I grew up in a very traditional home and my parents had quite conservative notions about gender. I was the youngest of four children - the only girl. If things had gone according to plan A, I’d be happily married with a bunch of children, but I chose a very different path.
My mother died when I was young. She was ill for much of my memory of her and that experience prompted me to ask eternal, ‘big life’ questions. Our family never went to church. The year after my mother died my brother and I went looking for one to attend. We had a lot of questions. Most people wanted to talk about what church was, but I wanted to talk about God. I read a lot, but I was still searching as opposed to making a commitment.
I knew that I was being called by Jesus. I also knew that if I told anyone, I’d be laughed out of the room. I was fifteen at the time and dared not tell anyone until many years later.
In Canada you had to do an undergraduate degree before you entered the Faculty of Divinity - training for priestly ministry. I went and did the undergraduate qualification even though I was quite aware the Anglican Church was not yet ordaining women into the priesthood.
It was a time of personal growth as well as rigorous training. There was a freedom at Yale to be who you wanted to be. You could be very academic, which I was. You could go and do a whole lot of feminist stuff. There was a freedom of choice which I hadn’t experienced in Canada. Almost no women back home studied theology.
My scholarship at Yale depended on being approved for ordination by my home Diocese, but so far no women had been ordained to the priesthood in Canada. The scholarship folk told me I had one year to get the backing of my bishop for ordination. I returned to Canada to what I knew would be a totally hopeless situation. My bishop was clearly against the whole thing. Even if other bishops in Canada were in favour, he was against it. Anyway, I was standing in the line of customs at the airport waiting to re-enter Canada and started talking to a man who was a priest. I explained I was studying Divinity and asked about his ministry. I couldn’t believe what he told me. “You must be very pleased to hear what’s just happened in your home Diocese! Your bishop has changed his mind. He’s decided to support the ordination of women.” If I needed to be told twice that this was God’s will for my life, this was the moment. Everything hung on it.
I often explain this by talking about the Pharisee, Saul. He sought to put Christian leaders into prison. He was arresting leaders - women as well as men - which suggests to me that there were already women in leadership within the church. Saul then has a dramatic conversion and becomes a Christian himself, and with that changes his name to Paul. He later on suggests that women shouldn’t speak in church. That’s odd because there were women already leading, teaching and preaching. So how do we make sense of what seems contradictory? There’s more than one way of interpreting the bible. Often people select a few isolated verses and take them out of context, but what do we hang on to? We hang on to two or three little things that Paul says. People spend more energy on these verses than they do on Jesus’ salvation. To become preoccupied about the role of women is like fixating on a single cloud during an otherwise perfect day. The sun is shining and we should be deeply grateful.
I have always felt I have been treated with respect in my role. I think God has a knack of helping me look beyond difficult people who object to the idea of a female bishop. I once went to a worldwide conference with about 800 other Anglican bishops. Many people anticipated that the conference would be a stressful time for the female bishops in attendance. We thought people would be against us. But do you know what? We found everyone to be very welcoming and gracious. Especially the African bishops. Whenever I passed them they would say, “Good morning, bishop.” They went out of their way to be respectful
God helped me change that. I’ve realised God will help us if we are willing to take a risk and step out in faith. I now stand in front of crowds and speak every week. I along with many other woman have heard it said time and time again, “You can’t do that, don’t be silly.” But that’s not the point. Those voices of condemnation are wrong. We must develop the gifts we have been given and grow into what God would have us become. There are so many women doing incredible things. Those who follow their dreams, I suspect, are happier
I know very well from experience that society places so many constraints on us. If we are not careful, we can become prisoners of other people’s expectations. I know I need to live by example and help other people see this possibility for themselves. God has given me freedom and it is something I hope for all people - woman and man.
After all, Jesus says to us, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
How do I get into this career?
If you're interested in being a leader of your religious community, there are all sorts of different paths you can take:
- You might like to follow up by talking to the community you're already involved in to see what paths they have already in place. There are also tertiary providers who offer theology courses.
- Another idea is to ask if you can go in for a day or a week to see what the job is actually like. This will allow you to quickly figure out if this sort of job is for you. This is called 'informational interviewing' and there are some great online resources on how to approach this.