Almost every vocational deacon I know, when asked why he or she has not become a priest, will respond, “I have never felt called to the priesthood.” Some will add emphatically, “not for a minute!”
I am not one of those deacons.
I don’t share this story often, rarely in its fullness, and never in public non-anonymous writing. Be gentle with my soul, O Church. The words which follow are all too raw.
I first felt called to the priesthood before I claimed the word “priest.” It was a fleeting moment in the middle school mind, and easily abandoned. Children try on shoes, and my wandering attention during a dull class did take a bit of a look at the shoes labeled “minister” but set them aside as having too much to do with funerals. As a college freshman, it was the word “priest” that came and caught me in a lonely hallway, one afternoon. I presented it to friends as a joke, before it settled in on me during the weeks that followed as a very serious reality.
I read everything I could get my hands on. I was not yet confirmed as an Anglican, let alone having a theology of the priesthood, even less as a woman. I read the autobiographies of the Philadelphia Eleven (the eleven women ordained to the priesthood irregularly and as an act of defiance in 1974), and anything else on women priests I could get my hands on. I kept a journal, and I prayed. I took all the right steps, and when the rector of my church “back home” asked me out of the blue what I felt God was leading me to do with my life, I swallowed hard and told him what was on my heart. His response was, “Well the first thing we need to do is get you confirmed.” And yes, I was confirmed, by the Episcopal Bishop of Iowa, and my bishop back home in East Tennessee was very receptive to considering a young woman with a liberal undergraduate background in religion for discernment for ordination.
I look back on that sometimes and think of what could have been. If I had kept my mouth shut, nodded at all the right affirmations, and kept my feet on the path that had been neatly placed before me. It would have been an easy thing to just keep moving forward, to find myself twenty years later as a priest in the Episcopal Church.
Instead of following the path before me, I veered from it. At a friend’s suggestion, I chose a seminary unsanctioned by the bishop of East Tennessee. I had a baby during my first year of seminary and began to question my priorities. I felt pigeon-holed into forms of ministry I never envisioned. In the end, I walked away from the ordination process entirely for a couple of years.
Vocations don’t leave us alone.
Eventually, presented with a strong model of the vocational diaconate in my parish (by then in the Diocese of Pittsburgh) I again swallowed hard and shared my sense of vocation with the woman who would become my “mother in the diaconate.” I knew as soon as I did, it would again be out of my hands. This time, I submitted to the process; I let it unfold as it willed. I was ordained a deacon in June of 2004.
I would like to say that since then my call to the priesthood has gone away, but it has not. Most of the time, it lies dormant, but it has its triggers. Some have been intentionally put in my path by well-intended priests, occasionally even those in authority over me. Some I have simply had to stumble upon by chance, or in a more self-indulgent moment have sought out and examined anew.
So why am I not a priest in a diocese which would happily ordain a woman priest?
In short, the cost is just too high. I simply do not have the right to pursue my individual sense of calling at the cost of the unity of the Church.
Those who might consider themselves my cheerleaders, encouragers who accept the priestly ordination of women have as much as exhorted me, from time to time, that the place of women within the church was hard won, and perhaps I am betraying the sacrifices of others to step away from the path they have blazed. Yet they have blazed that path in rebellion, all the while taking vows of submission to authority and to the Tradition of the Church. Somehow, in the span of my lifetime, we have come, unwittingly, to rest significant aspects of our theology of Holy Orders, as they relate to women, on a secular idea of equal rights. To be clear, no one has a right to ordination, whether a man or a woman; ordination is quite the opposite, a setting aside of one’s personal rights for the sake of the whole Church. We follow a Lord who did not consider his own equality with God a thing to be grasped, but humbled himself to death on a Cross. And yet, we are conditioned to grasp and cling to our rights. It is the modern, Western way.
In practical terms, as a woman deacon I can go anywhere (or close to it) from women clergy gatherings to fellowship with bishops whose conscience would never allow them to ordain a woman. I can serve among Anglo-Catholics (the branch of the Church which holds my heart) but also among the Evangelicals, whom I hold dear. The whole Church is my people.
This is essential to me. In this mobile society, we should know now more than ever that our clergy are ordained for the whole Church, and it is the whole Church that bears responsibility for the actions of a few. Each diocese is responsible not only to its neighbors, but to our ecumenical partners and also to those whom we set apart as ordained leaders, as well. Many of our women priests, when transitioning from one diocese to another find themselves orphaned in a diocese that does not ordain women priests. Many of our “traditionalist” clergy are as easily orphaned when transitioning to a diocese that joyfully ordains women priests. The two so-called extremes are not as different from one another as they may seem.
But Christ did not establish a divided Church. We were made for more than this.
Women priests, many of whom are my friends, I honor your ministry.
I see the pain you’ve experienced and the sacrifices you’ve made. Yet I cannot see a way in which there can be a priesthood that emerges from an act of rebellion and division, as took place with the Philadelphia Eleven, that can be good or healthy for the whole Church. I do not see a women’s priesthood in Anglicanism today that is focused on unity over rights, on ordination as self-emptying rather than claiming our equality.
Perhaps it is a failure of imagination on my part, but I do not see a path forward, on our current trajectory, for ordaining women to the priesthood that does not sacrifice our unity for the sake of our individual sense of vocation. Any viable and unified path will require deep sacrifice, and it will be women in leadership who will be required to make those sacrifices. We will all lay our vocations on the altar.
I do not believe the church has been kind to women priests. Many are simply trying to love Jesus and serve him the best way they know how. Yet the Church has systematically abandoned them to their ministries with no assurance of their place within the whole Church, shuttled them out of the public eye as if they represented a momentary indiscretion, and even subjected them to verbal abuse in our public discourse. This is not the tradition we inherited. It is not who we are to be in Christ. The early Church was a haven for women in part because of the intentionality of the Church’s empowerment of those whom secular society disenfranchised, quite notably women. Jesus himself surrounded himself with women. Paul called them fellow workers and greeted them prominently in his letters. Whether or not they were ordained to the priesthood, the early Church’s women were empowered for ministry. While some served as hospitality co-ordinators and nursery workers (or some ancient equivalents thereof), others served as missionaries, evangelists and martyrs, and yes, deacons. The modern Church has failed, in some places quite miserably, in this task of empowering women to serve in ways that fulfill our less traditionally feminine gifts and vocations.
Those who oppose the ordination of women, I hope you will understand the sacrifice required, specifically of women, to lay our vocations on the altar knowing that it cannot be expected to be received by the whole Church.
This is a uniquely feminine sacrifice, to be called and never empowered, to be shuttled off to birthing and raising babies (and being told that the painful and messy “miracle of life” should be enough for us), and to the ministry of hospitality and children’s ministry in some branches of the Church, when our gifts and our calling are to proclaim the gospel and make our Lord known in the breaking of bread. The women of the Church are often the walking wounded, caught in the crossfire of other Christians’ battles. Unless you look at women’s ministries through the lens of sacrifice, you will never truly see.
There are some, I understand, who are vocal in our Church’s public discourse, whose social media personae seem to be that of card carrying misogynists, but I know firsthand that they are no majority voice. In fact, rarely have I felt as empowered in my diaconal vocation nor as valued as a woman than I have when in the company of my friends from Forward in Faith, the REC, and dioceses that do not ordain women (some not even ordaining women deacons). Our conversations are often open and honest, affectionate and theological. We value one another. It grieves me that the tone for the whole church is not being set by these individual bishops and faithful believers.
In my own journal, I recorded a quote from Archbishop Beach shortly after his election to serve as our archbishop. When asked what he thought about the Church’s women priests he replied, “For the people on the other side of that issue, for me I feel we need to honor them and respect them and treat them royally” (personal journal, July 6, 2014). Many in the Church have done just that. Nonetheless, when the official statements come down—the sort which carefully balances itself not to offend either side nor to make progress in either direction—we continually fail to acknowledge that our women priests are sisters in Christ, our women deacons are caught in a perpetual crossfire, and our dioceses which do not ordain women at all are often missing any visible and healthy vision of women in ministry other than the stereotypically feminine roles. Many of us are just not cut from that cloth.
Vocational deacons, my own heart, this does not diminish the wild abandon of joy I have for our order.
My love for the order defines my diaconate, and I see your own sacrifices and self-emptying defining yours. Each of us has had to lay lives upon Christ’s altar and acknowledge that it is not about us. Even our own vocation is not ours. It is about our Lord and his Church and the profound beauty of his creation, of which we are part.
I have been blessed to work with deacons (men and women) from coast to coast, in Evangelical and Anglo-Catholic dioceses. I have never encountered one who would not lay down their life for the unity of the Church and the gospel of our Lord. Every single deacon has a complex call to walk in an in-between world, fully in orders and yet limited, under authority, even at times wholly defined by what deacons can’t do. Every single deacon has a vocation of sacrifice. This small story is simply a portion of mine.
In short, it is from the diaconate, this foundational order, that I find the most encouragement for the future. While women’s ordination to the priesthood has, quite frankly, gutted the modern diaconate in the global north, the order has continued to hold fast, examine its heart, and increasingly take up its historical identity in connection with the deacons who have gone before. What is perhaps overlooked here is that the diaconate continues to need encouragement and development, despite being somewhat outside the fray.
I do not share this story to gain your sympathy.
I would rather not share it at all, most especially not in a church that sees every mention of the ordination of women as an opportunity to demonize one another and fragment further along party lines. I would rather hoard it to myself, and not risk becoming the next target of ecclesiastical angst and ire. I do share it, however, in order to remind the whole Church what is truly at stake here. I share this story because I see the Church as the only institution on earth which is literally called to hand-feed its members from baptism to the last moments of life, and I see that the Church of the Internet Age has traded that call for a culture that devours one another instead.
Our gifts and our identities are received from God; we do not make them ourselves. We have a responsibility to one another to hold those offerings gently and to lift one another up, to be merciful to one another, to sacrifice our own wills for the sake of the gospel. This is the diaconal identity, the self-humbling ministry of Christ, and it is therefore the foundation of all our Holy Orders. It is also the only way we have to move forward.
St. Paul struggled with such painful factions and divisions in Corinth, and wrote to the church in Philippi on the value of placing our Christian identity, as a community, ahead of our individual goals, however well-intended: “So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Phil. 2:1–4, ESV).
What follows this passage is the great “Christ hymn” in which we are reminded that our Lord himself did not consider his rightful nature of the godhead as a prize to be grasped, but emptied himself to the point of death on a Cross.
There is no healthy priesthood that is sourced in an act of rebellion. It does not matter that the rebellion took place a generation ago. Neither does healthy discernment depend on our individual ambitions and personal liberties. Holy Orders must come as an act of radical obedience. There is no fulfillment of a diaconal vow that comes at the cost of the universal Church, for which we are to be servants.
I am humbled and gratified daily that our Lord saw fit to make me a deacon and has (mostly) given me the grace to be satisfied in this gift which he has given me.
I am hopeful that we may someday be able to set aside our conceits and agendas and truly seek God’s will as one Body. I am convinced that my continued experience of a call to the priesthood is part of the Lord’s call to me to set aside what I may think even of my own self and let him fashion me instead after his own likeness. That is, after all, every Christian’s hope, sacrifice, and joy. I am also convinced that our Lord’s call to all of us is to a unity that loves one another, even as Christ has loved us, even to death on a Cross, no matter which side of our divisions we claim as our own.
Tara Jernigan is a graduate of Trinity School for Ministry (MAR 2000) where she serves as an adjunct in diaconal theology. She is also a graduate of Nashotah House Theological Seminary (D.Min 2010) where she serves on the Board of Visitors. She is a vocational deacon in the Anglican Diocese of Pittsburgh, a Biblical Languages teacher at Veritas Scholars’ Academy, an occasional contributor to Human Life Review, and the mother of three sons.