A Heart Shaped by Philippians

The central question regarding the ordination of women to the priesthood is not one of logical argument but of the condition of the heart. The traditional Church has not and does not recognize the ordination of women to the priesthood. However, it recognizes a myriad of other roles for women in the life of the Body. 

One has only to open the rich tradition of the Lives of the Saints and the history of the Church to see the many ways in which women have served the Lord and His Body, beginning, of course, with Mary the Theotokos, her cousin Elizabeth and the Holy Myrrh-bearing women to whom the Lord first chose to appear following His Resurrection.

Women have served as evangelists, teachers, pastors, mothers, intercessors, Holy Fools, martyrs, deaconesses, rulers of nations, theologians, apologists, abbesses, contemplatives and too many other ways to name. None of this service required them to consecrate the Holy Eucharist, an element of our corporate life strictly reserved for those set aside in the Sacred Order of Priests. 

There is a large segment of the Anglican Church in North America and beyond for whom the male priesthood remains an absolute, bedrock principle of the good order of the Holy Catholic Church. This is true for biblical reasons and because of the historic Tradition of the One, Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.

I have great sympathy with those women whom the Lord has called to ministry and feel that this call includes becoming a priest. Serving at the altar of our Lord to consecrate and administer the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ for the nourishment and strengthening of the Bride of Christ gathered at the Supper of the Lamb, is good in and of itself. However, the moving forward with this perceived call by my sisters in Christ and their supporters in the Church has torn asunder the Body of Christ and strained the bonds of fellowship deeply. It has rendered the universality of ordination to the priesthood incoherent as their orders are not recognized by neighboring dioceses. 

These sisters in Christ have the potential to offer a gift of enormous proportions to the Anglican Church in North America and even perhaps to the larger and sorely wounded Body of Christ throughout the world. They could voluntarily lay down their desire for ordination to the priesthood, trusting that the Lord will honor their very real sacrifice of a good thing. 

I can only share my own experience of this blessing with them in the hopes that it might offer a glimpse of the possibility that their own walk with the Lord could take should they choose to follow a different path. 

In 1996, as a junior in college, I was praying in the Princeton University Chapel one evening and had a vision of myself serving at the altar as a priest. This was a joyful vision and one that guided my life, confirmed, it seemed, by many other people within the church and by signs from the Lord. Following a path to bring this vision to reality, I served the Lord in a parish and went through the discernment process in the Episcopal Diocese of El Camino Real, ultimately attending seminary in the fall of 2000 at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley, California. 

I loved seminary. Studying was pure joy. Serving in the Chapel was a blessing to my heart and soul. The ordination process could not have been smoother, until the summer of 2003. That summer the cataclysm of General Convention 2003 washed over the Episcopal Church in which I was so contentedly serving. Both the diocese in which I was confirmed, New Jersey, and the diocese that sent me to seminary, El Camino Real, were part of the large portion of the Episcopal Church that had fully accepted liberal, progressive theology and the revised understanding of human sexuality which came with it. Having grown up in an extremely liberal, non-Christian household dedicated to progressive political views, this theological and intellectual environment suited me just fine. In fact, the whole notion of orthodox Christian belief and morality was disconcerting at best.

In June of 2003 on the Feast of Saint Irenaeus of Lyons, I was ordained to the transitional diaconate, with my ordination to the priesthood scheduled the following year during my final year of seminary. It was in taking my vows as a deacon that the first significant twinges of conscience regarding ordination and the good order of the church began. 

One of the vows I took was to “be loyal to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of Christ as this Church has received them.”  In making that vow it occurred to me that I did not truly know what the doctrine or discipline of Christ fully meant, having not spent as much time studying them as perhaps I should. That summer I began a journey which continues to this day, to fully learn and come under obedience to the doctrine and discipline of Christ as revealed in Holy Scripture and Holy Tradition.

In the Fall of 2003 I returned for a fourth year of seminary to complete a Masters of Arts in Religion with a concentration in Ethics and Social Theory, having already graduated with a Masters of Divinity. The focus of my Masters thesis was a review of the published documents from the Lambeth Conferences through 1998 concerning human sexuality, entitled “Lambeth, Tradition, and Sex.” 

As I watched the tumultuous events of that summer and read through the various arguments in favor of the recognition of homosexual unions and a redefinition of marriage, I came to the uncomfortable realization that the arguments in support of changing the understanding of Holy Orders to allow for the ordination of women to the priesthood were ultimately similar to those in favor of changes in the understanding of human sexuality. Both required a dropping of the long standing biblical interpretative tradition, an abandonment of the traditional imagery found in Holy Scripture on the matter at hand and a cutting off of the contemporary Church from the Holy Tradition. And importantly, both changes tear at the fabric of the Church, wounding the Body of Christ by impairing its unity. 

As 2003 passed and the early months of 2004 opened, this impairment of unity came more and more to haunt me and ultimately the Holy Spirit convicted me. I sought counsel from my bishop, the Rt. Rev. Richard Shimpfky and from fellow classmates and professors. They had little to offer. In truth, they were bewildered by my questions and dilemma, being so immersed in a church and theology that dismissed the unity of the Body of Christ in favor of individual notions of call and discernment.

One question remained utmost in my mind: How could I stand before the Lord knowing that I had chosen deliberately and with forethought to wound his Body and stand in the way of the unity for which He prayed so fervently before His crucifixion in the high priestly prayer of John 17? I could not.

I was angry. I was scared. I was embarrassed. I had spent seven years and over sixty thousand dollars of my parents’ money in order to pursue this vision which the Lord had given to me. Had I discerned incorrectly? What about the confirmation received from my parish and Commission on Ministry and Bishop? They were not wrong about my call to ministry nor my call to seminary study. They were only wrong about the need for ordination to the priesthood in order to carry out that ministry. 

A significant difficulty they faced, and I faced before choosing to step away from a path to ordination to the priesthood, was a narrow understanding of the power and breadth of lay ministry both in the history of the church and the contemporary world. What ultimately came to me was that the Lord indeed desired to use my gifts for the good of the Body and that whatever He asked of me would never require ordination to the priesthood. That has, thus far, been true. He has asked me to teach, provide pastoral care, and administer a parish and diocesan ministries – none of them requiring that I undertake acts reserved to priesthood. 

When I laid down the idea of proceeding with my scheduled ordination to the priesthood, I was pretty bold. I told the Lord that if He was going to ask me to lay this down He had better give me something pretty good in its place. Due entirely to His grace and mercy, He did. Of course. Not long after making this decision and going to my Bishop to cancel my ordination, three weeks before it was scheduled, I found a book entitled “Mothers of the Saints” which set me off on the course I am now following as a homeschooling mother of five, presbytera in my parish and deacon serving as I am called.

Only once did I truly regret that decision. When my husband was first ordained to the priesthood and began to tell of the wonder and awe he experienced while presiding at the Holy Eucharist I was seized with a jolt of envy that was so deep I was shocked. It had been over two years since I had renounced that path towards the altar and I had not experienced regret. That moment I did. I also knew that it could kill my marriage if my husband could not share a central part of his life, serving as priest, without my experiencing such envy. I asked the Lord to heal my heart. He did. Of course.

This healing was not instantaneous. I consider myself blessed to have been prevented from moving very far down the path of ordination because there was less hurt from which to recover. Had I tasted that good thing for which I thought I longed, serving at the Holy Eucharist, I imagine it would have been more difficult to leave it behind. I also remain cautious about serving liturgically in my capacity as a deacon. Though I do serve when needed by my parish or the Body of Christ because no other option is available, I do so reluctantly. 

Unity within the Body matters deeply, not least because our Lord prayed for that unity before His death. Unity gives coherence to our Christian witness to the world. Unity keeps us on the solid ground of the Gospel. Unity allows us to love one another. 

Unity also requires the sacrifice of individual desires. Such sacrifice does not annihilate our individual selves. Rather, like all sacrifice, it shapes them into obedient servants of the Lord who seek His good rather than our own. 

My sisters in Christ we have an opportunity to sacrifice a good thing – service at our Lord’s altar and as a steward of the sacraments – in order to bring healing to the Body of Christ. By laying down this element of ministry, imagine the unity which could be returned to the Body. Be not afraid. Any and all ministry to which the Lord calls can still be fulfilled. Any and all grief at this loss can be healed. Imagine the witness that such a sacrifice would offer to the Church.

Let us take heart from the words of St. Paul in his Letter to the Philippians: 

So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any incentive of love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.  Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves.  Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.  Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus,  who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.  And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.  Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth,  and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:1-11)

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