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12/04/00: An Untitled Piece, chapter one
by Katherine Keirns

I am not a radical woman.

At least I don't like to think of myself that way. To be radical implies that you are separate, by choice, from the ideological norms of society. I have never really understood the wish to be deliberately rebellious. That would only serve to distance myself from the community, to create hostility. As much as I don't like to think of myself as a radical, others do.

I've just turned thirty-two and a little gray has been sneaking into my hair. My mother tells me that it gives me character. My mother is being kind.

****

The Bible fell to earth fully written in the language of King James, closely followed by the 1928 Book of Common Prayer. So say the people of Saint Andrew's. Saint Andrew's Episcopal is a middle sized Parish in West Philadelphia, not especially rich, though it once had been. Built in what had been the city edge at its construction in 1912 the urban sprawl has since taken over. The Gothic Revival structure is now surrounded by apartments and row houses occupied by students and junior facility at the University of Pennsylvania, though oddly, few of those people actually go to Saint Andrew's.

An aging Parish, they have been privately at war with the urban diocese for almost twenty years. More actually, if you mark their discontent back to the Ordination of the Philadelphia Eleven.

****

I was six when a bunch of radical bishops and brave women forced the denomination to deal with the reality of ordained women rather than the theory. It was the seminal event of the last century in Anglican worship, and my life. But in truth, it didn't enter my consciousness until two decades after the fact.

I was ordained into the Episcopal priesthood less than three years ago, and while I am finally getting used to the particularities of my position, the unmerited, automatic deference it so often creates still bothers me. Almost more than the unmerited automatic hostility being a woman, being a former Roman-some were unkind enough to say failed nun, but few to my face-and a Spongian liberal created.

It amuses me a little actually. While I admire Jack Spong, the now retired Bishop of Newark, I seldom agree with him. In a way I think that it is his purpose in the Church to define the boundaries of what can be called Christian. Spong is the extreme left in the Anglican Communion, a theologian ready to challenge every sacred cow of the Anglo-Catholics and the Evangelicals, from the nature of death to human sexuality, from Mary's virginity to the reality of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. He's been trying to drag the church into the 21st century kicking and screaming. I'd settle for the 20th century just fine. But while I don't agree with the far liberal end of the Communion, in the absence of other leadership, I find myself looking to them for real change.

****

The shock and upset at the irregular ordinations shook the fragile peace of a church whose character dictated slow and deliberate change. In effect, the decision had been stolen out of the hands of those who believed themselves to be in power, and it was the first indication that their time was passing.

The real blow to Saint Andrew's and the conservative arm of the church in general, was the revision of the Book of Common Prayer. A staid and beautiful old document many people had used from birth, the 1928 had not gone through a major revision for more than half a century People had been born, lived, and died under the phrases of this book. People at St. Andrew's couldn't imagine what the General Convention was thinking, or how their book could be stolen from them, and this pale imposter in the form of the 1979 Revision put in its place.

For more than two decades the people of St. Andrew's have stubbornly refused to acknowledge the inclusive changes in the 1979 Prayer Book. They used their beloved, venerable old 1928 for years afterward. The community of Saint Andrew's, led by their vestry and rector, the Rev. John Farland, had dug their heels into the ground in 1974, and proclaimed to the world that they would not change, firmly believing in the justice of their cause.

And the body of Christian worship passed them by.

Unwilling to take a hard stands against the recalcitrant Parish, the diocese had decided to look the other way, and subsequent bishops followed suit. They used the hated, and dusty, 79's, when the Bishop of Pennsylvania came to do confirmations, but at no other time. Laboring through almost two decades under Farland's leadership until his retirement in 1998, the isolated island of static worship had been happy with itself, if not prosperous. As is standard in the Episcopal Church, the Vestry set about finding a new Rector through a search committee. No candidate seemed to measure up to Father John, and they had tried half a dozen interims without success. Too distant, too young, too old: no one seemed to fit their wishes. The comical farce lasted for three years before the Bishop finally was forced to take action.

Most likely Saint Andrew's would have been allowed to continue until it died due to its dwindling and aging population. The Diocese had enough problems dealing with an active social justice mission without having to nurse a single self-important parish. The two things that changed this stand did not even happen in Philadelphia, but they struck close enough to home to shake people within the halls of ecclesiastical power.

A recent trial of the Right Reverend Walter Righter for Heresy and the profound disappointment of the 1998 Lambeth Conference had awakened the progressive arms of the diocese to the danger of allowing small fringe groups to keep their security blankets in defiance of church canons. Ignoring what is right in the name of false unity had been a lesson learned after much heartache. But it had indeed been learned well in Philadelphia.

It was in that light, that Saint Andrew's priestly problem was viewed at the diocese. Under normal circumstances parishes were allowed to hire their own priests, which generally insured that priests and parish had similar values and character. However, when a parish is unable, or unwilling to find a suitable person, that bit of autonomy can be taken in an instant, the Bishop may appoint a priest-in-charge for them. If they wanted it or not. What no one could have seen, even those looking for change, was how this would shatter an isolated world, and make a young priest into something she never wished to be.

A radical.

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