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A woman under those robes

Overslept this morning and missed church — the old frame is having a time of it adjusting to the new 3:00-p.m.-1:00-a.m., Tuesday-Saturday work schedule. So today’s post is going to be a rambling ecclesiastical indulgence. If you’re not churchy, please feel free to amuse yourself elsewhere. I recommend Carol Fisher Saller’s sound advice for copy editors or Nancy Friedman’s splendid little rant against the Hanes “lay flat collar tee.”

A week ago I was the thurifer* at the service in which a fellow parishioner, Cristina Paglinauan, was ordained a deacon in the Episcopal Church. I smoked up the joint properly, and it was quite gratifying.

The Rev. Ms. Paglinauan was one of three women so ordained that day, and it is notable that women have joined the ranks of Episcopal clergy in great numbers over the past thirty-five years. I was present at Grace Church, Syracuse, when the Rev. Betty Bone Schiess, one of the eleven women “irregularly” ordained priests in 1974, presided at her first public Eucharist. She was among the first of many to come.

The path has not been easy. The bishop of the Diocese of Central New York briefly inhibited the Rev. Walter Welsh, rector of Grace Church, from functioning as a priest because he had countenanced this “irregular” liturgy. More recently, the Most Rev. Katharine Jefforts Schori, the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church (an archbishop in all but name) was instructed by the Archbishop of Canterbury not to wear a miter during a service in London. The subsequent kerfuffle has been called “mitergate.”

The Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev. Dr. Rowan Williams, has a difficult time of it. Not only is Presiding Bishop Schori a woman (more of this later), but her branch of the Anglican Communion has had the temerity not only to ordain and consecrate women as bishops, but openly gay clergy as well. This does not sit well with many in the Church of England, and particularly with the more patriarchal and homophobic members of the Anglican Communion.

Jane Kramer’s New Yorker article “A Canterbury Tale” describes the tensions as the Church of England inches toward women bishops itself. A Tory peer who favors women bishops is quoted as saying, “I thought I’d heard everything until one of the Forward in Faith people ... stood up one day and said, ‘Can you imagine my pain if I have to kneel at the altar with a woman’s body under those robes!’ Those people have treated the women in their church terribly.”  

So, you see, the archbishop has to cope with a significant number of priests whose views are deeply held, sincere, and fatuous.

It is painful to see the Anglican Church, which ought to devote at least some of its attention to the poor, the sick, and the powerless — that is, to follow the Founder’s instructions — tying itself in knots over whether women and gay people are fully human beings. But I also think I have seen, over the past thirty-five years, the direction of the arc.


*The thurifer is the person who wields the thurible, or censer. Both words derive from the Latin thuribulum, which in turn comes from the Greek thuos or “sacrifice” and fer, “bearing.” The ceremonial use of incense in the liturgy is one of Christianity’s many borrowings from pagan custom; in Rome incense was carried before civic officials on state occasions. Its function, Marion Hatchett writes in his Commentary on the American Prayer Book, is “honorific, fumigatory, and festive.” It also smells nice.


Posted by John McIntyre at 11:50 AM | | Comments (14)


My pastors (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) are a married couple! The ban on female clergy was one of the main reasons I left my former antediluvian denomination of Missouri Synod Lutherans. OTOH, thurifers are one reason I could never be an Episcopalian. I had one of my worst asthma attacks ever at a Christmas Eve service at the All Saints' convent in Catonsville (at that time still Episcopalian, but that is an entirely different column). [[gotta love the captcha "after swines" is swines even a proper word?]]

John, if staying away from church for a day resulted in your producing this essay, your absence was for the good.

If you change the names, titles, and other personal details, the same general tale is true of a number of other denominations — they obsess over the question of who God should accept, diverting their energy from doing God's work.

After all, those who truly follow the Founder take seriously his comment on beams and motes — which in effect told us that we should contemplate and work on our own sins, not the sins we believe to exist in others.

Is the reverend lady's name really Scheiss, or is that a typo (an extremely unfortunate one, if you know any German) for Schiess?

My unfortunate typo, now fixed.

‘Can you imagine my pain if I have to kneel at the altar with a woman’s body under those robes!’

Hmm, does this person spend a lot of time thinking of his priests' body under their robes? Perhaps his fellow congregants could take pity, band together and buy him a closet to come out of?

I'm not religious myself, so I find some of the terminology interesting, if a little mystifying. What's the origin of "most" in "Most Reverend", for instance? And are there any "Rather Rev." subordinates lurking somewhere in the Anglican organizational charts?

Here's a link to an explanation of Episcopal titles:

I believe that since the Archbishop of Canterbury is also a member of the House of Lords, Rowan Williams can also be styled "the Right Hon. and Most Rev." No doubt someone more familiar with the peerage can confirm that.

Other than to reveal the meaning of "thurifer" to the heathen, and to misuse the word "homophobic" yet again, I see little reason in the above column save to wave JEM's views about politics and religion - again. Back to language, please. (And I still find the Rev Schiess irritating, obnoxious and self-congratulatory." Time hath not changed, nor custom etc.")

@Patricia the Terse,

It seems Brother McIntyre gave adequate warning about the nature of this column in the first paragraph, even to the point of providing alternative reading material. As I am not an episcopalian, I found the entire piece to be an offering of linguistic insights.

btw, how was the word "homophobic" misused?

P the T, I'm sure it is not your intent to come off as tedious.

I further direct PtheT to the marquee on Mr McIntyre's blog. This morning's posting seems be one of the "arbitrarily chosen subjects."

@Laura Lee

I think PtheT was referring to the tired "fact" that "homophobia" incorporates a reference to fear... something to which those who dislike Gay folk are VERY reluctant to admit.

Thank you, BankStreet, I think you're explanation veers close to the truth. After reviewing Merriam-Webster, I'm reminded that the suffix "-phobia" contains nuances beyond the simple translation of fear. Deriving from the Greek '-phobos' fear, flight, from 'phebesthai' to flee.
1. exaggerated fear of
2. intolerance or aversion for

Also, "-phobic" : lacking affinity for

Mr McIntyre

The 'Right Hon.' derives not from membership of the Lords, but of the Privy Council. 'Titles and Forms of Addresss' (A & C Black, London, 21st edition, 2002) gives the style of address for the Archbishop of Canterbury as:

The Most Rev. and Right Hon. the Lord Archbishop of Canterbury.

(Incense makes me sneeze.)

I found your post just superb especially the line that states, ‘Can you imagine my pain if I have...' . Robes looks excellent and embellishes the entire environment. Wow, very impressing post!

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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