LOUISVILLE — In some ways, the anniversaries of women’s ordination that the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is in the midst of celebrating this year — 100 years for deacons, 75 years for elders, 50 years for ministers — are momentous, historic events.
And in other ways they are like a panorama of smaller stories — layers of personal remembrances, snippets of impressions, allegories laden with history and meaning and politics.
Some are funny stories — such as when a class of five women arrived at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary in 1980 and found urinals in the women’s restrooms and potted plants in the urinals.
Some are painful — the stories of women who felt called by God to serve at a time when the church said, “Absolutely not.”
And some tell folks that as far as the church has come, there are still young women, and women of color, and lesbians who want to be ordained, and mature women scarred by the fighting, who would say the Presbyterian church hasn’t come nearly far enough.
Recently, on March 26-27, Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary hosted a conference honoring the anniversaries of women’s ordination — one of a series of regional celebrations being held throughout this year.
The conference celebrated stories like these:
Katie Geneva Cannon, who in 1974 became the first black woman the Presbyterian Church ordained as a minister, kicked things off with a speech. It, in turn, kicked off a new lecture series at the seminary named in her honor that will each year feature a woman scholar from a racial-ethnic minority who speaks out against oppression.
Cannon, a professor of Christian ethics at Union Theological Seminary-Presbyterian School of Christian Education in Richmond, told her own stories of some of the women who have inspired her — including Presbyterian women in the audience who helped raise $500 when she had a scholarship to study for her doctorate in New York but not a dime to get there. Her own mother told Cannon she’d already earned a master’s degree and had enough education. But these women understood and came through.
She spoke of African slaves, shackled, branded, stuffed into ships, their bodies dumped into the sea if they died en route, their enslavement supported by Christian churches.
Cannon told of her own great-grandmother, Mary Nance Lytle, born in 1832, who after emancipation walked for miles, from plantation to plantation, searching for her children who had been separated from the family and sold to strangers, until she found each one.
She told of going with her aunt to work as a domestic for a white family one summer, and how she burned her face frying chicken. The family rang a buzzer from the dining room table to summon the help — and with Cannon’s face burning from hot oil, the buzzer rang and she was forced to respond. By the end of that summer, “I knew education would be my ticket out from that kind of pain,” Cannon said.
She described segregated life in Kannapolis, N. C., where blacks were not permitted to try on shoes before buying them, because the storeowners feared their touch would defile the shoes. So black parents guessed what sizes their children would wear. Black children would go to church or school with brand-new shoes with slits cut in the sides if they were too small or rags stuffed in the toes if they were too big, Cannon said.
In Brazil, slaves were not allowed to wear shoes at all. And so blacks have sung the African spiritual, “I got shoes, you got shoes” — here the audience picked up the melody, joining in — “all God’s children got shoes.”
But she did not stop with stories — because, for Cannon, each tale has a theological core. She ponders what the church can learn from slavery, “from the capital on which capitalism was built.”
She speaks of “understanding grace from the underside.” How else could one tolerate beatings and whippings and forced separations without grace? Even in death, “it is grace that delivers the soul from dying,” Cannon said.
And one must consider, she said, whether it is even possible for the enslaver and the enslaved to serve the same God. One cannot consider slavery, Cannon said, without considering the meaning of God’s grace.
The Canaanite woman
Robina Winbush, director of Ecumenical and Agency Relations for the PC(USA), preached during morning worship on the story of the Canaanite woman in the 15th chapter of Matthew’s gospel. The Canaanite woman was an unnamed indigenous mother like so many others, Winbush said. Her daughter was sick, so she was desperate — and although she was seen as being outside the covenant community, she insisted, demanded, that Jesus must help.
Jesus at first refused to respond, and then insulted her, making an analogy between her and a dog. But “the woman turns the tables on Jesus and becomes the one who teaches the master teacher,” Winbush said. She crosses boundaries, refuses to be quiet, insists on being included in God’s blessing.
Referring to the theme of the Louisville gathering, Winbush said the Canaanite women — like so many others who have called for the full inclusion of women — was “claiming sacred space.”
And what does this biblical story show us about how that happens, Winbush asked.
By demanding help for her daughter, the woman demonstrated the power of seeking healing for others who are oppressed. She refused to succumb to a flawed theology that excluded others. “How often is the faith of those outside the church greater than the faith of those inside the church,” Winbush said, referring to church support of slavery and apartheid. Now, “as economic globalization is running rampant, so is bling-bling theology,” which some describe as “prosperity theology,” she said. In other words, “I see it, I want it, God will give it to me just because I ask.”
But the Canaanite woman shows that eventually “the church will hear the voices,” Winbush said, “of those who are marginalized and dismissed.”
And finally, she added, the story teaches the power of not giving up, of believing that God will act on our behalf.
“She would not sit down. She would not shut up. She would not go inside. She would not be ignored.”
Others at the Louisville gathering also told their own stories, assembling in bits and scraps of knowledge a picture of the world they have known.
A young pastor said she wears suits to meetings, not jeans; asks that people call her “Reverend”; doesn’t volunteer to bring donuts to meetings; and makes it known she’s as interested in preaching as in youth ministry. She’s fighting to earn respect, inch by inch.
A seminary student said the married men get called to be solo pastors or senior pastors first; then the single men; finally the women are more likely to be offered associates’ positions.
Fairfax F. Fair, pastor of Highland Church in Louisville, said she grew up in a small town in Arkansas, and at that time, “little girls in Warren, Arkansas, did not grow up to be Presbyterian ministers.” Her mother prayed for Fair’s older brother to become a pastor. When that didn’t work, she started praying for Fair’s younger brother.
Fair, who’s been ordained for 18 years, said some of those who’ve been most opposed to having a woman in ministry have been other women “somewhat older than me but not a lot older than me,” maybe 10 or 15 years. “Doors were open to me that were not open to them.”
And in her years in ministry, Fair said she’s seen the opposition “definitely diminish.” She said she’s grateful for “the true pioneers who fought the very difficult, painful battles” to open the doors.
When she became a pastor, Patricia K. Tull heard over and over from congregations in her area: “We’ve never heard a woman preach from our pulpit before. You’ve opened our imagination to what could be.”
She’s now an Old Testament professor at Louisville seminary. Many women students she’s met don’t identify themselves as feminists, don’t much like that word. But Tull said she asks them how they got the chance to be in ministry, “except by the blood and tears of the women who went before you? It’s so easy to forget the past.”