How do women bishops cope with traditionalist parishes, and vice versa?
We asked Geralyn Wolf and Jonathan Ostman from Rhode Island
FROM 1975 TO 1977, I attended a liberal seminary during the day, while
living in a traditional Anglo-Catholic convent. While the seminary, which was
at the forefront of women’s ordination, offered me a great sense of
experimentation, I had difficulty with the rhetoric and stridency. Meanwhile,
convent life was rhythmical and deeply authentic. My spiritual life flowered
under the gentle guidance of the sisters and their clear expectations. Liberal
and conservative views became part of an inner, spiritual struggle, as I am
attached to both.
When I was elected to serve as the 12th Bishop of Rhode Island, one of the
electors made a motion that the election be unanimous. Regardless of the flurry
of hands that were raised, I knew that an important group would have difficulty
supporting a woman bishop. In my acceptance speech, I acknowledged that the
vote was not unanimous, nor should it be. The fact that some priests could not,
in good conscience, receive my ministrations was a truth that I wished to
Early in my episcopate, I met the two rectors for whom my election was
particularly difficult. One of them, the Revd Jonathan Ostman, served in a
parish that had had a history of difficulties. I admired his faithfulness and
the healthy direction in which he and the parish were moving. Of course, we
shared a common spirituality, honouring the eucharist and being attentive to
spiritual direction and sacramental confession. We developed a sincere respect
for each other, while voicing concerns over parish visitations, confirmations,
and other issues.
I decided to allow each of the two rectors to have a visiting bishop, who
would be agreeable to both parties. The other rector, the Revd David Stokes,
discussed this with his vestry (the equivalent of a PCC). Surprisingly, they
reminded him that they already had a bishop, making it unnecessary to seek a
visitor. So it was that I made an official visitation to the church and
officiated at confirmation. David and I talked about the impending visit, so
that we would both be as comfortable as possible. David’s gracious hospitality
was not diminished by his sitting in choir and not receiving communion.
When he left the parish, his successor also did not believe in the
ordination of women. I know that he agrees with me in stating that we have a
good, supportive relationship, and that we feel and exhibit a high level of
Meanwhile, Jonathan’s vestry gladly accepted my offer for a visitor, even
though it came with conditions attached. I asked Jonathan to choose a bishop
from the ECUSA House of Bishops, so that we could live in a posture of
collegiality. In addition, we would both agree on the bishop, and I would
extend the invitation.
At some point during the year, I was to be invited to an event in the parish
to encourage Christian friendship. I’ve had dinner with the vestry, attended
the anniversary dinner of the parish, met the new vestry, and talked with
parishioners after the Stations of the Cross. The Rector and representatives of
the parish have come to my office on many occasions.WHEN the Windsor report on
the Anglican Communion was released, I invited priests across a spectrum of
beliefs to discuss how we will share a common life, in spite of a variety of
spirited reactions. The conversation was passionate and respectful, polarised
at times, but helpful to all. We will gather again after the Primates’ Meeting.
The problem we have in dealing with painful issues is that we protect our
turf at all costs — even the cost of civility and communion. The words we hurl
at each other do not build confidence, but cause us to back into corners that
are not easily escaped. Absolute truth belongs to Christ.
My journey into that truth demands that I listen to a variety of voices. In
the end, a direction must be chosen, but there are ways to walk together, even
if we have a different step. The gift from my arrangement with Jonathan is
getting to know the bishop visitor that we have both agreed on. The Rt Revd
Keith Ackerman, Bishop of Quincy (in Illinois), has become a dear friend in the
House of Bishops, and remains loyal to me and the process we have established.
Some of our sister and brother bishops marvel at our sincere love for each
This arrangement works because of genuine affection and regular
communication. I feel blessed, and have every hope that we can remain as a
Communion, in spite of important differences. Our faith in one Lord, one
incarnation, one death and resurrection for the forgiveness of sins and the
salvation of souls — is this not enough for us to receive the Lord’s body and
blood together, and to go forth with a viable mission to those in need? I pray
The Rt Revd Geralyn Wolf is Bishop of Rhode Island.
THE PARISH of St John the Evangelist in Newport, Rhode Island, was organised
in 1875 under the direct influence of the Oxford Movement. St John’s has
maintained an uncompromising Catholic witness within the Episcopal diocese of
Rhode Island, and throughout greater New England.
Because of our theological convictions and liturgical practices, the bishops
of the diocese have tended to maintain a hands-off approach, which has allowed
a succession of Anglo-Catholic bishops from the Anglican Communion to perform
episcopal ministrations for many years.
This conscious practice by Rhode Island bishops of laissez-faire "oversight"
allowed St John’s to weather the tumultuous storms of the 1970s, when the
parish successfully resisted the liturgical innovations influencing the
Episcopal Church, as well as the ordination of women to the priesthood. As a
result, St John’s continued its witness to traditional Anglo-Catholic faith and
worship, virtually unchanged since its founding.
To express our theological conviction, and to seek the support of
like-minded Anglicans of our integrity, St John’s was the first parish to
affiliate with the Episcopal Synod of America (which later became Forward in
Faith North America); and the first non-UK parish to affiliate with Forward in
Faith in England. This provided the spiritual support we desired, and exposure
to the wider Anglican experience made us even more stalwart in our convictions.
In 1995, however, our historical witness and internal stability was threatened
by the election of the Revd Geralyn Wolf as Bishop of Rhode Island.
There is nothing similar to the Act of Synod in ECUSA. The leaders of the
parish and I agreed that, to preserve our witness to Catholic order and
scriptural teaching, we had to take a difficult and perhaps costly stand. It
was agreed that we could not accept Geralyn Wolf’s orders, but we would respect
her position as Ordinary of the diocese of Rhode Island.
The first meetings with Geralyn were understandably filled with anxiety, but
quickly we discovered in Geralyn a graciousness that would allow us to discuss
our differences openly. Having stated my theological objections to the
ordination of women to holy orders, we arrived at a compromise, if there was
one, that I would agree to call on an episcopal visitor from the ECUSA House of
Bishops. Before Geralyn’s election, we had been relying on one of the
Provincial Episcopal Visitors from England.
Since that time, the Rt Revd Keith Ackerman, a member of Forward in Faith
North America, has been making an annual visit to officiate at confirmation and
reception. Our parishioners tend to be unified in theology, and view Bishop
Ackerman as "our" bishop, while at the same time providing a warm welcome to
Geralyn whenever she visits.
Our pattern has been to invite Geralyn to join the congregation for choral
evensong and benediction, followed by a parish supper, during which she
addresses the parish. My wife and I have also entertained her with the vestry
in the rectory.
While some might see this as degrading of her ministry, at St John’s we
strive to maintain the highest degree of communion we might possibly have with
someone who represents a "theological impossibility". We enjoy better relations
with Geralyn Wolf than we did with her predecessor, who was a male
Given her generosity towards St John’s, I would rather be in our anomalous
ecclesiastical situation than in a diocese such as Pennsylvania, where the
Bishop, the Rt Revd Charles Bennison, is relentless in his attempts to harass
traditional priests and their parishes.
While I personally am grateful to Geralyn for her gracious approach towards
St John’s, which has allowed us to maintain our theological integrity and
liturgical practice, a more permanent and regularised solution to this
disparate situation is highly desirable. With the present trends within ECUSA,
as evidenced by comments in the Windsor report, the long-term future of a
parish such as ours within the Episcopal Church is now very uncertain.
The Revd Jonathan Ostman is Rector of St John’s, Newport.
Another tradition: the Revd Jonathan Ostman at St John’s, Newport