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.