What few of her parishioners know, or are only now beginning to discover, is that on one Sunday morning eight years ago Rev. Dr. Amy Richter of St. Anne’s Parish in Annapolis, Maryland took second in the Wisconsin State Fair’s physique competition. This was no small feat. In addition to training for the event, Richter had to wear a rather skimpy, red, rhinestone-studded bikini that was sent to her in the mail, and to parade across a stage while flexing her shiny muscles for the crowds.
Her introduction? “Next we have Amy Richter, from Milwaukee. She is 37 years old, and she works as…a priest! Well, hallelujah!”
Her prize? A three-foot-high trophy that Richter cupped proudly as she walked through the fairgrounds.
Last month in an article for The New York Times, Richter, who is an Episcopal priest, shared her experience of being a female body builder with the title “Rev. Dr” in front of her name. She, like I, has had her share of expressed discomfort with her gender in church leadership, all of which has led her to conclude that, “somehow, despite our belief that both sexes can serve the church, it seems there’s still something unnerving about a priest who is a woman.” “It has to do with a woman’s body,” Richter concludes.
Maybe it is precisely this recognition that was at least in part Richter’s motivation for parading her near-naked body across a stage to the tune of a Macy Gray song. Because if a woman’s body, simply by being seen for what it is, destabilizes and calls into question traditional notions of male-centric church leadership and power- a de-centering that I would argue must happen in the 21st century, and should have happened long ago- then maybe we women in leadership can learn to embrace healthy, constructive ways to showcase our bodies and what they can do. Maybe strutting across a stage in a red bikini, metaphorically speaking, is the very thing that more of us can and should be doing.
Richter describes how she responded to the inquiries of children who saw her flashy trophy and stopped her to ask how she won it. “I wanted to say I won it for being the strongest priest in the state, for being a woman who is a priest with a really strong and healthy body,” she writes. “I wanted to tell them I won it for being brave, but that wasn’t really true, because I hadn’t been brave enough to tell the people it would be the biggest risk to tell. ‘I got it for being myself,’ I said.”
I suspect you don’t have to go to Richter’s great lengths to be a female body builder in the church. I suspect that there are a host of ways that women leaders can express who we are and be ourselves despite what those in the pews (male or female, and often they are female) would tell us. And when we do this, we do so for the building up of the body of Christ. What Richter stops short of saying is that “being ourselves” is not just about feminist self-expression or self-empowerment for the sake of it. It is about living into the Christ-centered reality of a kingdom that does not operate according to the powers of darkness that govern our world. A kingdom at the center of which is Christ and in which there is “no male or female, Greek or Jew.”
A bit of a paradox resides in the notion that, to shine a light on this gender-blind kingdom in which God’s Love rules, we women and our manliest of male brothers will need to do a better job of getting comfortable with women’s bodies. But, whether they’re strutting across a stage in a bikini to win an award for being strong and healthy, or administering the Word and Sacraments to God’s people- whether they’re the first to witness to the empty tomb and the resurrection of their Lord- women’s bodies are important building blocks in God’s story of redemption- of restoration of the world as it was intended to be. Let’s treasure them. Let’s inhabit them with ease without needing to be self-conscious about them. And for God’s sake- seriously- let’s celebrate them!