Yesterday, along with 650 other people, I attended the ordination of nine deacons who will serve our diocese as well as the Diocese of Virginia. I wore this stole, which I was given at my ordination - although I was a ‘transitional’ deacon who, a year later, was ordained to the priesthood. The process leading up to this was not without its drama – not because there were questions about my spiritual and moral fitness of course, but because from the beginning I fit into a newly unveiled ordination process the way a canary fits into a conclave of kittens.
So at my ordination to the Deaconate, in front of two bishops and multiple clergy who had the privilege of assessing my fitness for ministry, as well as several hundred curious and/or disinterested worshippers, the Rev. George Ross (the priest who welcomed me into the Episcopal Church and who was the preacher at the occasion) told a story intended to calm my nerves and to offer me assurance all would be well. He introduced the story with a slight apology, admitting it was a tad sexist for the time – 29 years ago. I present the gist of it to you this day with the caveat it may be even a little more sexist today than it was back then:
Years ago there was a young man who wanted to be ordained into the ministry. In his denomination, the leaders of the local church examined the candidate and voted to ordain or not. Back in the day only men were allowed to serve on the congregation’s leadership board. Even though the earnest and eager young man had grown up in the church, consent was not a foregone conclusion. Meeting the morning of the scheduled ordination service, the tone of the board’s conversation took on an ominous tone. Some of the men didn’t like the ideas the candidate had picked up at the liberal seminary he attended. Others questioned a sermon he had preached. Still others didn’t approve of the length of his hair. At one point, the head of the board turned to the congregation’s pastor and asked for his opinion. “Well, gentlemen,” he said in a very hushed and wise tone, “the women of the church have already set up for the reception after the service. They have prepared a wonderful lunch for everyone and even baked a special cake for the occasion. Given everything the ladies have put into this, I think the question of ordination is settled.” And with that, the all-male leadership board voted unanimously to ordain.
I have always loved this story, not so much because it lowered my anxieties, but because it highlighted for me the difference between formal and informal authority in the life of the church. Women were not allowed to serve on a Vestry in Virginia until 1970, but that does not mean they exercised no leadership in the church before then. Here at St. Paul’s, the women formed The Randolph Society, which implemented much of what we would consider the ministry of the church: seeing to the Christian education of our children, hosting fellowship events, and raising funds for outreach projects, while the men of the Vestry debated such weighty theological matters as how much to pay for a ton of coal, the need to identify the source of a leak in the roof, and how much money to pledge to the diocese.
You may find it interesting that the Property Committee made a report at the October 16, 1929 Vestry meeting indicating our then neighbor, one Mrs. W.T. Jones, had complained “the hedge on the church property adjoining her home, has been allowed to grow to such height that it so shaded her garden as to retard the growth of her flowers and requests that such hedge be trimmed.” How would the illustrious group of Vestrymen serving such a crucial leadership function deem best to deal with this delicate matter? They voted to refer it to The Randolph Society!
Given the ‘authority’ conferred on them by the male leaders of the parish, whatever those ladies did, they must have done both swift and well. The minutes of the next Vestry meeting record that Miss S. Lizzie Morgan complained about “the excessive growth of the shrubbery and hedge on the church’s property adjoining her home lot” and stated “it is causing her fence to rot.” Read into the minutes Miss Morgan saying this: Since you men of the Vestry never seem to be able to get anything done, can you please authorize the women of the church to work with me? In a stunning move, the men voted to refer the matter to The Randolph Society.
I am indebted personally to this group of fine and faithful women. Back in the mid-1930’s they put down their collect feet and demanded the Vestry build a Rectory for the parish’s priest. Since their arrival in 1926, the Rev. Herbert Nash Tucker, his wife, and four children lived in a rented house on Brewer Street referred to as the “Blount House.” Now you many not think this arrangement too bad until you learn that the rental agreement called for Mr. Blount to retain use of two of the rooms and a bathroom in the house. Well, it seems that when Mr. Blount passed away the Vestry decided not to purchase the house outright. Someone else did and wanted the Tuckers out.
From my reading of the minutes, the women of the Randolph Society held the Vestry’s feet to the fire on the matter of building a suitable Rectory, something which had been debated by the Vestry for at least twenty years. A Mrs. Darden, Mrs. Holladay, and Mrs. Bradshaw were sent to the Vestry to say “enough is enough.” Well, in 1935, the women got their way and a Rectory was built at 229 N. Saratoga Street at a cost of $8,932. It is the house I now own, but not quite at that price.
All of my musing about the role and place of women in the church – both globally and locally – has been inspired by today’s first reading. Set in the Book of Acts, it takes place not too long after the Resurrection. Jesus has ascended into heaven to sit at the right hand of the Father and the disciples – led by Peter – are making their way with Jesus’ mandate to proclaim the reign of the Kingdom of God.
In this morning’s lesson we learn about Tabitha (also known as Dorcas). It is the first and only time she is mentioned in Scripture. She lives in Joppa, a town on the northern Israel coast of the Mediterranean Sea. We don’t know if she has been a longtime follower of Jesus or a recent convert, but the text tells us two things. First, she is a disciple; in the Greek a mathetria, the only woman given such a title in the New Testament whose name we know. And second, we are told she is devoted to good works and acts of charity. If I put newsprint in front of us and asked you to name the women you have known in your life who were both disciples of Jesus and given to good works and acts of charity, I am confident we could fill pages upon pages of paper. If I asked you to name men who fit this criteria, it might take some time before we identified even a half-dozen!
Well, Tabitha is suddenly overtaken by a mysterious illness and dies. The signs of grief described in the lesson are not at all dissimilar from our own day and time. When the mourners learn Peter is staying at a nearby town they send for him. I like how when he arrives the women show him some of the tunics Tabitha had made for them. It seems one of her acts of charity was to sew new clothing for converts who came to the faith wearing little more than rags. Ladies, what does descent clothing do for your self-esteem? I am sure some male disciple presided over a baptismal liturgy that told these converts they were welcomed into a new and glorious life with Jesus. Tabitha knew this proclamation needed something tangible and concrete to reinforce the spiritual truth so she gave each needy person a new tunic to wear.
But now she is dead. Peter prays over Tabitha’s body and then commands her to “get up”. She opens her eyes and Peter assists her to her feet. Within the context of the Book of Acts, this story is meant to convey something of what scholars call the “post-resurrection reality of Jesus.” If this strikes you as a fancy, but somewhat aloof theological concept, you are not alone. While the message death never has the final word is comforting, in our day and age I believe this reading says something even more powerful about discipleship and authority. It directs our attention to the ministry of the women who have baked the special cake to expose the pointless debate of the men.
This fourth Sunday of Easter is known as “Good Shepherd” Sunday. It lifts up the shepherd-like care Jesus has for each one of us. The reading about Tabitha invites us to ponder to role of shepherdesses in our own life as well as in the life of our parish and in the church. Theirs has always been a ministry of sensitivity, compassion, and wisdom. Only recently has it been coupled with formal authority and power.
One of the glorious ways I see God working in and through St. Paul’s Vestry is that gender roles have given way to individual gifts and perspectives. A woman raises concerns about fiscal responsibility while a man insists on the need to make the parish comfortable for all. I pray as we move toward Pentecost Sunday – a day when we celebrate how God has empowered each of our unique ministries with the presence of the Holy Spirit – each of us will feel comfortable and confident speaking our truth as God has given it to us. I pray each of us will feel comfortable and confident living out your truth as best we can. I pray we might be able to describe each and every person here as being a “disciple” “given to good works and acts of charity.”