Imagine conference envisions inclusion, healing and hope for the world

October 3, 2006

Expansive visions of what the Episcopal Church might become echoed through an October 3 discussion at the "Imagine: Claiming & Empowering Ordained Women's Leadership" conference.

Inclusion, healing and hope for the world, ministering outside of a hierarchical system while transforming that system, and overcoming obstacles and fears were themes heard in those visions.

The session was part of the first church-wide gathering of ordained women in the 32 years since women were admitted to the orders of priest and bishop. The conference, which also includes some lay presenters, runs until October 6 at the Kanuga Conference Center in Hendersonville, North Carolina.

Presenters at the session included House of Deputies president Bonnie Anderson; retired Episcopal Divinity School professor Carter Heyward; Episcopal Church Black Ministries Missioner Angela Ifill; and Dean Tracey Lind of Trinity Cathedral in Cleveland. Presiding Bishop-elect Katharine Jefferts Schori responded to the presentations.

Heyward told the gathering that the priesthood of all believers is a call to help one another.

"It's the work of healing. It's the work of liberation. It's what we're put here by our maker to do; to be a priesthood of believers, to be not primarily focused on ourselves but sharing a passion -- and by passion, I mean energy as well as a willingness to suffer -- with and for the world," she said. "The church doesn't exist for itself, we all know that. We're here in the world, for the world."

"The church is here to be a voice of justice-making ... of compassion, of peace, of reconciliation."

Heyward said every obstacle encountered by those who envision this kind of church is "rooted in fear."

"My own fear as well as the fear of others," she said. "It's really, at its root, the fear of my power, which is our power, which is, my sisters and brothers, God's power as well."

Using that power to invite people into relationships to work for justice, and inviting people to live into the fullness of who they are, is God's work, she said.

Lind 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. "That's the kind of church that I want to serve."

Among other characteristics, Lind called for a church that is environmentally responsible; that "faithfully and fearlessly and judiciously" exercises its voice and its collective power "in not just the soup kitchen but also in the board rooms and in the public square;" and a church that is enlivened by a sense of mission and solidarity with the poor.

Lind, who has been asked to stand for election as a bishop, said her struggles with discerning that call raised some larger questions about women's ministry, especially in the episcopate.

"With all due respect to my sister bishops in the room, I wonder if the episcopal office is a good and healthy setting in which to do ministry," she said. "I worry that it's becoming increasingly isolated. I wonder, does the episcopal office itself, like the rest of the church, need to be transformed? Are there parts of it that need to be discarded? Are women called to transform the episcopacy as we have clearly transformed the ordained priesthood? And then I ask myself, have we made too much of bishops lately?"

Perhaps the cutting edge of women's ministry right now is in leading creative congregations, she said. "Maybe to a lot of us, the episcopacy is like pouring new wine into old wineskins. I am not really sure, but I am sharing my thinking with you because I think this is part of the conversation that God wants us to have."

Anderson reminded the gathering that, for many clergy, lay people were the first to call them to their ministry.

It is right to give thanks for the strides that women have made in ordained ministry and for those who pioneered the way and are still moving forward, she said.

"And it's right to give thanks to the men who assisted in that and worked so hard to make it happen and make that right for all of us," she said. "Those men and women recognized a truth in the world and particularly in the church that some had seen before and, unfortunately, a very few still do not see. But that's okay. We focus on where we are in the larger church and we pray for our brothers and sisters to come along with us."

Anderson said she hopes to lead a church where all people are valued and gifts are 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 must be valued in the transformed church, both lay and ordained, she said. "And there is no hierarchy, only gifts," she said. "And we all have gifts to use."

Anderson said leaders in ministry "have to be kind of crafty" about what they are doing and what they want to have happen.

"These things don't happen by chance," she said. "We know that the Holy Spirit works; we experience the work of the Holy Spirit. We have to give her some opportunities and some help."

"We have to think about what we're doing and what we want to have happen, and we have to design those things, and we have to include everyone in them. We have to move forward together."

Anderson said the church is often tempted to get winning mixed up with being hopeful.

"The latter is possible, bringing a life of joy and peace no matter what the results," she said. "The former is an illusion and it brings only disappointment, disagreement and an absence of joy."

Ifill said women must remember those who have come before them "so that we remember the power with which we have been endowed" when feeling intimidated, fearful or ridiculed.

"We have a responsibility not to give anyone the authority over our own power," she said. "Therein lies our legacy. We have an opportunity today to be the designers of a new church. A church that is embracing to all, a church that recognizes each and every individual equally, a church that is loving and caring."

She said that loving and caring come naturally to women who can soothe the suffering and sing a baby to sleep, and who will also lay down their lives for those they love. The light carried by women can reach to "every dark corner" of the world, she said.

"God has a special purpose for us women," Ifill said. "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. But God is in it all. God's power is greater than we can ever begin to imagine."

Jefferts Schori told the gathering that there is "no greater gift" in anxious times "than to not be reactive."

She praised those people who are changing the world's sense of the church. People of faith need to tell the world "that Jesus is representative of the God of compassion and mercy, that rules will not save us, that laws will not save us, but that relationship with God will save us."

Jefferts Schori urged the women to keep valuing the ministry of all the baptized. "We need to encourage people in the church not to sit in the sacristy but to get out there and build sanctuaries in the streets, to be about the ministry that God has given each one of us."