December 2014 was the 20th Anniversary of the ordination of women to the priesthood in the Scottish Episcopal Church. For reasons too tedious and complicated to explain here, the celebrations of this momentous occasion have been postponed to this year, and at our Diocesan Synod next month we will have a service to commemorate this significant step in the life of the church.
I have been on the planning committee for that service, and somehow, without entirely knowing it, through another’s rather remarkable and subtle skills of delegation, I found myself given the task of creating a video which will play during the sermon slot of that Eucharist. (I have to confess to having fairly major reservations about showing a video instead of having a sermon, but the decision had already been made.)
It’s been one of the projects recently that has taken up an extraordinary amount of time. The logistics of coordinating several priests’ busy schedules, of working out a way of framing the video so that it isn’t merely a celebration of one particular moment or of one particular group of people, of sticking to the predictably tiny budget, of trying to create something of beauty and story and theological depth … well, let’s just say I’ve not really done it with grace. And as with so many other things recently, I’ve regretted that I had so little time to give it the attention it deserved.
But we gathered this morning, three female priests who were ordained 20 years ago, and one recently ordained transitional deacon. And using an icon picturing the Journey to Emmaus, with grace, humour and a kind of holy wonder, they shared pieces of their own journeys: the wounds they picked up along the way, the hurts of others they have carried throughout their ministry, the revelatory conversations with those whose views on women’s priesthood gradually changed, the gracious acceptance of those whose views would never change, the sacrifices they’ve made and the sacrifices others have made on their behalf.
For the two of us more recently ordained, we wished we had heard these stories years ago. We witnessed wisdom and laughter and companionship, and with open arms, we were welcomed as fellow companions on the way. This is the stuff of formation, and in the three hours I was with these women, I felt my rough edges softening, my heart opening, my spirit soaring more than I ever did during the three years of my training.
The SEC is approaching yet another milestone in its journey as it discerns how best to respond to the Marriage and Civil Partnerships (Scotland) Act 2014. And as I thought about that decision in light of the decision made to ordain women to the priesthood twenty years ago, I was touched and inspired by the humility, the tears, the tangible example of kenotic ministry I saw in the lives of those I met today. There was no language of ‘them’ and ‘us’, no triumphalism, no power plays or posturing, no talk of ‘battles’ and ‘victories’.
(That’s not to say there never were, of course. Prophetic voices, righteous anger — along with arrogance and selfishness — are all a natural, and sometimes necessary, part of these kinds of decisions. But today we celebrated graciousness, faithfulness and forgiveness.)
One of the most moving stories of that Synod vote over twenty years ago, one of the stories still regularly told, was of an opponent of women’s priesthood standing in front of all who were gathered, saying: ‘This is the mind of the church. And therefore, I give my altar book to one of the ordinands I know best, and when she uses it to preside at the Eucharist, I want to be there as deacon’.
A more powerful symbol of unity (and please, please, let’s not confuse unity and uniformity), I can scarcely imagine. I pray that as we celebrate the anniversary of the ordination of women to the priesthood, and as we enter into another momentous debate and decision, we can remember this symbol, that we can remember we are not divided into sides, but that we are all — lay, priests, bishops alike — are called to love one another, to serve one another, to recognise God’s presence in one another. And above all to act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with our God.