By Adrienne Trevathan
Anna has been much on my mind. A few days ago was her official commemoration day, and I had the honor of reading some highlights from her life in a worship service. Since then, her wisdom and strength have been a breath of fresh air for me throughout the week as I think about her struggle with the Methodists.
Anna Howard Shaw was the first woman to be ordained by the Methodist Protestants, a group who separated from the Methodist Episcopal Church in the early nineteenth century. In 1875, The Methodist Episcopal Church refused to ordain Anna on the grounds that she was “inferior.” Anna writes about the event:
And when they came to read out the names and all the young men went up to be ordained they read out our names and the Bishop refused them. Then afterwards we went to him and asked what we could do. We said we had been trained for ministry and that we believe the Lord intended us to preach and that the church refused to ordain us: we both had parishes where they were perfectly satisfied with us, except that we could not baptize or marry them, and we had to be ordained to do that; and what were we to do [?] He said we had better get out of the church. I asked what kind of encouragement would he think that was to a young man who had spent years preparing for the ministry to be told to get out of the church! He said he was sorry but that was all he could say. And I said I would not get out: that it was hard enough to get on anyhow and I wouldn’t waste my strength trying to fight the Church too, that I was going to be ordained and if they wouldn’t ordain me, I’d go where they would.
[Nancy N. Bahmueller, “My Ordination: Anna Howard Shaw,” Methodist History 14/2 (January 1976): 126-131. Excerpts.]
At the advice of a male colleague who advocated for women in ministry, Anna went before the Methodist Protestants for ordination. After the interview, the committee of the Boston Conference took two days discussing Anna’s character before they finally called her back:
The next day they had me come back and they asked me a whole lot of questions. The first ones they asked were about [Saint] Paul of course. Did I know what Paul said and did I believe it. And I said yes. Then they said what did I [think] about his having said “Wives obey your husbands.” So I told them…and they hadn’t heard of that. Then I added, but even if he did mean as they said, it didn’t apply to me for I had no husband to obey. But they said I might have. I said I might have but if they believed in Paul the only thing for them was to ordain me, for I might have a husband who ordered me to preach and if they would ordain me now I could, whereas if they ordained me and he ordered me not to preach I could stop if I married. Well, of course that made them terribly mad…
Oh, they asked me all sorts of questions of that sort, but I had the best of them, for they were not educated people at all, and of course I was straight from studying the Bible in Hebrew and knew a great deal about it. And then of course I’d taken special pains with that part of the subject and knew all about it.
Finally, Anna was accepted for ordination as a Methodist woman. As she stood for ordination, she was surrounded by a large crowd of people, most fascinated to see a woman ordained, some likely amused that it was happening in the first place:
I nearly died of shame. I was the only one being ordained and when I had to stand up there all alone I thought I should faint. The wife of Mark T., such a tiny little woman she was, just about a head and shoulder shorter than I, saw how I felt…and she came and stood with me and held my hand. I thought it was so nice of her. I’ve never forgotten it, it was one of the kindest things anyone could do. And she was an Episcopalian, too!
I find many things about her account powerful, not only for me, but potentially for all people who struggle with the Church and its definition of freedom.
First of all, Anna knew her limits. She knew the struggle she would have as a woman, and she chose to find another community. I think it’s important to recognize that she didn’t just leave her community out of frustration; she left it because she didn’t have the strength to fight it. For Anna, being faithful to her call meant using that strength instead to walk through another door and prepare a way for other women. She used the opportunity she had to be faithful. Some LGBT brothers and sisters have found themselves in a similar situation and have been met with the choice of staying in the church or leaving it. While it may be easy to critique them, perhaps we should remind ourselves of how much strength it takes to struggle for basic freedom and rights that the hetero-normative world takes for granted.
Secondly, as we can see from Anna’s story, she was a woman who “knew her stuff.” Not only did she know it, but it became such a part of her that those around her couldn’t deny it. I also love her sense of humor in other sections of her account. Who’s to say that the children of God can’t toss out a zinger every now and again? I wouldn’t say that it’s only those fighting for rights, however, that need to speak and teach a new language to the church.
This brings me to my last point, which is that someone was there to hold her hand in her time of need. I can only imagine what it must have felt like to be the first woman ordained, to stand in the spotlight of skeptical men who were calculating future failures. Thank God for the “wife of Mark T.” who stood up next to her, gently grabbed her hand and gave her a breath of fresh air. Thank God for everyone who has stood with anyone “Other” in this society and affirmed them. Thank God for the people who have shown me that my sexuality is only one part of the beautiful story of God.
As I think about freedom today in conjunction with Anna’s testimony, I am reminded
of what I’ve heard several people tell me in the last few years: Freedom is not the ability to make a choice. Freedom is the ability for all people to have what God wants and desires for all to have.
I truly believe that God prepares a way for everyone; I guess you could say it’s part of my implicit theology. It took me longer than I care to admit to realize this, but I can’t turn back. My hope and prayer as an ally is that I can be one of the people who stands up to hold a hand and offer my love and energy.
I am haunted by the conclusion of Anna’s story:
So that’s how I was ordained. It wasn’t very glorious. It was rather like sneaking into the ministry by the back door. But if they won’t open the front door to you, what else can you do? Some day they’ll open all the front doors and make a proper use of the enthusiasm for service that women have got—not only in ministry but everywhere. But until then we’ve got to keep climbing in the best ways we can. And there’s a good deal of fun to be got out of it if you can keep from being bitter and angry.
Keep climbing, people of God. Keep reaching out for all God wants you to have.