What Motherhood and Ecumenism Have in Common

“There are practical obstacles to women during intervals of pregnancy, giving birth and nursing, of which the female employees usually take extensive leave from their employment. Being occupied in priestly work may cause complete negligence in the role of a housewife and in rearing of children.”

I am a woman, a mother, and an ordained minister.

I have also been deeply involved with the work of ecumenism for nearly twenty-five years.

There are two main areas of ecumenical work. The first is the work that different churches and traditions can do together as Christians witnessing to our shared faith – work on justice issues, social issues, and mission. This work has often been referred to as the “life and work” side of the ecumenical movement.

The second area focuses on working together to overcome the doctrinal and structural divisions that separate us from one another. There are considerable theological differences between different traditions about how we understand the meaning of communion/eucharist, for example. There are also considerable differences about how we understand the practice of ministry, specifically, who can be ordained to serve as ministers in the church.

For me, the theological differences that prevent us from being able to share the cup and the bread together are painful markers of the ongoing divisions among Christians. But when it comes to the issue of ordination and ministry – as an ordained woman, the division is not only painful, it is personal.

While the ordination of women may seem commonplace to many from the Protestant-wing of Christianity – particularly younger generations; the exclusion of women from the priesthood within the Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions, as well as in many conservative Evangelical traditions means that my embodied female priestly reality is a tremendous threat to many outside of my normal circles of acquaintance.

While clergy collars aren’t worn as a matter of course in my tradition, I bought one a couple of months ago, almost fifteen years after my ordination precisely because the visible signs of women’s ordination challenge the established patriarchal power structures of many strands of Christianity. I wore it for the first time last week at the Faith and Order Commission meeting where official representatives of Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Protestant traditions met together to discuss the theological and moral issues that divide our churches.

It was at this meeting that the document containing the words above was circulated by one member of Commission. To a group of forty-five people that includes twelve ordained women who were sent to the Commission as official representatives of their churches.

Since the purpose of the Commission is to gather representatives of different Christian traditions and denominations together to discuss the issues that divide us, clearly I am aware that my status as an ordained woman is a point of theological contention in the room. However, questioning my integrity as a wife and a mother based on my ecclesial status is an egregious action that lacks either grace or hospitality. And it certainly lacked the respect due me as a child of God, a sister in Christ, and the official representative of the Presbyterian Church (USA), regardless of my ecclesial status.

While the life and work side of ecumenism feeds my soul and allows me to live into my calling as a child of God committed to seeking God’s justice in the world, the faith and order side requires a great deal of patience.

As I have written elsewhere, my experience as a mother is an ongoing spiritual practice of patience that informs my ecumenical work with faith and order. Motherhood has offered me the daily opportunity to practice patience and to focus on the long-term value of the moral, spiritual, and practical formation of children. Motherhood and practicing patience have prepared me for the ecumenical work of faith and order where cultural, social, ecclesial, and theological differences clash and collide in challenging and trying ways.

In this work, my task is to keep my eye on the long-term goal of Christian unity and to remember the importance of sitting in a room as a clergywoman, wearing my collar, as a witness to and in solidarity with my ordained clergy sisters around the world and the women who feel called to ordained ministry but are refused by their traditions.

As many ordained women already know, my roles as woman, wife, mother, and ordained minister are complementary, not incommensurable. My experience of being a woman and a mother have meant that I have come to know God and my faith in different ways than the Oriental Orthodox Metropolitan who wrote the words quoted above.

But, he and I both know God and God knows us. God knows and honors him in his priesthood, his celibate maleness, in his role as spiritual leader of his people. Just as God knows and honors me in my priesthood, my generative and fecund femaleness, and my role as teacher and minister of the Word and Sacrament.

On my way to this meeting, I asked my facebook friends to hold me and the work of the Commission in prayer during our meetings. I have prayed for patience, listening, respect, and openness to guide our work together. I thank God for the many faithful people who gathered together in Romania to listen to one another and open ourselves to work of the Holy Spirit among us.

While it is true that the historic Councils of the Church did not include women (as far as we know), thanks be to God that they do now, that many of us are also ordained, and that some of us are mothers as well.

7 thoughts on “What Motherhood and Ecumenism Have in Common

  1. If only we actually had that “extensive” leave after giving birth! I had two weeks, shorter than some people’s vacations. But to your larger point, I want to thank you for your commitment to and presence in this ecumenical work. Just last week I was listening to an interview with Sister Simone Campbell who had been meditating on the body of Christ, wondering what part of the body she was. She finally decided she was stomach acid. I like that. Those of us who are pushing for inclusion and challenging the status quo serve a critical function in the body of Christ.

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    1. Ha!! Yes, Katey, I agree. At one point in the meeting a woman from Sweden commented that standard maternity leave is 18 months!!! Can you imagine?? I’m not sure how I feel about what part of the body of Christ I am, but have been reflecting a lot lately on how my identity and experience as a woman reveals the sacred to me in different ways than it does for men.

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  2. I grew up in the ELCA so the ordination of women was never a question for me, it just was. This was true even though I grew up in the south and my closest Christian friends were all Southern Baptists.

    I’m embarrassed to admit this, but it’s only recently that I have come to understand how pervasive prejudice against women is in the church (as a whole).

    I wonder if the priest who offered the paragraph you quoted supports the ordination of men with families? Is it okay that ordained men are pulled away from their families so often in the course of their work? Does it not impact a family when the father works too much?

    I’m glad to have found your blog. I look forward to reading what you write and praying for you on your journey.

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  3. I’m glad you found my blog too! Nice to hear from you. In most Orthodox traditions, priests may marry but they must marry before they are ordained. I have heard that this leads to desperate seminarians trolling the streets for wives the closer their ordination day gets! BUT, if you wish to move up the hierarchy, you must remain unmarried.

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  4. Thank you Toddie for sharing this reflection that resonates with me, not as a mother, but as an ordained woman serving in the ecumenical arena. During one of my first meetings as a member of the WCC Commission on Orthodox Participation in the WCC, I learned that there were three areas of concern– worship/liturgy, decision making, and ethical matters. Each example given involved women. I assigned myself to the small group discussing worship/liturgy. The “problem’ of ordained women was discussed. I tried to understand if the problem was “ordained women” or the fact that the ordinations of Protestant churches were not recognized for either women or men. While this was acknowledged, there was particular discomfort with ordained women. I explained that I would “gladly” step aside if my presence was a problem, however, for my church the ordination of women was a confessional issue, for we confess that God calls women and men to all ministries of the church. What was being asked was that my church violate its own confessional and ecclesial self-understanding if they did not send ordained women to the ecumenical tables with the expectation that they would serve fully in the office to which they had been called and the church had ordained us. My small group partners seem to understand this. However, Protestant laywomen and men from Anglican and Protestant churches supported the stronger Orthodox male voices that put in place guidelines that appeared to marginalize ordain women. I was more concern with my brothers and sisters that were willing to abandoned their church’s commitment to full inclusion of women in ministry and life of the church.

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