Vocational and Pastoral Aspects
From Yes To Women Priests
by Mary Michael Simpson
edited by Bishop Hugh Montifiore
Published 1978 by Mayhew-McCrimmon Ltd
in association with A. R. Mowbray & Co. Ltd
Republished on our website with the necessary permissions
The Episcopal Church was a joy and wonder to me when I discovered it as a senior in college and was confirmed. Upon graduation, I said, ‘If I had been a man, I would have gone to seminary and become a priest.’ At that point, in the mid-1940s, I did not question the system. It was obvious to me that I was not a man, and therefore could not become a priest. I did not even ask ‘Why can’t I?’
I wanted to study theology, and not only the priesthood, but even episcopal seminaries were closed to women. I talked with my bishop, who had me confer with a deaconess who worked in the diocese, and I soon found myself on the way to the New York Training School for Deaconesses and Other Church Workers, where I spent the next two years.
Of those who were in school with me at that time, none became deaconesses. Some of us joined religious orders, some married clergy, some found being an ‘Other Church Worker’ so unsatisfactory they went into secular occupations. So far as I know, I am the only one of the group who has finally been ordained to the priesthood, and I am wondering how many priestly vocations were thus lost.
I spent three years as a professional church worker first as the assistant to a college chaplain, and then as a foreign missionary. It was from the depths of the African bush that I felt God was calling me to be a nun. When my tour ended, I went back home and entered the Order of St Helena as a postulant.
The religious life, as it then was, approached priesthood as closely as was possible for women at that time. Theologically educated women have complained, and justifiably so, that any snippet of a girl could put on a habit and get more recognition and respect than a lay woman could earn with all her degrees and accomplishments.
Although ours was a non-sacramental ministry, and thus ‘lay’ as compared with ordained, sisters were recognizably professional in the church, and thus were not ‘lay’ in another sense. We spoke in parishes at the principal services, carefully avoiding the pulpit. We gave addresses’ rather than ‘sermons’ and joked about being haunted by St Paul for speaking in the church. The religious habit made us seen as official representatives of the church, so that on trains and planes we often heard confessions, though were denied the power to give absolution.
In the late 1960’s I found myself Novice Director and Vocations Director of the Order of St Helena. Among aspirants to the Order were young women who also felt that they had a vocation to the priesthood. To be able to relate to them and help them in their vocational quest, I began trying to work through from a biblical and theological standpoint the whole question of women’s ordination. My reading and thinking led me to the conclusion that there was no barrier to the ordination of women; it just had not been done. I experienced a bittersweet response to this conclusion, composed of joy that it would soon be possible, and regret that it had not come a quarter of a century sooner, in time for me.
Having decided that ordination was acceptable for women in general, I had yet to decide whether or not it was for me. I was in my forties, settled into my vocation as a Religious for twenty years. On the other hand, the Holy Spirit seemed to be inspiring second vocations in many quarters and the results were creative and exciting. I could probably count on at least twenty years in which to exercise a priestly ministry. By the summer of 1973, I had decided that God was indeed calling me to the priesthood, and had probably been doing so for many years. And once I believed that, I could make but one response: I decided to go ahead.
The Order of St Helena had set up a procedure by which life professed sisters could apply for permission to seek ordination to the diaconate, so I obtained that permission and began the process of seeking ordination through regular diocesan channels just before the General Convention met in Louisville, Kentucky in the Fall of 1973. I went to that General Convention convinced of my vocation to the priesthood and assuming that the church would validate what ‘seemed good to the Holy Spirit -and to me’. It did not.
Only after the failure in the House of Deputies in Louisville did I begin actively working for the ordination of women. I began serving on committees and panels, taking speaking engagements on the subject, along with my continuing progress towards ordination to the diaconate. And opportunities were plentiful … National Task Force on Women, Diocesan Committee on the Ordination of Women, Episcopal Women’s Caucus, etc.
About three months after the Louisville General Convention I attended a national meeting of women who were aspiring to priesthood, and it was a revelation to me. It was my first experience of being in a group of women who had been working for ten years or more to fulfill their vocation, and were very tired; and others who, like me, were more recently on the scene and enthusiastic and ready to engage in the struggle. At that meeting the mantle of responsibility passed from the one to the other from those who had borne the burden and heat of the day to others who were latecomers into the vineyard: One of the joys of relating to these women has been involvement in a group where there was growing respect and love for one another under one overriding goal, but many different ways of approaching it.
July 29, 1974 was a watershed in the movement for the acceptance of women priests. On that day in ,Philadelphia, Pa., four bishops ordained eleven women to the priesthood, amid much joy, anguish, and controversy. I was not present. Being only a candidate for Holy Orders, I could not be invited to be ordained. As I was scheduled for surgery that day, I was spared making the decision whether or not to attend. But had it been otherwise, I suspect I would have stayed away. It seemed to me that what was happening was a grave mistake disobedience, which could only cause us all trouble. Speculation of ‘what if’ is fruitless, but I now see what happened quite differently. I believe it was obedience to conscience informed by the Holy Spirit, that the opposition to women’s ordination was so deep that all approaches were necessary, and that without it I would probably still be a deacon hoping for ordination to the priesthood. I owe my debt to the courageous women and bishops who took part in that ordination.
I was ordained to the diaconate by the Rt Rev. J. Stuart Wetmore, Suffragan Bishop of New York, in December, 1974, and was amazed at the impact it had on me. I had been in the ‘inner circles’ of the church so long that I had no starry-eyed idealism about the clergy, and yet here, as at my Life Profession and later at my ordination to the priesthood, there was a tremendous uplift, a sense of rightness between me and God and his world.
Immediately after ordination, I joined the staff of the Cathedral Church of St John the Divine, where I have a liturgical and pastoral ministry. I was at that time a student in pastoral counselling I had realized earlier that people were coming to me with problems for which I was not prepared; I needed more skills. I studied for four years at the Westchester Institute for Training in Counselling and Psychotherapy, from which I graduated in June 1976, just seven months before ordination to the priesthood.
We all approached the 1976 General Convention with apprehension – those of us who wanted women to be ordained were afraid it would fail again, and those who did not want it were afraid it would pass. I joined a group called ‘Talk-it-out: Check-it-out’ sponsored jointly by the Episcopal Women’s Caucus and the Committee for the Apostolic Ministry-a conservative group which opposed women’s ordination, but said they would not leave the church no matter what happened. The purpose of this operation was to squelch rumours and allow people to talk about how they felt about what was going on. It also served the purpose of allowing those who disagreed on so much to work together for the common good.
On the day of the fateful vote in the House of Deputies; after all the debate, Dr John Coburn, President of the House, called for a time of silence, and asked that there be no public display when the vote was announced. The silence was intense, and after the announcement of the decision, was broken only by an occasional sob or sigh. The Archbishop of Canterbury was there, and with this decision made, urged us on to the bringing in of the kingdom.
It was a difficult time in some ways, because in spite of our joy we were conscious of those who were suffering. The priest who had presented me for confirmation was one of the speakers against women’s ordination at the Convention. Some of my own Sisters were opposed, though once the church approved, none of them would have tried to prevent me from fulfilling my vocation. In fact, three members of the Order are now priests. It seems to me that we were giving more compassion than we had received three years before, but perhaps that was because we knew what it felt like, and were more able to empathize.
Once back home, the Diocesan Bishop of New York, the Rt Rev. Paul Moore, Jr met with the women deacons of his diocese to plan for the long-awaited ordinations which could be set for January, 1977. He found that each of us wanted to be ordained where we were ministering instead of in one great and glorious ceremony. So he began working many ordinations in the bishops’ schedules instead of just one. January was a busy month, with each of us trying to get to as many ordinations as possible of those to whom we had become close in recent years.
I was ordained priest on January 9, 1977, thirty-one years after making the statement with which I opened this paper. This was the first time Bishop Moore had ordained a woman, and he had put so much of himself into making this possible, as he had with other causes in which he believed over the years, that he was obviously moved. He spoke of the fact that this was the first nun in the history of the whole church to be ordained to the priesthood, and what that meant in terms of bringing different strands, of history together. He also recognized Carter Heyward as priest of the diocese in good standing, and spoke of all they had been through together before and after the Philadelphia ordination.
Next morning celebrating the eucharist for the first time, I thought of St Augustine’s phrase ‘ever ancient and ever new’. The same words, the same action I had experienced with other celebrants day after day over the years was suddenly gloriously new. A friend who had never before participated in a eucharist with a woman celebrant said ‘Well, it was the Mass and what was all the fuss about?’ That is a reaction I have heard in other words, many times since.
I have gone on celebrating the eucharist at the cathedral on a regular basis, and at other places when I have been invited. I consider this one of the most important aspects of my ministry, and not only because of the centrality of the eucharist to the faith. I believe the time for talking about women’s ordination has passed, that people will be converted by our Lord himself as they receive him in the eucharist at the hands of a woman, and it is important to provide an opportunity for that conversion.
To bring my own vocational story up to date, I was installed on October 9, 1977 as Canon Residentiary of the Cathedral of St John the Divine, with the title ‘Canon Counsellor’ and the responsibility for all the counselling services offered by the Cathedral. I had the feeling at that time that all the different strands of my life were converging – the theological and the spiritual and the psychological – to make it .possible for me to do the work which God has prepared for me to walk in.
What it Feels Like
Next to the question ‘What do you call a woman priest?’ I am most often asked ‘What does it feel like to be a woman and a priest?’ This is asked by men who are priests, by women who are not, and by laymen who are neither. At first glance that seems to be a question which is analysable into two: What is it like to be a woman? and What is it like to be a priest? But there is a third which is implied, and which is often what is really meant: What does it feel like to be in such a controversial position?
Volumes have been written through the women’s movement about what it means in today’s world to be a woman who knows herself to be a person, made in God’s image, and yet facing prejudices and discrimination which become more and more intolerable to her as her consciousness is raised. Unfortunately, the church is not free from the attitudes which taint our society in this regard. So this is one element of what it feels like.
For example, the American House of Bishops meeting in Florida recently issued a pastoral letter containing a so-called ‘Conscience Clause’ which stated that no bishop would be forced to ordain a woman, and nobody would be in jeopardy for refusing to recognize the ministry of ordained women. While freedom of conscience is a right, and the statement really contains nothing new, many of us are keenly aware that the House of Bishops, has not felt it appropriate to issue such a statement in regard to other groups-Male priests, Black priests, Hispanic priests, Oriental priests, or Gay priests.
Becoming a priest is indescribably wonderful. Perhaps it is particularly true of along-delayed vocation that there is a sense of ‘coming home’, of ‘this is where I should be’, of having found my seat in life. Since it is a spiritual home, it brings with it a security that comes with having one’s treasures where ‘neither moth nor rust doth corrupt and where thieves cannot break through and steal’. God’s grace and bounty is suddenly showered forth, and I had a sense that never before had I known such joy and fulfilment. Though it is difficult to communicate feelings of this sort, I would assume that something like this is more or less universal in regard to being ordained priest, and not just true of women.
I have tried to separate the two questions above, but neither I nor anybody else can possibly know what it will be like to be a priest who happens also to be a woman once all the furore has died down. Indeed, some of it has died down now. I am in one sense ‘second generation’. My life as a priest is different, much calmer, than that of the women who were ordained in Philadelphia in 1974. But now, in the first year of officially recognized ordinations of women, it still means living very much as a symbol. That opens one to all the projections of people’s feelings about women, about authority, about motherhood, about sexuality, and a whole list of other things. There are people who love me and people who hate me without ever seeing me.
For example, on the day I am writing this, one of the letters which arrived in the morning mail was from an unknown priest in a distant part of the country. It read, in part: ‘Sister, please don’t delude yourself that you have been ordained into the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. The 1976 General Convention is a Pan Protestant body which is just one in a long series of steps catering to the whims of heretical priests . and bishops. But God will have His day! Maranatha.’ The same mail brought a carbon of a letter to the editor of a national church magazine referring to me as ‘abusive and abrasive’ for my statement that it is those who gathered in St Louis to form a new church who bear the responsibility for schism, rather than the ordained women. And there are letters which are just as unrealistic on the positive side.
Now, I believe none of this, and am not unduly worried by it. But woe betide the person who internalizes all this and identifies with her role. In the above cases, she would doubt the validity of her ordination, as well as her intention to be courteous to those with whom she differs. In general, such a person would be in continual flux from the heights to the depths of depression. So it is necessary, while accepting that one is a ‘priest forever after the order of Melchizedek’ to separate oneself out and maintain enough distance not to personalize people’s reactions to the ordination of women.
Impact on those to whom I minister
In my understanding of theology, since priesthood is a supernatural gift from God, it is not dependent on the gender of the person being ordained, any more than it is on the personality, education, mental health or any other quality. The people I baptize, marry, communicate or absolve, receive exactly the same sacraments as though they had been baptized, married, communicated, or absolved by any other human being who has been ordained, and in that sense, it really doesn’t. matter.
This supernatural view of ordination has, of course, tremendous implications for the church in its decision-making process about whether or not to ordain women. If we were a social club, we would have a right to decide whom we would authorize to function for us. On the other hand, if ordination is God’s gift of which he had made his church the repository, we bestow it on whomever he has called, and withhold it from such at our peril.
I believe that because we as women have had a different experience from men, priests who are women have a special contribution to make to the well-being of women and children. And not only to them. Each human being has a feminine as well as a masculine nature. Along a vast spectrum, some of us have more femininity and some more masculinity. Priests who are women can speak to that feminine nature in a way that is different from other priests.
Because of our past experience, some of us relate better to women and some to men. Thus, there is a positive as well as a negative aspect to what I was saying in the previous section about the tendency to project onto priests who are women all our feelings from the past about women, authority, etc. As one priest said after he had come to me to make his confession: ‘Once you get over the hang-up about telling your mother of your sexual misdeeds, it can be very helpful.’
The congregation at the midweek eucharist at the cathedral at which I am the celebrant is growing. It is composed not only of radicals, or only of women, but of people to whom it is important, and I believe some of them are at that particular celebration because I am a woman. When I am away, they come up after my return and say they missed me and ask where I was last week. And many people – men as well as women – say that though they themselves don’t want to be ordained, it means so much to them to have me at the altar. ‘It means that the church really accepts me – I’m not a second-class citizen.’
In ministering as a priest, as in any of the so-called helping professions, my primary tool is myself. From that point of view, every aspect of who I am is important -that I have a certain personality, education, experience, certain interests and abilities—and that I am a woman.
A whole priesthood
One of the organizations working for the ordination of women at the General Convention in Minneapolis in 1976 had a button which read ‘Celebrate a whole Priesthood’. And I believe that is the issue. The church has coped for almost 2,000 years with a priesthood the candidates for which were selected from only one half of the human race. The church, and the world were not ready. Perhaps this is one of the multitude of things our Lord meant when he said ‘I have many things to tell you, but you cannot bear them now’.. It makes one wonder what is yet to be told.
A book which appeared some years ago by Caryll Houselander was entitled The Reed of God – It compared Mary, the Mother of Jesus, to a hollow reed of the sort children use for making whistles. God the Holy Spirit could blow through her as he would. She was the instrument of communication between God and his world. The same phrase, I think, could be applied to priests. As representatives of his church, we are to be instruments of communication between God and the rest of humanity. We are to be symbols of the Holy. This is a tremendous and awesome responsibility – the realization that people judge not only the church but God himself by what his priests are.
From the time of the patriarchs of the Old Testament right up till the present the symbolism has been male, though we know intellectually that since all that is good is contained within God, it is impossible for God to be male any more than female, and insofar as one is contained within the Godhead, so is the other. It is all very well to say that the masculine term is generic and includes the feminine, but it is true that the way we talk affects the way we think.
The qualities we associate with masculinity are power, wisdom, justice, etc. In spite of the fact that these qualities are balanced by their opposites in the scholarly theological tomes, the popular image of God has remained the old man with a long white beard -sitting on a throne in heaven. When the symbolism for God is totally male, many begin to think of the stern judge who is just but lacking in sympathy, distant, and even cruel. Understanding of the meaning of ‘Father’ will depend to some extent on one’s own experience, but the hunger for the feminine, for ‘Mother’, remains. There are a number of ways of meeting this hunger, of attempting to correct the distortion in understanding which is created by a one-sided symbolism. The one found in the Middle Ages was to exalt Mary to the position of Mediatrix, to soften the dealings of God with us and plead our cause.
Even today there are many who speak of ‘Holy Mother Church’. Granted that this may be partially accounted for by a neurotic desire to see ourselves as children and be taken care of, it may also be a genuine sign of our need for the feminine in our symbolism. And of course, the other is the current demand for a whole priesthood – one composed of women as well as of men. There are no role-models for the women who have come into the priesthood, so it is a wondrous and awesome thing to feel one’s way along strange paths, and an equally wondrous thing to realize that for the generations of young women yet to grow up, we will be the role-models, that a new option will be added for them, now that we have a whole priesthood.
I feel especially blessed in my present position in having a part in acting out this symbol of the whole priesthood. It is less possible where one is working in isolation, but where a group of clergy work together as a team, all different aspects of humanity can be represented. I am the only woman priest on the staff of the cathedral, but my brother priests represent a variety which is a microcosm of the Body of Christ. Among us there are Black and Hispanic priests as well as Caucasian. And the different forms of expertise contained within the Chapter make it possible for us to have a ‘whole’ priesthood with which to minister to those who come to the cathedral.
Ministering to the whole person
The compartmentalization of life today is notorious, with the field of expertise any one person can have ever narrowing. For social and biological reasons most women have developed a holistic and practical attitude towards life as opposed to one that is specialized and abstract. Running a home and raising a family demands that one be to some extent a jack of all trades, and social pressures have kept the most lucrative fields of specialization closed to women until recently. Through the ages in the pain of childbirth, through dealing with personal problems which arise at every stage in the lives of loved ones, and finally through the care of the sick and dying, women have had an opportunity to centre in on all that is individual and deeply human This human dimension is one that is sorely needed it our technological age of computerized decisions and mass organization.
My own ministry is currently pointing in this direction With the help of a group of specialists in the fields of psychiatry, psychology, social work, pastoral counselling and psychiatric nursing, I am trying to establish at the Cathedral of St John the Divine a Pastoral Counselling Centre. This will deal with the person individually and in groups in the situation in which he finds himself in today’s world with all his existential problems – his loneliness, alienation, and confusion about his identity and future path. It will provide him with a Christian ministry of healing, some Christian answers and light along the path. The ‘cure of souls’ is the church’s business; perhaps we can help restore it to the central place it once had. The Church can do this in a way that cannot be done by those lacking in Christian motivation. And women can add a dimension to this effort.
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