I am not an obstacle to Christian unity

October 12th, 2016

As those who frequently read my writings on this site know, I write a lot about gender issues and the church, what it is like to be a woman in ministry, and the challenges and joys I face along the way. Living in a geographical context dominated by the more conservative evangelical strains of Christianity, I have grown somewhat accustomed to being challenged on my calling to leadership in the church, to preach and teach, yes, even men. I’ve had 1 Timothy 2:12 quoted at me more times than I can count as proof of what the Bible “clearly says,” despite the fact that the Episcopal Church has been ordaining women to the priesthood for forty years.

If the Anglican Church began as a via media, a middle way, between Geneva and Rome, then there are also disagreements with the Roman Catholic Church. My personal sensibilities lean more towards Rome with regard to sacramental theology and liturgy. In a heavily Church of Christ and Southern Baptist area of the country, I consider my Roman Catholic brothers and sisters allies of sorts.

So it stings a little bit more when documents like this past week’s Common Declaration of Pope Francis and Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby view my ordination, and the ordination of women generally, as an obstacle to be overcome, an impediment, in discussions of church unity. Like, we could fully realize Jesus’ vision that “they all may be one” if it weren’t for those uppity women and “questions regarding human sexuality.”

Even with Pope Francis’ willingness to convene a commission to study women’s ordination to the diaconate, I frequently find myself wondering if my Roman Catholic in-laws or even some of my friends view my ordination as invalid or even dangerous. Either I’m just playing church as a small child does or I’m an active threat to Christian unity across Churches. As one commenter put it, the road to full communion between the Anglican and Roman Catholic Churches “will have obstacles created by Satan,” by which, I suppose, he means my calling, ordination, and ministry are of the devil himself.

My own bishop, The Right Reverend John C. Bauerschmidt, was present and involved at these discussions and was commissioned by the Pope and Archbishop of Canterbury along with his Roman Catholic partner, the Auxiliary Bishop of Baltimore, Dennis Madden. Though I have experienced him as supportive of my ministry and particularly dedicated to Anglican-Roman Catholic dialogue, I doubt he experiences the same woundedness that I do by hearing my ordination called an obstacle to Christian unity.

I, too, pray for the unity of the Church, that we may realize Jesus’ prayer. And I believe that these are important steps forward — to be able to worship, minister and dialogue together in the name of Christ. I celebrate being part of a denomination with a commitment to ecumenism despite our many theological differences across the Body of Christ. I am grateful that the Episcopal Church is in full communion with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, provinces of the Moravian Church in America, and others, and that there are groups in dialogue about full communion with the United Methodist Church. But at what cost must we achieve unity?

As wiser people than I have said, instead of naming the ordination of women and attitudes towards diverse expressions of human sexuality as obstacles to common mission and ministry, perhaps we should name a lack of compassion and acceptance towards our fellow Christians. We are not “impediments,” but are people lovingly created and called by God into the Body of Christ. Instead of blaming women’s ordination, maybe the impediment to Christian unity should be named as “men-only” ordination.

Yes, we should absolutely pursue Christian unity, but we must be careful with how we talk about our disagreements, particularly when the “disagreements” are people. I firmly believe that the Episcopal Church and other denominations that ordain women have been blessed by the fullness of gifts and talents that all who are called bring to the ministry. I have heard stories from colleagues about Roman Catholic clergy on the ground who have been supportive and inclusive in recognizing their ministry and calling, but the language from the top is still disappointing. My calling, my ministry and the ordained ministry of my other female colleagues is not a problem to be solved but a gift to be celebrated.

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