What do you think of when you see the title of this blog-‘women in liturgy’? Does your mind immediately jump to deacons and priests? Indeed those are women involved in the liturgy of the church. However there is much more to ‘liturgy’ than just the ordained leaders.
Look at the derivation of the word ‘liturgy.’ It is from the Greek words leit (people) and ergon (work). I’ve heard it said that in reality ‘liturgy’ is the ‘work of the people’. That means that all of us at a church service are involved in liturgy. Every time you walk in the church door for a service, you are involved in the total liturgy. You can pray by yourself, but coming together as part of the Body of Christ for a service of Eucharist involves more than one person. (In fact, a priest cannot celebrate Communion alone. There has to be someone else present so that “2 or 3 are gathered together.”)
Many women around the DRG are actively involved in various sacramental aspects of the service itself and those ministries are what we will be considering. Of course, all the ministries already discussed in this blog are important parts of the total liturgy. Members of the Altar Guild are a necessary part of any service and the support of our monetary donations to CPC and UTO help spread the Gospel as does the work of the ECW.
What are some of the sacramental liturgical ministries Women around the Diocese of the Rio Grande are involved in? Lay Eucharistic Visitors, Vergers, Acolytes, Lectors, Choir, and Chalice Bearer, as well as Deacon and Priest. Over the next few weeks, we’ll look at some of these ministries.
It hasn’t been that many years since women were first allowed to serve in liturgical capacities of any sort except Altar Guild. Only 40 years ago, a group of women met with Bishop Trelease to discuss the topic of “Women and the Diocese,” in light of the changing rolls of women in society and the church. They wanted to have a more active roll in the life of the church. The Bishop was open to the idea of women in ministry.
“Trelease endorsed the ordination of women, which was approved by action of the General Convention in 1976. However, he promised he would not “force a woman priest on any congregation.” The Rev. Virginia Brown was the first woman priest ordained in the Diocese of the Rio Grande, one of 90 women nationwide. The service took place at St. Chad’s on January 28, 1977. “It is generally believed that Mrs. Virginia Dabney Brown was the first woman to be ordained without protest. Early in the ceremony, Bishop Trelease called out loudly and clearly for anyone to speak who did not agree with the ordination. He turned full circle. There was no response.”
There was opposition in the Diocese, though, but Bishop Trelease was not deterred. In the fall of 1977 “St. John’s Cathedral was the setting for perhaps one of the largest ordinations in the Diocese of the Rio Grande.” Of the 9 people ordained as priests and deacons, six were women.”*
The ordination of women opened the door for women to be active in other aspects of the liturgical lives of their parishes, but it was a slow process.At the Cathedral, it was not until 1984 that Brenda Bess was licensed by the Bishop as the first woman chalice bearer. Betsy Lackmann was the second woman licensed to serve as chalice bearer, a full 2 years later.
The same story played out in parishes across the diocese as women slowly began to take on active rolls in the sacramental liturgy of the church. For generations and centuries, women served behind the scenes in supportive rolls. They served tea and raised money with rummage sales but couldn’t be part of the sacramental part of the service. Their funds helped support the work of the church and sometimes even paid the clergy salary, but they couldn’t participate actively in the sacramental life of the liturgy. It is true that lay men didn’t have too much role in the sacramental life of the church until the 1979 BCP, either, but they could become priests and deacons. In most parishes lay liturgical roles opened up for men sooner than for women.
The one place where women had already eased into ministry was in the reading of Morning and Evening Prayer. There is a note in the minutes of the St. John’s Guild of the Women’s Auxiliary says, “our work includes everything from janitorial duties to teaching Sunday School and even reading Morning Prayer.” Today’s Lectors who read the lessons on Sunday and at other services and those who lead Morning or Evening Prayer or Compline or other services are inheritors of those women 100 years ago.
The women of St. John’s and other churches were simply following in the footsteps of prayerful women who from the earliest times of the church held church leadership. Several are mentioned in Paul’s letters and in Acts. There is Chloe (1 Corinthians 1:11), Lydia (Acts 16:14-15), Nympha (Colossians 4:15), Pricilla (Romans 16:3-5), and Mary the mother of John Mark at whose house the early church met to pray for Peter’s release (Acts 12:12). These women were clearly leaders of the early church because they are mentioned specifically by Paul and the other New Testament writers.
If you have ever hesitated to try one of the sacramental liturgical ministries like Lector or Chalice Bearer because you are a woman-wait no longer! God calls women and men into service at the altar.
Next time we’ll look at some of the other sacramental liturgical ministries of women of the Diocese.
*Excerpted From a Grain of Mustard Seed by Cynthia Davis, referencing the Rio Grande Episcopalian ca 1977