Women who changed the Church

I now have many impressions of America and of the Episcopal Church after attending General Convention 2012 in Indianapolis, Indiana. One of the most striking is the way people are so positive, not only about their Christian faith, but about being members of the Episcopal Church. Time and again I’ve heard people say, ‘I love this Church.’ Maybe I move in the wrong circles at home but I don’t often hear that said in England (though I believe that people may feel it). Belonging to the Episcopal Church is not the religious default position as is the case with the Church of England. There are cradle Episcopalians, but most of the membership have chosen this Church as their home.

It would be easy for someone like me to idealise the Episcopal Church: it has women bishops – including Bishop Mary Gray-Reeves (pictured here – chair of the Ministry Committee that approved the trans non-discrimination resolutions); it has an openly gay bishop and an openly lesbian bishop; it is considering rites for same-sex blessings, and is also, we hope, about to give final approval to three transgender resolutions.

It’s important to remember, however, that it has taken the Episcopal Church over forty years to reach its current stage of inclusion. Women were not even vestry [PCC] members prior to the 1970s and only became Convention Deputies [Synod members] for the first time in 1976, but once the momentum for change started the ordination of women as deacons, priests, and subsequently bishops, happened relatively quickly followed by the inclusion of LGB and now T people, most of which, at some time, proved so controversial in the wider Anglican Communion.

These changes, and others, did not happen without a struggle, and one of the most prominent agents for change in the early days was Episcopal Church Women (ECW), which knocked repeatedly on the door of General Convention until women were finally able to take their place in every aspect of the Church’s life. Episcopal Church Women didn’t stop there in their campaigns for justice and inclusion but as is well known, some people, including dioceses, have been unable to accept more recent developments and left the Episcopal Church’s jurisdiction, While this is sad, it does means that those who are remain are more open to discuss the possibility of change.

The inevitability of change and how to ride it was the subject over yesterday’s breakfast at another organisation with very similar initials but a different constituency, the Episcopal Women’s Caucus (EWC), where we heard a presentation by Bonnie Anderson DD, president of the House of Deputies and a passionate advocate for lay ministry.

Even in the Episcopal Church, which not only has women bishops but a woman Presiding Bishop, Bonnie believed that the model of leadership was still too hierarchical and isolating of its leaders. In its place she recommended a circular model in which leadership moves around the circle of the community. Such a model is more time consuming and takes greater skill than the hierarchical model, but is more suited to the creative change and adaptive challenge necessary to prod the Church on from being a bureaucratic organisation and to become instead a life-giving movement. To resource this, Bonnie invited us to draw on reservoirs of courage – the subject of her sermon at Friday’s Eucharist – and the community of love.

Noting that creative change, and adaptive challenge, are often threatening to a power structure she advised, quoting Rabbi Edwin Friedman, that we consider strong resistance as applause, and reminded us that we should expect such resistance because baptism places every Christian in an ancestral line of wild people seeking to live in obedience to Jesus’ perverse ethic.

Her insights, which are also helpful to us as we continue our struggles for justice and inclusion for women, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people in the Church of England, were then beautifully illustrated by a film tribute to Marge Christie, self- described ‘Voluntary Lay Minister, now a sweet looking grandma, but in her time an agent for radical change in the Episcopal Church. I had the privilege of meeting Marge later in the day: within in minutes she was inviting me to participate in a women’s status event at the UN next March. You know what? I’d love to do that!

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