A Catholic priest in San Francisco has just shut down a program that allows girls to be altar servers (carrying the Bible up to the front and holding it while the priest reads the Gospel lesson, lighting candles, sitting up straight and trying to look interested during the sermon, that sort of thing). His congregation is upset because they’ve had girls in the program for years, but the priest, who’s pretty new to the church, doesn’t think it’s a good idea. He wants to move back to an altar boys only program because it’s “a proven, effective way to promoting vocations to the priesthood,” Father Illo said. “So boys get closer to the altar, and as you know, the Catholic church does not ordain women.” No point stirring up ideas and callings that won’t be fulfilled right? In one interview he actually said that “the girls generally do a better job” so the boys lose interest in serving. So apparently this is his way of lowering the bar? What an insult to both the boys and girls in this situation. Yikes.
This worries me not only for the girls who are being shut out, but also for the boys and the rest of the congregations who watch them serve. In describing how she presents herself at church, a female pastor once told a class of mine, “Whatever is on the altar is okay with God.” With that in mind, she made sure to include quirks and reflections of who she is in the way she dresses and speaks. She wears her fire engine red shoes at Pentecost with her black clerical robes, because she wants her congregation to see that God calls and blesses us as the people God created us to be. And some of those people are women. Some are gay. Some are both! Some are bisexual or transgender. Crazy right? It’s almost as if God created each of us with a plan and a purpose, as if God loves us each individually and wants us to serve and love one another. Having a variety of shapes and sizes and colors of people on the altar Sunday after Sunday is a way of praising God in and of itself. It reflects the beauty and diversity of God’s creation and reminds people that each of us are called to ministry–it’s in our baptismal vows. We promise to serve God, the Church, and the world, and having examples of how to do that who look like us and (sometimes even more importantly) who look like people we often overlook, helps us to do that. We can’t do something we can’t imagine. And seeing a broader swath of creation in the pulpit pricks at our imagination in new and holy ways.
But before we take on all that, let’s scale it back and just look at this one step: girls in the pulpit. For some, that in and of itself is too much. It’s just not allowed by Paul or the Southern Baptists and the Catholics, y’all. No way around it. I say that teasingly, but for some Scripture seems pretty clear and they just can’t see a different reading. I’ve told the story about my college pastor refusing to listen to my first sermon a hundred times as an example of this, but it’s because that’s the only story I have to illustrate this kind of negative response. That one bummer is buried under a landslide of support from men and women, young and old, Southern Baptists, Catholics, and non-denominational Christians. Men I respect have come to me after sermons and praised the way I strung the sermon together, including my illustrations that are more stereotypically feminine than the traditional football analogies we might be used to in the South. Some of the people who have been the most outspoken about pushing me to try preaching when I was afraid of it were men who were more concerned that I follow God’s calling than cultural norms. When I first preached for a congregation with an average age of somewhere in the 70-75 range, I was sure they would tune out this little girl with a nose ring, but they have consistently invited me back and offered nothing but encouragement. They’ve given me some of the most meaningful sermon feedback I’ve ever received. My favorite was the woman who just took me by the shoulders and whispered, “Honey!”
People are more than ready for a girl in the pulpit. They don’t care what skin I’m in, they want to hear what God’s Word has to say for them. Honestly, I think the encouragement I’ve received has been about 15% directed at me personally and 85% representative of the relief of seeing God moving in this way they always suspected was possible.
One of the most consistent voices in this experience has been that of my fiancé, who beams at me from the pews even when the congregation seems to be asleep and brings a mini-tripod to videotape every single sermon like a proud mama. When I decided to go through the commissioning process this year (one of many steps toward ordination), he said, “How can I help? Not just in spirit, I want to actually be useful. I know you’re the one being ordained, but we’re a team, and I want to support you.” And y’all, he means every word of it. So what’s it like to be a preacher’s future-husband? What’s it like to have a girl in the pulpit? And not just any girl, but a girl whose quirks and failures you know intimately?
Here’s what Matthew has to say on the subject:
I grew up in the Methodist Church, so I was never told that men had a monopoly on preaching and/or playing an active role in the church. When I look back on it, though, I didn’t have many instances of hearing a woman preach in a formal capacity. There were probably a few times, but they didn’t stand out in my mind. That’s a good thing in that it wasn’t something radically different from hearing a man preach. At that same time, though, it’s a problem that I was not offered more diverse views from the pulpit. Whereas my church’s pulpit was male-dominated, there were many female leaders within my youth group (which is where I spent the most time during my formative years). These women played just as big of a role as the men. Personally, I grew up surrounded by strong and caring women. There was never really a point in my life where I had the realization that the inclusion of women’s voices was a positive thing – it was just normal.
It is important that both men and women play equal roles within church for two reasons. 1) I believe the Holy Spirit can move through the words of a woman just as easily as the words of a man. 2) It is crucial for the members of the church to hear sermons from a diverse group of individuals. Because life is diverse – Jesus’ ministry is diverse. It wasn’t limited to the people that look like us. It was the Ethiopian eunuch. It was the man who persecuted and threw Christians in jail. Men and women are equally gifted but they bring different experiences to the table. Hearing the same preacher all the time is good, but I’ve been struck so much with things I would never have thought of by listening to different preachers, including Elizabeth.
I will go ahead and get this out of the way – if I were to rank the preachers I have heard in my life, Elizabeth Queen would be #1. She is truly gifted in both her delivery of her sermons and their composition. The first time I heard her preach I was blown away with not only her warm, inviting cadence but also the beautiful message she had crafted. I love getting to listen to every one of Elizabeth’s sermons because I always walk away with a new way to approach a particular scripture.
I have no qualms about listening to my fiancée preach. I do not feel defensive that Elizabeth will have such an active role in our church (in fact I am really excited about it). Spirituality in marriage is a partnership just like anything else in our relationship – we both help and support one another in our journey with God. There’s no reason to pick one to be the “spiritual leader” in the relationship—we’re co-consuls. I wouldn’t want to be in a hierarchy. I would miss hearing Elizabeth’s view. I don’t have all the answers, and our conversations about our questions are one of the ways we bond and grow.
So little girls and boys, fear not. We really do want to hear from you. We want to hear from God through you, in the way that is uniquely and deliciously yours. Whether you’re a little one toying with the idea of volunteering to speak up in Sunday school or an octogenarian finally screwing up your nerve to share what God has laid on your heart with the whole congregation, I’m cheering for you. I’m keeping an ear out for you. I want to hear you and see you in and out of the pulpit alongside everyone else God has called.
We go through five changes in the liturgical colors of the altar decorations every year–shouldn’t we go through at least that many variations in gender and color and sexual orientation and nationality and language and political affiliation and age in those who speak and serve from that altar?