Just a few minutes ago, I was chatting with the organizer of the retreat at which I am presenting workshops. We were discussing a mutual friend who is supposed to be at the retreat but hasn't arrived yet. I say that maybe she isn't coming and the retreat organizer says, "No, she has to be here because she's leading Holy Communion." Then she adds, "Not that there aren't plenty of priests here but (she lowers her voice) I really wanted a woman."
I hear that a lot these days. Recently, a man in my own denomination (state level) contacted me and asked me to be part of a panel at an upcoming meeting. He named two very accomplished male ministers who had already agreed to serve on the panel and then said, "But we really want a woman." That wasn't the reason I declined but it made it easier.
I can't even describe how ambivalent I feel about this. I can remember what C used to call "the angry years," when I was studying theology and ethics and pastoral care in seminary with the full awareness that there would not be jobs waiting for me when I graduated, when men approached me in the halls (not often but more than once) and demanded that I defend my right to be there, when I constantly reminded myself that things change, that the arc of history is toward justice, that it would get better.
And it did. Not in my denomination, which, on the national level even more rigidly excludes women in ministry than it did when I was a seminary student, but certainly in the Church at large. It was about 9 years ago that a group in my denomination invited me to speak at one of their events and then uninvited me when they discovered that I was ordained. I thought that meant that I needed to stop hoping for a public ministry, a pastoral ministry, and just be happy with what I was "allowed" to do, ministering to clients in the safe space of my office.
I could not have been more wrong. The chances have come faster than I can take them. Like Lucy in the candy factory, there have been more opportunities, more affirmation, more ministry, more adventures than I could ever hold, coming faster than I could ever imagine. Everywhere I go, women are wearing clerical collars, holding important positions, leading worship, running meetings. They are not oddities or novelties; it is taken for granted that they will be there and that they should be. It feels like a miracle.
So now it seems the tables have turned. I feared (and experienced) not having opportunities because I was female; now, I often realize that I am being given opportunities because I am female. Even though I don't always know how to feel about that, it's also true that I celebrate this with everything in me. My heart sometimes sings, sometimes grumps, "It's about time!" Not just for me but for all the women who are so gifted and so called and so effective. We are part of the future of the Church and it's lovely.
Much of this has happened because some men in power have decided to share their power and have made it a priority to welcome women to what was previously a "no girls allowed" clubhouse. I've been the beneficiary of such grace by my male colleagues and it always feels empowering and deeply meaningful. At the same time, more women have had the courage to continue to work for and even create opportunities for ministry, no matter what anyone else said they could or couldn't do. I am deeply indebted to them.
I have recently been blessed to be in ministry contexts where gender no longer really matters, or maybe it matters but it doesn't define anything. In those settings, it no longer has serious political meaning and men and women work together in healthy, mutually affirming ways. Then I remember that I was right all those years ago: things did change and they are getting better and there's no turning back.