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Women must form alliances for mission and transformation, conference told

By Mary Frances Schjonberg

The Rev. Angela Ifill, Episcopal Church Black Ministries Missioner   

House of Deputies president Bonnie Anderson  

[Episcopal News Service]  Panelists and participants at an October 4 session of the "Imagine: Claiming & Empowering Ordained Women's Leadership" conference agreed that women need to stand together and create alliances across perceived boundaries in order to move in the Episcopal Church's leadership positions and transform the Church.

The conference is the first church-wide gathering of ordained women in the 32 years since women were admitted to the orders of priest and bishop. The conference, which also includes some lay presenters, runs until October 6 at the Kanuga Conference Center in Hendersonville, North Carolina.

Presenters at the session included Bonnie Anderson, president of the House of Deputies; Bob Cowperthwaite, rector of St. Paul's Church in Franklin, Tennessee, and a member of the Executive Council's Committee on the Status of Women; Angela Ifill, the Episcopal Church's missioner for black ministries; and Jennifer Linman, a priest serving at Church of the Epiphany in New York City.

Ifill urged the participants to keep searching for the commonalities they hold with other.

"It's hard to 'dis' someone -- it's hard to not want a relationship with someone -- if you share some little commonality because in order to be nasty to one another, in order to be ugly with one another, we have to set the other up in a very awful way," she said.

She also said that people seeking solidarities and alliances must always be aware of the nuances of language and customs that often need to be clarified.

Cowperthwaite said his "awakening" came 25 years ago in New York City while working at Bellevue Hospital when he saw the food tray of an AIDS patient being left on the floor at his door. The man could not eat unless someone was willing to pick up the tray, bring it to him and help him eat.

"I realized then that if privileged do not stand with oppressed, all the prayers in the world won't change things. They cannot be expected to fight their own battles, whoever they may be," he said.

He said that women must build alliances not just among themselves but with others who are concerned about issues in the institutional church such as compensation, language and leadership. "These are not just women's issues," he said.

"We do want to work together to move our church forward so that you can continue to change us with the different qualities and styles and all the wonderful things you have brought to us and will continue to bring," Cowperthwaite said. "We know we need you, so I hope you will use us."

Anderson said lay women and clergy women must build alliances. "I think we have missed opportunities that are right before our eyes in the Episcopal Church to advocate for each other and to stick up for each other," she said.

"We can nominate each other for diocesan offices and get people out there in those situations and take our places in the governance of the church," she said. "It takes work. It takes relationships. It's a relational piece of our ministry."

Linman, who has been ordained four years, warned that issues of gender equity must be set in a larger context.

"If we had a House of Bishops that was 50-50 men and women, and cardinal rectorships in the United States were 50-50 men and women, but we hadn't achieved the Millennium Development Goals and we weren't joining in prayer every week and we weren't caring for our congregations and baptizing new Christians, that would not be the vision of the church that I wanted, even though there was gender equity, even though perhaps there was racial equity," she said to loud applause.

Linman said she belongs to a group of young women assistant priests where the members can share their struggles.

"The difference between that and our clericus is the difference between sharing and bragging," she said. "That we're actually sharing stories because we input and we want ideas. I can talk about where I am failing in ministry and not just about where I am being successful in what I want other people to know."

Out of that group, she said, came the idea to present names of women for positions on New York diocesan council and standing committee. "It's friendships that are producing actions that hopefully are going to have the effect of changing the church," she said.

Thus, solidarity and alliances do already exist in the church, participants said, and others are forming at the conference.

There has been much talk at the conference about the need to elect more women to the episcopate. Of the roughly 311 bishops eligible to sit in the House of Bishops, 13 are women. Prior to the conference, Margaret Rose, director of the Episcopal Church's Office of Women's Ministries, said one of its goals was to encourage women to transform the House of Bishops.

Bishop Carolyn Tanner Irish of Utah told a panel earlier in the day that the solidarity among those women has changed as their numbers have grown. "We're as diverse as any 13 men would be. We don't necessarily hang out together," she said, noting that when fewer women were in the House of Bishops they tended to band together more closely.

The women bishops do gather at least once during every House of Bishops meeting, she said, and "confront hard issues."

When it came time to nominate bishops to serve as the 26th Presiding Bishop, the group of women bishops acted together, according to Bishop Suffragan Catherine Roskam of New York.

"We agreed that every eligible woman should run, so we divided up the names and nominated each other," she said.

Irish, a member of the nominating committee, nominated Nevada Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, who was elected to the nine-year office at the 75th General Convention in June.

During her presentation, Anderson said that, while she knows a lot of incredible male priests, "I never nominate them for bishop. Other people are doing that. I always put in the names of women priests for bishop if they want that to happen."

At the Imagine conference, so-called "affinity groups" have formed. Roskam and Bishop Suffragan Nedi Rivera of Olympia and the conference's chaplain, offered to meet with any ordained woman standing for election as a bishop or who feels called to that office. Among the other groups of ordained women meeting over lunch and at other times are priests who are mothers, those whose spouse or partner is ordained, deacons and younger clergy, both in terms of chronological age and time since ordination.

The latter group made a presentation to the entire conference October 4. They thanked the older participants for the stories they had told of their lives and career paths, and told them that they themselves "needed to find a way for us to share our experiences and stories with the other generations of women here without dismissing [the other generations'] stories."

Carla Roland Guzman, a priest on staff at the Church of St. Matthew and St. Timothy in New York City, read the statement, which acknowledged a "disconnect at times" with the activities and spirituality in some of the conference sessions.

  • "In an attempt to then celebrate the women and the stories on whose shoulders and struggles we stand," the group invited cross-generation conversation in four areas:
  •  "We understand the struggle that you have endured with the structure of the Church, and we know how you have changed the institutional church as well. All of us greatly appreciate these efforts. In many ways, the new structures you helped bring about have affirmed our call to ministry."
  •  "We need your wisdom in navigating the daily challenges of ministry. In the sharing of our stories, we would love to hear from you how you have tackled similar issues in your ministry."
  •  "One thing we share in common is that we have all experienced being dismissed. How do we talk about this, gain support from each other and strengthen our ministry?"
  •  "Because of you and your ministry, we have been given the freedom to focus on an outward global vision, which we share with you. How can we all unite around the Millennium Development Goals?"

At the end of the day on October 4, the conference participants accepted an invitation from the Province 4 annual assembly and retreat of the Order of the Daughters of the King to attend the group's evening social hour. The order is also meeting at Kanuga.

A significant portion of the conference is being devoted to the concept of peer coaching. Some participants arrived a day and a half early to receive basic training in peer coaching on career and leadership issues. The majority of the participants have been engaged in that process during part of each day.

-- The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is national correspondent for the Episcopal News Service.