What is our Experience?



Evening Session with Harris and Morrison-

19 March 1992



I just want to formally welcome you, Bishop Harris, to our group.  We’ve begun conversations today, and are delighted for you to join us.  We are ready for you to begin our conversation.



We’re going to talk tonight about our experience-about our own experience.  These two sessions of discussion, this evening and tomorrow morning, have sort have been billed as an assessment tonight of where we are, we in the sense of women in the Church, lay, clergywomen.  What is our experience?  How would we honestly assess speaking out of that experience, where we are today?  And tomorrow, if we can divide our minds in this way, we’re not sure we can, what do you see for the future?  What are the real challenges?  What are some of the ways which we feel, together, we need to think about the future as women committed to and involved in our churches?  We have two women with us tonight who have a lot of experience, and experience that has included for both of them the role of Bishop in the United Methodist Church and the Episcopal Church.  And Susan and Barbara are going to speak with us tonight about some of their experience and reflection having come thus far by faith. Susan.



What I thought I’d to start is, and I’ve never done this before, when I realized I was to kind of do some reflection on my past journey, as I went back and looked at some of my journaling early on in ministry, as I processed through.  And I just want to read some excerpts of that because I think some of the reflections from that journaling, actually, from my perspective, still exist today. And I hope that’s the starting point for our discussion, but also for some dialogue with you if it connects with your own experience, or what you’re dealing with in your ministry.  I’m just going to read them.  Hang loose, it’s not a lot. And I don’t start out dear diary either. (laughter.)

Passages from her Diary Throughout her Experience:

You can be a clergywoman and not perceive yourself as marginal, but it’s not possible to be both in touch with one’s unique experience as a woman and as a clergywoman and be out of touch with marginal status.  We can become so consumed by trying to prove we can manage the task set before us that we have been painfully slow in recognizing our need for mutual support and understanding.  Some of my friends are leading the ministry, when survival issues overwhelm them.  Often, rather than envisioning and implementing their own systems of relational support.  If you succeed as a clergywoman, if you find your appointment niche, that’s a United Methodist term, I don’t know if that’s true any other place (laughter), it is usually because we have developed an incredible capacity for educating, enduring, supporting, nurturing, challenging, and loving our congregations into allowing us to share in the ministry of the church with them.  Many clergywomen by virtue of socialization, enter ministry valuing collegial styles of leadership, only to discover they are expected to be a one woman show.  Successful cultural revolutions take place through effective corporate struggle and vision.  We must relinquish the fantasy “we should be able to…”  Or should be able to expect our calls via the traditional male models.  We must, we who’ve been in a while, must be intentional in offering support to our still isolated sisters.  When women began to enter ordained ministry, there was a groundswell of possibility, pent up creativity just bursting at the seams!  Historically repressed perspectives and visions about to unfold!  Finally, there would be an expanded locus of revolution, of revelation- all of humanity (laughter.)  The key word was different.  We expected a difference.  Some dreaded it, others yearned for it.  Whatever ‘it’ might be.  There seemed to be different waves of resistance.  First, there was resistance to the mere presence in seminary and ordained ministry. Then, as women began to take appointments, there was a backlash by male colleagues.  Then there were new DS’s, Bishops, leadership in conference staff, and they often paid a deep personal cost for the privilege of pioneering.  At each step though, the pressure grows not to be different, but to invest in the Church as it is, and to fit in smoothly.  Often with women who have passionate vision, because of the lack of role models and the chance to be nurtured in supportive groups, and also to be held accountable, they often become pray to co-optation and neutralization.  I like to think that God is doing a new thing in our midst.  Not new people for age old itinerancy game of “can you top this?” (laughter.)

Translating Cultures of Authority

This is my diary.  That’s all the gets published. (laughter.)  Being a pioneer in some ways, has been, I have to admit, fun, because I like risk taking and there is a sense of empowerment where you can create new models.  But I think one of the hardest struggles for me in that role has been that I’ve always felt like I’m translating cultures or styles, because in order to fit in the group, I would, I felt like I was doing what didn’t come naturally to me, and I was also being evaluated on the other style, so that a lot of my energy then, went into feeling like I was continually translating cultures.  Authority, it’s been a struggle.  It’s always, I think easier for women-not always-often, to feel authority in the pulpit and in worship, and less so administratively.  Partly because I think it’s an issue of models of leadership and use of authority.  And how do you claim that, and what does that mean, especially when there’s other expectations of how you’re going to come across? And how you’re going to be.  I’ll make one other comment, then I’ll quit and we can do some dialoguing after that.  There still is, as mentioned earlier, backlash going on.  My experience, when I first came in as a superintendent was we were going to appoint, and this is how the United Methodist system goes, we appoint pastors to churches, people in local churches were vocal in their resistance to women. “You’re pushing us.  We don’t want them.” Etc.  Then there became a period of time when I think they still felt that, but it wasn’t correct to say it.  (laughter)  I think this is true of racism, and a lot of things, by the way, now.  It is now, ok, it seems, to say it.  And what I’ve experienced as I’ve worked in the appointment process, I’ve been struck this year, is those same lines that I once heard 10 or 12 years ago, are now being emotionally vocalized again.  At a time when I think many of the women coming into ministry don’t come in, with at least a- that’s too strong- a sensitivity of what’s it’s taken to get at least where they are today, or what their sisters have given in order for them to be.  And no understanding that they need one: the support of one another as sisters and that the issues they’re going to face are women’s issues in the church.


Claim your Identity in Authority

Good evening.  I’m sorry I could not have been with you for the earlier part of this gathering, but I’m delighted to be with you tonight.  And, Susan and I decided that I would listen as she talked, and to see where there might be some similarities or differences in our experiences.  I felt myself saying ‘amen’ to just about everything that she has reflected upon.  As I recall some of my journal entries, I think some of the same issues get touched on.  In the Episcopal tradition, we use the word collegiality a great deal, especially among Bishops (laughter.)  Last week, I spent 5 days almost, with my brother Bishops talking about collegiality (laughter.)  And I thought, “how strange that such an issue is made of collegiality is made in a hierarchical church.”  And that is simply one of the anomalies that I think we face as a church and certainly as women trying to minister in this church.  It is our tendency to, as women, I think, to want to minister and to function around a consensus model, in a church that is hierarchical, patriarchal, and legislatively oriented.  And that makes for some emotional pull and tug for women ministering, I think, in the Episcopal Church.  And it’s been a pull and tug for me, and particularly, as I have tried to live into this role as Bishop over these past three years.  The whole church I find, is in an identity crisis and issues of authority are plaguing people at all levels of the church.  And if you buy into this identity crisis, you will never come to grips with your own authority.  You have to take it, and claim it, and let those who are in identity crisis, and struggling with who they are, go through their struggle, but I think, women have got to claim their authority and go with it.  And not get caught up in that kind of sick whining that I have heard from my brothers in the house of Bishops about their authority being questioned and how they’ve been hurt by other people acting on their conscience.

Ministering to the Whole Spectrum

I was amazed at the pain of grown men who wept all over our last general convention in Phoenix, Arizona about the pain they were experiencing because some of their brothers had acted out of conscience.  And I refuse to buy into that kind of sick behavior.  And I would caution women moving into ministry to avoid the pitfalls of sickness that are so rampant throughout the church, no matter what the denomination.  If you can stay focused on what you’re called to do, and not buy into those pitfalls of sickness, I think our ministry will be healthier, more wholesome. The question of acceptance, which I get asked about a lot- “what has been your acceptance?”- my experience has been that the acceptance is overwhelming among the very young and the very old.  There is less acceptance among people who are struggling with their own identity and issues of personal security.  I had an experience in visiting one of our congregations, early on in my time here at the diocese where a man brought his four-year-old son to church one morning when I was visiting.  And on the way to Church, he said to the young stamp, “the Bishop is going to be present today.”  What she is going to wear, and what is she going to do, and what is she going to say.  When he went through all of this, finished, the four-year-old said to him, “Dad, can boys be Bishops sometime?” (applause and cheering.)  Among older people, I have encountered, and I’m talking about octogenarians, there has been a kind of spirit of, “why not?  Let’s go for broke.”  The number of older people have come to me with tear-filled eyes saying do you know what it means to me for you to be my Bishop?  I think those, those two ends of the age spectrum say a lot about our church and what is happening to people in their own faith journey.  And it is, God bless them and save them, we’ve got to minister to that whole spectrum, including those in identity crisis.  But don’t pin your acceptance on people who are struggling themselves.  And with or without acceptance, you’ve got to follow your call.  And you’ve got to follow your ministry as it unfolds and as it is revealed to you.  One other story about older people.  And older gentleman, in one of our churches planted a big kiss one day, and then slapped me on the arm and said, “Baby, just keep on doing what you’re doing.”  (laughter.) And somebody said, “You don’t call a Bishop ‘Baby’” (laughter.)  And he said, “She knows what I mean.”

Bishop Barbara Harris

‘Lord, Plant my Feet on Higher Ground’

I think that in this, this whole Christian Church of ours, women have brought a perspective, not heretofore present.  Have brought a sense of nurturing in spiritual direction and pastoral care, and a heightened awareness of inclusivity, and additional images of God.  And for that, some have been ridiculed, some have been ignored, but some have been heard.  And people are beginning to see their own ministry along with the ministry of women, in a new light.  Are beginning to see possibilities, and are beginning to raise the question, “Why not?” Why not?  Certainly, there have been some risks, particularly in the face of those who follow a conservative theology.  But I think there are ways to raise issues, and to raise concerns in a non-threatening way.  By caring.  By sensitivity.  And by not buying into that morally bankrupt ‘old- boy’ network, of which you’re never going to be a part anyhow, and why do you want to?  There’s an old hymn that says, “Lord, plant my feet on higher ground.” (laughter.)  And I think, out of my limited experience as a priest, and more limited as a Bishop, to keep focused on that ‘higher ground,’ has been the saving grace.

That even though on the margins, you exercise an authentic ministry validated of God.



Question and Answer Section


Now’s your chance.  And I’m sure that many of you have questions that you’d like to raise to these two women who have spoken so powerfully out of some of their experience.  And not only questions, but perhaps some of your own experience to share. So, let’s open the floor for your reflections and your questions.
The question was whether Bishop Harris could identify a couple of those pitfalls of sickness.


It’s Dangerous to Minster Alone

One I think is the notion that you minister alone.  And so many people try that ‘lone-ranger’ model, which is, I think, doomed to failure.  If you’re not in a cooperative model with others in ministry, clergy and lay, I would say you’d have a less successful ministry.  And a part of that ‘lone-ranger’ model, is the notion that clergy have to appear that they can do it all.  And that to rely on other people is to give an image of being less than a success.  And God does not require us to be successful, God only requires us to be faithful.  And I think it’s dangerous to try to minister alone and not keep touching base and calling on colleagues in ministry-male and female-ordained and lay- for help, support, and a place to be able to share and be vulnerable.  I think a second area, is not being clear about authority.  And there are a couple kinds of authority.  There is an authority inherent in your office.  But you also have to be mindful of where the real ecclesiastical authority resides and how to work with that.  And when that authority becomes a block to resort to the highest authority, out of conscience.  That’s just a couple.


I wonder, Susan, if you would talk also a little about this issue of authority.  I kept thinking that especially because of the way in which most of us would like to work as women- and I feel this in a university context as well- being in a position of authority, especially in relation to many of the women that are in your jurisdiction and in your charge, must have some special tensions built into it.


I guess what comes to my mind, and that happened just recently, and that’s just what’s on my mind, I don’t know if it totally answers your question.  We’re doing a strategic planning process in one of the conferences that I serve- I serve two conferences- and in that conference there’s a planning group that’s been established and we’ve been working with a consultant.  And even though, several times in the beginning of the process, I talked about why the group was gathered my expectations of how we would work together in kind of weaving a vision for the conference, even after a year and a half of meeting, we still had to have the discussion on why I’m not bringing the vision for the Church, and then I said, “well, then, why are you gathered?  Because you’d just be putting it together, I mean, you’d just be kind of working it out.  That my understanding, from my perspective and at least how I function, is we together will weave that vision.  Now, I’ll take some leadership as we develop that vision and move out.”  But, the interesting thing to me is that more than once, we’ve had to have that conversation.  And there’s only about 20 in the group, and this group is very close and it’s worked through a lot of issues together, but a kind of reminder of a kind of way they were looking for authority and maybe a different way in which I was enabling authority.


I have a question about the concept of ‘not fixing something if it’s not broken.”  And wondering if there is a way in which sometimes, I experience a little difficulty, am I failing to take authority in a position when I ought, or is there a case in which this is a battle that doesn’t need to be fought.  Can you say something or would one of you saying something about the places in which exercising authority is crucial and then another place where we might better bypass that authority?


Susan says why don’t I answer that.  I can’t answer that!  (laughter.)


“You Choose Your Places”

The terminology I use, I don’t know if it’s a good one, to cash your chips in.  You don’t, you know it’s so easy in the system to get our energy drained on running around trying to fix or use authority or whatever on everything.  And I think, I go back to our perspective as women can bring is to be able to see maybe where a little different eyes, not get caught in doing all that, and then choose your places.  Choose your places.


I would agree with that.  I’m a firm believer: ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’  There’s a lot that’s broken that we can’t fix.  And you can get a lot of your energy drained off by joining impossible battles against obviously overwhelming odds.  I think you focus on those areas which are important to you and to those, to those concerns that you feel you can do something about.  And you do have to pick your trenches very carefully.  Where you going to die?


Posing a Question to the Audience

I’d be interested in asking some of you the question that Susan raised, and I raised in a different way this morning.  That is: Is it your experience these days, that it is true, that there is something of a backlash against positions of authority that women have in churches and many other institutions.  Susan Faludi’s book Backlash has created quite a stir since it won the Pulitzer Prize, but she doesn’t talk about churches, like many feminist analysts don’t.  And I wonder, if this, if this, sort of mood swing is something that is being experienced by women in this group.  I’m seeing some wagging heads.  Anyone got some experience to share on this?  Yes?


Well, interestingly I find that I’m not having trouble in my local church, I’m in  suburban church, most of  the women work, most of them are junior executives in their companies. And they were sort of like, “It’s about time we had a woman pastor!”  But in clergy circles, I’m finding the clergymen are just having this difficulty.  And it reminds me of what some of my African American sisters have said about how white women put it on the shoulders of African American women to define our self definition.  And I find that my clergymen friends in my conference doing the same thing like, “Well, we don’t have a support network.  That must be the women’s fault.  Why isn’t there a clergyman’s caucus? (laughter.)”  It’s like, you got it, you know, you’re sort of the majority.  But those kinds of things getting put on our shoulders actually from our professional colleagues, rather than from my parishioners, which has been an unpleasant surprise.


When I or other clergy, not just women, but progressive clergy in my conference preach about women’s issues or about folks with aids, or about folks who are gay and lesbian, or about South Africa or whatever, the response we get is, “Well, why don’t you preach about men, or why don’t you preach about people with cancer?  Why don’t you preach about normal folks?”  And there’s very much a touchiness about what is a special interest group, as if we never mention them the whole rest of the year, sort of.  And I don’t know if there’s backlash or not, but my sense is that people are touchier about these things than they were a while ago.  So, that’s another place I think it comes out.


There’s a sense in which some of the touchiness I think, and some of the backlash, is also prognostic of the fact that some of the changes we’re talking about truly are revolutionary.  And are happening and are deep and are threatening and are real.  There’s one sense in which the backlash effect is the sign of the health of what’s happening as well.

Where’s the Two-Way Street Here?

One of the things that came to mind as Bishop Harris was talking about the issue of what kind of responsibility are you going to take for people who can’t accept you, or the reconciliation of that?  Talking about the issue of pluralism as I was this morning.  One of the things that comes up again and again, almost immediately as I begin to explore the various kinds of theological and social options that people have in thinking about the problem of difference from exclusivists say, “Our way is the only way” etc.  one way to the truth, and it’s the one that we know.  The inclusivists that sort of draw the big umbrella over ‘our way’ and say “well you know, our way is really big enough for everybody.  And everybody can come in under our umbrella and our understanding of truth. There’s room for everybody in the house that we’ve built.”  So to speak.  And then the pluralist who really says, “You know, we’ve got to rebuild this house if we’re going to include everybody.  We need to rethink some of the structures that we already have built.”  And then immediately someone will say, “Well, you know the problem with this pluralist thing is that it doesn’t include the exclusivists.”  (laughter.)  And I think it’s the same issue.  You know, it makes sense to students that this pluralism has a pitfall because it becomes it’s own kind of dogmatism, and it doesn’t make room for the people who believe that there’s an exclusivity.  It doesn’t make room for the fundamentalists.  How can you have a pluralist view if you don’t make room for the fundamentalists?  And I think it’s that same issue of: where’s the two-way street here?  Where is the mutuality?  And, in so many ways, some of the backlash effect that we see in the folks that have invented this issue of political correctness and started pinning it on various people in our society as if it were some condemnation precisely comes out of these concerns, I think.


I just want to ask the sister who just spoke, do you also get the question, “Why don’t you preach the gospel?” (laughter.)


Empowerment as a Justice Issue

I think that we are all powerful because we are children of God.  But one of the ways that define empowerment, is that I think of empowerment as a justice issue.  There are places that are, a lot of things in society, that have been shaped by groups, by sex, or by class, or by race, and when they are in the majority, then that’s power, because they are the one who puts the standards.  Susan was saying that we are evaluated by the standards of others.  So, I see, in that case, I see empowerment as an opportunity to change those institutions- racism, sexism, classism so that we all indeed can be included in the benefits of society.  So empowerment is, if we happen to be in one of those groups, and we benefit from the very fact that we are a part of that group.  And we can be aware of that, and try to change systems, change those standards, and that is what is empowerment.  It’s a justice issue to empower all of us in reality to keep building a new community.  So in that sense I feel empowerment is not a bad word in that sense, by that definition.


Empowerment and Experience Together

In that sense, I think that the issue that we’re, we began with tonight: the issue of experience, is also related to the issue of empowerment.  And I think to what extent our own experience becomes authoritative for us in dialogue with the experience traditionally with the Church, in dialogue Scripture, in dialogue with one another.  But, in which we really seize the authority of our own voice in speaking the truth as we see it out of our own experience.  And in some ways, I think the revolution of women’s role and status and voices in churches and society, has been a revolution of experience. One of the things, to go back a little bit to this morning and some of the experience I’ve had with inter-faith dialogue involving women, is the remarkable way in which the kinds of dogmatic issues that are front and center in many inter-faith dialogue situations that are primarily men, are almost absent.  The whole range of theological issues that have to do with dogma and with the issue of who is saved and how we’re to think about those issues, totally gone.  And women very often- I’m thinking of an inter-faith meeting we had in Toronto about 4 years ago- 45 women from every single religious tradition including Wiccans, who would not begin by saying, “well, according to Christianity, and according to Christian Scripture, and according to Islam,”  Etc. They would not think about that, sort of, as someone put it earlier, ‘universalizing a voice out of their own experience.’  But we’re very clear about contextualizing their own voices and saying, “listen, I don’t speak for all Christians, I don’t speak for all Muslims, but…” and then claiming the ‘but’ as a valuable place to stand and as contribution that has some authenticity and power.  And I think to be able to do that and to claim that sort of authority that comes from the faithful witness to our own experience as we see it, and a kind of faithful truth telling, is a form of empowerment that’s very important for women to recognize and also to be able to facilitate among that well, you know, someone said the nursing home.  But in a way, the churches are a pretty beleaguered minority these days.  I don’t see a lot of people rushing out to join the church community, and part of it, I think is going to have to do with being able to claim our experience and being able to speak truthfully. So that the questions that we address are really questions that are relevant to the people in our own midst.  I feel this especially dealing with students who are really, who are not rushing out to churches, and who want some truth telling that comes from experience.


I want to ask a question.  I’m not serving as a local church pastor at the moment, but knowing that one of the things, not taking away from authority and power, but talking about modeling something different.  What was very important for me in my ministry was not to fall into the 80 hours a week lifestyle that ministry leads you to, and the expectation that you’re going to be everywhere.  And my perception is that two Bishops and a professor also, are called upon to fall into patriarchal trips- literally trips (laughter.)  And I just wonder how you deal with that?  And how have you been not to, or been able to offer your brothers a different way or your sisters who look to you to try at the place you’re at, show what can be done differently?



I haven’t done too well with the time issue.  I have to be completely honest.  But, I’ve tried to do some things in other ways.  Let me just take a minute.  I, in conversation with somebody, I said that I was afraid that the bishops in the Episcopal Church did not have much of a life outside of the House of Bishops.  And so much of themselves was invested in the life of that house of Bishops.  And I felt like saying to them, “Get a Life.  Get a life!” (laughter) And I try, although I take my ministry very seriously, and my role as a Bishop very seriously, I also try to have some life outside of that house to keep one: sane, and two: in touch with reality.  So I would offer that to my brother Bishops, and hopefully soon to some sister Bishops.


Susan, how’d you deal with the 80 hours a week?


Well, I’m just trying to envision myself walking into the next council of Bishops meeting and saying, “Get a life!” (laughter and applause.)  I love it, I’m just kind of fanaticizing (laughing.)

BARBARA HARRIS: Try it, you’ll like it!


It’s hard, and it’s no different than it is for any of you in your own professions, I’ve just learned to say no.  And I know, a lot of that, it sometimes means less presence.  And it could be at quote ‘strategic system places’ I should have been.  I usually take only one thing outside my area like this a year.  I do get pressure.  “It’s your turn now to go and preach at this, or teach at this thing because all of we Bishops have done that.”  And I just say no.  And it works.  But, I live with a conflict and some guilt on that to be all honest.


There’s a professor at Harvard named Roger Fischer who’s written a pretty good book called Getting to Yes. And I think that somebody needs to write a book called “Getting to No.”  I don’t manage to avoid that model of an 80-hour week at all.  And partly it’s because I’m trying not only to do my job, which is to chair a department and to teach and all of that, but also to, as you say, get a life.  And the things that I really do find exciting to do and exciting to get involved with and work to do that is quite outside of the university, which I find an oppressive context to spend most of my time in.  Probably the best advice I had on it was from a Buddhist friend who told me that I needed to think about the hour I spend a day, if I can make it, in a meditation practice as my office hours.  But that’s my office hours. The rest of what I do is for fun.  Those things tend to so often, get tucked into the end, if there is time.  So I value that piece of advice. I keep trying to live up to it.  I can’t say, so successfully.