At divinity school in the late 1970's I studied with some of the first women ordinands in the Anglican Church of Canada. Without exception, they were bright and competent and there was no doubt the church would benefit from the unique gifts each of them brought. Personally, their presence and their friendship made our training for ordained ministry not only rich, but also quite a bit of fun. They were a spirited lot.
But to a person, each woman suffered for her call. In their student field placements, some told of church members refusing to receive communion from them or walking out as they began to preach. Bullies came out of the woodwork, invading their personal space and making disparaging remarks right to their faces. Some were preyed upon by a predatory faculty member at our college. By the time they were ordained, these women had already paid a heavy price for crashing the Men Only party.
When they graduated, they hoped there would be enough forward-thinking parishes to hire them as women priests. Then, in their first ministries, their gifts were judged not only against their male predecessors, but also against male priests, period. Whatever the challenges of finding their way as newly ordained clergy, they also had to shoulder the burden of people's hopes and expectations, as if they somehow represented all women.
That was almost fifty years ago. The Anglican Church of Canada has been ordaining women priests since 1976 and there are now as many women being ordained to the priesthood as men. Women priests have been consecrated as bishops since 1993, and a third of the dioceses across the country are now led by women bishops. Our current Primate was elected in 2019, the first woman to fill that role as the head of the Canadian Church.
It is unthinkable that a modern church would be without female leadership, shaping its vision, forming its policies, and influencing its culture. But the Roman Catholic Church remains steadfastly male, even as vocations to the priesthood fall to dangerously low levels and modern congregations clamour for their church to reflect modern times. For Catholic women who challenge the status quo, they face not only the hostility of some rank and file Catholics but also the formal rebuke of the Roman Curia. The Church maintains, as an immutable truth, that only baptized males can be priests.
And yet ... in 2002, seven women were validly, if illicitly, ordained on the Danube, receiving the laying on of hands by male Catholic Bishops, thereby opening the doors for others to follow. Censured by Rome, these women priests have forged their own faithfulness as representatives of the Catholic tradition while creating a reinvigorated version of Catholicism. Their fledgling congregations feature inclusivity, open tables, participatory lay leadership, and biblical translations that reflect modern cultural and spiritual sensibilities.
Teresa Hanlon is one such priest. Based in Lethbridge, Alberta, her online congregation includes members from across North America. The liturgy is influenced as much by Indigenous spirituality as by traditional Catholic theology. Teresa herself adopts a thoughtful and contemplative approach to worship that is instantly engaging and, to those who have been hurt by Rome's intransigence, deeply reassuring.
I've attended two of her online services. In each, I was welcomed, included, and spiritually nourished by the liturgy, the homily (which was followed by breakout rooms to discuss what we heard), and the genuine warmth and hospitality of the congregation. It's everything I might have hoped for as a modern-day seeker.
Teresa was excommunicated because of her ordination, and inhibited from functioning in any way within the Roman Catholic Church. This was deeply hurtful to her. But the freedom to minister as she feels led, supported by a worldwide fellowship of women priests, and to exercise her God-given gifts in this way more than compensate for her Church's rebuke. It may take generations for the Church to recognize it, but Teresa is participating in nothing less than the rebirth of Christianity. Where women assume their rightful place.
To listen to our conversation in The Mystic Cave, click the Play button below. To find out more, follow the Information ("i") button to the show notes where Teresa has provided many helpful links and resources.