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Hail Mary

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Seems the Southern Baptists have done it again. First, they lobotomized themselves; now they've cut out their own heart. I was a student at Wake Forest's Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in the late '70s, when the right wing of the Southern Baptist Convention initially gained power. One of their first targets in bringing the fold "back to the Bible" was the seminaries. The newly elected, ultra-conservative president began appointing trustees who would insure theological conformity to a doctrine of scriptural inerrancy. Within five years, every professor who refused to toe the party line had either been dismissed or, seeing the biblical writing on the wall, moved on to freer pastures.

Now the Baptists, America's largest Christian denomination, have passed a non-binding resolution barring women from serving as pastors. Those women who are already pastoring may continue to do so, if they can find churches that will appoint them. But from now on, no more women preachers--only men may hold such positions of authority. First the head, then the heart.

Never mind that throughout the Gospel accounts, so many of Jesus' faithful followers were female. Or that women held positions of power in the early church. Or that, according to the Baptists' own inerrant scriptures, those to whom the freshly resurrected Christ first revealed himself were the only disciples who had not abandoned him in his hour of need--the women who had come to the tomb to lay his body to rest.

Two of the finest pastors I know are women, self-assured, whip-smart, wielding an open-minded brand of feminine compassion no man can match. And both have struggled mightily within a patriarchal tradition that seeks to hold them in subjection to the good-old-boy network while allowing them only cursory access to real authority and influence. It's a damn shame to see these women fighting ancient battles when they could be spending their God-given energy to heal the all-too-present wounds of our society--ignorance, poverty, racism.

And I've been thinking, lately, of Birdie Mae Bates, a big chunk of woman, strong as an ox with a gentle dove's voice, standing over me in Vacation Bible School every summer of my childhood, patiently helping me memorize Bible verses: "Blessed are the poor," "Love one another, as I have loved you," "there is neither male nor female, for ye are all one in Christ Jesus." Birdie Mae was the kind of woman who, given a more open, supportive Church, might have taken the vow of ordination, the laying on of hands, and stood in our pulpit to expound her own inspired interpretation of the truth that makes us free. But not now, at least not among those who baptize their misogyny in self-righteousness. "Whited sepulchres," Jesus called such legalists, "which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men's bones, and of all uncleanness."

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