Pressing a Response

Several friends and readers have been asking for my thoughts about the recent media coverage on Jane Kryzanowski, a member of the Roman Catholic Women Priests (RCWP) movement and soon to be ordained a bishop in that movement (July 21, 2018).

I share with Jane the long and painful, passionate and intimate journey into embracing a priestly call within a church that does not recognize or bless such a call. While Jane has chosen to follow a route that places her outside of a traditional ecclesial structure, I have moved to another one, i.e. the Anglican Church. How are such decisions made, and is one better than another? How do we even know that our priestly calling originates in God when the Church denies that possibility? How do we engage the spiritual challenges that come with each path? How do we honour those who choose different trajectories, especially ones we might disagree with? Where is God in paths that make others shake their heads in disbelief?

Our response to such questions varies widely according to personality and temperament, background and opportunities, life experience, spirituality and passions. And so I can only speak from my own history and understanding. In the 26-year dance with my priestly vocation I have run the gamut of responses: from outright denial to trying to run away from God (yeah, I met Jonah on the way), from bargaining with God and minimizing the serious nature of the call, from doubt to fear to finally a deep, all encompassing yes.

One of the paths I indeed explored several years ago was the RCWP movement. I engaged extensive conversations with a member of that movement and entered serious discernment for a short time before turning away from that path. Why? First of all, I am not a political activist by nature. This has been true in all areas of social justice, contentious issues and difficult ethical topics. It doesn’t mean that I am unengaged or disinterested, quite the contrary. My mode of engagement is different, more direct and invisible. My engagement has not often taken the shape of standing on ramparts, disrupting public gatherings, joining protests or lobbying church officials. My primary call and inclination has been to serve direct needs on the ground, to honour the earth through simple living off the land, and to engage pastoral opportunities in unassuming ways; I tend to leave the heavy political lifting in both church and society to others. Both approaches have their strengths and pitfalls.

While outsiders may see the RCWP movement primarily about public protest, I am aware that this is not its self-understanding. Its call to witness to injustice within the church is expressed through fostering a renewed model for priestly ministry and through serving direct needs on the ground, especially with those who feel alienated from the institutional church. Regardless of this noble purpose, priesthood with the RCWP movement would have felt to me like adding a political dimension to what I saw in essence as a call to serve the faith community. My priestly call felt too precious and too intimate to be tossed to and fro, potentially subjecting it to unpredictable seas of ecclesial confrontation. My desire for parish-based pastoral ministry was far greater than engagement in political activism.

I also struggled with what seemed a rather weak structure of discernment and accountability in RCWP. This aspect has surely evolved and matured since I last engaged its counsel. Discernment and accountability is both a communal and personal matter. I wondered about how to sustain a genuine priestly spirituality, and how to work for reform when the official ties with the existing church are forcibly severed.

I became acutely aware that the pastoral trust and opportunities I was enjoying in parish, diocesan and ecumenical ministry were quite unique; not every RC woman so called had access to these open ministerial spaces. Maybe these open spaces were there for good reason. Joining RCWP  would incur automatic excommunication, resulting in closing the open spaces within every ecclesial  structure, Roman Catholic and otherwise. Ironically, moving to the Anglican ecclesial community does not come with the same stigma. Despite what’s on the books about invalidity of orders, Rome’s 50+ year commitment to formal dialogue and close relations with Anglicans, including clergy, bishops and the Archbishop of Canterbury leave little doubt about its practical recognition of Anglican Orders and its appreciation for the Anglican Gospel witness.

Paradoxically, the realizations arising from my RCWP exploration clarified my pastoral call and priestly heart with that uncanny peace the world cannot give. I gratefully acknowledged that I had ample opportunities to serve God’s people, while my spirit was guided and nourished from the priestly vocation in my soul. God affirmed the call inside, as well as how I was to continue living that call on the outside.

I discovered that, despite the prohibition on ordination, my ministry career could be surprisingly fruitful. This was possible in part thanks to a deepened understanding of sacraments, encompassing every occasion in which I could facilitate an embodied encounter between God and a person in need. I learnt that priestly ministry need not be limited to the institutionally ordained, that it could be deeply life-giving and love-giving even in the most restrictive circumstances. To increase the probability of such fruitfulness I chose daily to surrender to God, chose not be victimized by the pain but let it teach and hone my spirit, to keep my ego out of the driver’s seat, and to ground my experience in Christ Jesus. While I share the vision and the vocation with RCWP women, and while I certainly gained a greater understanding of what leads one to choose this ordination route, my path was clearly a different one.

But, you may ask, was this response not a capitulation to an oppressive ecclesial system? Was this not a cop out on my part, a cowardly supporting of the status quo? For some, this would have been so. For me, not so. Instead, guided by Scripture and prayer, good mentoring and challenging self-reflection, this response lead me to develop a robust spiritual resilience in the midst of an unjust ecclesial situation. I grounded my priestly identity in God, and only secondarily in the church. I developed skills to avoid feeling victimized by an unjust ecclesial practice and to help me rise above ecclesial limitations, skills that continue to serve me well even now as an Anglican priest.

Undoubtedly there is an ecclesial tension within Roman Catholicism when it comes to the ordination question for women. Our own Scriptures and tradition, our own Pope Francis, continuously remind us of the God of surprises, the God who doesn’t fit into our limited boxes of understanding and interpretation. We embrace God in a person, Jesus Christ, who revealed the radical nature of God’s grace and mercy for all people. Jesus, God’s grace in the flesh, engaged people in need, touched clean and unclean people alike, to the scandal of the religious establishment. He was in many ways a breaker of those human rules that did not serve God’s reign, and thus still continuously calls us to a higher standard of justice, wholeness and integrity.

Every time Pope Francis emphasizes that God keeps doing new things among us, I think of the priesthood for women. In his homily at the closing of the 2014 Synod on the family, Pope Francis said: “God is not afraid of new things! That is why he is continually surprising us, opening our hearts and guiding us in unexpected ways.” Well, God may not be afraid of new things, but church leaders seem to be. However, time is a necessary discernment tool in both personal and ecclesial development. Time will test the new thing God is doing in women such as Jane and myself who experience a divine call to priestly ministry. All we are asked to do is to be a faithful steward of the tiny part entrusted to us in this larger ecclesial drama, and leave the rest to God.

In order to live this tension creatively, freely and faithfully we need a long view, one that extends beyond our own few years on this planet. But I see a uncanny irony in Rome’s certainty that women cannot possibly be ordained when considering the following words from Pope Francis: If one has the answers to all the questions, that is the proof that God is not with him. It means that he is a false prophet using religion for himself. The great leaders of the people of God, like Moses, have always left room for doubt. You must leave room for the Lord, not for our certainties; we must be humble. Uncertainty is in every true discernment that is open to finding confirmation in spiritual consolation.

There is no denying that each of us can be called onto different paths to fulfill a similar purpose, even if we find ourselves shaking our heads at one another’s choices. Whether inside or outside traditional ecclesial structures, we are all in this together. There is that of God in everyone and in every choice motivated by love. As long as the primary driving energy is love and humility, grace and mercy, with anger, bitterness and resentment surrendering to these four, each person’s journey is deserving of trust and respect despite our own misgivings.

We need to learn to think and say with Pope Francis, who in turn of course echoed Jesus, when he said: Who am I to judge? I share Pope Francis’ dogmatic certainty: God is truly in every person’s life. Taking this reality seriously, my own discomfort or disagreement with paths and choices others take can then become God’s invitation to deeper self-reflection and ongoing grounding into God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Who am I to say that God does not use everyone to further God’s reign of justice, peace and mercy? Would that we can afford one another this mutual trust and respect even when finding ourselves on different routes of life.

  • Here is a personal account by Christine Haider Winnet who joined the RCWP movement.

Prairie Encounters

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A Tale of Two Women

I think that last Sunday’s (July 1) Gospel (Mark 5:21—43) cried out for a woman preacher. We don’t get to hear this Gospel very often. It shows up once in the 3-year lectionary and even then it can get displaced by the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul. But it is one of the most intriguing sections Mark wrote.

Mark tells the story of two women. One is well-to-do; the other is poor, a nobody. One story begins and gets interrupted by another one. First, Jairus, a leader of the synagogue, approaches Jesus because his young daughter is gravely ill. Could Jesus please come and heal her? Sure. But, on the way, Jesus is interrupted by a woman who also needs help desperately. Jesus delays his walk to Jairus’ house, even though the little girl is at the point of death. He stops his trek to the well-to-do daughter to deal with a poor nobody who had the audacity to take matters in her own hands.

It was no accident that Mark wove these two stories together (and woe to the preacher who omitted one!) Jairus’ daughter is a young woman of privilege – with a leader of the synagogue for a Dad. Entering puberty at twelve years old the promise of full womanhood lies before this young daughter of Israel. The girl lives in comfort and affluence. Her father enjoys power, prestige and wealth. She has the best advocate any little girl can ask for: her Dad. And Jairus does not hesitate to approach Jesus within socially sanctioned propriety.

In those same twelve years that the young girl was growing up, the bleeding woman suffered terribly. Her future was “spent” in more ways than one.
Nameless and destitute, she too is a daughter of Israel. But she has no advocate fighting for her. The promise of her full womanhood was never realized, drained out of her in a flow of blood for twelve painful years.

Because of her continuous bleeding, this woman was not to be seen anywhere near the Temple or synagogue, or anywhere near a religious leader. The bleeding woman, therefore, suffers double isolation. Illness was considered divine punishment for sins, resulting in being cut off from normal social relations. This woman was nobody’s friend. She had no one to speak for her, no advocate. She must take her salvation in her own hands. And she has to do it by breaking social and religious taboos: unclean, an outcast and a woman, she touches a man in public in the vicinity of a leader of the synagogue. According to the customs of the time, the woman’s touch – even if only his cloak – defiled Jesus.

What does Jesus do? Does he call for the purification rites, in order to make himself clean again? After all, he’s on his way to Jairus’ house, a leader of the synagogue. Does he ignore this nameless face in the crowd because he’s on an important mission on behalf of the rich and powerful? No, none of that.

Jesus knows that “power has gone out of him.” It’s the kind of energy that reaches out to another, the energy of love and healing. And in Jesus that energy flowed so freely, that even touching the hem of his cloak gave the woman access to its healing power. Jesus knows that someone touched him with intent. Not only does Jesus attend to this destitute, nameless nobody, he singles her out for her faith, her perseverance, her courage. Jesus uses this unclean, repulsive, outcast woman, the one whom nobody wants, to teach the rich, the religious and the powerful a lesson about faith:“Daughter, your faith has made you well.”

When Jesus arrives at Jairus’ house, he is told that the girl has died. Immediately he tells Jairus, “Do not fear, only believe.” But – everyone is skeptical; they even “laugh at him.” No trace of faith here, not in this well-to-do house. Imagine that: the nameless, rejected woman shows stronger faith than the religious experts of the synagogue! Talk about turning the tables … Nevertheless, healing energy flowed forth from Jesus to the young and the old woman alike. ‘Cause God‘s healing touch knows no outcasts, knows no inferior folk, nor is it reserved for a privileged few.

Josephine Butler learned this truth quite dramatically. Josephine was a good Anglican, living in England well over one hundred years ago. She discovered that God’s healing power could flow through her too in the name of Jesus. Josephine embarked on a crusade against a social ill that still demeans an debilitates women today, making women bleed their lives away in prostitution.

Now Josephine did not have to do this. She was a woman of means, happily married with children. She came from an upper-class English family. She had every opportunity – every “right” – to a pleasant, cultured and social life. She could easily have remained untouched by the social injustices, unmoved by the oppression of women in her time. But, Josephine was also a deeply committed Christian. She was devout, sensitive and even mystical in her spirituality.

This deep love and commitment to Jesus, the man with healing power, led her to “touch” the misery of women who sold their bodies in prostitution. You see, Josephine was driven to them by her own grief. Her own little daughter, younger than 12 years old, had died. And she sought consolation by seeking to help women less fortunate than her, women and girls in prostitution. She didn’t join in their profession. Like Jesus, she felt compelled to reach out without fear and to touch their uncleanness in order to bring them hope and healing.

There is something strangely healing about reaching out to someone less fortunate, especially at a time of deep loss and pain in our own lives. That’s not quite the same as “misery loves company.” Josephine met women in much greater need than herself. At first Josephine simply befriended the girls on the street. Then she started to take them into her home so they could live, and die, surrounded by some real love instead of the one-night or one-hour stands. One thing led to another. Eventually Josephine founded homes for the girls. She started to visit the sea-ports to plead with the sailors. The plight of the hookers moved Josephine to become their advocate at great personal risk and ridicule.

Like Jairus, Josephine was grief-stricken over the death of her little girl. Like Jairus, she reached out in faith for healing and comfort. Like Jesus, in her search for healing she “bumped” into dirty, nameless women whose lives had been bleeding for years: women whom nobody bothered to really love. Like Jesus, Josephine’s life was “interrupted” in order to love women who were separated from everyone and everything that was decent and noble in any given society.

It was Josephine’s deep faith in Jesus, the healer, that led her to this radical love. And – to her great surprise – in that outrageous loving of untouchable women Josephine found her own healing. This is an incredibly important lesson still for us today. Suffering, death and other personal afflictions can still rob us of life-giving blood of any kind, sometimes making us bleed for twelve years or more. Sickness and death plays no favourites; rich and poor are afflicted.

But the pain of our bleeding can be touched deeply by faith, love and resurrection. In fact, Jesus has touched our pain on the cross. He entered our suffering and death in the most intimate way possible. That touch of Jesus, in which we share through our baptism, invites us to do at least two things: to let God touch our pain and, even in the midst of our own agony, to interrupt our lives in order to reach out to those rejected by our world because of their stigma: men and women, boys and girls trapped in prostitution, those afflicted with AIDS and HIV-related diseases, suffering cancer, MS, depression – you name it. “Who touched me?” says Jesus as he looks around. Anyone afflicted in mind, body, heart or soul only has to touch the hem of his garment, and that hem – that could be us when somebody reaches out for love and care.

Our own healing journey must take detours to attend to those less powerful and more destitute than we are. Only when the outcast woman is restored to true “daughter-hood” can the daughter of the synagogue leader be restored to new life. That is the faith that the rich and famous must learn from the poor.

Jesus not only had time for the person next to him. The reign of God, which Jesus came to reveal, points to the day when all will be attended to and no one will be ignored, no matter how much life-blood has drained out of us, no matter how untouchable society considers us.

In Jesus, God has promised us not freedom from pain, loss, grief and death.
Those are all part of living, just as joy and pleasure, passion and excitement are. Instead of removing, or protecting us from, that bad stuff, God does two things that are much more powerful:

First, God absorbs all of these human realities. In Jesus, God knows them all – intimately. In Jesus, God lived them all – passionately. By this radical identification with all creation, God has sanctified our lives. God has sanctified our humanity by joining us fully in that humanity through the life, suffering and death of his only Son Jesus Christ. We are not alone, and we matter. In Jesus, God shared and continues to share, our life.

That’s one thing. The other is that God promises resurrection, a resurrection like that of Jesus. This means that, finally, nothing – absolutely nothing – will be lost. God will make something new and renewed of our lives, our bleeding, and of our deaths, and of the lives, bleeding and death of everyone for whom Jesus died. There is both meaning and hope, God says in Jesus Christ, in our little existence, in our pain and bleeding, and ultimately in each of our deaths. God has promised in Christ: God’s word of love will be the strongest word, and the best word, and the last word – for everyone – no exception, no segregation, no exclusion. God has promised to make all creation new, and that we will be a part of that. And God’s promise has already delivered in our risen Lord, Jesus Christ. AMEN

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