In 1860s America, women had numerous restrictions placed upon them, as noted in previous posts. One of these was that they generally were not allowed to speak to gatherings comprised of male and female listeners (“mixed” or “promiscuous” gatherings). This prohibition extended to preaching. A woman who felt called by God to serve in a pastoral capacity, like Frankie Blaine of the Saint Maggie series, was not allowed to go any further than serving those of her own sex. And ordination was out of the question.
The struggle still goes on. Women today run the risk of being silenced, not having their gifts and talents recognized, and being controlled. While the dystopian TV series, The Handmaid’s Tale, based on the book by Margaret Atwood, has garnered a huge following, there is some real stuff going down.
Here’s an example. This week something happened within my denomination of the United Methodist Church (UMC) that surprised me on one hand and prompted an “it figures” response on the other. Simply put, there was a vote on proposed language changes in the Discipline (the UMC’s rule book) that strengthened language in support of women’s equality. It was voted down. Yes, voted down. What happened? That is the “surprise” part for me.
Let me be clear. UMC women in the United States are permitted to be ordained as elders and deacons, just as men are. Their ministry is acknowledged and welcomed (for the most part). But this is not the case worldwide, and the UMC is a church made up of representatives throughout the world. The rejection of the proposed language is coming by and large from groups in parts of the world where the equality between men and women is not yet recognized. That is the “it figures” part of my response.
I’m not going any deeper into the politics of this, save to say that the UMC prides itself on being a “world-wide” denomination. Yet “Pride comes before disaster; and arrogance before a fall” (Proverbs 16:18, Common English Bible, CEB). It is difficult to have a denomination made up of disparate groups. If the UMC wants to survive as a “word-wide” church, then it must figure out how to negotiate these instances when cultural differences and understandings of scripture among the different constituencies clash.
It just so happens, that my work-in-progress, The Good Community, includes a scene in which Frankie, Maggie’s outspoken and obviously “called” daughter, drops a bomb on her mother. I’m posting this scene today in honor of all the women who went before, the women who live now, and the women still to come who were, are, and will be called by a God who looks upon the heart and not the appearance.
Read on. Mr. Lowry is the pastor of the little Methodist Episcopal Church that Maggie’s family attends.
No sooner had the Register staff and Lydia gone out the door than Frankie opened her letter. She read eagerly for a few seconds and then shrieked. “Mama! Mama!”
“Good heavens!” Maggie rushed to her side. “What is it?”
“He’s coming here! He’s coming home!”
“Yes! Patrick!” And Frankie began to beam like a lighthouse.
Maggie realized her daughter was happy and therefore the news wasn’t bad. “So, he’s not been injured.”
“No! He’s perfectly healthy.” Frankie brought her excitement under control. “Mama, Patrick has been promoted to sergeant. His surgeon recommended him for an opening at Mower U.S. General Hospital. He’s coming to Philadelphia! He’s going to be a steward.”
“What’s a steward?”
“Well… it’s a… a…” Frankie frowned. “I don’t know.”
Maggie put a hand on her daughter’s arm. “Don’t worry. I’m sure we’ll both find out as soon as Patrick gets here.”
“He says he’ll come for a visit on Monday and has a week’s leave before he reports for duty.” Frankie’s eyes filled with tears. “Oh, Mama! He’ll finally be away from the fighting!” She dragged a handkerchief from the sleeve of her dress and mopped her face. “I’m so happy… I’ve been terribly afraid…”
Maggie put her arms around her eighteen-year-old daughter and gave her a warm hug. “I know, my dear. I know. This is wonderful news.”
Frankie returned her mother’s embrace and, after a moment, murmured. “Mama?”
“I had tea with Mr. Lowry today.”
Maggie released her daughter. “Did you?”
“Yes. You see, I had a question and I asked for his thoughts. He was quite helpful.” Frankie bit her lower lip as she mulled things over. “And… Mama… he believes God is calling me to be a minister.”
Maggie’s heart simultaneously swelled with joy and contracted in concern. “Did he?”
Frankie nodded. “So, I asked him how I could do that because it seems impossible. Women generally aren’t welcome in seminary and our church won’t ordain us.”
“What did he suggest?”
“He…” She took a breath and then finished in a rush, “He told me to go west and start a church.”
The floor seemed to fall out from under Maggie’s feet, but she managed to stammer, “West? He said west…?”
“Yes. He says there are fewer rules out there and not many churches. He said it might be the place for me to go. I’ve thought it over and why not?”
Why not? Maggie’s heart was screaming: Because you might get hurt out there. Because people are wild out there. Because you’re my little girl and I can’t bear the idea of you going so far away. Because Jesus forgive me, I’m afraid God can’t protect you the way I could.
“Besides, last month when I told Papa that I wanted to be a minister but didn’t know what to do, he said I might want to consider another church – like the Universalists.”
Maggie’s eyes widened. “What?”
“Well, the Methodist Episcopal Church won’t ordain me it, will it?”
“No. No, they won’t.”
“Papa also told me to go west.”
“He what?” Now, that was too much. Maggie tried to keep her voice steady. “Papa told me you wanted to be a minister, but he never mentioned that! He never mentioned going west. Not once.”
It dawned on Frankie that she probably had gotten her stepfather in trouble, possibly big trouble. “But, Mama, it was a conversation between the two of us. I didn’t think I needed to tell you.”
Maggie huffed. “Well, someone needed to tell me and that someone is your stepfather. He suggested that you find another church and perhaps move all the way out west! He proposed that you take radical actions. I am your mother! I have a right to know what he said to you.”
“Now, Mama…” Frankie straightened her shoulders. “Don’t you know that before I do anything, I always discuss it with you? And don’t you remember it was you who once told me that if I were to become a preacher, I would need to be brave and strong?”
Maggie felt a blush creep up her neck. “No. It slipped my mind.”
“You, Mama, were the one who helped me understand what I was feeling.”
“I?” A light went on in Maggie’s head. She was the one. Not Eli, not Mr. Lowry. She had planted the seed that was now bearing fruit. “But I had no idea you would actually consider leaving the Methodist Episcopal Church and moving far away. I never would have – “
“Oh, Mama!” Frankie laughed. “Don’t you understand? You had no more control over this than I. It’s all the Holy Spirit’s doing. What will happen, where I will go is still unknown. But I will tell you this: as of this moment, I have no plans or ideas about what I shall do and when I shall do it. Rest assured. Mama, I will come to you when it is time and share everything with you.”
The tone of Frankie’s voice and the look in her eyes were not those of a young girl. And Maggie was struck by the hard realization that her little daughter had become a woman, or at least was stepping into womanhood.
“I’m sorry, dearest,” she said, pushing her pride and fears aside. “You always do consult me when you need to make a big decision. I have been acting foolishly.”
“Nonsense. You’ve been acting like the mother who loves me.” Frankie kissed her on the cheek. “I promise to come to you with any decisions I make. I need you, Mama. You’ve always been my rock.”
We all need a rock, don’t we?
Until the next Squeaking Blog (Monday), have a good, happy, fruitful weekend.
Janet R. Stafford