House of Deputies of The Episcopal Church

40 Years On: Thoughts on Gender Equality in the Episcopal Church

President Jennings delivered these remarks on June 8, 2016 to the opening session of the Executive Council of the Episcopal Church meeting in Chaska, Minnesota:

Good morning, and welcome to Chaska. It’s my second time visiting Chaska, and I love it here. Chaska’s mission is “to be the best small town in Minnesota,” and they’re well on their way as far as I’m concerned.

I am especially delighted to report to you that according to the Chaska Herald, the Chaska Curling Center, which opened at the beginning of 2016, has already far outpaced its membership goals. In just five months of operation, they have more than 1,100 members.

Obviously, the Episcopal Church can learn from Chaska, and from curling. If you want to know more about curling, my executive assistant, Betsey Bell, will be very glad to tell you all you want to know, as she is a fierce curling competitor.

I’ve been looking forward to this meeting for a while. The last big meeting I went to was the Anglican Consultative Council in Lusaka, Zambia, and although that was a fascinating and rewarding meeting, I ate many of my meals sitting next to a crocodile pond. So far, no reptiles at this meeting. My ACC colleagues—Bishop Ian Douglas and Deputy Rosalie Ballentine—will hopefully join us at our next Executive Council meeting in September to give a full report on ACC, but I’m happy to talk with you informally while we’re here if you have questions—about the crocodiles and about anything else.

Besides the paucity of reptiles, I’ve been looking forward to this meeting because we are welcoming my friend and colleague Dr. Matthew Sheep. Tomorrow morning, he will present some of the most interesting research I’ve ever seen about the Episcopal Church.

You might remember that I talked about Matthew and his research at our first meeting of this triennium, last November at the Maritime Center. He and two other researchers have been studying the Episcopal Church’s identity since 2004, and their paper, titled “Elasticity and the Dialectic Tensions of Organizational Identity: How Can We Hold Together While We’re Pulling Apart?” was published in the Academy of Management Journal.

He’ll tell you more about it tomorrow, but here’s the spoiler:  they found that Episcopalians are pretty elastic. I know that this is not a surprise to any of you who have been stretching all year. And only a third of the triennium has passed!

I’ve been thinking about our denominational elasticity as I’ve been thinking about September 16, 2016, which will be the fortieth anniversary of General Convention’s vote to approve the ordination of women. My husband Albert and I were married on August 14 of that year. After taking our honeymoon and moving into a new apartment in Cambridge for our last year in seminary, I made the first of many church governance-related requests to which my extraordinarily patient husband has agreed over the past four decades. “Honey, could you set up the apartment while I go to Minneapolis to see what will happen?”

I remember sitting in the bleachers in the House of Deputies, holding my breath and waiting for President John Coburn to announce the results of the vote by orders on Resolution B005, which made the canons on ordination equally applicable to men and women. I was in my final year of seminary when that historic vote took place, and so I can appreciate how elastic the church has needed to be in the last two generations, and with what urgency the struggle for women’s equality in the church continues.

We won’t be together again before September 16, so I want to share with you some of my thoughts on gender equality in the Episcopal Church. Because I think this is an area in which we need to be really elastic now and into the next generation. At the generous invitation of Bishop Mary Gray-Reeves, I shared some of these thoughts recently in a letter to the women clergy attending a conference titled “Leading Women.”

As I look back on our struggles for gender equality and look forward to what I pray will be a vital, sustainable future for our beloved church, I think those of us who are committed to gender equality need to be sure we are focused clearly on the church as it is today, not the church as it was on September 16, 1976. In particular, too often I hear us measuring gender equality in the church by counting how many educated, privileged women sit in positions of hierarchical authority. I fear that we may believe that the best the church can do for women is to be sure that more of us are bishops, deans, and cardinal rectors.

I don’t mean to minimize what some call the stained glass ceiling. As the first ordained woman to be elected president of the House of Deputies, I have some sense of the institutional barriers in the way of ordained women, whether they are baby boomers, GenXers, or Millennials. I have worked hard to help us move toward gender equality within the institutional church, and we’re not there yet.

But defining gender equality only by measuring the status of educated, ordained women could lull us into believing that the church will be transformed primarily by women who succeed in systems built and shaped by patriarchal authority. And after thirty-seven years of ordained ministry, I’ve come to the conclusion that’s not how it works.

Politics, business, and, unfortunately, even the church provide ample evidence that simply having women in authority is no guarantee that institutions will be more just, more fair, or more Christlike. It isn’t enough to have women ascend to the top of the church’s systems. We must also change the systems that have promoted inequality for so long and continue to reinforce it for the vast majority of our sisters, lay and ordained. That means that when women are elected or chosen, our work has only just begun.

When we truly answer the call to gender equality, we will strive on behalf of all women in our churches and communities—women who struggle to find and afford quality childcare, women who are trapped in violent relationships or are enslaved by addiction, women who work long hours in poor conditions at low-wages to support their children, women who do not have access to adequate health care and birth control, women who lack documentation and live in fear of deportation. And especially now, when we have all become more aware of the terrible, life-threatening conditions in which our transgender sisters too often live, we must be sure that our quest for women’s equality does not define gender identity in ways that exclude them or silence their voices.

All of us, regardless of our gender identity or expression, have been called to lead the church at a time of dramatic societal and institutional change. Even as we aspire to have women equally represented in institutional authority, we know that our real job is to dismantle the institutional structures that have for far too long kept the church from going into out the world to proclaim the Good News to everyone, especially our marginalized sisters of color and our sisters who live in poverty. If our quest for institutional parity prevents us from standing in the crowd alongside the woman who touched Jesus’ garment to be made well, then no number of women clergy or bishops will ever make us whole.

We can do this. We can do it because we have the strength and spirit of the sisters who began the struggle and have gone before us. They were really, really elastic, and we can be too.

Thank you. I look forward to stretching together this week.