First churchwide gathering

Ordained women at leadership conference called to transform the church
October 31, 2006

During the first churchwide gathering in the 32 years since women were admitted to the orders of priest and bishop, ordained women were urged to become strong and compassionate leaders and to imagine transforming the Episcopal Church.

The Imagine: Claiming & Empowering Ordained Women’s Leadership conference met Oct. 1-6 at the Kanuga Conference Center in Hendersonville, N.C. The conference included plenary sessions, worship and peer coaching.

So-called “affinity groups” formed during the conference. Suffragan Bishops Catherine Roskam of the Diocese of New York and Nedi Rivera of the Diocese Olympia offered to meet with any ordained woman who was standing for election as a bishop or felt called to the office. Other groups included priests who are mothers, those whose spouse or partner is ordained, deacons, and younger clergy – both in terms of chronological age and of time since ordination.

Dreaming big

Presiding Bishop-elect Katharine Jefferts Schori told the approximately 200 women at the first plenary session that her parents encouraged her intellectual curiosity and never had a predetermined idea of what a girl could and could not do.

Leaders, she said, must be courageous, willing to take risks, creative and playful; must recognize and honor the interconnectedness of all things; and must be curious, and willing and able to “dream the big dream.”

“I think above all it means living with hope,” Jefferts Schori said. “The kingdom of God may be glimpsed here and there, but we’re not there yet in its fullness and, therefore, there’s more to discover, there’s more to hope for, more to look for, more to wonder about.”

House of Deputies President Bonnie Anderson, one of the conference’s lay presenters, told participants that she hoped to lead a church where all people were valued and gifts given freely for mission.

“The church that I hope to lead reweaves the web of life,” she said. “We are reweaving at this time and in this place now.” All orders of ministry, lay and ordained, must be valued in the transformed church, Anderson said. “And there is no hierarchy, only gifts,” she said. “And we all have gifts to use.”

‘Theology of proximity’

Dean Tracey Lind of Cleveland’s Trinity Cathedral called for a “theology of proximity, a willingness to stand next to each other as good neighbors and ... doing no harm to one another in spite of all our differences.”

“I envision a church that is not afraid of throwing a great, big, huge party and a church that doesn’t worry so much about who’s going to show up and, even more, who might leave if they show up,” she said. The Episcopal Church’s missioner of Black Ministries, The Rev. Angela Ifill, told participants that “God has a special purpose for us women.”

“Women’s voices are a gift to the church and to the world to be used even as we despair, even as we feel weary, even as we feel maybe not much has changed,” she said. Criticism of hierarchical institutions, particularly the church, was a theme of the conference. Roskam, however, challenged participants to not think hierarchy is a “dirty word.”

“I want you to be open to re-thinking hierarchy because I think part of your unwillingness to look at hierarchy is based in your unwillingness -- our unwillingness -- as women to claim authority,” she said. “If you don’t claim it -- if we don’t claim it -- and we bring other models in, it will affect our identity as the Episcopal Church more than anything.” A transformed hierarchy ought to be the goal, she said. “We don’t have to do it the way it’s always been done.”

The big picture

The cause of gender equity must be set in a larger context, said the Rev. Jennifer Linman, who has been ordained four years and serves at Church of the Epiphany in New York.

“If we had a House of Bishops that was 50-50 men and women, and cardinal rectorships in the United States were 50-50 men and women, but we hadn’t achieved the Millennium Development Goals and we weren’t joining in prayer every week and we weren’t caring for our congregations and baptizing new Christians, that would not be the vision of the church that I wanted, even though there was gender equity, even though perhaps there was racial equity,” she said.

Other presenters included Robert Cowperthwaite, rector of St. Paul’s Church in Franklin, Tenn., and a member of the Executive Council’s Committee on the Status of Women; retired Episcopal Divinity School professor Carter Heyward; Virginia Theological Seminary dean and president Martha Horne; Utah bishop Carolyn Tanner Irish; Atlanta-based Emmaus House director and vicar Claiborne Jones; Matthew Price, director of analytical research at the Church Pension Group; and Paula Nesbitt, a priest who teaches at the University of California in Berkeley, Calif.