There’s a Woman in the Pulpit: Christian Clergywomen Share Their Hard Days, Holy Moments & the Healing Power of Humor
Edited by Rev. Martha Spong. Several Collegeville Institute authors contributed to this anthology, including Julie Craig, Stacey Simpson Duke, Ruth Everhart, Elizabeth Evans Hagan, Deborah Lewis, Bromleigh McCleneghan, Suzy Garrison Meyer, Katherine Willis Pershey, and Julia Seymour.
Skylight Paths Publishing, April 2015, 240 pp.
In her essay excerpted below, Bromleigh McCleneghan shares a story about the transformative experience of baptism.
I’ve always been glad to be a part of a tradition that baptizes infants. Wesleyans have our moments of works-righteousness, but when you baptize infants, when there’s really nothing that helpless, nonverbal individual can do to earn anything, you can’t help but be reminded that God loves us, loves them, not for anything we’ve done or refrained from doing, not from any understanding or accomplishment, but simply because it is in the nature of God to love us, and it is the desire of God to know and welcome us. “An outward sign of an inward grace,” we say. Water simply makes plain what is already true, and has always been: that we are God’s, and we are beloved.
This spring, a woman who had grown up overseas in a country with a majority non-Christian population, and a state religion, started worshipping with us. She’d come to the States for grad school and found her way to us in her mid-thirties. The architecture in our large university chapel never fails to inspire folks of all traditions: there’s something about the air, the light through the windows, the silence, and the way the sound of the organ fills the place. I, who never went to church in college, found my way back after a summer in Europe of visiting cathedrals and feeling, for the first time ever, moved to pray on my own. I get it, about the space.
One day this woman asked me how she should go about becoming a Christian. We celebrate a very open table, so she’d already communed with the congregation, but it nonetheless seemed obvious to liturgically minded me that what she was looking for was to be baptized.
We set up a time to meet, so I could get to know her better, so I could speak to her about this desire to become a Christian. She assured me it would not cause any problems with her family, who did not support the government’s form of religion in her country of origin.
She knew next to nothing about Christianity. I gave her some books I thought might be helpful, but though her spoken English was beautiful, she much preferred to read in her native language.
I tried to explain the Trinity; the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus; the story of sin and reconciliation and redemption. I tried to explain the church and our sacraments.
It took fewer sessions than I would have imagined.
She was curious about rituals—are there prayers that must be prayed? Times of day that rituals must be observed? Are their duties and obligations? Not really …
I felt initially that I was letting her down, wondering if I should have sent her to the Episcopal or Lutheran church down the street, both of whose pastors had more experience catechizing adults. But it was enough for her; coming from a tradition with prescribed practices, she loved the idea that she could connect with God—that she could seek and experience God—in her own words, in her own time.
Every baptism before I got to my current position was done in the midst of worship, in the midst of the body of Christ. But she did not want to be baptized during worship. She is very reserved, and this seemed to her a deeply personal, and thus deeply private, moment. This would eventually be between her and the community, but in this moment, her baptism was about her and God.
She came to the church on Easter Eve. I had my six-year-old with me, and she served as a witness. The three of us gathered in the chancel, around the altar and the beautiful big blue art glass bowl we had purchased for such occasions.
I performed the liturgy, asked if she accepted Christ, if she would turn away from sin and work to resist evil and injustice in all its forms. I feared that I was asking her to promise things I hadn’t fully explained.
But she said yes, so I cupped water in my hand, once, twice, three times, and I baptized her in the name of the triune God. I called her beloved—beloved to me and beloved to God. I said to my daughter, “This is the miracle of baptism—I am still your mother, but all three of us are now sisters too, sisters in Christ, sisters in God’s family.”
I hugged the woman, and she kissed my daughter on the top of her head. The grown-up ladies wept a little, while my daughter had this look of confusion and wonder on her face, as though she knew something important had just happened, but she wasn’t exactly sure what it was or how to describe it. With my years of theological training and pastoral practice, I was probably wearing a similar expression.
This material is not to be reproduced – doing so is a violation of copyright. “Three Sisters” by Rev. Bromleigh McCleneghan is from There’s A Woman In The Pulpit – Christian Clergywomen Share Their Hard Days, Holy Moments and the Healing Power of Humor, edited by Rev. Martha Spong, 2015. Permission granted by SkyLight Paths Publishing, Woodstock, VT, www.skylightpaths.com.