myself as priest. After that, the first several times I asked to enter the discernment process, (in several dioceses), I was told "no" with varied excuses given, but the misogyny of the decision-makers suggested the real cause.

When I finally got to seminary, well, that is a whole other story of injustice, let's just say, I ended up out of the ordination process, and encouraged to leave the Episcopal Church or at least any diocese where people knew me, to never tell the story of what happened and maybe in 6 or 7 years return to the ordination process. How ironic, to tell the wounded person to leave all those who might know or support them ...

During the time of exile, I tried to leave the church or even become pagan. Neither worked, God would not let me go. So, I did a MTS & PHD on women and ordination in the Episcopal Church and the Rev. Dr. Pauli Murray. In that I found texts that let me know I was not alone.

Of course, one of the people examining me for my academic work, chided me for not contacting and writing about the people who get chewed up and spit out by the system, while saying "but how do you find them?" Well, the chewed up and spit out was me ...

I finally was ordained priest in 2004, twenty-five years after my old dear friend's suggestion I'd make a good priest. And 22 years after I first asked to enter the ordination process.

And I find that as I live into being a priest, I struggle with the by-products of "getting there" -- little by little I heal ... thanks be to God.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks, Harvey. I still vividly remember our interview in your office at EDS. You helped to shape and form the priest you see today. I am eternally grateful for your witness and ministry.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks, my dear brother Goran.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Elaine - What a powerful witness. Unfortunately, that story is way too familiar to me and many other women of our generation.

I'd love to hear the story of your ordination day. I can only believe that Ruach had a wonderful time there.

Elaine C. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Elaine C. said...

I was ordained priest in a diocesan group with 8 or 9 other folks. One of the group had been tossed out (for a prank) of the same seminary I graduated from, and had waited over 30 years to be ordained. My story was pretty much a "so what" and remained unspoken -- but the sun shone and I felt radiant that finally I'd been able to respond to God's call. The bishop spoke in amazement at the talented and over-educated group of ordinands (an MD, 2 or 3 PHDs, formerly high powered business people) -- most of us had stories of persistence within an ordination process that meant we were being ordained well past age 30 ...

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Lovely, Elaine. Thanks so much for sharing your story. There's a bit of poetic justice that your ordination was 'par for the course'. No drama. Just the way it ought to have been done - just 22 years late.

June Butler said...

Blessings and congratulations, Elizabeth! You had to have your drama, didn't you, m'dear? I'm quite sure your ordination story is unique.

May God grant you many more happy and fulfilling years of service.

Love and blessings.