You’d think I’d have a lovely picture of sunset over the ocean to illustrate this post instead of a Springsteen concert video (although, when is a Springsteen video ever a bad thing?), but the whole point of the story is about a hike where I didn’t have my phone with me. I couldn’t take a picture, but — and this is important — I also couldn’t check Twitter, and while I usually think it’s a bad idea to go hiking without a phone, in this case, it was the right decision.
I took the hike in question — the Silver Mine Head path from Middle Cove to Torbay, for those keeping score at home — last Wednesday evening, July 8, at the end of a day when I’d outwardly done little except stare at my computer, but inwardly it had been a tough, emotional day.
To those of you who either don’t go to church, or go to churches where they’ve very sensibly given women equal status with men years ago, this may seem unnecessarily obscure, but I spent most of this Wednesday completely absorbed (via Twitter, Facebook, and live-streaming) in my church’s General Conference session, a world-wide meeting held once every five years, at which delegates were voting on whether to allow the different divisions of the world church to proceed with ordaining women to ministry as they saw fit. After a long day of speeches on both sides, the vote was taken.
Most supporters of women’s ordination, like me, already felt that the “Yes, allow women to be ordained” side would probably lose this vote, for a lot of complex behind-the-scenes reasons having to do with both politics and politicking within the church, and with deep cultural differences between the different areas of the world church.
As I watched the livestream and commented on the presentations via Twitter and Facebook, I felt hopeful and encouraged at some of the powerful, visionary speeches that were made in favour of the motion, but also deeply discouraged by some of those against. Not so much discouraged by delegates from Africa and South America speaking against women’s ordination because I know that people are deeply influenced by their culture and I know that cultural norms in many of those countries don’t grant women equal status with men. But discouraged by people from North America — especially one young woman, who spoke with the kind of confidence and authority that could only be assumed by a woman benefitting from 50+ years of hard-won feminism in her culture — speaking against it, arguing to hold women back from full equality. It was hard to listen to, and discouraging. Then people began voting, and, knowing that it would take hours for the votes to be cast and counted, I went for a hike by the ocean.
To be honest, I expected to feel sadder and more upset than I did at that point. Knowing that the vote was probably going to go against women’s ordination, I had been thinking about it for days beforehand. A few days earlier, I’d been listening to my iPod when the Springsteen cover of “This Little Light of Mine” (video above) came on, and I burst into tears. That song usually makes me want to get up and dance and raise my hands in the air. Why did the idea that Jesus gave me light, and I’m gonna let it shine, suddenly make me cry?
I think it made me cry because I was already pre-mourning that vote against women’s ordination. I have never, not for one minute, in my long life of churchgoing and following Jesus, wanted to be any kind of a minister. The pastoral ministry is incredibly not for me. Yet I have spent all these years in church supporting the idea of women in ministry, hoping to be part of a church that embodies the simple ideal of Galatians 3:28, “In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for all are one in Christ Jesus.”
It’s always seemed so simple and clear to me, although I’ve done a lot more Bible study to make sure that the truth that seems so obvious in that one verse really is borne out throughout the whole Bible (spoiler: it is). But I’ve always known that it’s not simple and clear to all Christians. It’s a divisive, debatable issue. When I was a student at an Adventist university in the early 1980s, I had female friends who were studying theology or completing M. Div. degrees at the seminary, and they were being told, “Be patient. The church is changing. By the time you’re ready to go out in the field, the church will be ready to ordain you.”
And now we are all middle-aged and some of us are old, and the church is changing, but not always in the ways we’d expected. Yes, there was more support for the idea of ordaining women than there was at any previous GC, but there is also a strong conservative movement that is pulling in the opposite direction (on this and other issues) and those voices are very prominent in leadership right now.
Anyone who knows me either in real life or online knows that I wrestle a lot with my relationship to my church. That I love it a lot, and am very actively involved in it, but also that I disagree with its teachings on a few controversial points, and don’t mind saying so. I struggle with this, and over the years, as I’ve watched more and more dear friends give up on their struggle with the church and just step away, I’ve wondered whether I would ever be one of them.
I was crying several days ago as I listened to “This Little Light of Mine” because I know that Jesus has given us all light, but we don’t always let each other shine. And on Wednesday night, as I hiked the beautiful trail on the rocks above the ocean, I sang that song over and over — sometimes out loud, sometimes in my head — because no matter what happens, no matter what a bunch of dudes in suits at a meeting in a stuffy auditorium say, I still believe it. I believe Jesus gives me light — gives all of us light — and we can choose to share it with the world. We can do that inside an institutionalized religious body — though they may make it more difficult with their rules and regulations about how much light and when and where. Or we can do it outside any organized group, though that may feel isolated and lonely sometimes. The important thing is: WE SHINE.
When I reached the river that crosses the Silver Mine Head trail last Wednesday night, where I planned to turn back to Middle Cove and my parked car, I sat on a rock for awhile and looked out at the ocean. It was getting close to sunset then, and I knew the vote was probably in at the GC, and I knew that my beloved church had most likely voted, once again, to deny the gifts and calling of women in ministry. I was glad I had misplaced my phone before leaving the house that evening, because if I’d had it, I would have been checking Twitter to see the results. And I didn’t want the outside world, or the outside church, intruding on that sunset moment between me and God.
Then someone did intrude — a group of about fifteen teenagers of various ages and sizes, picking their way across the rocks on the river, coming from the Torbay side and heading to the Middle Cove side. I told a few of the girls in front, as they walked past, to watch out for the muddy part of the trail they’d just come through. The diversity of age in the group, and the presence of one bearded thirty-something guy as the token adult bringing up the rear and making sure everyone got across, screamed, “CHURCH YOUTH GROUP!!” to anyone with eyes to see. So I chose to believe that was what they were, and that right here along my path a young adult was shepherding a bunch of teenagers on a hike and to a bonfire on the beach because of a love for Jesus that he wanted to share with them. Because Jesus gives us light, and we’re gonna let it shine.
As the probably-a-youth-leader guy passed me there on my rock, he said, “Sorry for disturbing your peace!” so I must have looked like I was meditating or something, and I laughed and said, “No, that’s just fine!” And it was. My peace was just fine, and for that moment, regardless of the perfectly legitmate sadness and anger I’d felt before and would feel again, it was true. There on the rocks with the natural beauty of the sea and shore, and the human beauty of a bunch of kids on a hike, God seemed much bigger than any church meeting. The phrases: “There is so much good in the world; there is so much God in the world” repeated over and over like a mantra in my head, along with “Jesus gave me light; I’m gonna let it shine.”
Am I angry, hurt, disappointed by the church’s decision, once again, not to give women an equal footing with men? Oh yes. Am I worried about the direction in which certain conservative elements are pulling the church, not just on this issue but others? Very much so. Am I leaving my church? Not till they kick me out. Will my relationship to the church change? Yes, but then it’s always changing — always has been, ever since I was toted off to church all bundled up to be dedicated as a baby; it will keep changing till they carry me out of there in a box, as they someday will if Jesus doesn’t return before then.
But my relationship with God will always be bigger than my relationship with the church. And I will always try to let it shine.
(ECT stats, for my own keeping-track purposes: between this hike and another one earlier, I completed the tail end of Father Troy’s Trail and all of the Silver Mine Head trail — a total of about 3 km one way, or 6km return, as I did it).