SAN JOAQUIN: 'All-new spirit' prevails as diocese ordains first woman priest

June 28, 2009

Tears, cheers, joy, applause and an "all-new spirit" filled the packed Church of the Saviour in Hanford, California, June 27 as the Rev. Suzanne Lynn Ward became the first woman ordained a priest in the Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin.

"This, my brothers and sisters, is a big deal day," said the Rt. Rev. Edna Bavi "Nedi" Rivera, bishop suffragan of the Seattle-based Diocese of Olympia, and provisional bishop for the Diocese of Eastern Oregon, who was guest preacher.

"Suzy's ordination is … about the church, about the raising up and revealing of the Body of Christ, a coming out of the tomb, and being made new," said Rivera, who compared the celebration to Christmas, Easter, Pentecost and a family reunion all rolled into one.

The ceremony was also a sign of God's "unlimited, extravagant, persistent, challenging and indiscriminate love," Rivera said. "There are a whole lot of people out in that world who think that Christianity is about building walls and judging and making lines in the sand." But she added that the ordination was a sign of "the good news of Jesus Christ … that all are welcome."

"To be back in this place, this diocese for this event – I'm going to have trouble holding it together," said an emotional Rivera. She and Ward grew up together at St. Paul's Church in Visalia where her father, the late Rev. Victor Manuel Rivera, was rector. Later, as third bishop of the Central California Valley diocese, he declined to ordain women..

So did his successor Bishop John-David Schofield who, along with a majority of the 47 congregations in the diocese, voted in November 2007 to realign with the Argentina-based Anglican Province of the Southern Cone.

However, policies have changed under the leadership of Bishop Jerry Lamb, who has served as provisional bishop of the Stockton-based San Joaquin diocese for 16 months. He said on June 27 that the diocese and its 19 congregations are stable and moving forward. San Joaquin was founded as a missionary diocese in 1911

"This is such a tremendous event that made such a clear statement of the life and vitality of the Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin and a sign that we're going forward. We're not going back," Lamb said after the service.

"Suzy (Ward) has been a tremendous asset as a deacon to the diocese and will also be as a priest. She is absolutely called to the priesthood but had no choice but to wait until now," he added. Ward celebrated her 12th anniversary as a deacon on June 14. Four other women now serve as priests in the diocese, but were ordained elsewhere.

Ward said the day was about inclusive community. "Today is such a celebration for so many people--my congregation in Visalia, the diocese, the Episcopal Church as a whole," said Ward, who has served at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Visalia, which has continued to be a member of the Episcopal Church, since its establishment in early 2008.

The service was video-streamed so Ward's 24-year-old son Jon-Ethan Ward, a staff sergeant in the Army National Guard deployed to Balad, Iraq, north of Baghdad, could watch his mother's long-awaited ordination, according to her husband, Jonathan Ward.

"He called just a few minutes ago, and said he saw most of it. It's one a.m. there, but he wanted us to know he's very proud, and very happy that he got to see it," Ward said. Their 28-year-old daughter Annalissa, an attorney, attended the service.

Women were first regularly ordained to the priesthood in the Episcopal Church in January 1977, following a decision made by the 1976 General Convention. However, 11 women deacons took part in "irregular" priestly ordinations in Philadelphia in July 1974, and another four in Washington, D.C., in September 1975.