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Women of the Cloth

The Episcopal church has had women priests since 1977. How's it working out?

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The priest is a woman. Except for that, the Sunday Mass at Trinity Episcopal Church in Highland Park is quite orthodox. The ancient prayers are said with quiet dignity, the proper words are spoken and the appropriate gestures made over the bread and wine. The celebrant is garbed in the time-honored white alb and flowing chasuble. The choir, also robed, leads the singing of familiar hymns, accompanied by a powerful organ. The congregation of about 125 recites the creed, affirming their belief in the "one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church." The worshipers are mostly middle-aged or older, though there is a healthy sprinkling of younger couples with children. At communion time everyone comes forward and kneels at the communion rail. This is the way mass has been celebrated for many decades at Trinity, a red brick building with small-stained glass windows and a somewhat gloomy interior. The assembled parishioners in this upper-middle-class North Shore suburb, many of them third-generation members at Trinity, do not seem inclined toward innovation or radical ideas. No dancing in the sanctuary here, no speaking in tongues, no rock melodies, not even a guitar. Everything is pretty much as it always has been, except that the priest, the Reverend Mollie A. Williams, is a woman.

When for the first time in its history the Church of England ordained women to the priesthood last March 12, the news made the front page of papers throughout the Western world: 32 smiling women breaking into a once exclusively male fraternity--a victory for feminism, common sense and good theology. But the event was not universally well received. A group of Anglican priests and at least one bishop immediately announced plans to depart the church. A vicar who heads three parishes in Lincolnshire revealed just how deep the disapproval went. "Women priests are bloody bitches who should be burned at the stake or better shot," Reverend Anthony Kennedy told the press. "I would shoot them if I was allowed, because a woman cannot represent Christ. Men and women are totally different."

Making a similar point, but in far more polite language, was Pope John Paul II, who said the ordination of females was absolutely objectionable, insisted that his view was not just opinion but "certainly true," and demanded that Catholics stop talking about it. A spokesman for the pope said the Anglican action constituted "a profound obstacle to every hope of reunion between the Catholic Church and the Anglican communion." Cardinal Giacomo Biffi, the Catholic archbishop of Bologna, Italy, tried to get the message across with a homey metaphor. Accepting women as priests, he said, would be "as if we wanted to celebrate mass with Coca-Cola and tiny croissants in place of bread and wine." The basic problem, according to all these critics, is that Jesus Christ didn't appoint women as priests 2,000 years ago, and he doesn't want any now either.

On this side of the Atlantic, however, the Anglican ordination stirred little visible animosity. After all, the Episcopalian Church, the American branch of the Anglican Communion, has allowed women priests since 1977; today approximately 10 percent of all U.S. Episcopal priests are female. Some, like Mollie Williams, are serving in pastoral positions. This significant feminization of the ministry would seem to indicate that acceptance prevails in at least one member of the worldwide Anglican family, suggesting that perhaps in time the tolerance learned by the child can be passed to the mother, eventually even to the church of Rome.

It's not that simple of course. Yes, the Episcopal leadership has approved of women priests, but that doesn't mean sex discrimination has vanished from sanctuary and vestibule--any more than civil rights laws have ended discrimination in boardrooms and fast-food restaurants. Besides, the Episcopal Church isn't exactly in robust health. The acceptance of women priests has coincided with a stark decline in membership and morale. And some have suggested that the church is in a downhill slide precisely because it has dared to break an ancient, divinely established taboo.

Since she arrived at Trinity Church almost a year ago, Mollie Williams has tried to be a model of what she calls assertive leadership. "I thought it was time to reorganize, to try new things," she says. "This is almost a do-or-die moment for the parish." Williams is a direct, self-confident woman. Her dark hair is cut short, and she appears younger than her 55 years. When Trinity's previous leader, a beloved, respected priest, retired last year after 23 years, he left a church that had been essentially on automatic pilot for a long time: little innovation and no growth. Last year Trinity, on a relatively modest budget of $200,000, ran up a deficit of $25,000.

"Everyone is very polite here," says Williams. "I thought we needed more candor, a better pattern of communication. My idea is to show a lot of assertive leadership early, then give it away, let others take command." She moved quickly in that direction by challenging the vestry (the Episcopal term for a parish council). "I had to propose a lot things initially, because there weren't any ideas. Now things are starting to happen."

The vestry has adopted a more dynamic curriculum for the church school and established five commissions to deal with aspects of church life. Williams says she was pleased when the liturgical commission decided to hold an Easter Vigil service on Holy Saturday. "It hadn't been done here for many years, and I thought it was too soon to resume. But they said, no, we'll do it this year."

Yet, the changes have caused some rumblings in the congregation. "No one has called me a bitch to my face," says Williams, "but I'm quite sure some have behind my back. The vestry is taking the heat for the changes that are starting."

Susan Riis Engeman, a member of the vestry, acknowledges that there have been some complaints and defensiveness on the part of veteran parishioners, but she feels that the majority accepts Williams's forceful style. Though attendance at Trinity services hasn't changed, Sunday contributions are growing steadily. "People are really participating," says Engeman, a high school teacher. "I think we needed a healthy, wake-up slap in the face--the sort of thing the bishop does symbolically at confirmation services."

Regardless of how well or poorly Williams is received or what she accomplishes, she won't be around Trinity for very long--another 16 months at the most. She's the interim rector at this church; her appointment is temporary during a time of transition. And therein lies a tale.

The Chicago diocese of the Episcopalian Church numbers 35 women among its 330 priests, according to Reverend Carl Gerdau, canon to Bishop Frank Griswold. Of these, only two hold the title of rector--the top pastoral position in the Episcopal system--that is, a priest in good standing who's been interviewed by the vestry of a self-sustaining parish and accepts its official call to head the local congregation. And of the two, only one was called by a congregation; the other automatically became a rector when a mission church she was serving became self-supporting. Four of the 35 women are vicars, appointed by the bishop to serve at nonself-sustaining churches. Five, like Williams, are interim rectors, appointed by the bishop for a period of six months to two years to help a parish adjust after a rector leaves. According to the rules, interim rectors cannot succeed themselves as full rectors; they do their job and move on. Two of the women are priests in charge, temporarily appointed to parishes for other reasons. Eight are "assistants" working under rectors, and six have other church-related duties, such as chaplain. Eight are not working in the church in any capacity.

In other words, Episcopalian churches aren't exactly clamoring for female leadership. With that one exception, women priests working in local parishes have been assigned by headquarters, not sought out by congregations. This is not because the women have been overly humble or reluctant to apply for rector positions. Williams says she's applied for eight or nine openings and was a finalist several times only to be passed over in favor of a male priest. "It's outrageous that I haven't been called," she says. Trinity Church is the fourth interim position she's held in the past five years.

Change is occurring, observes Canon Gerdau, "though not fast enough to assure women full equality at this point." He points out that Chicago is a predominantly "male city," more macho in its attitudes than many cities on the east coast. Besides, he adds, among the obstacles to the acceptance of women priests are many women parishioners, who on a number of occasions have opposed a woman candidate for rector solely on the grounds that she had limited experience, only to opt for a man with far inferior credentials.

The gradual ascension of women to altar and pulpit in the Anglican Church and its branches has been long and frustrating. When King Henry VIII created the Anglican communion in the 16th century because the pope wouldn't give him a divorce from his wife, many of the essentials of the Roman Catholic tradition were retained, including the mass, the sacraments, and the prohibition against women priests. The first serious rumblings concerning the last point occurred in 1944, when an Anglican bishop in Macao ordained a woman on his own initiative because he was woefully short of male priests. A rancorous debate ensued. The Lambeth Conference (the church's supreme council, which meets every three years) tried to politely stifle the debate in 1948 by declaring only that the bishop was out of line and that his action "should not be repeated."

But the issue would not go away. Women's ordination came up at succeeding Lambeth conferences, and the subject got even hotter after 1967, when women were admitted for the first time as delegates. In 1970 and 1973 the question came to a vote, only to fail by small margins (by one vote in 1970). In 1976 the Lambeth delegates finally agreed in principle that the priesthood of Jesus Christ could be extended to women, but left to individual branches of the Anglican family the decison of whether to ordain. So the debate continued, with the mother church insisting until last March that only men are suited for priesthood, though many of the Church of England's children--including the churches in Canada, Australia, Ireland, South Africa, and the U. S.--accepted women in at least some dioceses. Jacqueline Means, ordained January 1, 1977, in Indianapolis, became the first licitly ordained female Episcopalian priest. Today there are some 1,500 women among the 15,000 Episcopal priests in this country.

Until 1977 Chicago was not a very hospitable place for the movement. Bishop James Montgomery refused to ordain women, so local women who believed they were called to the priesthood had to persuade bishops in other parts of the country to accept them. The present bishop, Frank Griswold, fully supports women's ordination, though the chill from earlier years remains in many places. Canon Gerdau recalls that one Episcopal priest became so incensed at the sight of a woman celebrating mass that he bit her hand and drew blood when she offered him communion.

Mollie Williams's road to the priesthood has been somewhat complicated. She grew up in an Episcopalian family near New York City. In 1957, when she was an 18-year-old college freshman, her adviser almost out of the blue urged her to consider becoming a priest. "That was a moment of truth for me," she says. "It seemed to make sense." After graduation from college, she earned the requisite degrees at the Episcopal Theological School at Cambridge.

But the dream was deferred for three decades. She married Peter Williams soon after finishing her studies and moved to Chicago, where he became a successful community organizer. He's now retired, and their two sons are grown and on their own. After coming to Chicago, Mollie worked for a time as a religious education director at a Lake Forest church, but found the atmosphere of the Chicago-area Episcopal Church stifling. "It was like something out of the 13th century," she says.

The family shifted to a Presbyterian congregation, then to the United Church of Christ. In the late 1970s Williams earned a counseling degree, becoming a social worker and family therapist. In the early 1980s she and Peter reconnected with the Episcopal community. "We will never give this up again," they decided. At a dinner she met Bishop Griswold's wife, Phoebe, who discussed plans for rejuvenating the church and then asked Williams, "Now what about your ordination?" It was another moment of truth. Williams updated her theological education and was finally ordained in 1989.

Williams finds interim rectoring stimulating. "There's something challenging about handling change and resolving conflict," she says. And because the job is temporary, she can even push a bit harder than someone who's anticipating a long tenure. Still, she bristles at the church's glass ceiling. "I've seen strong women passed over. I really believe we're seeing the deep fear men have of women. It's very primitive and still basically unexamined."

The experience of other female priests parallels that of Williams. Jean Parker Vail, now 61, didn't get really serious about ordination until after her three children were raised. In fact, she wasn't even thinking about priesthood when she took some courses at Seabury-Western Theological Seminary in Evanston in the early 1980s; she'd been an active laywoman at her church in Western Springs and thought some formal training would be "enriching." She says, "Goodness knows, I was very square, very traditional. The notion of women presiding at the Eucharist was so controversial, and I certainly did not want to get in the way of someone's worship."

Her views gradually changed. As part of her training she was assigned chaplain duties at Rush-Presbyterian-Saint Luke's Medical Center and later at the Alexian Brothers hospital in Elk Grove Village. "I was thrust into situations involving baptisms and confessions and Eucharist--the sort of things a priest ordinarily handles. And I found I was quite comfortable in those situations."

Colleagues began sending Vail hints. On one occasion they presented her with a book of paper-cutout priestly vestments. The Catholic brothers who staff Alexian Brothers were especially encouraging, insisting that she had the very gifts of compassion and understanding priests need and suggesting that God was clearly pushing her in that direction. In the end Vail submitted because "The one unforgivable sin is the denial of the Holy Spirit."

Since her ordination in 1985, she has held seven interim rectorships, including a two-year stint at Saint James Cathedral in Chicago, the mother church of the diocese. Vail said the reactions of parishioners at her assignments have run the gamut from enthusiastic approval to total rejection. "In some places people have refused to receive communion from my hand or just quit attending mass until I went away."

Giving Sunday sermons was especially difficult at one suburban church where she could arouse virtually no response. "The people kept looking at their watches. It was like preaching to the test pattern on the television set."

Though she would prefer women to have something more stable than interim assignments, Vail says these temporary placements are laying the groundwork for others. Besides, she says, "You can survive anything for a year." She's now an instructor of homiletics, the art of preaching, at Seabury and is determined to help candidates for the priesthood distract Sunday parishioners from forever consulting their watches.

Vail and Williams both believe women priests stand a better chance of popular acceptance in the Roman Catholic Church if the papal barrier is lifted. Vail says many Catholics have been exposed to religious sisters who exercised strong leadership serving in their communities and the schools, where they sometimes confronted male authority. In the Episcopalian communion, she adds, there's no such tradition of strong, independent women.

Yet the issue of women's ordination has become a lightning rod in the Catholic Church and is likely to remain so for many years. The recent papal statement demanding an end to the discussion appears to many like one more attempt to put out a fire by pouring gasoline on it. Resentment of the papal hard line has been exacerbated by the Vatican's willingness in recent years to accept into the Catholic Church married Episcopal priests who can't tolerate the ordination of women; they're re-ordained and function as married Catholic priests. The militant Chicago Catholic Women organization has gone so far as to urge that until the church lifts its ban on women bishops cease ordaining priests and Catholics boycott masses, or at least wear blue lapel ribbons declaring "Ordain Women Now."

Vail recently got on an elevator recently with an elderly Catholic sister who was wearing the full traditional nun's habit. The sister looked with curiosity at the white Roman collar around Vail's neck and inquired what it meant. Somewhat nervously, Vail explained that she was an Episcopal priest, whereupon the nun took her hand and very reverently kissed it.

"More and more," says Williams, Roman Catholics are speaking with a real hunger for women priests."

Some are finding that hunger satisfied in Episcopal parishes. At All Saints Episcopal Church in the Ravenswood neighborhood better than a third of the members of the congregation are former Roman Catholics. Beth McGeehan, the 32-year-old owner of a theater set-design and lighting company, was raised Catholic and stayed with the church into her adult life, but she was put off by the sheer size and impersonal character of the parishes she joined. "These were big, take-a-number kind of places," she says, "the kind where you have to audition if you want to join the choir."

About a year ago she started going to All Saints, a tiny, old building she'd walked past many times but never noticed. "There was a genuine sense of welcoming and encouragement there. It was like, whatever you're interested in, whatever you want to do, they'll find a way for you to do it. So here I am singing in the choir."

An undisputed source of the energy at All Saints is Reverend Bonnie Perry, 32, who was appointed vicar of the church less than two years ago. Before her arrival the place was in near-terminal condition; attendance had deteriorated to 35 a Sunday. The tiny congregation held a meeting with the Chicago bishop suffragan William Wiedrich to discuss closing down. Wiedrich suggested that maybe the church had already died and that they ought to face that fact. "If you've died you can rise again," he says. "But when you're really dead and think you're alive, that's when you have a problem." They thought about that, then chose a phoenix rising from its own ashes as their new logo. Perry has given a voice to the image. Church attendance has tripled, with Sunday services drawing more than 100. At that rate of growth All Saints could be self-sustaining within two years.

"The woman has more energy than anybody I've ever seen," says McGeehan. "And it's a contagious energy. It just spreads."

Energy is also the word used by Kevin Anderson, 35, a commercial photographer. He began life as an Episcopalian, then "made forays" into other denominations, including the Catholic Church, before settling into All Saints. "It's so alive," he says. There's compassion and inspiration here. It's the most comfortable church I've ever been associated with." A lot of that, he insists, has to do with Bonnie Perry.

Perry, now ordained only three and a half years, served at several parishes in the Newark, New Jersey, diocese before moving to Chicago in 1992 to get more involved in urban ministry. Originally a Catholic, she was always attracted to the work of a priest: preaching, celebrating the Eucharist, being able to enter people's lives as a constructive force. The Episcopal Church provided her that opportunity and she seized it.

"I've never had so much fun in my life," she says of her experience at All Saints." This is just a spectacular congregation. They're adventurous, they're willing to experiment, they're so welcoming."

According to Perry, the growing congregation is about one-third heterosexual married people, one-third gay and lesbian, and one-third children. The average age of adults is about 37 (the average is shifted upward by a few old-timers whove stayed around), and many are in artistic, theatrical, or nonprofit, service-related jobs--people who are "overeducated and underpaid," says Perry, laughing.

She doesn't like to attribute the growth spurt entirely to the fact that she's a woman priest, but she admits, "A lot of Catholics today are very sensitive on this issue. Whenever he speaks on women, Pope John Paul is our best evangelizer."

Given the makeup of the congregation, it isn't surprising that drama, especially involving children, is an integral part of church activity. "Children are involved in just about everything we do," says Perry. "I mean everything." During a recent Sunday mass, the children reenacted the story of Moses and the plagues he brought upon Egypt. When the pharaoh refused to free the Israelites, the children--and adults in the congregation--bombarded him with rubber frogs, flies, crickets, and other objects as the successive plagues were announced. "It was a combination of scripture and The Rocky Horror Picture Show," said Perry. "We try to be playful, but in a serious way." The serious side involves a weekly food pantry open to the poor and homeless, adult education programs, and youth ministry, and other programs for the multiracial, multilingual community around the church are planned.

At this point Perry isn't much given to soul-searching. "There's so much more to do here," she says. She recognizes that women have a way to go in the Episcopal system, but believes that as parishioners encounter more female priests in leadership positions, the old hang-ups will disappear.

Yet few signs of such hang-ups remain at this church. "We're not thinking of Bonnie as a woman priest anymore," says McGeehan. "She's just a very good priest."

If the growth rate and vitality at All Saints were typical, the prospects for the Episcopal Church would be bright indeed. But nationally the church has been shrinking at an alarming rate for the past 30 years. Today there are fewer than 2.5 million Episcopalians in the United States, compared to 3.6 million in 1965. That's more than a 30 percent loss in 29 years. A Wall Street Journal article on the decline of mainline denominations was headlined, "The Episcopalian Goes the Way of the Dodo." When Pope John Paul visited Colorado last August, every moment of his stay received top media coverage. When George Carey, the archbishop of Canterbury and head of the worldwide Anglican communion, visited Colorado two months later, hardly anyone noticed.

The Episcopalian Diocese of Chicago, which includes almost the entire northern third of Illinois, claims 47,500 members, compared to 69,000 in 1972--a 31 percent decline in 22 years. By contrast, there are 2.1 million Catholics in the Archdiocese of Chicago, which includes only Cook and Lake counties. "We're very, very thin," admits Canon Gerdau.

However, Episcopalians are quick to argue that women priests aren't the big problem. Gerdau cites the sinking birthrate since the end of the baby boom as one factor in the decrease, along with the fact that the Episcopal Church is seen as a white, largely affluent institution. Also significant may be the appeal of Christian fundamentalist groups. Many people want the instant, no-nonsense answers to their spiritual questions that fundamentalists offer, says Gerdau; they're not content with the liberal theology of the Episcopal and other mainline churches, which insist that "there are no easy answers, that at the heart of faith lies mystery."

Mollie Williams says the drift away began during the civil rights and Vietnam eras, when old-time parishioners were turned off by the church's social activism. Then, she says, there was a major fracas in the late 1970s over efforts to modernize the language in the Book of Common Prayer, which is held in nearly sacred reverence within the Anglican Communion; many of those who resented such tampering with tradition simply left. And then there's the current wrangle over the ordination of gays and lesbians, which has alienated multitudes and caused considerable confusion among ordinary churchgoers. In West Chicago, for example, there are two separate Episcopal congregations, named Church of the Resurrection; one favors homosexual clergy, the other is opposed. In the context of these controversies, says Williams, the idea of women priests isn't so alienating.

Canon Gerdau is heartened by the fact that attendance at Episcopal services in the Chicago diocese has risen by 20 percent in the past ten years, despite the overall loss in members. "I think that's a more significant statistic," he says. "I am awestruck by the vitality of our churches in some areas, especially in the suburbs."

Vail predicts the arrival of women priests will in the long run revitalize the church. "Women have important relational gifts to offer," she observes, and they balance the gifts of men, who "tend to think in a more hierarchical way."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Paul L. Meredith.

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