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Iowa priest ordained in unusual locale–a prison

By Nancy Morton
031203-2
12/3/2003

ENS photo by Nancy Morton
Anne Williams signs the declaration of faith and obedience. (l to r) Eric Johnson, deacon, St. John’s, Dubuque, Bishop Alan Scarfe and Chuck Lake, deacon, Trinity, Waterloo.    (ENS photo by Nancy Morton)

 
ENS photo by Nancy Morton
Anne Williams being examined by Bishop Alan Scarfe in front of congregation of inmates and invited guests.    (ENS photo by Nancy Morton)

 
ENS photo by Nancy Morton
Entrance to 131-year old Anamosa State Penitentiary of local stone quarried and built with convict labor. Iowa’s largest prison currently holds around 1200 adult male felons.    (ENS photo by Nancy Morton)

 
[Episcopal News Service]  When Bishop Alan Scarfe came to Anamosa, Iowa on November 23 to ordain Anne Moats Williams to the priesthood, he went to the State Penitentiary instead of St. Mark's Episcopal Church.

Although Williams is a long-time resident of the town and member of St. Mark's, the congregation from which she was called to the priesthood is incarcerated. She knows other Episcopal clergy serve in prisons, but she believes hers is not only the first ordination "inside the walls," but also among the first where inmates were part of the discernment process.

The ordination of the five-foot one-inch tall, red-haired grandmother took place in the prison chapel, a large hall with folding chairs for 65 men and 30 visitors. The altar stood in the center of a raised platform. A long, slender cross hung on the wall behind it with a piano and organ at stage right.

As the procession formed, three singers and the organist, all inmates, took their places for the opening hymn. An inmate read the Old Testament lesson and the organist chanted the litany. Later in the service another prisoner sang the "Lord's Prayer."

Door of the heart

During his homily, Scarfe walked down into the congregation to talk about God's unfailing and love and forgiveness and to describe what a priest is and does. He began with his own experience as a fifteen-year old hearing at a youth group that Jesus loved him and was knocking at the door of his heart. The door's handle was on the inside.
 
 "All I had to do was open the door and Christ would come in. I did and he did." The bishop noted that it took him a while to make connections with a sacramental religion, but gradually, "I found something in the Eucharist beyond words-Christ's presence around me and in others."

 "Anne, as your priest," he explained, "is a symbol of Christ's presence among you. As you take the bread and wine offered at communion, you are receiving Christ's presence within you. The priest offers reconciliation, forgiveness, a new beginning and blessing. Anne is called to recognize Christ's presence in you to reconcile, forgive and be a blessing to each other."

A sea of hands

The moment of consecration was especially moving. As Williams knelt before the bishop, clergy and members of her discernment team, Scarfe beckoned her congregation to join in the laying on of hands. About a dozen of the inmates came forward. Soon the only thing visible was the tip of the bishop's red miter above the sea of hands stretching forward.

John Harper, a deacon at New Song Church in Coralville, was among the visitors. After the service he wrote to his fellow deacons, "The power of the Spirit was as palpable to me in that moment as in just about any moment in memory. The Church is not just about serving people at the margins but about making them fellow ministers, full members in the body of Christ. That image will live with me a long, long time."
 
After the ordination the visitors moved to St. Mark's to join members and wellwishers for a reception and celebration of a new ministry. Although Williams' primary responsibilities are at the prison, where she leads Bible study, will offer counseling and take her place on the rota of prison Sunday services, she was installed that same day as vicar of St. Mark's.

For Williams at 56 the term "local priest" means being prepared within the diocese for sacramental ministry in a specific locale. Attending seminary was not required.
She has had an active ministry as a laywoman both at St Mark's and as diocesan coordinator, trainer and active mentor for (EFM), the Education for Ministry program of the School of Theology at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee.

Discernment in prison

Until seven years ago she never visited the prison even though the 131-year-old, maximum-security facility sits just off Main Street in the heart of her hometown. Then, she was invited to accompany a team of Episcopalians engaged in prison ministry.

 From time to time over the years Williams confides that she has thought about being ordained but she said, " I could never visualize myself in full-time parish work." In this very different setting, however, the call resurfaced.
 
With Christ Church in nearby Cedar Rapids as her sponsor, a discernment team was formed with people from Anamosa, including an inmate, along with a hospital chaplain, a deacon experienced in prison work and members of Christ Church who are active in their Jubilee Center. The group met once inside the prison.

The Commission on Ministry recognized Williams' call and set about her formation with seminary-trained clergy as mentors, course work available through the diocese, and clinical pastoral education at a hospital within commuting distance from home. She was ordained to the transitional diaconate six months ago.

 The mentoring continues as do ministry support teams both at the penitentiary and at St. Mark's. Local and locale merge in new ministry for a new priest.