Women in Church Leadership
By Their Fruits

By Christine Schenk csj

I hesitated when I received an invitation from my long time friend to attend her diaconate ordination on the St. Lawrence River by the group RC WomenPriests. Was it a good idea to support what could be viewed as an “alternative church?” My mission is to work for change in the mainstream Church. On the other hand, if my friend had decided to be ordained in the Protestant communion, wouldn’t I attend out of love and a desire to support her?

So, on a blistering hot and humid July afternoon, I found myself boarding a ferry with 300 other stalwart souls. Spirits were high. The WOW conference the weekend before had seen energetic networking and passionate arguments about whether or not ordination automatically conferred a “patriarchal mindset.” Most felt not, but it was good to be reminded that we want empowering leaders as our priests, not “princes of the Church.” Women who had fought vehemently only the day before now tearfully embraced, as nine colorfully robed ordinands processed onto our 21st century ark. Surrounded by family and friends as well as TV cameras and photographers, they would pledge a new covenant to God and to us. We were there to witness and celebrate their commitment.

Maybe it was the haunting, powerful chant of the Algonquin song leader reminding us that the Great Spirit hovered over these waters. Or perhaps it was the blue sky and sparkling sea, that gently ushered us into a sacred space that no humidity could destroy, no pushy press photographer diminish.

“As a woman’s waters must break to bring forth new life, we pray that our action on these waters will bring forth new life in our Mother, the Church,” intoned Pat Fresan, one of three ordaining bishops who shared equally in ritual responsibilities. The liturgy was reverent, powerful and not really all that different from ordinations I’ve attended elsewhere. The language was more inclusive, but hymns were conventional and much beloved: “Here I Am Lord, Deep Within, Song of the Body of Christ, You Are Mine. Only the recessional, Carolyn McDade’s Sister, Carry On, touched into the feminist inclinations of many present.

But, I reflected, this isn’t about feminism. It is about a God who calls whom S/he will to serve a diverse and hungry people: “Behold I can make Children of Abraham from these very stones,” said Jesus, responding to the religious leaders of his own time who were intent on defining who was in and who was out of the family of God.

It was clear to me, that these women, who have theological training and demonstrated pastoral experience, love God and long to serve the Church. If it is true, as Scripture says, that “by their fruits you will know them,” should we judge this new movement before seeing what fruit it will bear and what meaning it might have for us? The Spirit sends diverse gifts to the Church. While this might not be a way I would choose for change to happen, who am I to limit the Spirit?

Disembarking I felt new assurance that God will, in the fullness of time, part the seas of institutional rejection. Faith can make new paths appear even in the dreariest of deserts. Paths for bringing bread and blessing, peace and penitence to a wandering people. O Great Spirit, listen to our plea!