Unexpected Blessings

by the Reverend Hester Mathes

In a richly diverse interfaith worship service in November, I was deeply honored and humbled to be invited to give the Christian reflection alongside Jewish and Muslim brothers at Holy Spirit Catholic Church.  

This invitation carried great significance to me because the Catholic church does not ordain women. It was an honoring of my calling, and a celebration of our differences within the Christian religion, in addition to the differences among the wider world religions represented. All of the church leaders at the service made a decision to focus on our shared belief in God, over and above the variations in how we choose to worship. In the case of the hosting parish, they made the point as obvious as possible by inviting me to be the Christian voice in their sacred space.  

It was not long ago that female ordination caused a schism in our own denomination. I was six days old when the first female Episcopal priests, known as the Philadelphia Eleven, were ordained on July 29, 1974. At that time there was no canon against the ordination of women, but there was no ruling for it either. It was generally assumed to be against the “way things were supposed to be,” and these 11 women and their supporters caused a stir that led to a storm. About two years later, General Convention officially permitted women to be ordained in the Episcopal Church.

Forty years have since passed, and women have made enormous strides in all ranks of ordained ministry, all the way to Presiding Bishop. I have been profoundly blessed by immensely capable and strong female mentors. However, the journey remains a mixed one for many of us even today.  

While I was interviewing for a hospital chaplaincy internship in seminary, I was asked, “How do you overcome the fact that you are a woman in your profession?” My first reaction was, “I never want to overcome the fact that I am a woman. I want to celebrate it!” It was only when I looked into the eyes of my female interviewer that I saw her pain, and realized that she was not asking that question of me as much as she was asking it of herself.

I did not have to fear the presence of a protest at my ordination, or that someone might harm me when I served at the communion rail. I have not received any bomb threats to date. I have not had to wrestle with the mass exodus of active members upon my arrival at a church.  

I did experience a parishioner refusing to take communion from me during seminary, because of my gender. Reflecting later, I appreciated the fact that this member chose to remain at a common table where I was serving. I did not have to understand this person’s actions, nor did they have to understand mine. Grace was in the fact that we remained together in the same church as examples to each other of living and worshiping alongside people with whom we do not necessarily agree, but love as brothers and sisters in Christ.  

There is still distance to cover before I would be able to apply for clergy positions at many of the Episcopal churches which still do not hire female priests, but the opportunities grow with each passing day. There is still work to be done before my gender will be acknowledged as equal in God’s eyes by many Christians across the globe, but I can now feel the support and prayers of a local Catholic parish inviting me into their sacred space to proclaim the Good News.    

I remain deeply grateful for the faith that Calvary and Bishop Johnson had in me as they sponsored me through my discernment and seminary journey. I find myself, as our friend Buford Hardin would say, “richly blessed and highly favored,” for the overwhelmingly warm welcome I have received at Holy Communion. 

I have learned that a shared belief in a loving and merciful God can overcome all sorts of differences and disagreements. Even when we squabble, God gathers us in his embrace, and loves us with a steadfast love that is ever patient, ever gentle, and ever joyful, so that one day we might learn to do the same.

This column was published in the January 2016 Communicator.

Photo by Drew Smith: The ordination of the Reverend Hester Mathes to the priesthood, 2015.

Posted by Cara Modisett at 8:00 AM
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