What I Learned by Marrying a Priest

JOY CARROLL and I were married in 1997. A year later, we had our first son, Luke. We met at a delightful British festival of faith, the arts, and justice called Greenbelt. Joy—a Brit—was on the Greenbelt board and also one of the speakers, as was I. We were on a panel together in a tent with a couple thousand young people, and that’s where our relationship began. I had coffee with Joy afterward, and she told me about the long journey women had made toward ordination in the Church of England.

Joy had been trained as a priest at Durham, just the same as the men, but at that time wasn’t able to be ordained to the priesthood. Her first parish was in a housing estate (what we would call a housing project) in the middle of an impoverished neighborhood with lots of drugs and violence—a place where male priests were afraid to take their families. As a deacon, Joy moved in to live and work in the housing estate, doing everything a priest would do except celebrate the Eucharist, which was still reserved for males only. At age 29, she was elected to the church’s General Synod—its youngest member—and in November 1992 she cast a vote for women’s ordination. Joy went on to become one of the first women ordained as a priest in the Church of England.

When Luke was 4 years old, we found ourselves back at Greenbelt, again as speakers. Sunday morning is always a high point at the Greenbelt festival, with creative and powerful worship that draws most of the 20,000 in attendance. Joy was on the main stage as the chief celebrant of the Eucharist, while Luke cuddled on my lap, carefully watching his mother at the altar. He looked up at me and asked, “Dad, can men do that too?”

Having a woman celebrating the Eucharist that day was a moving, freeing, and emotional experience for many who were there—women and men. But it just seemed normal to a little boy watching his mom and wondering if he might be able to do that someday himself.

You can read Joy’s human and spiritual narrative of how female priests were finally affirmed in the home church of the worldwide Anglican Communion, and how Joy became script consultant and friend to the cast of the hit BBC and PBS comedy called The Vicar of Dibley, in her book The Woman Behind The Collar. (In the U.K. it’s called Beneath the Cassock.) Even today Joy is known in her home country as “the real-life Vicar of Dibley.”

LIVING WITH A priest, who is also a woman, has taught me a lot. I’ve learned that “quotas” and “percentages” of women are not the deepest issue here, even though they often are for institutions. From the first time I watched and heard Joy Carroll lead a liturgy and preach a sermon, I immediately saw her natural gift for taking people into worship. She is a natural pastor, much more than I am, and becomes the “village priest” in any place she lives—whether she is formally in ministry or not. The issue for women like Joy was and is to simply be given the freedom to offer their gifts to the whole church. The church is much more with those gifts and much less without them. Jesus welcomed women into his circle of disciples, even in an extremely patriarchal society, because he knew all that they could bring.

I’ve also learned that changing the world requires the leadership of women. In the poorest countries of the world, women are often the chief victims of poverty and violence, but they also demonstrate they are absolutely central to the solutions. Anyone who works in the developing world knows if you want to end poverty, you must empower, educate, and support women and girls. Around the world, many women keep not only their own families together, but other families as well. Women are often able to bring people together in congregations and communities and to reach out to those who, in many churches, have felt marginal—from the bottom to the top of our denominations. I’ve even found this to be true among women CEOs who seem to look beyond their corporations to the wider world, often more than their male counterparts are able to.

Jesus was right—and women were right to feel welcomed, safe, and empowered in his presence. Their leadership in the early church was central to its success. And the insecurity of male church leaders who have sought to rescind that welcome ever since has hurt the church and its mission.

The inclusion of women in the church is not just about what is fair or just, but also how the church can use the gifts of its female members to help us change the world. Now more than ever, women’s leadership in the church is central to changing the role of the church in the world. 

Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners.

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