For The Someday Book

Ashes, Clergy Collars and International Women’s Day

Posted on: March 8, 2019

Preface: Yes, it’s been forever since I’ve written here. Life in London has been crazy and full and wonderful, and there is much to catch up on. I miss writing, so I am trying to make space for it again, as part of my Lenten practice. If I tried to catch up everything, I’d never get anywhere, so I’m just starting fresh.

20180214_122342For the third year in a row, I have stood outside our church building on Tottenham Court Road offering Ashes To Go to the thousands of people who pass by. Roadworks almost forced me to cancel this year, but I managed to find a tucked-away corner for two short hours at lunchtime.

It’s always a little bit awkward standing out there, with signage, stole, and small dish of ashes in my hand. In a multi-faith, international city, many people have never heard of Ash Wednesday, and stop to ask questions. Others stare, look away, smile, nod. Then a few immediately make eye contact and step right up for the gift of ashes.

This year, though, people also stopped to argue with me. Wearing a clergy collar on a female body, even in London, prompts daily stares and whispers. At least once a week, a stranger comments that they have never seen a woman priest before, or tells me I am wrong to do this work, or asks if I am wearing a costume. I’m used to it. Sometimes, there is even a real moment when eyes are genuinely opened.

I am always armed and ready for these encounters. When two different strangers approached during Ashes to Go to question how I can be a woman in ministry, I challenged them with a perspective they have probably never heard about the scriptures. I do this at least once a week. I know my lines, and they are well-rehearsed.

However, as often happens, both turned argumentative, wanting a long debate over weaponized scriptures. When that happens, I know it’s pointless and just time to get them to go away. However, I also still want to be nice, or at least seem to be nice. I’m supposed to be a good representative for Jesus and his church, and I didn’t want to give them any excuse to call me or my church hostile or dismissive or defenceless against their scriptural interpretation. That means I always spend an extra 2-5 minutes (or more) just trying to extricate myself gently from the conversation and get them to move on.  

I felt an acute sense of pain in these lost minutes on Ash Wednesday, as I watched countless other strangers pass by, unengaged. The detractors pulled me away from my purpose. As the second arguer finally walked off, I realised that, in the name of Jesus, I needed to stop wasting my time trying to be nice. With the whisper of the Holy Spirit, a new script appeared in my mind:

“I hear that you want to argue with me about my ministry, but I am not out here to defend God’s call or purpose in my life. I am here to offer the good news of Jesus to people might not hear it anywhere else. You are standing in the way of that work. So you need to move along, and let me get on with the assignment God has given me.”

I felt such a surge of power and authority in this new script, redirecting my energy to my call to connect with those who need to know Christ’s love. With this script in hand, I  realised the absurdity of standing on the pavement in front of the very church I serve, with my name on the sign with the title “Senior Minister” next to it, still defending my right to be there.

I was so eager to test my new lines, I almost hoped another interlocutor would appear, but none did. Still, I started rehearsing them for the next time.

The next night, Thursday, I left the office and went directly to an event at my son’s school, still wearing my collar. On our way home, I ended up sitting separately from my husband and son on the bus, and a stranger decided to announce to the rest of the bus that he had never seen a woman priest before, but he knew I was “illegal” and so was my church. I was unfazed,  but since I was not actually doing ministry, I reverted to my old scripted lines of defence about “not in my tradition, not in my understanding of Jesus’ love.” My family had never experienced this kind of encounter before. These real-life trolls don’t engage when there is another man to confront. My family’s response was to just get off the bus early and walk. I remarked that if I got off the bus or subway every time that happened, I’d never get anywhere.

Unlike all the other encounters, which I forget as soon as they are over, this one stayed with me last night. Perhaps it was watching my adolescent son react as a random stranger felt entitled to belittle and disparage his mother in public. Perhaps it was the new script for ministry moments from the day before. I realised in that moment how dis-empowering it is even to defend myself, as though these strangers’ opinions–which are usually uninformed and prejudiced and often drunken–entitle them to a thoughtful, compassionate response from me. They don’t.

This morning, I woke up to several social media posts about International Women’s Day, including this perfect (profanity-laden) one from the BBC:

There was also a Twitter meme with the hashtag #takeupspace inviting a feminist Lenten practice of refusing to be small in order to make someone else comfortable. Sit comfortably, use the armrest, cross your legs, throw an elbow on the empty seat next to you. Women have a right to exist in the world and take up space too.

I realised that my very engagement with these folks who simply seek to diminish or dismiss me because I am a woman in ministry actually gives them more time, energy and power than they deserve. I don’t owe them a damn thing, and certainly not a defence or explanation of my existence. I have a right to take up space in public without defending myself or my ministry.

While I don’t think the BBC’s basic “f*ck off” is Jesus-like enough for me, I am drafting a new script.

“I don’t owe you an explanation for my existence. You are not entitled to lecture me about my relationship with God. If you want to inquire about God’s love and grace, I’m here for that. But if you think you have the right to question God’s call in my life, you can take it up with God, not with me.”

It’s not perfect, but it’s an improvement. I’m off to memorise and rehearse my new lines for the next encounter.

Additional note: This also has me reflecting on the daily experiences of people of color, who are harassed, belittled and demeaned in public, in front of their children and colleagues, with an additional threat to their safety. My privilege as a white woman with professional status and resources allows me to be “mouthy” without serious risk of someone calling the police and claiming I am a threat. I might be called a b*tch, but I’m not likely to get hauled off to jail for standing up for my right to ride a bus or go to the park or sit in a coffee shop without being subject to interrogation by a stranger. This privilege often does not extend to men and women of color. I wanted to acknowledge the added layer of racism that only amplifies this struggle for so many. Even as I figure out how to take up my own space, I am also trying to figure out how to use my privilege to support others in taking up their own space too.


4 Responses to "Ashes, Clergy Collars and International Women’s Day"

Rev. Jennifer,

Very nice and thought provoking writing. I guess I am one of those anomalies whom most of the time I don’t see, gender, color, religion, etc. in people. I see people who are all equal on the playing field (even though physiologically there is huge differences between genders, different discussion). Yes it is “illegal” for women to be in certain professions, in the world according to some religions or even traditions. Just the same as it is “illegal” for men to be in some professions, although I think the list for men is much shorter, but whatever.
If we get right down to the nuts and bolts of people we all have a calling in life, whatever your calling is so be it, who am I to judge, I may inquire about your “why” as I am just an inquisitive person who loves to know what makes people tick.
I truly loved the article and have learned a lot from your teachings of faith. You brought a whole new level in my faith and thoughts on faith. And fortunately I think we have another Pastor at St. Luke’s that is going to continue that growth, and yes our new Pastor is a female in human form but is a leader of GOD’s word and faith by her calling.
You are right, don’t think GOD would approve of the f*ck off approach but I think your newest script is spot on and who cares what those bloody limeys think.
Keep up the good work and look forward to reading more articles in the near future.

GOD Bless

As always, Jennifer, I treasure your words, and am grateful that you are back to your writing. Since I’ve never worn a collar, I’ve not experienced the negativity; still, I am grateful for your public witness and who knows when I might decide it’s time to start!
Blessings “across the pond!”

Proud of you Pastor Jen!

I needed to read this today! As always you bless me. I love and miss you my dear friend.

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About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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