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Thursday, September 01, 2011

Pam Chinnis: The Radical Grande Dame

Dr. Chinnis and Presiding Bishop Browning
When Edmond Browning was consecrated Presiding Bishop in 1986, he borrowed a few words from Jesus and coined a phrase that would often come back to remind him just how fractured The Episcopal Church had become.

I was at the National Cathedral in Washington, DE and present for his consecration. During his sermon, he began to address the deepening rift within the church over issues such as the ordination of women and homosexuality, by saying, ". . .(do not ask me) to honor one set of views and disregard the other. I may agree with one, but I will respect both...the unity of this church will be maintained not because we agree on everything but because -- hopefully -- we will leave judgment to God."

"In this church," he vowed, "there will be no outcasts."

In the days, months and years that followed, everyone from members of Integrity to The Episcopal Women's Caucus to the 1928 Prayer Book Society to Anglo-Catholics and Evangelicals would tug on the sleeve of his purple shirt and remind him of his promise.

The person who became the embodiment of that commitment, however, was someone who was elected to leadership the same year and during the same General Convention in which Browning was elected Presiding Bishop.

During that 1985 General Convention in Anaheim, the Very Rev'd David Collins was elected President and Dr. Pamela Chinnis was elected Vice President of the House of Deputies.

Two years later, in 1991, Dr. Chinnis became the first woman to be President of the House of Deputies and became the face of the Presiding Bishop's promise of "no outcasts".

Dr Charles Lawrence, PHOD
Something happens when those who had once been outcasts find themselves in positions of power. Yes, absolute power can corrupt absolutely. However, role modeling is a powerful influential force.

Having come through a time in the church when women could not be elected to Vestry, much less as deputy to General Convention, Dr. Chinnis' first impulse, based the model of former POHD, Dr. Charles Lawrence, was to widen the circle to include those whose voices have not been heard in the corridors or on the councils of power in the institutional church.

Before her election as POHD in 1991, Dr. Chinnis was quoted as saying,
". . .I don't want to sound apologetic about this, women have to use the help of men. When Dr. Charles Lawrence was president of the House of Deputies, he went out of his way to appoint women to legislative committees in the House of Deputies. If women had not had that opportunity, to be up there, to be seen, and to be heard, they would still have faded into the background, because they were so used to hearing men's voices in the House of Deputies, that suddenly they thought," Ha, here's a woman's voice, she's functioning well, and she knows what she is doing." You can be as able as sin, but if nobody has a chance to see that, you're not going to get anywhere.
Chinnis was once accused of "stacking" committees to which as House of Deputies president she appointed members with "biased" people. This charge came after she asked in a speech to Integrity, an organization of lesbian and gay Episcopalians, that participants help her identify members of the organization who ought to be considered for appointment to legislative committees of the 1994 General Convention.
"I have given particular attention to identifying competent people from groups which have been previously under-represented in our leadership and decision-making processes, seeking balance in terms of gender, racial/ethnic identity, geography and ideology," she said in a statement at the time. "I sought persons whose interests and expertise were appropriate to the responsibilities of each interim body, and whose diverse perspectives and willingness to work respectfully with those who oppose their views would enrich the work those groups do on behalf of the rest of the church."
Always graceful, even under pressure, she was always impeccably dressed and carried herself with the poise and confidence so characteristic of women of that generation.

For many, she was the walking, talking embodiment of the conflict in The Episcopal Church at that time. She looked and sounded for all the world like "the establishment" of the lineage of "landed gentry" but talked about and worked for "justice" and "full inclusion".

By her own admission, she was "raised not to make waves" but ended up rocking the boat on the interrelated issues of prejudice and oppression.

In a 1990 ENS interview, before she was elected President of the House of Deputies in 1991, she said:
I certainly don't think the president of the House of Deputies can be a single-issue person, if that's what you're asking. If I were president, that would not be my only interest. It will always be an important issue. The issue, though, is larger than a justice issue, and it's the inclusion of all people, regardless of their race or class or gender, so I think sexism is only a symptom of a greater issue, which is injustice and oppression. That's one thing I've learned over the years. Where it may have started as discrimination, I've grown to see the connections between racism, classism, and sexism. You can't be against discrimination against women and be for discrimination against anything else.
That was in 1990. She said all those things before it became fashionable.

She was a pioneer in proper pumps and a string of pearls.

I once heard her referred to as 'The Radical Grande Dame' of The Episcopal Church.

I think that is, perhaps, the most accurate and endearing description I could apply to her.

As I look around the church at the legacy of Dr. Chinnis there are certainly many outward and visible signs of change and transformation. I'm not certain, however, that they are so much signs of inward and spiritual grace as they are of chagrin and resignation to the changing cultural tides concerning attitudes about women and people of color and LGBT people in roles of leadership and authority.

Transformation - real transformation - comes from systemic change, not just changing the faces at the top.

I keep hearing a remark from feminist Flo Kennedy who was once asked to respond to the advertising tag line - "You've come a long way, baby" - for Virginia Slims Cigarettes.

She said, "If we really had come a long way, no one would still be calling us baby."

We'll have come a long way in the institutional church when there are greater employment opportunities and equality in compensation packages in the church for women and people of color as well as queer people - those who are ordained as well as those who are members of the laity.

Dr. Chinnis is quoted as having said,
"I started 20 or 30 years ago, and I started in my parish, and I certainly had no long-range plan. When I started out, women couldn't even be seated in the House of Deputies. You start where you are, and you do Christ's mission there."
We certainly still have a very long way to go, but we wouldn't even be where we are without the hard, ground breaking work of justice done by Dr. Chinnis.

I'm reminded of a quote attributed to Faith Whittlesey who said, "Remember, Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, but she did it backwards and in high heels". I think women of that era also did it with grace and style - AND - they never let anyone ever see them sweat.

So, start where you are. Do Christ's mission where you are. Women and other minorities may still have to be twice as good and work twice as hard but fortunately, this is not a difficult task for many of us.

And, every now and again, raise your head and take your hand from the plow and offer a prayer of praise and thanksgiving for the life and ministry of Pamela Chinnis.

There will never be another quite like her.

The best way to honor her legacy is to continue her work. Which is really not her work. It's the work of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

See you in the Vineyards of the Lord - wherever that is for you. Come dressed and ready to do the work of justice.

Pumps and pearls optional.


walter said...

On the Transformation of the American Middle Class: Time has come for us to believe in the transformation of American Affirmative Action into American Affirmative Mysticism. Based on the Transcendent You and the Resurrection of the Legacy of the Gospel of Christ Jesus we may leap and bond to Walter Vitale and Elizabeth Kaeton’ Collective Unconscious God from where we discern the Vitale Kaeton Grace based on the inward and spiritual grace of which you write, 4. I also need to take the responsibility to walk my baby back to the home of the eternal from where I can safely discern by the silver lining the civil rights of women, people of color and LGBQT people into our Christian Queerful Family. I believe we are getting clearer on our agenda the objective of which is to announce the Gospel of Christ Jesus. In the name of the One who keeps us centered and focused awakening the fullness and mystery of life, Jesus the Christ 14 my Portuguese Girl, my Little Girl and my Brother.

Walter Vitale

Betty K Hart said...

Thank you for such a marvelous essay on Pam Chinnis!
I would like to contribute two thoughts as to why and how Pam was able to accomplish all that she did.

First, I believe that laity as well as clergy are called to do God's work. When this happens and you respond, you have to realize there will be pain and tribulation and, of course, excoriation. It takes prayer, stamina, self-examination and a stubborn streak.

Second, particularly for women, it s immensely helpful to grow up with strong men who like strong women in your life. This can include fathers, cousins, friends, teachers and co-workers.

When you decide that you will do what you feel called to do, and pray, and work doggedly, there are moments of great joy and incredible little miracles that occur along the way! At least in my case, it was miraculous where individuals I barely knew stepped forward without being asked and literally put their careers in danger!

Its important to recognize that God provides sustenance along the way. But he never promised a rose garden! Betty K. Hart