Saturday, November 11, 2006

In Memory of Her

I have been madly working on my novel today, having ignored it for three days. It's an amazing process, about which I will have to write when it's not midnight.

Tomorrow-- ok, later today-- I will be participating in a Presbytery Assembly, and I have been asked to make a few remarks on the celebrations my denomination has been having on the anniversaries of the ordination of women to the various offices of the church. Here you have my offering. Enjoy.

“In Memory of Her”
Mark 14:3-9
November 11, 2006

The story is a deceptively simple one. Jesus is reclining at table in a private home. A woman enters, carrying a container of ointment of nard, perfume worth the equivalent of nearly a year’s salary for a day laborer. Breaking open the jar, she pours the fragrant oil over Jesus’ head.

As so often happens when the unexpected occurs in polite company, brows are furrowed, curses are mumbled under the breath, accusations fly. It is fascinating that no one in the story names the elephant that has just been escorted into the room: this anointing is a potent symbol of Jesus’ status as prophet, priest, and king. The unnamed woman has just proclaimed, by prophetic action, that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, the Anointed One. Jesus staunchly defends the woman from her critics. He insists: she has done a good service for him. She has anointed his body beforehand for its burial. She has recognized both who he is and what the cost of his ministry will be. What she has done, he says, will not be forgotten, her extravagant gesture of love.

In 2005 and 2006 the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) sponsored a number of celebrations in honor of women who, like the unnamed woman in Mark’s story, did something prophetic and extravagant in the name of love. Just about 100 years ago, the first woman was ordained a Presbyterian deacon; about 75 years ago, the first woman was ordained a Presbyterian elder; and 50 years ago, the first woman was ordained a Presbyterian minister of Word and Sacrament.

The debate over whether to admit women to these offices raged for nearly 125 years, all told. In 1832 the General Assembly, in its first public statement on the question, sent a pastoral letter to the churches, stating the following:

Meetings of pious women by themselves, for conversation and prayer, whenever they can confidently be held, we entirely approve. But let not the inspired prohibitions of the great apostle to the Gentiles, as found in his epistles to the Corinthians and to Timothy, be violated. To teach and exhort, or to lead in prayer, in public and promiscuous assemblies, is clearly forbidden to women in the Holy Oracles. (General Assembly Minutes 1832:348)

While there was nothing wrong with women having religious and spiritual leanings, the GA said, they were best satisfied in the privacy of the home. They invoked Paul to back them up. Of course, they neglected to mention the numerous passages where the apostle names women who are fellow-workers with him in the spreading of the gospel. The position claimed in 1832 was overturned in 1906, when the United Presbyterian Church in North America permitted women deacons to be ordained. Twenty-six years later the presbyteries approved an amendment to the constitution allowing the ordination of women elders, and 49 years later, women were admitted to the ministry of Word and Sacrament. Hear now the words of the General Assembly from 1956:

God may endow women for service in his church today. Whom he will call, and how many, and when and where, we do not know. Only the Holy Spirit can say... Let us seek to avoid being in the position of making rules for our church which would prevent the Holy Spirit calling to service those whom He desires. (General Assembly Minutes, 1956:138,140)

Women were admitted to the last of these offices just 50 years ago, and the road to acceptance hasn’t always been smooth. Last year, attending one of our denomination’s celebrations in Chicago, I had the privilege of hearing Margaret Towner speak. Rev. Towner, our church’s first woman minister of Word and Sacrament, was ordained by the Cayuga-Syracuse Presbytery in 1956. Towner, a tiny and energetic woman whose towering spirit belies her size, talked about the pastors who favored her ordination corralling a key hold-out on the golf course and prevailing upon him to change his vote. The Holy Spirit works in mysterious ways. Sadly the church in which she was serving as minister of education at the time permitted her in the pulpit exactly once: to give a benediction on the Sunday after she was ordained.

Why tell these stories today, when women have clearly claimed their place in ministry, and the roof hasn’t fallen in, as an article Presbyterians Today put it? Well, for one reason, equality with men in ministry, especially for ministers of Word and Sacrament, is still an elusive goal. Though women are entering seminary at a rate greater than that of men, they are also leaving ministry at a rate greater than that of men. Women account for less than 20% of ministers of Word and Sacrament. Women are still a rarity in the pulpits of large churches, except as associates. Women are more likely to be associate pastors than men are, they remain associate pastors longer than men do, and they are more likely to be found in alternative ministries such as chaplaincy and campus ministry. Though we celebrate what has been achieved, we still strive for the time when we can be assured that the Holy Spirit has free reign in calling those whom God chooses to all ministries of the church.

Jesus’ response to the woman who anointed him encourages us to share stories of women in ministry. Jesus says, “Truly, I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her” (Mark 14:9). It is our commission, in each new generation, to share the stories of all those in ministry, all those disciples who have engaged in the work of proclaiming Jesus as Messiah to a broken world. Whom God will call, and how many, and when and where, we do not know. Only the Holy Spirit can say... Let us seek to avoid being in the position of making rules for our church, written or unwritten, which would prevent the Holy Spirit calling to service those whom God desires. Let us pray to be made willing, when God calls upon us, to do something extravagant for love. Amen.

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