A worthy celebration that never happened

Published November 1, 2001

I celebrate myself, and sing myself,

And what I assume you shall assume,

For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

Walt Whitman

Whitman, the quintessential self-promoter, was good at “singing” himself. For us Canadian Anglicans, celebration and singing of self is not something we do especially well, even when we have ample cause to. Sometimes, our recalcitrance can have a certain charm to it like that of a performance by a child musician at the Kiwanis festival that is so brilliant that all eyes are downcast in disbelief. Sometimes, it can be irritating, and yet other times, it can border on the shameful.

By the time this edition of the Journal reaches most subscribers, it will have been 25 years almost to the day since the Anglican Church of Canada ordained its first women priests. You must be forgiven if you did not know that. The church, inexplicably, has been all but silent about it, and in that silence it has missed a golden opportunity, in these dark days, to celebrate something amply worth singing about. A planned and deliberate celebration of 25 years of women in ordained ministry, as befits the importance of the event, might have given us something to feel proud about – a moment of joy in stark contrast to the mood engendered by ever recurring reminiscences of our role in residential schools. That celebration never happened and it is an opportunity shamefully missed.

True, there was a mention of the anniversary at General Synod, but it was scarcely a mention and it came too late in the nine-day gathering for an appropriately celebratory mood to swell up. (In contrast, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, which is celebrating the same anniversary and which met concurrently to General Synod, held a special banquet to honor its first women clergy.)

True, the 25th anniversary of the ordination of Anglican women is on the agenda at this month’s meeting of the House of Bishops – 30 minutes devoted to it on the penultimate of a four-day gathering. True, a notice went up on the Web site a few weeks ago, inviting parishes to communicate to Faith Worship and Ministry staff anything they are doing to note the occasion. But that’s all there was. “Tell us what you are doing.” Not a hint of what, if anything, General Synod might contemplate to mark the event, and the whole thing so muted that it might as well have been a simple survey to some unstated end rather than an invitation to participate in something worth applauding.

To assess the impact of women in ministry in the Canadian Anglican Church is a remarkably intuitive affair. There are plenty of numbers that testify to their importance and to the varied roles women have played. They have demonstrably swollen the rolls in theological schools. Women in parishes are no longer a novelty, and if the welcome that women priests get in different dioceses throughout the country still varies a little bit, it can at least be said that all the dioceses, even the most conservative, have ordained them. (The last was Fredericton in 1991.)

But the story is a lot more than numbers. Allowing half of sexual humanity into the previously hallowed male ranks of clergy has changed the tone of this church from top to bottom. The contributions that women have made to the priesthood and to everything that flows from that is difficult to assess, simply because it is immeasurable.

It is true, as the Anglican Journal noted in an article last month, that women have yet to make the inroads they should in the upper echelons of the church. There has yet to be a woman primate. There has yet to be a woman metropolitan. And there are only two women sitting in the House of Bishops, although the number of those qualified to do so are legion.

When organizations take steps, even monumental, steps that are so logical and so progressive that the vacuum that is consequently filled seems in no time at all never to have existed, it is tempting for subsequent generations to downplay the importance of the change. It is tempting to write history as though it had always been thus. It is tempting, too, to forget the mood and the Holy Spirit breath that led the organization through a portal that thereafter closed forever with no possibility of return. Such times deserve commemoration whether the joy they create is instinctive or not.

Once upon a time in our church, there were no women priests and no women bishops and that was a church, to those of us who love it today, that was incalculably poorer than the one we now know. When the time came for us to move forward, the church was sensitive to the pressures and public notoriety that might well fall on a person identifiable as “the first.” And so it was that on Nov. 30, 1976, six women were ordained almost simultaneously, in four different dioceses:

In Cariboo, Patricia Reed;

In Huron, Mary Mills;

In New Westminster, Elspeth Alley and Virginia Briant;

In Niagara, Mary Lucas and Beverley Shanley.

We had six “firsts.”

At the time of this writing, it was still too early to see how much response there was to Faith Worship and Ministry’s invitation to “individuals, parishes and dioceses to share with the rest of the church what they are doing to celebrate the 25th anniversary of women in the priesthood.” It is to be hoped however that the responses were plentiful at the local level. Because from the national church, from General Synod, there was virtually nothing.


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