We who believe in freedom

Saturday, 23 July 2011
Sr. Mary Michael Simpson - Westminster Abbey - 1978
The obituary in the New York Times was succinct. It began with two simple sentences.
The Rev. Mary Michael Simpson, the first Episcopal nun to be ordained a priest and the first ordained woman to preach a sermon in Westminster Abbey, died Wednesday in Augusta, Ga. She was 85.
Yes, well, that was all true enough.

However, the essence of a person's life cannot be summed up in two succinct sentences.

I only knew Mary Michael briefly. I saw her a few times in private counseling sessions in her New York office when I was going through yet another episode of vocational discernment in my relationship with the institutional church.

I had the chance to work with her again when she was asked to lead a three hour session with a group of clergy women who were advocating for a woman to be elected bishop suffragan in the Diocese of Newark back in the early 90s.

We didn't succeed then. Remarkably, the history of the Episcopal Diocese of Newark, reportedly "one of the most liberal dioceses in The Episcopal Church", is still seriously deficient in this way.

In both settings, my experience of Mary Michael is that she could never be accused of mincing words. She came right to the point, or moved you to it - dragging you along, if necessary - so you could see the bigger picture.

Once she fixed you in her gaze, you felt as if she were looking past your nice presentation and deep into the secret corners of your soul.

In one of the private counseling sessions with her, I remember lamenting to her that the institutional church was not any different than corporate America. There were dirty politics and politicians with white collars and corruption and deceit and power plays in the Body of Christ.

Mary Michael looked me square in the eyes, saw my naivete, and probably wondered how I got through the ordination process. She simply sighed deeply and then asked, in her way of hers that made you wonder why you didn't already know this:
"I know St. Paul tells us that the church is 'in the world but not of the world', but what makes you think that, if the church is in the world, at least a little bit of the world isn't still in the church?"
I've never forgotten those words, or the look on her face when she spoke them. They come back to me, from time to time, whenever I see what I think is too much of the world in the church.

They come as gift. They come as inspirational prayer.

I'll leave it to others to tell the stories of Mary Michael. What I want you to know about her is that she was one of the pioneers of the ordination of women in The Episcopal Church.

I do not use the word 'pioneer' unadvisedly. Like all pioneers, she wasn't just about 'being first'. She did not seek ordination simply for herself. She wouldn't have been the person she was and couldn't have made the sacrifices she made if she thought it was just about her.

As Fanny Lou Hammer said, "Justice is not about 'just us'. It's about justice."

In her sermon at Westminster Abbey in 1978, she told a gathering of about 700 people:
“Christian creativity for the present age must not depend on male leaders. Woman’s contribution — from women properly trained and authorized — is essential.”
Mary Michael understood the power of the Incarnation. She knew that the 'embodied Word' carries more power than theology or ideology.

She wrote about the ordination of women in her contribution to the book, "Yes to Women Priests".
“Many people — men as well as women — say that though they themselves don’t want to be ordained, it means so much to them to have me at the altar. ‘It means that the church really accepts me — I’m not a second-class citizen,’ ” she wrote.
Mary Michael understood that in putting herself 'out there', at the altar as an 'alter Christus' - a stole over her nun's habit while she presided at Eucharist - carried more symbolic power than just polite, theological conversations. She understood that she was not only acting for herself but for other women who were 'properly trained and authorized' to follow her.

She was keenly aware that her actions would change the institutional church, bringing it closer to the image of the Realm of God.  She not only knew that change would come at a high price, she was willing to pay it.

While I grieve the loss of Mary Michael Simpson, I grieve the history that may be buried with her. I grieve even more that there are generations of women - ordained women - who do not know and seem not to care about the struggles of the women who came before us.

We forget or ignore our herstory at our own peril.

There is still much work to be done. Yes, thirty-plus years after the historic ordination of Mary Michael Simpson there is a woman who is our Primate and Presiding Bishop.

Yes, there are women in the House of Bishops. Mariann Edgar Budde, the newest diocesan bishop-elect of Washington, DC, is only the eighteenth woman to be elected bishop since the historic election of Barbara Clementine Harris in 1989.

Eighteen women elected to the episcopacy in twenty-two years is not exactly a fast clip.

The best way I know to honor those who struggled for freedom and equality and the in-breaking of the Spirit in the institutional church is to continue to tell their story so that the struggle can continue.

I woke up this morning hearing Sweet Honey in the Rock singing "Ella's Song". I can hear Bernice Johnson Reagon's husky voice singing,
That which touches me most is that I had a chance to work with people
Passing on to others that which was passed on to me

We who believe in freedom cannot rest
We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.
So, I'll pay my respects to Mary Michael Simpson by leaving you with this message from Sweet Honey in the Rock.

Pass on the message of freedom and equality. Work for it. Struggle with it in the institutional church which is not of the world but in the world, so parts of the world are still in it.

Teach others to stand up and fight for the fullness of their liberation in Christ.

Do not rest until it comes.

I believe that Mary Michael's soul will rest even more peacefully knowing that this is so.

Ella's Song
Lyrics and music by Bernice Johnson Reagon
Sung by Sweet Honey in the Rock

We who believe in freedom cannot rest
We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes

Until the killing of black men, black mothers' sons
Is as important as the killing of white men, white mothers' sons

That which touches me most is that I had a chance to work with people
Passing on to others that which was passed on to me

To me young people come first, they have the courage where we fail
And if I can but shed some light as they carry us through the gale

The older I get the better I know that the secret of my going on
Is when the reins are in the hands of the young, who dare to run against the storm

Not needing to clutch for power, not needing the light just to shine on me
I need to be one in the number as we stand against tyranny

Struggling myself don't mean a whole lot, I've come to realize
That teaching others to stand up and fight is the only way my struggle survives

I'm a woman who speaks in a voice and I must be heard
At times I can be quite difficult, I'll bow to no man's word

We who believe in freedom cannot rest
We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes


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