I grew up in patriarchal churches. I got used to hearing Scripture readings and having to internally translate “man” to “humanity” or “people;” to seeing women behind the piano but not the pulpit or conducting the children’s choir but not the adult musicians; to being allowed to ask public questions in my high school Sunday school class but then denied the same opportunity later when I became an adult. So when, a few years ago, all my searching and questioning finally produced a permanent shift to egalitarianism, the smallest acts of justice in the church were great sources of encouragement to me.
At the time I was a member of a patriarchal but relatively supportive congregation, and when “liberal” forces within the congregation led to invitations to serve on the vision team, to usher, or to give a public testimony, these opportunities seemed vastly liberating compared to what I had previously known. My husband and I didn’t want to change churches over one issue – especially if our willing service could be an example of winsome egalitarianism – so we stuck around. But the completion of graduate school and the beginning of a nationwide job search recently opened the door for us to explore other denominations and particular congregations that would share our egalitarian commitment. We’re still in the job search process and haven’t settled permanently, but we’re currently attending a small Episcopal church that we appreciate for its lovely and historic liturgy, warm people, and obvious dedication to the outworking of the gospel through social justice.
The reason for this rather rambling biography is to help you understand the significance of what happened last Sunday. Longtime Episcopalians probably think nothing of it, being used to women represented as equals. But when, during the celebration of the Eucharist, the rector addressed his prayer to “God of our ancestors: God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; God of Sarah, Rebekah, and Ruth,” I was stunned. Never in my life had I heard our spiritual fathers and mothers held up together with equal significance at a public ceremony. There was no elaboration, no qualification of the statement as hinging on a “correct” understanding of manhood and womanhood derived elsewhere; just a prayer that acknowledged men and women recorded in the Bible as being among those God spoke through and to in millennia past.
Kneeling there in my pew, the congregation continuing to pray aloud around me, I repeated that phrase over and over, startled to find my eyes filling with tears. I am generally the last person to “get emotional” during worship. But I was overwhelmed with gratitude for a God who never discriminates, who loves his daughters as he loves his sons, who loves me as he loves his other children, and loves me so much that he would speak to me in such simple but profoundly moving and comforting words. That morning I received the bread and wine with a suddenly-deeper gratitude for the transforming grace of Christ.
On the one hand, this is a sad story about just how oppressive our wrong-headed attitudes are when all it takes is a simple acknowledgment of God’s work in both men and women to open the floodgates of the heart. And yet, on the other, it is a testimony to the amazing power of truth offered without hesitation and with humility, the solidarity of the people of God standing together on equal footing before the cross of Christ. I would have missed the sweetness of that moment of communion had I not experienced the previous oppression, and therefore I am grateful to God for both.
And so I am prompted to ask this question: have any of you, who like me converted to egalitarianism from a patriarchal background, ever had such an “a-ha!” moment – a time when the full significance of your equality before God hit you unexpectedly? I’d love to hear where you were and just what it was that took you by surprise. I’m certain your story will be an encouragement to others – so do tell!