Yesterday, I was in a day-long meeting with leaders from the ministry at which I work, along with faculty members from several Christian universities with whom we partner to help their students connect with opportunities for short and long-term missions in the States and abroad. It was an interesting meeting, hearing the perspectives of these “outsiders” who work with college students in an academic rather than a parachurch context.
Totally unrelated to the business at hand, I got to chat with one of our visitors who was loving all the “small world” connections between his circle of friends and those of us in the room. I talked about seminary and my current bivocational call to the church, and he asked what if our congregation had any denomination affiliation.
Because my work context is very evangelical-conservative and my denominational work/home is seen as progressive mainline, letting people know that I am ordained is enough to shut down a conversation. Knowing the stories of some of my clergywomen friends who had completed degrees where he was on faculty, I expected a fairly swift pivot would follow.
So I tried to ease what might be awkward by laughing a bit when I said “PC(USA)… Because, they let women play there, too.”
Far from shutting down or pivoting, I got what might be the most sincere first-person apology I have ever heard from a man regarding the church’s views of women. He apologized for women being marginalized in the church. He apologized for the way men ignored women’s gifts and leadership. He said “It is past time for the church to repent” for these sins.
I don’t know how to convey the look in this man’s eyes or the conviction in his voice, other than to offer up this testimony. It was a powerful moment that cut right through my attempt to avoid being hurt.
I said thank you. And that it meant a lot to me, and that I had been blessed in both of my vocations to be doing ministry among people who affirmed my gifts and call to ministry. Which is true.
In some way, this wasn’t my apology to receive. I grew up in a church that ordained women as elders and ministers. I was surrounded by strong women in that denomination as I first discerned my call to leadership. When I found my way back into church via the PC(USA) there were so many more men supported me than were neutral or negative. I had choices. I had safe places to learn and grow and find my voice as a preacher and provider of comfort and counsel.
But having spent part of the night before reading tweets from and in response to the conference for “Biblical Manhood and Womanhood” and recalling the ways that co-workers in both of my work worlds persist in subtle (sometimes not-so-subtle) sexism rooted in scriptural interpretation, I wanted to let his words wash over me and cleanse some of wounds I carry. And the wounds of my sisters in Christ.
So I stood and received that apology for the women who were told NO by the very institution at which this man has taught for 30+ years. For the women whose male pastors made sure they quashed any move of the Holy Spirit in their churches to support women’s leadership. For the women who endured all-male classes in seminary and remain faithful in denominations and faith traditions that don’t yet recognize women as full participants in the life of the church.
There is much the church needs to confess and much repentance that is overdue. Our complicity in so many of the sins of our western culture is heartbreaking. I am coming to believe that if I am unwilling to engage in the kind of one-on-one conversations that allow us to offer and receive apologies that are not ours alone, I am holding the kingdom of God at a distance.
My Presbyterian circles are wrestling with a proposed corporate confession and apology to our LGBTQ siblings in Christ. I am not sure where I land, having seen my friends to whom this apology is meant to be offered responding with mixed feelings as well. That is not my apology to receive, and I want to be mindful about how it is offered.
Here’s what I am fairly certain about – I cannot expect a corporate confession alone to reconcile me and the one my words (or my church’s words) have driven away. Not any more than my colleague expected me to feel fully welcome on his campus without knowing I had at least one friend, one person who “got it” deeply enough to say the words that invite an exploration of reconciliation.