COLUMBIA —The spirited, lyrical voice of a gray-haired Irish woman breaks the silence inside Calvary Episcopal Church as the Eucharist service begins. It is the voice that brings the somber, traditional service to life as it speaks, and the congregation echoes in response.
The animated voice invigorates the congregation as the worship service progresses from sermon to Communion. The Rev. Paula Robinson shares upcoming events in the church with excitement and comes into her element as the service concludes. She greets the congregation, embracing individuals and offering them the "peace of God" as they depart the church.
Since she arrived in March, Robinson has energized Calvary with her presence and vision for the church.
Robinson is Calvary’s first female rector, or head priest. This first is not so groundbreaking for a woman who was one of the first females to be ordained in Ireland, nor for a congregation accustomed to the leadership of female priests.
Though the Calvary congregation and the national Episcopal Church fully support women in the priesthood, the worldwide Anglican Church is not uniformly progressive in its views of women priests.
In 2006, Katharine Jefferts Schori became the first female presiding bishop in the Episcopal Church. “It is a wonderful thing for me. She is bright, articulate, pastoral, ” Robinson said.
However, Robinson tells how Schori met with resistance upon attending this summer’s Lambeth Conference, a gathering of bishops that meets every 10 years. “It was a big thing. Some bishops and archbishops did not want to walk beside her in procession. They thought she was illegally ordained because she was a woman,” she said.
In some parts of the Anglican Church, women are still not allowed to be ordained. It was just this year that female priests in the Church of England were allowed to serve as bishops.
This animosity carries over into some regions of the United States, but the attitude is quite different in Missouri, and in Columbia. Robinson sees the Missouri Diocese as “fairly welcoming” to women.
Calvary members said their selection of Robinson as senior priest was based more on her as an individual rather than her gender. In their process for selecting a new priest, the congregation chose Robinson because she would best fit the role of pastor in their church.
“I like that she is a woman, but it depends on the person, not their gender. She brings interesting things to her role,” said Sheryl Mehrhoff, Calvary’s organist. She emphasized how Robinson ties together themes in worship and asks questions that keep conversation flowing in a discussion group.
Mike Martin, a member of Calvary who calls himself “a Catholic by birth,” sees having a female rector as “a revolutionary concept, a historical moment, a big step forward.” His wife, Alison, on the other hand, sees having a female rector as more of a natural progression in the church.
The Lambeth Conference, a gathering of Anglican bishops worldwide that meets every 10 years, recommends that women be ordained as deacons.
Two women in Hong Kong become the first regularly ordained priests in the worldwide Anglican Church.
Eleven women were “illegally” ordained as priests in Philadelphia.
The American Episcopal General Convention approves the ordination of women to the priesthood.
The Lambeth Conference recommends that all provinces open up the priesthood to women, voting to recognize those women who had previously been “illegally” ordained.
The Lambeth Conference recognizes that each province has the authority to decide for itself whether to ordain women or consecrate them as priests. It also appoints a commission to oversee female ordination.
The first woman becomes a bishop, or overseeing priest, in New Zealand. A woman also became a bishop in the United States later that year.
The Church of Ireland ordains its first female priests.
The Church of England votes to allow the ordination of women. About 470 male clergy leave the church in protest; 58 subsequently return.
The first women become priests in the Church of England.
Women attend the Lambeth Conference for the first time.
The Scottish Episcopal Church becomes the first province in the United Kingdom to allow female bishops.
The first woman in the worldwide Anglican Church becomes a presiding bishop in the United States.
With the Rev. Amy Cortright as the associate rector at Calvary, hiring Robinson became another first for the church — the first time the church has had an all-female clergy.
Robinson does not see serving with another female priest as very different from her previous experiences in her education career. “Amy is a good priest. That’s the bottom line,” she said.
But how do others see having an all-female clergy? “Nobody would bat an eye that we’ve had two male priests in a downtown parish, but people are a little taken up short that we are two women. People don’t react negatively, but there are some slight carry-over presumptions,” Robinson said.
Robinson is also developing relationships with other female clergy in Columbia. A group of them meet once a month for a brown-bag
lunch. Speaking of the role of the group, Robinson said, “It’s not that we minister differently than men. Women sometimes just like to talk with women. Perhaps the way in which we engage in conversation is different.”
Robinson has also found support in the group of mostly male downtown clergy. She appreciates how they are so familiar with the area and have been responding to its needs.
She envisions Calvary furthering the needs of the downtown community. She speaks of the importance of the church responding actively as a first port of call for people in need. In addition, she talks about how the church must resonate with and reflect the rhythm of an evolving and changing community.
Robinson brings unique experiences as an Irish priest and educator to her role at Calvary. Until her late 30s, she served as an educator in England and this experience informs her role as priest.
She brings to her role a love of teaching and learning as well as an understanding that those things are mutual. She wants to be actively involved in teaching and learning with both adults and children.
Calvary member Alison Martin, the mother of two school-aged children, speaks enthusiastically about how Robinson’s gift of education is obvious. “Watching her interact with children is amazing to me. The way she talks to them about God and Jesus makes me feel so wonderful,” she said.
Throughout her childhood and adult life, Robinson was active in the church. Born and raised in Northern Ireland, she calls herself a “cradle Episcopalian.” However, she did not decide to become a priest until her late 30s. It was about this time that the church allowed the ordination of women.
Robinson began supporting women’s ordination about 40 years ago. To her it seemed that ordination was the natural next step for women in the church. But throughout her involvement in the cause, she did not have in mind becoming a priest herself.
“At that time I don’t really think that I thought that it was about me. I thought it was about justice,” she said.
She entered theological training just as women’s ordination became official. Robinson said the timing was “real amazing, some would say coincidence, a God-incidence others would say.”
She was in one of the first classes of women to attend Ireland’s only Anglican theological college, which she referred to as being a “very male preserve.” She said the seminary had to make many changes to accommodate women, thinking of such logistics as the addition of gendered bathrooms.
After theology school, Robinson quickly rose from her role as curate, or rector’s assistant, to priest to a group of remote parishes in western Ireland.
Because the rural parishes were so in need of a priest, Robinson said the churches weren't concerned with her gender. “They were just pleased to have anyone,” she said.
She recalled the first time she presided over a funeral and an older gentleman said to her, “Paula, I’m really glad you did that so well.” When she inquired as to why, he said, “I thought you might cry,” implying that as a woman she might be too emotional not to cry.
“I got those kind of small, unspoken prejudices,” she said.
After serving six years as priest and rector in Ireland, Robinson embarked on what she calls a “great adventure” to serve as a priest in the Episcopal Church, the American branch of the worldwide Anglican Church.
Women had been allowed ordination for significantly longer in the Episcopal Church than in the Church of Ireland, and the roughly 50/50 gender split quickly became evident to Robinson.
Beyond the number of women priests, Robinson finds her experience in the Episcopal Church much like the Church of Ireland, with more similarities than differences.
However, in her view, the biggest distinction between the national churches is their views of homosexuality. “The Episcopal Church does in the light what other people do in the dark," she said. "The General Convention in the Episcopal Church confirms openly gay priests and bishops called to the episcopate. I have no doubt that there are gay priests and bishops in Anglican Churches in other countries, but they are not as open about it. It’s a matter of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ in parts of the Anglican Church."
She further explains her theological understanding of homosexuality in the Episcopal Church, “We own all of what people are. God includes everybody into God’s great plan for love.” It was Robinson’s openness to God’s plan that brought her to Columbia.
Like all clergy, she said, she has come to Calvary as an
"A priest comes to a parish for a time to be a spiritual leader and help them understand their role as a people of God in that place,” she said.
In other ways, her life experiences provide her with a unique perspective. “All priests come with a new set of eyes, but when you come from a different culture as well, it is easier to question the things that have always been. At the same time, I come from an Episcopal church that is much older than the Episcopal Church in the United States, and I too need to be questioned by the people here about some of my presumptions,” she said.
Robinson’s career has been one of firsts but none that she specifically sought out. Rather, she said she followed the leading of God from educator to priest, from Ireland to America, from East Coast to Midwest. Each of her experiences has provided a foundation for subsequent roles.
Now, she brings all these life experiences to lead the people at Calvary, helping them to follow God as they seek to minister to Columbia.