Recently, when I was back in my hometown, I read on the front page of The Indianapolis Star that a 29-year-old local woman (originally from Texas) was a leader in the movement to oppose the ordination of women in the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S., reportedly with more than 15 million members nationwide. The movement's resolution passed as expected at the denomination's annual meeting held last month in Orlando, although the controversy over women as pastors is one of the key issues that led to the formation of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, whose congregations take a moderate stand on that and other theological issues.
The young Indiana woman I read about, Heather King, is a lifelong Southern Baptist who felt a calling in high school to serve God, considered overseas missionary work, earned a degree in biblical studies, studied counseling at a Baptist seminary, and since 1997 has worked with women in Baptist churches throughout Indiana to develop programs in evangelism and spiritual development. She told The Star that Southern Baptists "have always affirmed the spiritual gifts of women" but believe Scripture teaches that the role of pastor "is limited to men."
Ms. King sounds like a sincere and dedicated woman, and I respect her service to her church, as well her beliefs, though I disagree with them. I am prompted to comment on her campaign opposing women's ordination because of the coincidence (or is it synchronicity?) that she lives in the place where I came to believe that women ought to be ministers. I was 9 years old.
I first met Amy Franz earlier, when I was baptized as an infant at the First Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis. My first memories of her are as my Sunday school teacher when I was 5. Amy was a warm, round, apple-cheeked woman with her black hair pulled back to a bun. She wore rimless glasses and (as I always picture her) a dark red dress and those black, lace-up, square-heeled shoes that lady schoolteachers used to wear.
I also have a vivid memory of a painting that hung in Amy's Sunday school classroom, a picture of Jesus holding a child and other little children gathered around him. The faces of the children were all different colors--black, white, yellow, and red. That was an unusual sight in the 1930s in Indiana, which had the largest membership in the Ku Klux Klan of any state outside the South.
Even more unusual was that Amy taught us that Jesus loved all these children, no matter what their color, and that we should, too. These and other radical ideas (straight out of the New Testament) led to a general feeling among the congregation that Amy was a little "touched," that is, slightly kooky. She had to be tolerated, though, because she was the minister's wife.
The minister was a tall, stern man with silver hair whose voice was as deep and sonorous as I imagined the voice of God to be. He was highly respected, if not universally loved, and as a child I felt a little afraid of him, in the way I'd be afraid of God (to whom I felt our minister bore a striking resemblance). He was pleasant enough to everyone in his formal way, but my parents and I would never have dreamed of going to him with our problems. Besides, he seemed more concerned with the important members of the church. It was Amy, his wife, who took in the strays, which included my family and me.
Around the time I was 9 years old my parents began having difficulties with their marriage, and I was becoming more silent and sad around the house. If there were any psychiatrists in Indianapolis in 1941, we didn't know them, and if we had, would never have dreamed of seeing them. We went to Amy because she seemed to love rather than judge us, and the three of us felt so comfortable in her presence we could say things to her--and to one another--that we couldn't seem to say at home. We had tea in her sunny living room, a custom I thought was very "English" and special, and the tea, like Amy, helped us feel warm and safe. To me, Amy was "the real minister" and her husband more like the figurehead of the church, like those carvings of gods and goddesses on the bows of old ships.
We went to Amy's periodically all the way through my high school years, but it wasn't until much later, when I went back to church in my middle age, that I realized how crucial Amy's role was to my family as our counselor, our healer--and in the deepest sense, our minister. I know Heather King and the others who oppose women's ordination would argue that Amy did what she did in a role they'd approve, as minister's wife; but I've since observed and experienced the kindness and sensitivity she conveyed in women who serve today as ministers and also as rabbis, and in no way does this gift detract from their ability to preach, administer, and carry out the full range of duties as the leader of a congregation.
After all, the historic role of women as mothers and/or nurturers surely qualifies them for the mission expressed by Jesus when he said that he "came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many" (Mark 10:45). No one is qualified to minister because of their gender, and by the same token no one should be prevented because of it.