Hello, December! You’ve come with Christmas parties and twinkling lights (here in the very dark-nights-short-days of Scotland anyway)….and now with an INCREDIBLE person to help us celebrate December ordiversaries!
The Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney is an amazing priest and professor, a great scholar, and a wonderful friend. She’s shared her “saga” of responding to God’s call to kick off the December Ordiversary Party. Read on to hear more about her story, her current work, and her advice to those just embarking on this incredible journey.
I joined the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church as an adult having been baptized in the very similar AME Church as a child. Our pastor taught on spiritual gifts and led us in discernment. I fasted and prayed and was directed to a passage in Ezekiel from which I discerned my call to teach:
Ezekiel 3:4 The One said to me: Earth-Child, go to the house of Israel and speak my very words to them… 8 See, I have made your face hard against their faces, and your forehead hard against their foreheads. 9 Like the hardest stone, harder than flint, I have made your forehead; do not fear them or be dismayed at their looks, for they are a rebellious house. 10 The One said to me: Earth-Child, all my words that I shall speak to you receive in your heart and hear with your ears; 11 then go to the exiles, to your people, and speak to them. Say to them, “Thus says the Sovereign Majesty”; whether they hear or refuse to hear.” [NRSV modified]
At the time I understood that call to be in a lay capacity in the church. Within a year I discerned a call to preach and was perplexed because I was so certain of my teaching call. When I mentioned it to a new (senior) pastor with whom I was at some odds, I was surprised when he said, “What took you so long. I saw it on you when I met you.” I was really flummoxed and fasted again, returning to Ezekiel. In my prayer I came to understand that the call to preach was an extension of my call to teach, they went together and, most importantly, that vocational calls can and do unfold and evolve. Later I was not surprised with the revelation of my call to pastor and then to serve as an Army chaplain. There were those who said I did not know to what I called. Yet I would be teaching seminarians and divinity students who would become teachers and Christian educators, pastors and professors and, military chaplains, with my own lived experience.
Ordination Number One:
I was licensed to preach in 1994. I was frog-marched through the steps while attending the Howard University School of Divinity. I received my first ordination, Deacon’s Orders, on 26 May 1996 at the Pennsylvania Avenue AME Zion Church in Baltimore, MD. It was a very holy and emotional moment. A moment of humor: I had my hair pined up in a bun that was crunchy with hairspray. (The late) Bishop J. Clinton Hoggard palmed my head like a basketball and smashed my bun which popped back up when he unhanded me.
Ordination Number Two:
I graduated in 1997 and was serving a CPE residency at St. Elizabeths Hospital with the mentally ill and was on my way to substitute for another Army chaplain when my bishop decided I should be ordained before taking that mission and I had a private ordination to Elder at the Episcopal residence with my CPE supervisor, father and, godmother on 17 June 1998.
While in graduate school at Duke I served as pastor of the Thompson Chapel AME Zion Church in Goldston, NC while serving as an Army Reserve Chaplain at Fort Bragg and at the Durham VA. During that period I began to understand my Eucharistic theology and Mariology to be core components of my faith, which while not in tension with the AME Zion Church, were not nurtured there. My experience as pastor exposed me to political and fiscal realities with which I was not comfortable. While preparing to take an academic job in Philly I began to discern whether I would just move jurisdictions or change churches.
Thompson Chapel met two Sundays a month and I added a third. On the fourth I attended a black Episcopal Church. The then Episcopal bishop of North Carolina, Michael Curry, visited Duke and we spent some time together and, one semester I was assigned to TA Black Anglicans and Catholics. I left Duke knowing I was called to the Episcopal Church.
Ordination Number Three:
My path to ordination in the Episcopal Church was smoothed by the rector in North Carolina certifying my year’s membership with them. I encountered an obstacle to ordination in the person of the diocesan bishop in Philadelphia who I believe had never brought in clergy from other denominations and seemed quite reluctant to ordain me. The Episcopal Church is not in communion with the black churches formed in response to its racism and who share its broad liturgy and polity, though it is in full communion with white denominations with radically different liturgy, polity and ordination. He decided that I should be re-ordained, both Deacon and Priest, that I needed to do a couple of internships and even spoke of sending me to General Seminary in New York – while I was teaching at a seminary. When I inquired as to whether they had a job opening the matter was closed.
I submitted myself to the formal discernment and candidacy process – while I was sitting on candidacy committees as faculty for my institution’s students. My candidacy was perplexing to some of my interlocutors. I was ordained and fully employed, not looking to serve a congregation and clear about my call, none of which would be changed by the outcome of the process. The committee was used to much more vulnerable and submissive seminarians.
I was ordained a transitional Deacon (again) 9 June 2007 in the Philadelphia Cathedral after a weekend retreat that ended in a corporate vow of silence broken at the Cathedral. (We went from the retreat center to the Cathedral together.) One of the most memorable moments was the bishop washing – and kissing! – our feet. We were prepared for the former. The other notable moment was the full prostration in the service in my three-inch stilettos.
Ordination Number Four:
My last (and final) ordination was also in the Philadelphia Cathedral 15 December 2008. The former bishop had been sat down and I had the pleasure of being priested by (the now late) Bishop Frank Turner, who like me came to the Episcopal Church from the AME Zion Church. That final ordination felt like a culmination.
As a product of the black community, I know that my service and scholarship is a product of my community and is for my community. I live that out as a scholar for and in the church, intentionally remaining accessible to the wider public in addition to specialized work for the academy. The call to a predominately white church was troubling particularly since I knew I would be teaching in another, even whiter, denomination. I knew I would be teaching some number of black students and others of color yet that felt insufficient. Being rooted in a black Episcopal parish – the mother of black Episcopal parishes – rooted and grounded me and enabled me to teach and preach and serve in the black community. I lost that when I moved to my current position. I came to understand that part of my work on behalf of my community including teaching in these white spaces to shape the next generations of clerics and scholars combatting the white supremacist, patriarchal and occasionally misogynist history of biblical interpretation and translation.
My current project, A Women’s Lectionary, is both a liturgical and biblical studies project, the latter because of my particular methodology in translating the lessons gender-explicit to make women and girl visible and in the case of the psalms, explicit feminine God-language. I am particularly interested in how the church reads, hears, and prays and with what language. My other interest is preaching and sermon-craft.
Given the history of the world and domination of Christianity based in part on specific readings of scripture, “The Bible” is a pillar of the Western world and the wider worlds colonized and infiltrated by the West and woven through popular culture. It is inescapable. My ministry is public ministry, hence the label “public theologian.” Though insider space, I consider the church public space, even when individual congregations and clergy render it inaccessible. I also resist the label public theologian a bit. I am first a trained biblical scholar, one who does much of her scholarship out loud and in public.
Today I would urge candidates to take stock of their finances and debts and develop a realistic plan for addressing current and future seminary debt that is not solely dependent on church-based income or a spouse. I also advise clergy to develop self-care resources like a therapist and spiritual director and an exercise regime and, time spent outdoors on a regular basis. Lastly to continue to read and replace and upgrade seminary books within five years of graduation. As an alum or community pastor you should be able to ask for syllabi and assigned book lists. Where possible acquire or maintain borrowing privileges at a theological library. Develop conversation partners in and beyond your denomination. And, develop and nurture your own spiritual and devotional life as best suits you and your life. That may not be 4:30 am prayer or praying all of the Offices every day. Find that which nourishes your soul and invest in it.
Thank you so much, Dr. Gafney! I am so grateful to you for sharing your story, and I’m glad to know you!
Happy ordiversary to all our December-ordained friends. Tell us a bit about your ordination and your advice for ordinands in the comments, and let’s party together!
Teri Peterson is a minister in the Church of Scotland, living in the most gorgeous place that she can’t currently see because there are only 6 hours of daylight. She serves on the Board of RevGalBlogPals, as “mom” to high-maintenance cat Andrew, and minister to a fantastic parish.
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