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Published Date: July 13, 2011

Published Date: July 13, 2011

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Pregnancy and Priesthood

“How would you feel if you were pregnant and celebrating the Eucharist??!!” The question came at me like the first spear opening a battle. I was a twenty-three year old, a senior seminarian at Virginia Seminary, and it was 1977—the year that the Episcopal church began ordaining women as priests. I was on a theological education Sunday visit, common for churches near the seminary. At this visit, the pregnancy question was asked during the “question and answer” session during coffee hour.

Women’s ordination was controversial in my church. It came on the heels of a major revision of our liturgy in the Book of Common Prayer. At the time, the Episcopal church was struggling with a rip-tide of social action following the Vietnam War. I entered seminary on somewhat of a quest—a history major without a job, yet with a great interest in my faith. Much to my surprise, I found that both God and others in the church were calling me! Far from being a “bra-burning activist,” I was more comfortable in the academic world, in the area of Christian education and music. I didn’t intend to upset anyone and came from a diocese where the bishop had already said he was only going to ordain me as a deacon, not a priest, which, at the time, was fine with me.

When the pregnancy question was asked, I took a deep breath to steady myself, smiled, and said, “The Bible speaks a lot about new birth and being born again. I think a pregnant woman is a great symbol of that, don’t you?” My memory of that incident ends there, but later on, I wrote an article on “Pregnancy and Priesthood” for the Alban Institute’s magazine. In it, I explored the world of spiritual growth. God plants the Word in us, in a mysterious act of love. That Word grows like a plant, we “know not how,” until it is ready for harvest. Children are “planted” in our receptive womb, ideally in an act of intimate and covenant love. They grow wonderfully, we know not how, until they are ready for birth. We do not determine when the ears or eyes or toes form, and we cannot determine the time of their birth (except caesarians!). We can do a great deal to nurture the growth of a baby in the womb—or we can destroy it. Like the growth of the Spirit, we can do a great deal to water and support the Word in us or we can starve it until it withers away and we wonder why we feel far away from God.

As a woman priest, am I different than a man? Yes and no. In our church, both men and women “wear dresses” (long formal vestments) in the liturgical setting, both are nurturing, both are supportive, and often both are very intuitive. Indeed in these ways, men take on a more “female” role in ministry. But in our church, the “persona” of the priest who stands to celebrate Eucharist used to invoke only male imagery, being “like Jesus,” since Jesus was male. Now the “persona” of the Priest invokes full incarnation, full humanity. A mother in my first parish over twenty years ago told me with great delight, that her daughter took a cookie at snack time, raised it up and broke it and said “Alleluia, Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us!,” imitating my liturgical action. And my response: “Therefore, let us keep the feast! Alleluia!”