Silence enveloped the audience.
Spotlights focused as curtains opened.
Three women strolled to centre stage.
A ripple of applause echoed around the theatre.
“I’m the daughter,” crooned the youngest.
“I’m the mother,” declared the next youngest.
“I’m the grandmother,” proclaimed the oldest.
More than 300 eyes waited, with bated breath, for more.
“I’m your church’s first ordained deacon,” yelled the daughter.
“I’m your church’s first ordained priest,” roared the mother.
“I’m your church’s first ordained bishop,” hollered the grandmother.
Ballistic cheering, whooping, and clapping erupted.
Dressed in their appropriately tailored symbolic attires, the three women raised their hands, indicating their desire for total silence.
Then the familiar musical introduction brought the crowd to its collective feet … They knew what was coming.
“I am woman, hear me roar,” Helen Reddy belted out from the speakers.
The year was 1986, and the place was the auditorium of Bishop Field School,
St. John’s, N.L. On this occasion, the 150th anniversary of St. Thomas’ Parish (the most easterly Anglican parish in Canada), these three women, as they lip-synched the words and danced to the music, were heralding a turning point in church history.
Helen’s words brought together the yearning and struggles of women—men too—who had prayed for, fought for, and finally achieved equality within a church tradition dominated by males since time immemorial.
Fourteen years after Helen Reddy penned her rallying lyrics, the female deacon, priest and bishop actors reflected the truths being embodied throughout the world. Because women around the world were now “in numbers too big to ignore,” they knew “too much to go back and pretend” and they were tired of always being “on the floor.” They had gained wisdom “born of pain,” had “paid the price” and now they could face anything. They may bend but would never break: “I am woman, I am strong, I am invincible.”
The deafening roar that vibrated throughout the theatre that winter evening released decades of pent-up expectations and emotions. To me, sitting in the audience, it seemed an “at-one-ness moment.” It called to my mind the line from Phillips Brooks’s 1868 “O Little Town of Bethlehem”: “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”
Approximately 20 years before our three women stepped onto that school’s performance stage, I was ordained a deacon at 23 years of age and attended my first synod. The several hundred lay people and clergy from all parishes throughout Newfoundland and Labrador were discussing, for the first time, whether women should be ordained as priests in God’s church. When the moment arrived to vote on the motion, I stood in support. Looking around the room, I noted that a retired priest was also standing in favour of women priests. I thought, “Fantastic, a newly minted deacon and an aged priest who has served the church for decades both agree that women should be ordained as priests.”
The ordination of women was fiercely debated during my years at university and seminary in the 1960s.
At Queen’s College in Newfoundland, we published an annual magazine known simply as Q. One student—male, like all the rest of us seminarians—submitted an article exploring the question of whether women should be ordained to the sacred ministry. Unfortunately, he forgot to check his spelling—this was long before the days of auto proofing—and the title appeared on his submission as, “Should Women Be Ordained to the Scared Ministry?”
The editorial committee, of which I was a member, decided to leave the headline as submitted without any corrections. At publication, amidst hearty laughter and generous admiration, we hailed our student prophet’s foresight as he rightly predicted, in his own way, that many males in the sacred priesthood would be scared of the prospect of women being ordained priests. Indeed, some male priests cloistered themselves inside their ecclesiastical towers (figuratively or literally), and trembled with scared, sacred qualms as they contemplated the vague possibility that females would finally be equal to males in the ordained hierarchy of the church.
The Rev. Margery Pezzack, the first woman ordained a priest in the diocese of Toronto, experienced their holy wrath firsthand. At her ordination service in 1977, when the bishop asked if anyone objected to her being ordained, a group mostly of males stood and voiced their opposition. The bishop listened, acknowledged their viewpoint and continued with the history-making ordination.
Margery and I ministered together when I became rector of the parish of St. John’s York Mills, Toronto, in 1990. Although retired, she continued to serve her God there in leading worship and ministering to God’s people.
I asked her how the male clergy treated her in those early days. She said some were very supportive but added that sometimes at clergy conferences participants would move to another table when she tried to join them for lunch. I inquired about her reaction to such unchristian behaviour and with a twinkle in her eye, she smiled and said, “I continue to love them until they begin to like me.”
“I am woman, hear me roar.” Margery roared loudly.
At that dramatic presentation on a theatre stage in 1986, the three women represented what was and what was to come. The daughter represented the first female deacon in the Anglican Church of Canada, ordained in 1969, and the mother symbolized the first female priest, ordained in 1976. The grandmother was foretelling the future; in 1994 the church would ordain its first female bishop, and it elected its first female primate in 2019.
During the early days when the ordination of women in the Anglican Church of Canada was being hotly debated, I put forward one of my rationales for a yes vote. I told those attending a conference, “If I were rector of a church looking for an associate priest and interviewed two candidates, a female and male, who were identical in skills, talents, attitudes, personalities, experience, etc., I would select the female priest, because, as a woman, she would bring a dimension of ministry that I could never possess.”
I continued, “Our ministries would be complementing each other, we would be more diversified, and we would be providing more effective choices for those requiring counselling, especially those who would feel more comfortable and at home with a female priest.”
I believed it then … And believe it even more today.
My ministry and life have been enriched, enhanced, and uplifted by the many woman priests with whom I have had the honour and privilege to serve God and God’s people.
I have heard the roar many times.
Let the roaring keep soaring to even greater heights.