We are fortunate to be part of a local worship community connected to an order of Episcopal Sisters—in which our priest/celebrant, preacher, and servers on Sundays are likely to be women.
Of course, men preach and serve on some occasions. But to have women as our primary spiritual leaders, as we do, is a surprising and refreshing experience. It is a situation worth reflecting over, after about a decade of participating, along with my husband, in this unusual extended worship community (where he is a lay reader and server).
Women were first ordained as priests in the Episcopal Church in 1974, and the former Sister in Charge at St. Mary’s, Sister Lucy, was the first woman to be ordained in the Diocese of Tennessee.
At present two of the Sisters are already priests; one is on an ordination track; and a prospective novice is an ordained deacon soon to be a priest. With these leadership resources (several of the Sisters are also nurses, others have various advanced degrees)—it is no wonder that they are a center of spiritual nurture and sometimes surprising revealings of how God comes to us through the feminine spirit of godliness.
Surely there is no difference per se in the fact of smaller feminine hands breaking bread and offering the Chalice of peace to communicants. Women have traditionally hosted feasts of all kinds, and this most sacred spread of a table is a natural and lovely outpouring of individual feminine gifts employed to benefit the whole.
Yet not only the two sexes, but all individual persons embody and offer differences in style and presence that affect how we are brought into fellowship with God and each other through these acts. The Sisters’ generosity reminds me of this quote from 14th-century English mystic Julian of Norwich that “The mother’s service is nearest, readiest and surest”—something palpably embodied in these women and their ministry.
And at St. Mary’s I find a spirit of nurturing that extends beyond the acts themselves: helping needy mountain families survive in these times; taking Communion, prayers, and gifts of food to the ill and shut-in; participating in civic organizations—seeing the disciplined spirituality of the Order reach lovingly toward the whole of our unique extended community and town.
I mention only in passing that the Convent grounds overlook a magnificent bluff on the Cumberland Plateau, so that the changing backdrop scene (through the window above the altar) depends on primal elements of sun, rain, fog, and cloud.
Not only women (and I am a laywoman) but any who worship here cannot but feel these connections to the natural cycle of days that women are attuned to and live by.
Seeing men assisting in the furtherance and support of this feminine spiritual community in its ongoing ministry is also a beautiful thing to me, and reminds us that contrast and counterpoint are the essence of the art of life itself.
It is not for nothing that in the Old Testament, Wisdom is personified as a woman, as in Proverbs 8: “ … whoever finds me finds life” (v. 35a).
In the Sisters I see the wise advice of St. Catherine of Siena that I love to quote put to practical point: “Make two homes for thyself, my daughter. One actual home … and the other a spiritual home, which thou are to carry with thee always.”