A Saint, an Abbot, and a Vicar…

…It sounds like the start of a bawdy joke. But honestly the only bar in this story is the one that has been raised, not one that purveys drinks.

Some housekeeping notes to start: I don’t tend to write extensively about my spirituality. I find spirituality to be a sensitive topic, and while I certainly don’t shy away from it in posts that deal with difficult topics, I don’t tend to try and impart my personal spirituality directly to others. There’s a basic reason for this, which is that I often feel like the least-qualified person to write ABOUT spirituality specifically. When I have tried to write specifically about spirituality, it often ends up feeling very flat to me.

This is why I was surprised recently to be invited to a writing group being put together by a pastor in Portland that I knew as a teenager and have interacted with (largely via Facebook) over the years since then. Pastor Marc has gathered such an interesting group of people that I couldn’t help but try to join in, as much to be a part of their conversation as for any specific insight I have to offer.

This week’s writing assignment is based on a sermon that Marc gave recently. The entire sermon is available here on youtube. The topic is actually something that I have always had an opinion on, and though I’m a couple of days late, this was a pretty easy topic to tackle. Marc’s topic, and the topic at the heart of this blog post, is the role of women in spiritual leadership.

As I’ve discussed before, I grew up in the Seventh-Day Adventist Church. I went to church every Saturday from the time I was born until I’d moved away for college, and I still went regularly until I was about thirty years old. Growing up, my dad was the Adult Sabbath School teacher from the time I can remember until…well, until he too stepped away from organized religion a couple of years ago. Honestly, my whole family was, and to a large extent still are, very actively involved in their local SDA Churches. Church participation and leadership are values that I’ve grown up with from both sides of my family.

When I was a teenager, I would spend summers with my grandparents working in their orchards in Wenatchee, Washington. We went over the bridge and up the hill to the Wenatchee Seventh-Day Adventist Church every week. Without fail. My grandpa believed that if you didn’t bother to get up for church on the Sabbath, you didn’t deserve to sleep under his roof on the weekdays. There were weekends that -after six grueling days in the orchards working my fingers to the bone- this topic “came up” on a Saturday morning, and let me tell you…I didn’t miss church.

One of those summers, something remarkable happened. My grandmother, who had a heart for organization and helping people, was nominated and voted as an elder of that church. Which, simply was not done. It was not done because, like many many christian denominations, the SDA Church has a position that says that women cannot be elders. Several people objected to the nomination, and they walked out immediately when the church voted in favor – with dark and angry looks upon their faces. It’s a scene in my mind that still plays out very ugly every time I think about it. It’s one of maybe a half-dozen memories of that church that really stands out, right up there with the day a few years later when I gave a eulogy for my grandmother in that same sanctuary, looking out over those same pews, and seeing some of the same faces.

The objection to women in spiritual leadership is basically divided into two lines of thought, as far as I can tell:

  1. There are a few verses in the New Testament that can be read as a prohibition of women in leadership.
  2. That allowing women to lead now would defy hundreds and hundreds of years of tradition simply to cater to cultural whims.

I have a Nestle-Aland Greek New Testament about five feet from the keyboard I’m typing on, and I spent many years learning koine greek for the express purpose of understanding passages like the ones relevant to the first point. But I’m not going to dig into that one because Marc did such an excellent job in his sermon and I really have nothing to add. To everything he says, let me add merely a humble layperson’s “ditto.”

Reason number two though…man…that one just GETS to me. And NOT in a good place.

So I’m going to focus on that one, and I’m going to do it essentially in reverse order to my life experiences. Let’s start with the church I currently identify with, the Roman Catholic Church.

The Catholic Church hasn’t got the best track-record when it comes to female leadership. And by “hasn’t got the best track-record” I of course mean “they have a completely dismal and almost pathological record of patriarchal abuse.” This is the church that has a controversy brewing over suppression of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) that only an organization looking to redirect focus from the last scandal would even think of charging into right now.

But it’s nuns getting uppity, and we simply can’t have that. Because women in the church have always been quiet and respectful and kept to themselves.

In other news, there’s a wonderful article on Whispers in the Loggia (a lay-catholic blog of singular quality) all about Saint Catherine of Siena who’s feast day was April 29th. In 1970 Pope Paul VI declared Saint Catherine a “Doctor of the Church,” which essentially means that she was not only a Saint, but one of the exceptionally rare teachers and writers who’s works are of unique value and instruction to the whole of the faith. Saint Catherine was a lot of things, but one thing she was not was quiet. And she did not keep to herself; in fact, she was known as the Scourge of the Hierarchs. A woman who wrote letters to the meek and the mighty, extolling the former and never afraid to call out the latter. Popes and Cardinals, Kings and Queens, she spoke boldly and unafraid to anyone the spirit moved her to address. These letters are now revered, and she is among the greatest teachers in all of Christianity.

Think about that for a moment. On the one hand, you have a woman who’s letters criticizing the male and female leaders of her church and the secular world are considered venerated teachings; and on the other you have a hierarchy that is actively suppressing a large body of women who are trying to lead out in the callings of charity and service and compassion. Suppressing them not because of their actions, but because they aren’t doing it “their way.”

It is so ridiculous that it should be funny, but it’s gone right over the line from comedy to tragedy.

It’s something I just don’t understand. In my own spiritual life I’ve been personally influenced by several women. Women who were leaders, and teachers, and impacted me in ways that I am still parsing almost a decade later…and in ways that I will probably be parsing for the rest of my life.

When I stepped away from the Adventist Church, I found my spiritual journey taking me down the path of Zen Buddhism. As a teenager I’d been very interested in Zen. I’d read books by Robert Aitken and Philip Kaplau and one of my favorites was by Charlotte Joko Beck. It was a little book called “Everyday Zen” and that’s exactly what it was about. Reading that book in high school had been like a mental puzzle. The concepts, the language, the meaning behind the words, it was all so inexplicable. Everything about it was just a bit past my ability to fully comprehend. I loved it, but I didn’t really understand it.

When I found myself spiritually adrift, it was Everyday Zen that I returned to…and for the first time everything clicked. I remember the day that I pulled out the phone-book and found my local zen center. I remember how extremely happy I was when I discovered that it was run by one of Charlotte Joko Beck’s primary students (that’s not a precise translation of Dharma Heir, but it’s close-ish) and was affiliated with her Ordinary Mind Zen School. I got to hear Beck Roshi give a talk in 2006, and I was at a Zen Retreat with another of her Dharma Heirs (also a woman).

In my years in the Zendo, I was a part of organizations run, led, and founded by women. Women were equal partners in every aspect of the Sangha (“Sangha” is the buddhist equivalent to the “body of the church” in the christian tradition, representing both the ordained leaders and the lay members). There was never a moment when the guidance, the inspiration, the teaching that I received would have been better if it had “come from a man.”

When people talk about how we can’t expect faith systems that originated in patriarchal cultures to change into more egalitarian structures, how it simply isn’t possible to maintain the purity of the faith if we change something so fundamental as the segregation of women from positions of authority…well, those people have never looked beyond their own church doors.

I can assure you that south-east asia 2600 years ago was as patriarchal as any place you can imagine, yet for the last half-of-a-century buddhism in america has seen women thrive in leadership. Love and compassion are universal, and leadership isn’t limited to testicles.

Which brings me to my last point, it’s not just buddhism that has placed women in positions of spiritual leadership.

In the late 90s, several years into my first marriage, my wife and I used to watch a lot of TV on the weekends because it rains a lot in Oregon and there’s not much to do on wet weekend evenings when you’re young and still being paid basically college-kid wages.

One Saturday night we happened upon a british comedy being broadcast on OPB. It was a funny little show called “The Vicar of Dibley” and it stared Dawn French as a female vicar assigned (much to the surprise of the local townspeople) to the small fictional village of Dibley. It was silly and funny and sometimes thoughtful all at the same time. It was based on the very real experiences of the first wave of female vicars after The Church of England authorized the ordination of women in 1992.

It’s a fun, and very british, little show you can watch on Netflix if you want to see funny anecdotes from a major shift in the spiritual landscape of one of the largest christian faith traditions on earth.

What that show is REALLY about is the fact that major, important, serious things can change. Because these things have always changed. Christianity today is not the Christianity of Jesus’s time. And that’s a good thing. By learning, and growing, and working together in the Spirit of the Lord we refine each other, we improve each other, we teach each other. Together we become better than what we were before. Paul’s epistles to the ancient churches aren’t about things they should keep the same; they are always about things that they need to learn, about things they need to change.

The church changed SO MUCH in the first hundred years after the calling of the disciples. From a jewish splinter group, to a discrete faith of jews and gentiles alike based in Rome and Alexandria and Corinth and Jerusalem; the Christian Church CHANGED. It must always look carefully, pray earnestly, learn from each other, and change into what it must become to continue to best represent Jesus and his message of love to the world at large.

The church should not ask half of her able leaders to sit quietly and cover their heads. Women are capable. Women are needed.

Saints and Doctors of the Church, Abbots and Roshis, Vicars and Bishops…women have proven in faith tradition after faith tradition that their contributions are worthy; and they have led since the very beginning of the Christian Faith.

There is much more detail in the sermon I linked above, and I honestly wish I could have been there to see it in person. I live thousands of miles from Bridge City Community Church in Portland, Oregon; but my heart is closer to their leaders and their spiritual fire than many other places I’ve worshiped. There are things about Christianity that challenge and frustrate me, it’s very encouraging to see people I respect changing things in ways I believe in.

5 thoughts on “A Saint, an Abbot, and a Vicar…

  1. Nicholas,
    I’m so happy you decided to join in the conversation, both in the group and here on your blog. Looking forward to getting to know you better. If this post is any indication, the conversation will be lively, humorous, and thoughtful.


  2. Love a great deal of this. I am not fimiliar with SDA other than knowing a kid in school who everyone thought was weird. I feel kinda bad about that now.
    You have an amazingly clear P.O.V. and it was a hoot to read your candid assessment of this topic. To much of it I say amen! (Oh- and anyone who loves British humor already scores major points -say you like Dr. Who and you gain a life-long fan!)

  3. Nick, this is great. The opening line is so rich, and “leadership isn’t limited to testicles!” Ha. You tackled a difficult topic with humor and heart. I really love it. And “Scourge of the Hierarchs!” What a great nickname. I need to learn more about that woman.

    With your varied experience, do you have a sense that women’s leadership is different in some way from men’s?

  4. Thanks all, I’m glad to be a part of the conversation!

    Dayna, Doctor Who has been one of my favorite shows since “my” Doctor (Tom Baker, the Fourth Doctor) first terrified me with his adventures on the Pirate Planet while I hid behind my parents naugahyde couch when I was six. Back a bit in the archives you’ll find posts that talk about my love for Doctor Who, the BBC in general, and London as a city.

    Marc, I’ve actually thought a lot about this, and I don’t think so. As a thought experiment, when I wrote about my trip to a silent Zen retreat I specifically avoided any pronouns when referring to or describing the Roshi. Many people were very surprised to realize that the Roshi in the story was a woman. I’d like to think that says something about the universalness of teaching ability.

    I’ve worked for, with, and managed women in my professional career, and I don’t really think there’s a significant difference in how women function in professional or spiritual situations versus men. Certainly every person is different, but I’ve not found gender to be something that dictates anything specific about the quality of leadership.

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