A Celebration of Women’s Ministry for the 40th anniversary of the first women to be ordained priests in the Episcopal Church
by Rebecca Lyman
I love the Canaanite woman—or the Syro-Phoenician woman– or the African woman or the Asian or the Hispanic or the Muslim or the poor or the gay or the uneducated woman.
Let’s call her Marge or Isabel or Jun or Aziza. Let’s say she smells and she is pushy and past her prime, a bit wrecked, a bit fat, and no husband or brother or father in sight. Or maybe she is beautifully dressed with a Kate Spade handbag and nervous about talking to a wandering holy man on the wrong side of town. Because whoever she is, as a woman, she is out of her place— just another mother with another sick kid.
And Jesus doesn’t answer her. Not until the disciples urged him to get rid of this noisy pest. And perhaps some of the female disciples were in on it too. Certainly you want to fit in with the pack of jostling searching egos.
So Jesus explains to her the legality of the situation. He is sent to heal his own people, the lost sheep of Israel. She then kneels before him and says, “Help me.” And he falls back on economic and legal rationalizations: “It is not fair to take children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” She does not bat an eye: “Of course, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs from beneath the table.”
For the only time in the New Testament Jesus changes his mind. I hope he smiled like any good debating rabbi who enjoys the logical correction. I hope in fact he loved dogs, for we know he loved children.
But mainly I hope he was humbled and renewed to see modeled before him what he had momentarily forgotten he was: the Word and Wisdom of God willing to humbled for the needs of the sick and lost and possessed and invisible; Wisdom crying in the streets to the simple since the scoffers and the fools and the haters could not hear and would not see that the mercy of grace is woven into the very foundations of all that God loves and creates, especially the good people, the green people rooted in the sun, shining. I hope all the disciples, male and female, also learned repentance by watching him listen and change.
And I hope when our fearful battered St Thomas Cranmer was dragged out into the pale Oxford sunlight to be burned for recanting his recantation, he remembered her too. He had corrected her in his own prayer of humble access: we are not worthy to gather up the crumbs beneath the table. Now stripped of his titles and even his virtue, perhaps he was comforted by finally talking back, becoming the Canaanite woman, a father unable to stop crying out to heal his only child, our Anglican church.
This morning we celebrate the humility and repentance of our church for finding the lost coin, for including the hundredth sheep, for recognizing the vocations and ministry of women. We are all part of this old hospital of sinners which creaks and moans and delays like an old bobbling ark until gestations of justice come forth to shock and split and amaze us in rebirth: ever ancient, ever new. We love it for it carries the Spirit of freedom and renewal within its old fierce conservative soul. Just like us the Church is frightened, heroic, bold, inconsistent, and saved by grace. We are all as Zachariah called us “prisoners of hope” (9.12) and as Adrienne Rich says full of “a wild patience” (“Integrity”). Who would think wanting to be good would make us so radical?
Forty years ago eleven brave women were ordained to the priesthood by three male bishops. They were certainly not the first “ministers” of the Christian church from Phoebe the deacon to the apostle Junia to Mary Magdalene to Paula the biblical scholar to Hilda the abbess to Leoba the missionary to Julian and Margery and Hildegard and Catherine and Teresa and Joan of Arc and the deaconesses and the missionaries and the lay church workers and the altar guild. And these are only those we know, for then as now the sheer activity of women in Christianity remains hidden, the underground artesian well, the warp of the fabric of unity, full pressed down and running over like the power of Wisdom itself: the tough, the annual, the wild poppy which needs nothing but a root to flourish: the women, really only writ large what is also called so patronizingly “the laity”, the “unprofessional” as if Christian life could have assigned levels of spiritual expertise.
Nor were these eleven the first ordinations in the Anglican Communion. The first was Florence Li Tim-Oi in China in 1944, quickly limited as a local exception. Here in San Francisco in 1965 Bishop Pike recognized Phyllis Edwards as a deacon. But these brave eleven were called—a challenge to the tranquility of divine providence usually working in the church— ordained as deacons and were prepared to be priests. Many supported them, including men who refused to be ordained until women were ordained and the three retired bishops who heeded their consciences to lay hands upon them. All of them women and men together deciding ten years after the Civil Rights movement, in the midst of Watergate and in the last stages of the Vietnam war that institutions must be challenged to be changed. In the words of Stringfellow and Wink they saw how institutions become powers and principalities in spite of themselves, even and most heartbreakingly the Body of Christ. The ordinations were illegal according to canon law. The bishops met in emergency session at O’Hare Airport, disrupting their retreats and summer vacations. And some bishops then saw they had forgotten who they were—servants of need, faithful to the Spirit in all vocations; they remembered the only traditional legality of ordination was a bishop in accordance with the ordination rite. We all began to remember who we were. We caught up with the diverse leadership of the first century.
None of this was easy—it still isn’t and quite honestly the beloved community of forgiveness and new life never is in this blessed and bloody world. Twenty years ago when I was ordained, a conservative colleague said to me, “Now tell me, this is all a political act really, isn’t it?” For we don’t need the Supreme Court or the statistics about pay and leadership or our own self-doubts or our interrupted speech to tell us that equality and justice and respect come slowly. And I don’t know if we women are more relational or more grounded or maternal or verdant or emotional—at least not yet. It is hard for all of us, male or female, to remember or know who we are when the ground shifts beneath us whether by choice or chance. I do know that the white economic and educational privilege, which has imbued the ethos of the Episcopal Church, does not go away quietly, and a toxic clericalism can easily choke our gospel humility. We have our reward.
The ministry of women is part of the groundswell of ordinary humanity in the church: the blooming of holy people as Hildegard of Bingen would say, to remember God works from the ground up, not the top down. God works in the still small voice which called and empowered and sustains and emboldens and purifies and heals all of us together, all called to be the face and hands and voice of Christ to one another in the world: I am among you as one who serves (Luke 22.27).
God comes to make us all human, wholly in body as well as spirit and mind—comes to heal and feed and relieve and restore. For the uncomfortable truth of the gospel of Jesus and Paul is that “suffering makes us better than we ever wanted to be” (The Diary of the Country Priest). These divisions and fears and defenses are the necessary way into repentance, into the new reign of God that must break our Western hierarchies and racial segregations and economic stratification; the suffering humanity in Palestine or the Texas border or without water in Detroit or the routine shootings in Chicago or evictions in San Francisco cry out to expose our ideologies of privilege, which erase and justify violence and dehumanization. We need each other to be whole and human as we point toward a future we do not yet see, but know in hope to be the only true reality. “We are prophets of a future not our own” (Bishop Edward Untener, Saginaw).
Repentance creates growth; patience is essential to courage; joy does not block the mystery; struggle is not failure. We are of course penultimate, but we do flow into in the stream of a larger Love. Let us remember and rejoice in who we are— all of us together the children of Wisdom. Let me leave you with this image of our church from Marge Piercy’s poem, “For Strong women”:
Strength is not in her, but she
enacts it as the wind fills a sail.
What comforts her is others loving
her equally for the strength and for the weakness
from which it issues, lightning from a cloud.
Lightning stuns. In rain, the clouds disperse.
Only water of connection remains,
flowing through us. Strong is what we make
each other. Until we are all strong together,
a strong woman is a woman strongly afraid.
Be of good courage; Christ has overcome the world!
Preached 12 July 2014 at Grace Cathedral. The Rev Dr Rebecca Lyman is the Samuel Garrett Professor of Church History emerita at The Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley.
“Folio 164r – The Canaanite Woman”. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons