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.

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The Ordaining Church

I looked out over the crowd that had filled the Anglican Cathedral on an ordinary Thursday evening. I was amazed, surprised, overwhelmed. They had come, from everywhere, in droves: friends and family, colleagues and ecumenical co-workers. The church catholic was present in its fullest sense: Pentecostal, Baptist, Mennonite, United, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Anglican and Roman Catholic (with the exception of the Orthodox tradition*). Especially Roman Catholic: a sea of them along with religious sisters, several priests and one higher ranking official. The happy grins spoke volumes: I was not the only one who had looked forward to this moment.

In the midst of this ecumenical community of faith I claimed my call before the bishop, made vows and promises, and knelt for the “holy huddle” – Anglican, Lutheran, United and Presbyterian clergy colleagues as well as two RC priests joining the bishop in the solemn laying on of hands.

Ordained a priest. I still struggle to find the words. The impact of the experience was profound. It was profound in my own heart-mind-spirit, in my experience of church, and in the effects upon my current ministry. Given the ecumenical make-up of the assembly that night, I felt truly ordained by and into the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church in the fullest sense of that term. I have not recovered from the experience – and I hope I never will.

I have always been mindful of the faith community’s role when one claims a call to ministry; one is called by and for the community, never for oneself. Now this crucial role was expressed in the most tangible way possible – the community’s presence and participation was their fiat. A deepening and affirmation, blessing and mandate all rolled into one holy Spirit-filled act of ordination. No wonder I still struggle to find words.

The next morning I presided over the (Anglican) Holy Eucharist for the first time in a Catholic retreat center, which included a renewal of marriage vows for Jim and I – it was our wedding anniversary. Like the night before, the people of God in all denominational diversity packed the worship space, hungering for a taste of heaven where divisions and barriers melt away: take and eat, take and drink, all of you.

Maybe a number of firsts occurred: RC clergy joining in the laying on of hands, one of whom bowing his head for my first priestly blessing; a religious sister leading music at the Anglican Eucharist the next morning while persons from various traditions served as acolyte, readers, communion assistants; communion bread baked by an Anglican-RC couple; those with different beliefs finding a space of respect and hospitality while getting caught up in the joy and gratitude of the occasion.

That I may at last taste the joy of fulfilling this vocation still feels like a miracle. What seemed elusive for several decades has come to pass. At the same time it was always there, for the priestly call lived in my heart as an animating light, a wellspring of grace and love. For this was the peculiar thing: despite the church’s prohibition, the call persisted. Moreover, despite the fear and self-doubt, the call grew me on the inside in ways that bore all the fruits of the Spirit — love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. (Gal. 5:22-23)

A priestly vocation originates at the deepest level of one’s being, which is one’s essence. Roman Catholic sacramental theology calls it an ontological reality, an indelible mark on the soul. Years ago I spoke with a Roman Catholic friend who had left the priesthood because, as he said, he had all the external affirmation but none of the internal reality. To which I replied with new insight, “Yes, and I have all the internal reality but none of the external blessing/affirmation.” “I know,” he replied. Surprised, we looked intently at one another with waves of recognition, understanding and respect.

And so when the final report on the validity of my priestly call was issued by the national Anglican Church’s assessment body, a year ago now, opening the path to ordination, the tears refused to stop:

We find Marie-Louise to have a clear sense of call to the priesthood, a call which has developed in extraordinary circumstances over the past 27 years … This growing sense of call took place in the context of a lifelong faithful involvement in the Roman Catholic Church.

Marie-Louise has an impressive history of lay ministry in the Roman Catholic Church, demonstrating visionary leadership in the development of numerous ministries, which responded to particular needs in the church. Her involvement in ecumenical initiatives is most remarkable, beginning many years ago with studies at the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Saskatoon.

We were impressed with her deep Christian faith and her struggle over many years to be faithful both to the ecclesial tradition she has grown up in and her growing sense of call to priestly ministry. We affirm Marie-Louise’s call to the priesthood. She is a passionate servant of Christ and has a sincere desire to serve God in an Anglican context. (ACPO Report, May 2017)

No matter which denomination does the ordaining, the ontological truth, the imprint on the soul, presses deep; it feels like coming home to one’s true self. Even my friend Carmen, just ordained last month in the Pentecostal tradition, speaks of this reality in her recent blog reflection.

What’s more, nothing is wasted in God’s economy. I am now pastoring two rural parishes, Anglican and Lutheran. All the pieces of my life’s puzzle have come together: formation and ministry experiences of the past 27+ years are all bearing fruit in these two small parishes on the Canadian prairies – who would have thought.

Living Christian discipleship in the Anglican household of God now is opening new spiritual vistas and blessings. My heart is growing larger, unfolding like an expanding universe. My capacity to live from contradictions into paradox and relational truth is being stretched, deepened and refined. How do I know all this is from God? Because my joy has never been deeper, my love has never been more costly and intently, my spirit has never been more generous, my peace has never been more solid, even in the midst of chaos and turmoil.

Meanwhile my Roman Catholic family of origin continues to occupy a cherished place in my heart; in her bosom my faith was nourished and my vocation was born against all odds. I truly live a double belonging. The increasing opportunities for joint ministry with my local Catholic priest and his parishioners are therefore sources of deep joy and immense gratitude, weaving unity in my spirit and among our people.

We don’t make journeys like this in isolation. I extend therefore a heartfelt thanks for the company and friendship, prayers and support of so many on this road towards priestly ministry. It truly takes a community to call a priest/pastor. Pray that I will continue to fulfill this sacred trust faithfully, placing my priesthood at the service of the full visible unity of God’s one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.

  • This is an expanded version of the last column (May 9, 2018) in a twelve month series entitled Double Belonging, co-published by the Prairie Messenger (ceasing publication) and the Saskatchewan Anglican from May 2017 to May 2018.
  • * The Orthodox tradition is active in ecumenical dialogues and circles, but my personal connections do not include many members of this branch of the Christian family.

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A New Season

I owe you, my faithful readers, an update. No, I have not been “hiding” behind the past four postings on the Theology of the Body and Ordination. I felt it was important that these installments were posted in sequence to improve flow and accessibility for reading. But while these postings appeared, some significant changes took place in my own life and ministry, changes I am happy to share with you now.

If there is one thing I have learnt, and keep learning, on this life and faith journey it is the absolute importance of good discernment grounded in deep prayerful listening in community. When the Anglican family of faith opened its doors to me a couple of years ago, it wasn’t just a triumphant grand entry. These things rarely are; to expect otherwise is a recipe for disappointment and frustration. The Anglican steps in the preparation process towards ordination challenged my capacity for both spiritual and ecclesial obedience in a spirit of surrender in freedom. I faced the need to stare down in my spirit impatience and entitlement, distrust, doubt and fear. These five amigos vied for a place in the driver’s seat of my denominational and vocational decisions. Each of them came with solid Scriptural backing, much like the devil did when tempting Jesus in the desert. It took courage to unmask their counter-witness; it took trust to turn away from their alluring yet shallow promises. It takes ongoing perseverance to wait in joyful hope.

It now looks like this discernment gamble is paying off. The developments of the past months were unanticipated, and thus can only be attributed to God’s own providence and blessing of this remarkable vocational journey. As of January 2017, I have been entrusted with the pastoral leadership of two small congregations in a rural community not far from home. What is more, all of my previous denominational and ecumenical ministry, as well as my vocational experience, are culminating in this new pastoral assignment, all of it. Why do I make this claim?

First, the two congregations belong to two different traditions – one Anglican and the other Lutheran (made possible through the Full Communion Covenant between the ACC and the ELCIC). Therefore two bishops had to approve my appointment. My Lutheran seminary training and my long association with all things Lutheran now stands me in good stead. As I quip to my Lutheran friends and colleagues, I may be Anglican now but you Lutherans got under my skin back in those seminary days and you clearly never left 🙂

Second, my continued grounding in Roman Catholic spirituality and theological knowledge is proving to be a rich asset. This Lent I am participating in ecumenical conversations in our little prairie town between Anglicans, Lutherans, and Catholics through the parish study Together in Christ. I find myself answering questions from all sides with a deep affection and respect for each of the three traditions.

Third, I sense a deep convergence towards Christian unity in my own spirit, thanks to the blending of the various traditions in both ministry, spirituality and ecumenical collaboration among the denominations in the community where I serve. I am increasingly relating and ministering from the perspective of the Lund PrincipleI am acutely aware that the positive disposition with which I engaged my denominational transfer is now creating the inner freedom to engage in joy and affection with the local Roman Catholic parish priest and parishioners. Had my denominational move been motivated by negative reasons and unresolved frustrations, I likely would have been greatly hampered in the current building of new friendships with Roman Catholics.

This ecumenical convergence in my own spirit is circling back to growing my Anglican identity. For Anglicanism at its best in today’s Christian family is to be ecumenical in vision, in spirituality, in practical partnering, in common prayer and witness. The Anglican tradition is animated by a deep desire to embrace the best in both Catholicism and Protestantism, humbly acknowledging its own need for the other expressions of Christian discipleship.

Finally, I am experiencing the truth of what Frederick Buechner said long ago (and his words have become a classic saying): The place God calls you is where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep hunger. For so many years I have sensed a deep call to parish-based pastoral leadership ministry. Already some 15 years ago I wrote in my journal: if only I could pastor a little parish in the country somewhere I’d be perfectly happy. Now it’s one thing to “dream” about something as if this is a true calling. It’s quite another to experience it in real time. But I am in real time now and I am pastoring in a small prairie town. And yes, I’m over the moon (the honeymoon!) with this new assignment; some of it will wear off over time I’m sure. But that is okay. The current synergy and the joyful energy welling up inside me, as if an artesian well has been unplugged, is unmistaken. There is something so right about where I am, and the people of God in both parishes have welcomed me so warmly. Preparing weekly sermons and preaching has never been easier; I am no longer the guest preacher who gets parachuted into a congregation, preaches without any bonds to the people, and then leaves again. Now I can build thought patterns with the Scriptures over the course of several Sundays, and to my great surprise some people are taking note and responding.

I experience spiritual and ministerial “highs” as I try out new pastoral initiatives, as I bring communion to shut-ins, as I lead worship in both the church and the long-term care facility, as I engage with the local refugee committee (small town–big project, refugee family arrived last November) and the Ministerial Association, and get to know parishioners. I pinch myself periodically; is this really happening?

I have worked in “church-land” long enough to know that it will not always be this way. I will hit new lows and collect new bruises on my heart. The artesian well will eventually run dry, the excitement of new beginnings will wear off. The hard balls of living will knock me over again – they always do. The cross always looms over the resurrection light, but its darkness does not overcome it. For now, in this little window of joy and excitement, this feels a bit like storing up blessings as preparation for the lean times which inevitably follow. The very fact of making the journey itself is truly the destination. And all this even before ordination – Deo Gratias 🙂

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Truth – A Relationship

A few personal challenges of late sent me reflecting on truth again. Some of our loved ones confronted us with some difficult positions on important moral and family matters. It’s all I could do to keep conversations open and respectful, while working hard to share my opposing perspectives in non-judgmental ways and in a manner that deserved equal openness and respect. Maintaining open and loving relationships in times of disagreement is so heart-wrenching.

And then a peculiar thing happened. As if the ears of my mind and heart were sharpened by my own painful experience of discord, I heard and saw the same pain in so many places and over so many issues: disagreements over assisted suicide, disputes over the need to reconcile with our First Nations sisters and brothers, deep differences over the definition of marriage and how the church ought to care and seek justice for the LGBTQ community, strong disagreements within First Nations jurisdictions over allowing mining on their territory or not, a family feud over an estate, debate over whether to sit or kneel at the consecration or the place of the tabernacle (really!), sharp divisions over the peaceful nature of Islam,  vastly opposing opinions on how to eradicate racism and violence in the US, in Canada, in the world …

Sometimes I wonder: “How can we ever sort this out?” Is it even possible to reach for higher conversation standards; are there others who are dissatisfied with entrenched polarizing positions on controversial questions? The extent of volatile conflict near and far is scary; even disputes within churches sometimes resemble more a vindictive culture war than the Gospel.

What is so hard about acknowledging our vulnerability and awkwardness while affirming goodwill and desire for wholeness in every person? What is so hard about living God’s truth, Jesus’ truth, in the quality of our relationships, challenging ourselves to deliberately choose love as our foundational orientation? I sadly acknowledge the reasons for violence, war, and discords of all shapes and sizes. But are we doomed to live with this alienating way of relating to one another? In all these examples, a battle for “the truth” rages. I find myself asking Pilate’s ancient question again: what is truth?

As if an answer to the pleading prayer in my soul, along came the words of Pope Francis:
The truth, according to Christian faith, is God’s love for us in Jesus Christ. So the truth is a relationship! Each one of us receives the truth and expresses it in his or her own way, from the history, culture and situation in which he or she lives…. This doesn’t mean that truth is variable or subjective; quite the opposite. But it means that it is given to us always and only as a way and a life. Did not Jesus himself say: ‘I am the Way, the Truth and the Life’? In other words, truth being altogether one with love, requires humility and openness to be sought, received and expressed. ~ Pope Francis in his letter to Eugenio Scalfari, Nov. 9, 2013

What if this is true? I mean, what if truth is first and foremost a relationship of love patterned on the Trinity as the ultimate communion of love (long before it is a set of intellectual dogmas and beliefs), and is given to us always and only as a way and a life? If indeed this is true, that has enormous implications for those of us who claim to follow Jesus, the incarnation of that truth. We cannot ignore today’s local, national and international conflicts, both within and between our churches and in the wider world. Nor can we retreat in ideological fortresses of our own making and say to the rest of the Body ‘I have no need of you.’

But we desperately need to adopt conversation models “in a new key” so to speak, models which can equip us to listen without fear or prejudice and seek a better understanding of ‘the other,’ whoever that may be in any given situation. At best we can only change ourselves, and only if our Christian discipleship summons us to do so. In other words, the most life-giving reason to desire change is to deepen our capacity to love as God loves. I know that I need to change daily, as I struggle with difficult people, new issues and moral dilemmas. We may not agree, but can we be committed to hold together in love, and through that commitment, see the face of Christ in one another while inching ever closer to realizing God’s Kingdom on earth?

I read echoes of this same diagnosis and a desire for fostering a higher standard of discourse through the quality of how we relate to one another and the world in Fr. Richard Rohr’s words in Breathing Under Water (pg. 62):
The longer I live the more I believe that truth is not an abstraction or an idea that can be put into formulas or mere words. Our real truth has to do with how we situate ourselves in this world. There are ways of living and relating that are honest and sustainable and fair, and there are utterly dishonest ways of living and relating . This is our real, de facto, and operative “truth,” no matter whose theories or theologies we believe. Our life situation and our style of relating to others is “the truth” that we actually take with us to the grave. It is who we are, more than our theories about this or that. 

Jesus himself holds us to this higher standard, and yet we forget as quickly as water passes through a sieve. We keep making a categorical mistake, i.e. that loving and honouring our opponent implies consent and support for something that risks violating our conscience. But far from condoning sin, pain and woundedness, Jesus’ capacity to love unconditionally and show generous mercy had a radical life-changing effect on persons. His love shed clear truth-filled light into burdened souls, spontaneously exposed the darkness of sin and healed open wounds, while restoring dignity and honour.

Simply by experiencing the honour to be worthy to host Jesus, Zaccheus confessed of his own accord. (Luke 19:1-10) Simply by being in his presence, the sinful woman washed Jesus’ feet with her tears and dried them with her hair, evoking from Jesus the words: “Her sins, which were many; have been forgiven.” (Luke 7:36-50). In the parable on the weeds and the wheat, Jesus cautioned about pulling the weeds before harvest (Matthew 13:24-30). Even the Syro-Phoenician woman, an outcast by all social standards, felt the power of divine love, and claimed it for her daughter. (Matthew 15:21-28)

Simply put, the sheer power of divine love does the sifting and sorting, the healing and restoring; no need to add judgment or condemnation, no need to fear, dispute or despise. That is why St. Augustine said in his famous sermon on love:

Human actions can only be understood by their root in love. All kinds of actions might appear good without proceeding from the root of love. Remember, thorns also have flowers: some actions seem truly savage, but are done for the sake of discipline motivated by love. Once and for all, I give you this one short command: love, and do what you will. If you hold your peace, hold your peace out of love. If you cry out, cry out in love. If you correct someone, correct them out of love. If you spare them, spare them out of love. Let the root of love be in you: nothing can spring from it but good. …

Contrary to earlier reports, it became clear this morning (July 12, 2016) that the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada did pass the motion last night that will change the definition of marriage. While many are grateful and relieved there is also much pain over this decision across the Anglican and ecumenical landscape. Are there really any winners in such a divisive outcome? The most striking comments came from Rev. Dr. Iain Luke, soon-to-be the new principal at Emmanuel St. Chad College in Saskatoon:

The irony is that before the whole synod started, people were saying it’s a “lose-lose” situation. Everybody knows what it feels like now. Both sides have understood now what it feels like to lose, if you have to use that word. One side ends up not getting their way, but the other side knows what it feels like. For a day, they felt that, and I hope that that will help us.
The most important thing going ahead is that we bring those two groups of people together, that people see the leadership of those two groups working together to find one story for our church. It would be terrible if there were two stories of this synod, because two stories lead to two churches. We need one story, one church. But to do that, people have to see that both sides are working together to tell that story.
Why did it happen this way? There must be something for us to learn from this … (Anglican Journal, July 12, 2016)

My heart hurts and my spirit weeps as one group cheers and another group breaks. Can we take seriously Pope Francis’ words that each one of us receives the truth and expresses it in his or her own way, from the history, culture and situation in which he or she lives? Are we willing to look for “Holy Ground” in another’s painful life story? Can we let God’s love purify all our hearts so that love’s divine power can truly flow through us all freely, confidently and generously? For the sake of the world, create a clean heart in me, O God, and put a new and steadfast spirit within me. (Psalm 51:10)

O gracious and holy Father,
give us wisdom to perceive you,
diligence to seek you,
patience to wait for you,
eyes to behold you,
a heart to meditate upon you,
and a life to proclaim you;
through the power of
the Spirit of Jesus Christ, our Lord.
Amen.
~ St. Benedict

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Discernment Challenges

Slowly, though reluctantly, it seems that the Anglican Communion is choosing ecclesial unity rather than division over the question of same-sex marriage, at least for now. The Anglican Church in New Zealand recently postponed their decision on the question, citing too much painful division on the horizon should it sanction same-sex unions as a marriage. The Church of Scotland has opened the door cautiously to studying the question. Both the Church of England and the Anglican Church of Canada will engage the same question next month but report deep divisions in their ranks. This seems to leave The Episcopal Church (TEC) in the USA as the only Anglican body having definitively changed the Marriage Canon to eliminate the one-man, one-woman clause.

What to make of this? Having only recently moved into the Anglican family, I am a new participant in this highly charged conversation. I confess my own struggle, not necessarily with same-sex partnerships, but with calling such partnerships marriage. And in light of the Orlando massacre which deliberately targeted LGBTQ women and men, I run the risk of being perceived as unsupportive of this vulnerable group suffering grave injustice and discrimination.

But nothing could be further from the truth. As a lover and disciple of Jesus committed to living my life in his footsteps,  I desire fullness of life (John 10:10) not just for myself but for all God’s people. And so I struggle ever more deeply, between authentic compassion and care in Jesus’ name (which Scott Sauls articulates so poignantly in his blog), vital in this time of profound grief in the LGBTQ community, and long-standing cherished understandings of marriage and sexuality.

Along the way I’ve become all too familiar with painful discernment challenges. When faced with difficult decisions and moral dilemmas in my personal life, I often have to take several big steps back from the situation in order to re-frame, rethink and reorient so as to discover a new angle or two. St. Ignatius’ recommendation to foster healthy detachment is an arduous task yet in the long run one well-worth pursuing.

When caught in a discernment dilemma, I make every effort to root my spirit in prayer and meditation, while engaging a trusted and seasoned mentor in my quest, all with the purpose of seeking Christ’s wisdom and light through the lens of Holy Scripture and the tradition of the Church. That wisdom and light requires ruthless self-examination through piercing, painful, questions such as:
1. What am I not seeing? What are my blind spots? Odd question, because as soon as I can see the blind spot, it’s no longer a blind spot.  🙂
2. What assumptions or emotional baggage prevent me from seeing in a new light?
3. Why does the direction/decision remain so unclear or conflicted or resistant?
4. What motivates the unclarity and resistance: negative energy arising from fear or ignorance, unresolved baggage or false attachments; or positive energy arising from genuine concern and important caution, from a deeper hunger for justice than the presenting issue portrays, from the loving desire to do the right thing?
5. Why does the current framing of my dilemma create unfocused energy and struggle?
6. What in the opposite perspective do I need to hear, heed and honour?
7. What is the delay in clarity telling me?

I remember more than once, when I have desperately wanted to forge ahead in an important decision while trying hard to ignore the muddle in my own mind and heart, as well as the ambiguous rationale in Scripture. Each time a wise mentor would hear me out and finally, carefully and gently, would say: “When the road ahead is not clear, it’s not time to decide. In that case, wait for the clarity.” I would groan, hating the answer, but knew enough to admit, with great reluctance, that my friend and mentor was probably right.

The prophet Habakkuk experienced this very thing:
I will stand at my watch-post, and station myself on the rampart;
I will keep watch to see what he will say to me,
and what he will answer concerning my complaint.
Then the Lord answered me and said:
Write the vision; make it plain on tablets,
so that a runner may read it.
For there is still a vision for the appointed time;
it speaks of the end, and does not lie.
If it seems to tarry, wait for it;
it will surely come, it will not delay. (Hab. 2:1–4)

If it seems to tarry, wait for it. Given the collective Anglican foot dragging over the controversial question on same-sex marriage, I wonder if it might help to take a few similar big steps back. For those who have been part of this conversation for nearly an entire generation and whose lives are directly impacted in adverse ways by this delay, this will be an exasperating suggestion. For those who realize (with or without chagrin) the slow pace of change in a 2,000-year old ecclesial body, this stepping back again and again is simply part of the sorting and sifting in the Holy Spirit’s orbit.

For discernment is much more demanding and time-consuming than debating and voting. Good discernment presupposes goodwill in every participant, our commitment to let God heal our hurts, harness our ego, and free us from false attachments and fear. Discernment can require stepping back and waiting over and over again, until the mist begins to lift. Discernment requires deep listening and heeding of all voices in light of Scripture, Tradition and Reason/Experience — the much beloved three-legged Anglican stool.

A close companion to good discernment is dialogue.  I am learning much from Andrew Marin who says, I am more concerned with working towards dialogue that actually promotes a shift in social engagement and relations than standing on one side yelling at the other to change. This past January, Angus Ritchie said something similar in his article,  “The pursuit of truth and the pursuit of unity do not represent a zero-sum game, because of the importance of dialogue in discerning the truth. The debates which continue to rage on these issues remind us that we need one another’s perspectives. Each “side” in this dispute has something to say which the other needs to hear – a fact that is possible to recognize without hedging one’s bets.

Discernment presses counter-intuitive questions. In the current issue on same-sex marriage, such questions could include:
* Is it possible, heaven forbid, that those who resist defining same-sex partnerships as marriage have something worthwhile to speak into the question?
* Does such reluctance necessarily originate in ignorant, homophobic attitudes and motives, or in unacknowledged sexual hang-ups?
* Can the reluctance to ecclesial sanction of same-sex marriage arise from healthy, prayerful consideration, from genuine and justified caution and from a place of radical love?
* What is at stake in the proposed changes?
* What are we not seeing or hearing, because our own pain and desire clouds our ability to see and hear?
* Is the current ecclesial tension and division generative or problematic, i.e. a fruit of the Spirit or an obstacle to the Spirit?
* What in the experience and perspective of the other does each of us need to hear and grapple with?

The Scriptural grounding for the concept of a permanent same-sex relationship to be on par with marriage seems tenuous. Yet we cannot dismiss the experience, desire and witness of persons with same-sex orientation nor can we dismiss the possibility that something new is emerging in God’s economy of love through their presence in our Christian communities. More specifically, how can the unique potential blessing of a same-sex covenant be affirmed as an expression of God’s justice, love and mercy while at the same time honouring the integrity of the traditional and nearly universal understanding of marriage? Does the Marriage Commission Report This Holy Estate strive to open a space for another, third, way of considering the matter (par. 5.3.3)?

Are we willing, once again, to lay aside rhetoric and polarizing terms, own feelings of pain, fear and frustration, and increase efforts to listen deeply to one another yet again? Michael Coren recently wrote an article published by the United Church Observer, in which he admits that many who cannot in good conscience endorse same-sex unions as marriage are “loving followers of Christ who do enormous amounts of good work in numerous areas.” In New Zealand, a new Working Group on the subject is urged to  “constantly come back to the conservatives, to be sure that the recommendations are acceptable to them.”

In a few weeks, it is our turn as Anglicans in Canada to engage once again the painful questions. Spiritual maturity requires the questions and the deep listening in community in a safe space shielded from political pressure. It will not be easy. Yet we did not choose one another: God chose us to be Christ’s witnesses in the world, together.

The Anglican instinct to keep walking together in love is demanding, yet reflects poignantly the Gospel imperative to carry one another’s burdens and grow spiritual bonds of affection as the one Body of our Lord. I pray for the grace of charity and mercy in all conversation partners. And for the grace to remember: if the vision seems to tarry, do not lose heart. Wait for it.

Prairie Encounters

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A Time of Transition

You did not choose me but I chose you
And I appointed you to go and bear fruit,
 fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you
whatever you ask him in my name.
I am giving you these commands
so that you may love one another.
(John 15:16-17)

Many years ago I attended the beautiful celebration of a woman religious taking her final vows.  In his homily the presiding Bishop spoke about the many twists and turns our life path can take; yet God will not rest until we have reached the place prepared for us. Well, God has taken me on quite a journey in life, especially the journey of ecclesial ministry in the past 22+ years.

At various times in those same years I was compelled to step back and take stock, in order to listen intently to the promptings of the Holy Spirit both within my own heart and in the faith community as per my perceived sense of priestly vocation, a vocation not recognized by our beloved Roman Catholic Church. While I have never felt the urge to turn this experience of priestly call into a political cause, I have  been acutely aware of the controversial nature of such a claim. For this reason I have continuously strived to engage discernment with the utmost discretion and integrity, seeking direction through Scripture-based prayer and study, through mentoring conversations with wise and trusted individuals, Roman Catholic and otherwise, ordained and lay, as well as feedback from those on the receiving end of my ministry activities.

I have taken seriously the requirement to make important decisions with an informed conscience, and, I would add, “in community.” While such discernment is deeply personal, it is by no means private. As a baptized member of the Body of Christ, the Church, and as a recognized leader, teacher and mentor in that church, I live and exercise ministry in interdependence and accountability to all the members of Christ’s community of believers. It is my commitment to integrity and accountability that prompts this letter.

Acknowledging a call to priesthood is not an easy matter for a Catholic woman, as the Roman Catholic Church does not deem itself authorized by Christ to ordain women to the priesthood. I have had to face serious obstacles both outside and inside myself. Maybe the fact that I am soon turning sixty is giving a new urgency to the desire to respond more fully to God’s promptings, promptings that have been there for many years and persistently keep circling back into the affective, spiritual and ministerial orbits of my life. The promptings have defied my own resistance, ecclesial boundaries and current church teachings, even while they have been recognized and affirmed by many in the faith community. They have taken me into the sweetest, most intense and most beautiful spiritual and ministerial experiences, as well into the most challenging, most painful and most demanding intimacy with God. The promptings have tenaciously survived my own objections as well as the Church’s dismissal of the same. There is an authenticating power in having lived with this call for more than two decades. I have finally come to realize that this is so because inner promptings of this nature most likely have their origin in God’s dream, a dream that promises fullness of life: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10)

In order to facilitate my response to God I have recently begun the process of becoming a member of the Anglican Church of Canada, where I will soon begin a formal discernment on priestly ordination. Already I am being warmly welcomed in this new ecclesial home, a home which, while possessing a distinct and unique ethos, considers itself an integral part of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church, Christ’s body on earth.

This decision was not taken lightly, however, nor is it motivated by a desire to attack or criticize the Roman Catholic Church. “Mother Church” will always be the womb in which both my faith and my priestly calling were nurtured and grew in maturity and depth. As Pope Francis says in his Encyclical The Joy of the Gospel in the section on Ecumenism: “We must never forget that we are pilgrims journeying alongside one another. This means that we must have sincere trust in our fellow pilgrims, putting aside all suspicion or mistrust, and turn our gaze to what we are all seeking: the radiant peace of God’s face.” (par. 244)

Even though I am motivated by the desire to choose life there is nevertheless profound grief. Christ may not be divided but the institutional reality of his Church is. While ecumenical dialogue has reaped genuine fruits of profound respect, understanding and affection among the various ecclesial expressions of the Christian faith, my transfer to the Anglican tradition is nevertheless not formally approved by the Catholic hierarchy. Even though such a rejection causes great pain, in Christ’s own resurrection we see that deep suffering does not stop God from infusing our lives with redeeming power, grace and mercy. On this promise I stake my future.

I’m quite aware that not everyone will receive this news in a positive light. I can appreciate this; at times I too struggle to understand and accept choices others make. Allow me to offer a few thoughts in response to such a struggle. First I turn again to Pope Francis’ words in The Joy of the Gospel: “How many important things unite us! If we really believe in the abundantly free working of the Holy Spirit, we can learn so much from one another. It is not just about being better informed about others, but rather about reaping what the Spirit has sown in them, which is also meant to be a gift for us. … Through an exchange of gifts, the Spirit can lead us ever more fully into truth and goodness.” (par. 246)

Secondly, I suggest turning to some of the Roman Catholic documents on ecumenism, esp. Vatican II’s Decree on Ecumenism and Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Ut Unum Sint (That All May Be One) as well as some of the major agreements from the Anglican—Roman Catholic Dialogues of the past 40 years. These agreements show clearly our shared theology on the Eucharist, substantial mutual recognition of one another’s gifts and the acknowledgement of the action of God’s grace and mercy in both our traditions. Even if my decision stirs disagreement and struggle, can we nevertheless join in increased prayer for the unity of Christians?

While this may be difficult to comprehend, I do not feel I am “leaving.” On the contrary, I take the gifts and graces of my Catholic faith with me, desiring deeply to enrich my new ecclesial home with them. For I wish nothing more than that my personal ecclesial and ministerial journey may serve the quest for Christian Unity in the Body of Christ, a unity so fervently prayed for by Jesus on the final night of his earthly life.

I sincerely wish to thank all who have entrusted various ministries to me over the past 22+ years, in particular the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate and the people, staff and clergy, together with its past and current Bishops, of the Roman Catholic Dioceses of Prince Albert, Saskatoon and Regina. You have never ceased to affirm the gifts and talents God has given me. Thank you for your trust, encouragement and friendship. With gratitude and affection I take you all with me in my prayers, my heart and my future ministry.

For I am confident in this very thing,
that the one who has begun a good work in you,
will bring it to completion
until the day of Christ Jesus.
Phil. 1:6

(While I share the above freely and publicly,  I have felt strongly about living my experience of priestly call in non-political ways in the church, and I continue to feel this way. Let us grace one another’s paths with mutual respect and affection. Rest assured that my participation in the Catholic conversation on the ordination of women is not ending, merely changing. United in prayer God’s will be done.)

For follow-up reflections pertaining to my experience of this denominational transition, see the subsequent blog entries:

Transition Continued

Transition: The Inside Story

Transition: The Outside Story

Prairie Encounters

Thank you for reading this to the very end. I ask for your prayers as I move through this time of transition. For private comments, use the Contact Form below; for public comments scroll down further and use the space below “Leave a Reply.”