In May, the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, Katharine Jefferts Schori, came under blistering criticism within her own and other Christian denominations for a sermon she gave on the island nation of Curaçao. The sermon was so provocative that it led critics on the Christian right to charge that the first presiding woman bishop in the Anglican Communion was possessed by the devil.
In six sentences, the bishop upended a longstanding interpretation of an event recorded in the Acts of the Apostles, in which St. Paul is said to have delivered a young pagan slave girl from demonic possession. The slave girl was also a fortune-teller in the city of Philippi, and her craft brought great profit to her slave masters. When Paul and his companions arrived in Philippi to spread the Gospel, the girl followed them around, shouting to everyone, “These men are servants of the Most High God; they will make known to you a way of salvation.” The slave girl did this for several days until Paul finally got annoyed, turned to her and said, “In the name of Jesus Christ I command you, come out of her!” (Acts 16: 17)
From then on, the slave girl was silenced.
According to Rev. Robert Barron, a conservative Catholic priest and documentary host, up until Jefferts Schori’s Curaçao sermon, “the entire Christian interpretive tradition read that passage as an account of deliverance, as the story of the liberation of a young woman who had been enslaved both to dark spiritual powers and to the nefarious human beings who had exploited her.” After all, the slave girl in question, as recorded in Acts 16, was a fortune-teller whose owners made a profit off her fortune-telling.
Yet if one only read the hostile characterizations of Jefferts Schori’s sermon, without reading the text in its entirety, one would come away with the gross misperception that the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church supports the rights of slave owners to make a profit off their fortune-telling slaves. In truth, Jefferts Schori’s reference in the Curaçao sermon to the slave girl’s “gift of spiritual awareness” is an acknowledgement, an affirmation of the fact that the girl saw the evangelists as coming from God, notwithstanding her non-Christian religious practice. The bishop was drawing attention to the fact that Paul himself did not see this spiritual wisdom and goodness in her, but chose to see in her wickedness, and nothing but wickedness.
As Jefferts Schori so eloquently stated in the Curaçao sermon, “We live with the continuing tension between holier impulses that encourage us to see the image of God in all human beings and the reality that some of us choose not to see that glimpse of the divine, and instead use other people as means to an end.” In Paul’s interaction with the Philippian slave girl, the human impulse to use other people as a means to an end – in this case to demonstrate his spiritual superiority over her – triumphed; the holier impulse to see the glimpse of the divine in all human beings was smothered.
Embedded in Bishop Katharine’s controversial Curaçao sermon seems to be a lament. It is a lament that St. Paul, in his interaction with the slave girl in Philippi, instinctively chose to deny speech that was not his own – speech from an “other.” Equally devastating, he chose to deny love from an “other” that was being freely offered to him; love from a young slave girl who desperately wanted to be a part of his light, not condemned as a lesser-than by yet another human ego.
For Roman Catholics who strongly believe that it is long past time that the exclusion of women from the priesthood come to an end, it is terribly disappointing that Pope Francis has just reaffirmed his opposition to women’s ordination. No doubt, part of that opposition comes from a deep-seated fear about what women’s equality in the priesthood would mean for Church teaching.
Indeed, if half of the Catholic priesthood were comprised of women, how many other Curaçao-like sermons would there be? Put another way, how many opportunities would the Catholic faithful have to hear the perspective of a spiritual shepherd who is infinitely more concerned with getting her flock to the spiritual place where they can see the glimpse of the divine in all human beings, rather than getting others to dwell in the pettiness of, essentially, asserting personal spiritual supremacy over other human beings, while getting ever more deft at each stage of life in using the name of Jesus Christ in that utterly wasteful endeavor?
I can only hope that one day my church, the Roman Catholic Church, will end its discrimination against women in the priesthood. And I hope that if and when it does, those women priests and bishops will be just as human life-affirming and focused on the kingdom of God as Bishop Katharine.
Timothy Villareal is a Miami-based writer. His website is http://timothyvillareal.wordpress.com.