Stepping into New Church Ministry
On July 7th I was the keynote speaker at the Church of Truth's LifeFest event in Louisville, KY. The theme for LifeFest 2018 was "Out of the Ashes: Women Warriors Seminar." I was invited to speak about my process of recognizing a call to ministry even though my church doesn't ordain women. I was blessed by the two other speakers at the event: Minister Virginia Miller, pastor at the Church of Truth, and Minister Angela Price, founder of Jesus Saves Ministries. Here is the video (audio only) recording of the speakers; my talk begins at minute 55. Scroll down for the full text of my talk below.
Here is the full text of my talk:
I am grateful to the Church of Truth for the invitation to be here in community with you and to have the opportunity to share some about my experience of discerning a call to ministry as a woman raised in a church that does not ordain women.
To give you a little background: There has been ongoing discussion in the church I was raised in, the General Church of the New Jerusalem, about whether the male-only ordination policy is a doctrinal issue. “Of course it’s doctrinal,” some say. And others call it a derived doctrine--saying it was a culturally-appropriated policy to which doctrine has since been applied. This is a pivotal point of issue because whether it is ultimately upheld as doctrinal or not has major ramifications.
Written into the Order and Organization of the General Church is a principle which states that: “The Old Testament, the New Testament and the Writings together are the supreme authority in matters of faith. Neither the Bishop of the General Church, nor the clergy, nor any council or assembly of the Church should, by pronouncement or by majority vote, decide doctrinal issues and thereby bind the conscience of the Church.”
When I was rising into the sphere of debate around this issue four years ago, it was becoming hotly debated on Facebook and other social media. Those on the defense said that if there was a convincing doctrinal basis for changing the policy, then it could change, because, according to the principle, all the choices in the General Church are made based on doctrine, based on the Writings - the theological works of Emanuel Swedenborg, together with the Old and New Testament.
This was an interesting premise on account of what it led to. Many stepped forward and made solid arguments on how a gender-inclusive clergy has a doctrinal basis in the Writings. This had never been done before in the church. There had been debate since the 1980s when the issue first came to the fore with the question of whether women could serve on church boards, but then in the 2010s several papers were written which laid out thorough doctrinal arguments behind making a change in our ordination policy. And nothing changed. There was no organizational “Aha” moment when we all said, “Well, there you go, let’s ordain women.” And I wondered at this.
It was only after many conversations with ministers who are entirely convinced of the correctness of the male-only priesthood that I came upon the pulse of what was at issue: deep spiritual attachment. This is their worldview. This to them is divine order. There is no room for two ways of seeing this issue in the church. The earlier message had changed and now it doesn’t matter if there is a doctrinal way of seeing the value of men and women as ordained clergy--it is not according to order. And as confronted as I was by this realization, it was satisfying because it made sense of why the government of the church wasn’t willing to make a policy change even after several doctrinal bases were given for a gender-inclusive clergy. We could not be a church that allowed for a variety of viewpoints.
I had a minister ask me, “Where can we go from here?” My answer? To survive as one church, we would have to put life and community at a higher premium than doctrine. Swedenborg writes in Arcana Coelestia 4468,
There are two things which join members of the Church together - life and doctrine. When life joins them together doctrine does not separate them, but if doctrine alone joins them together, as happens within the Church at the present day, they separate themselves from one another and form as many Churches as there are varieties of doctrine, even though doctrine exists for the sake of life, and life ensues from doctrine. Their separation from one another if doctrine alone joins them together is evident from the fact that a person who subscribes to one doctrine condemns others who subscribe to another, sometimes to hell. But doctrine does not separate people if life joins them together. This is evident from the fact that a person who leads a good life does not condemn others because they believe differently but respects it as a matter of the others’ faith and conscience.
But my church is choosing doctrine over life, separation over connection. This puts it into a knot of its own making. On the one hand, no person or church body is allowed to decide doctrinal issues that bind the conscience of the church, yet on the other hand, the church is defining itself by a doctrine that doesn’t allow for other interpretations. The church is out of integrity with its own principles, and as an individual whose faith and conscience give rise to a different understanding than the prevailing perspective which defines the church’s policy, my conscience is bound.
This may all sound theoretical and abstract, but it’s present, personal, and spiritual. I was raised in the church and my spiritual life was greatly nourished there. As a woman, I experienced what other women do: we are encouraged to study theology and think critically, speak our minds. First we’re nourished by the teachings of the New Church in elementary school, then taught to use these ideas in high school, and invited to delve deeper in college. The ideas form a strong and agile framework for reality. And then it ends. Just when I might take flight and use these wings I’ve grown to fly, they are clipped. There is no invitation to enter graduate theological study and pursue formal service to the church.
Instead we are given the messaging that for a woman to “teach people the way to heaven and lead them on that path,” (Swedenborg’s definition of the work of priests in New Jerusalem 315) in formal service to the church, is harmful to her mind. To teach people the way to heaven and lead them on that path, in formal service to the church, is harmful to her marriage or her future marriage. To teach people the way to heaven and lead them on that path, in formal service to the church, is harmful to those who hear her. These are conflicting messages and they have real spiritual ramifications.
I was asked to speak at the New Church Live church service in Bryn Athyn in the fall of 2016. My dad, Jonathan Rose, and I prepared and gave the service together. By this time I had begun to channel my call to ministry into songwriting. We prepared this service to be a combination of song and message. Yes, I would be “speaking” at a church service on a Sunday morning, I would be unpacking Biblical stories and drawing out ideas that could help people in their spiritual lives. I couldn’t call it preaching, but that’s what it was.
Approaching this service led me into a state of temptation, a state of deep spiritual turmoil and questioning of what was the truth? Which was it? My conviction that I was called to this work, or was I making that up? Was I misleading myself? I was acutely aware inside that both what I had come to understand about the New Church and the messages I had accumulated from my church couldn’t both be true. My conscience was bound. Bound by the sense that I could seriously be doing something wrong, that it could be going against divine order to get up in front of those people and teach them useful ideas for spiritual life. My heart ached. I was paralyzed. How could I have the courage to do this? If it was what the Lord willed for me, then I would have the power. But could I trust that it was the Lord? Or was it my own concoction of a misguided sense of purpose? And if it was the Lord leading me to this, then where was the Lord in the ordination policy of my church? Are we “teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” as Jesus quotes Isaiah in Mark 7:7? Riding on horses, expecting Assyria to save us (Hosea 14:3)?
At this same time, I was doing my work for the Swedenborg Foundation - writing and producing content for the Swedenborg & Life show on the offTheLeftEye youtube channel. I happened to be writing a show on How to Understand the Trinity. My work there is true joy because I get to share these life-changing ideas with others and in the meantime I am spiritually nourished by them as well. There was a teaching in my research for the show that the Lord brought to my mind in that moment of spiritual crisis. In True Christianity 154, Swedenborg writes:
We all know that after the Lord bestowed the Holy Spirit on the apostles, they preached the good news across much of the world and publicized it through speaking and writing. They did this on their own initiative on behalf of the Lord. Peter wrote and taught one way, James another way, John a third, and Paul a fourth. Each of them used their own intelligence. The Lord filled them all with his spirit, but they each took a portion of it that depended on the quality of their perception, and they each exercised that portion depending on the quality of their own ability. All the angels in the heavens are filled with the Lord - they are in the Lord and the Lord is in them. Yet for each of them, the speech and action depends on the quality of the mind. Some speak and act simply, and some wisely, with infinite variety. They all speak on their own initiative on behalf of the Lord.
All angels speak on their own initiative on behalf of the Lord. “I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy” says the Lord (Joel 2:28). I am allowed to speak on my own initiative on behalf of the Lord.
The passage in True Christianity continues:
When the Lord's Word is quite thoroughly present in our inner self . . . we speak and act on our own initiative on behalf of the Word. The Word does not act through us. The same is true in regard to the Lord, because he is the Word, that is, the divine truth and the divine goodness in it. The Lord acts on his own (or from the Word) on us and in us, but not through us, because we act and speak freely on the Lord's behalf when we act and speak from the Word. . . . The Lord himself is divulging this secret for those who will be part of his new church.
I can act and speak freely on the Lord’s behalf when I act and speak from the Word. Through *this* idea the Lord gave me the power to give that service. And over the course of the next year, the tough, dried casing of the mindset I had developed from my church--that always had me questioning my mind, questioning my ability, doubting my strengths--it started to crack. And it cracked, and it fell away, and I felt lighter than I have in my whole life. I was lifted out from under a cloud of confusion and was held secure by the Lord. My conscience was bound but now I am free.
How did this happen? Why did it work? How was I free? This is the way the New Church works.
Swedenborg saw a vision of the New Church as a magnificent temple in heaven and it had an inscription above the door: Now It Is Allowed. Which means, Swedenborg writes, that,
In the New Church we are allowed to use our intellect to explore and penetrate all the church's mysteries and also to use the Word to support what we find. The reason this is allowed is that the teachings of the new church are continuous truths revealed by the Lord through the Word. Rational arguments that support these truths cause the intellect to open up more and more at its highest level and to be elevated into the light that the angels in heaven enjoy. That light is essentially truth. In that light, acknowledgment of the Lord as the God of heaven and earth shines in its glory. . . . It is a principle of the new church, you see, that falsities shut down the intellect but truths open it up. --True Christianity 508
The truth opened me up. And I was free to use the literal stories in the Word with the purpose of applying it to truth and serving others.
This was a transformational time for me in my process of discernment about my call to ministry. Over the course of the next year, I was led to study the spread of the teachings of the New Church from the time of Swedenborg through the first hundred years after. It was through this study that the Lord blessed me with a strong and inspiring sense of the reality of the New Church in the world: it is real and has substance and is recognizable. This is the church where “the orphan finds mercy” (Hosea 14:3). This is the church where the sick are healed. This is the church where the thirsty are satisfied and the hungry are filled with goodness. The weak are strengthened. The prisoners are set free. This is the church where the needy are raised up out of distress.
The New Church is not in one place, not in one church or even in one religion: “For as the lightning that flashes out of one part under heaven shines to the other part under heaven, so also the Son of Man will be in His day” (Luke 17:24). The New Church is built from individuals having personal relationships with the Lord: “For the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple" (Rev 21:22) ”for they all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them, says the Lord” (Jer. 31:34). It has many external forms, but one uniting spirit: “Many nations shall join themselves to the Lord on that day, and shall be my people; and I will dwell in your midst” (Zech 2:11) for “Thus says the Lord God...I will give them one heart, and put a new spirit within them” (Ezek 11:19). And in this church there may be ministers, but they are called servants: “the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it, and His servants shall serve Him” (Rev 22:3). It has been growing, and it will continue to grow: “of the increase of His government and peace there will be no end” (Is. 9:7). And all are invited: for “the Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come!’ And let him who hears say, ‘Come!’ And let him who thirsts come. Whoever desires, let him take the water of life freely” (Rev 22:17).
Two of my children brought home plants they had potted at a friend’s birthday party. Within the same day, one of the pots was knocked over and broken. First I held the pieces back together with rubber bands, then I carefully glued the pieces together, and both plants grew side by side. The one flourished, but the other was small and weak, not hardy, and lush like its brother. I came to see myself in this impaired plant. My church, the earthly container that seemed like the appropriate vessel for my gifts, could not support me. It appeared whole and functional, but if I stayed in it and limited myself to the teachings as they were filtered to me in the General Church, I would not survive. This is not the kind of vessel the Lord has willed for womankind. In the New Church there are two olive trees on either side of the lampstand. Two healthy, thriving olive trees which are “the two anointed ones who stand by the Lord of the whole earth” (Zech 4:14).
This New Church is my church. This is the church I am called to serve and help usher into this world.
“O Lord, we have waited for You; the desire of our soul is for Your name and for the remembrance of You. . . . Lord, You will establish peace for us, for You have also done all our works in us.” (Is. 26:8, 12). And "like a green olive tree in the house of God, I trust in the steadfast love of God forever and ever” (Psalm 52:8). Amen. And thank you.
When I was invited to speak at LifeFest, I wasn't sure what I would talk about. I wasn't sure whether I even had the nerve to accept the invitation. As I considered it and prayed about it, I was led to see how transformational the last two years have been on my journey. I could speak to this transformational time. For several years, I advocated for change in the ordination policy of my church. Then last year, the staunch resistance my church showed toward changing made me feel like I was losing my church. I felt homeless. I was in the deep waters that covered the earth in the flood. I had no ground. Then, like the dove that brought back a freshly plucked olive leaf, the Lord gave me a strong sense of the reality of the New Church in the world (which I have written some about on the About page of this website); not only a strong sense that the New Church is real, but that the Lord is leading me as a minister to the life of this church. Perhaps the "olive leaf" the dove brought back comes from one of the two olive trees which are "the two anointed ones who stand by the Lord of the whole earth"--a sign that both men and women are called to be servants to this church, ordained by the Lord.
I am stepping into my New Church ministry. I may never be ordained by an earthly organization but I trust the Lord will guide me continually in how I am to serve this expansive church.
One thing I have desired of the Lord, that will I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in His temple. . . . I would have lost heart, unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. --Psalm 27:4, 13
I will post updates of my path here as I continue on this journey!