Sometimes I sit and think about all the things that occurred to get me where I am. Some of them were well within my sphere of control, while others were not. Some were byproducts of my genetic make up, and others were products of the environment in which I was raised. I can boldly proclaim that I am a United Methodist Pastor because God called me and I answered. Yet the story is not so simplistic; many people well before my time had to work and suffer so that I could have this privilege, the ability to serve my Church as pastor. One of those people was Anna Oliver.
(Image courtesy of gcah.org)
Her real surname was not Oliver; she assumed it so that her endeavor to become a minister would not reflect poorly on her family. She grew up in New Jersey and New York during the mid 1800s. She attended college and graduated with her Masters of Arts. Highly educated, she first began to work as a teacher, but felt this call to ministry. She attended seminary and began to preach at a church in Passaic, New Jersey.
When invited to preach at a weekly meeting of the New York Methodist preachers in 1877, Oliver was staunchly opposed by one of their number, the Reverend James M. Buckley, pastor of the large and prominent Hansen Place Methodist Episcopal Church in Brooklyn. Buckley said, in a convincing speech, “I am opposed to inviting any woman to preach before this meeting. If the mother of our Lord were on earth, I should oppose her preaching here…. There is no power in the Methodist Church by which a woman can be licensed to preach; this is history, this is the report made at the last General Conference. It is, therefore, not legal for any quarterly conference to license a woman to preach, nevertheless here is a woman who claims to have such a license, and we are asked to invite her to preach.” Needless to say, the invitation to Anna Oliver was withdrawn.
–Grace Sufficient: A History of Women in American Methodism 1760-1939 (1999), by Jean Miller Schmidt, page 188.
Really? The woman who bore Christ cannot preach, but the Reverend Buckley can. Why is he more qualified than one to whom the angel of the Lord appeared, who bore Christ, and was there when he was crucified? Countless women, like Anna Oliver, were prevented from doing precisely what I do now: preaching and serving as pastor. They had to struggle and suffer so that I, and many other women, could fulfill the call God gives to us. What was her crime? Only that she was born with two x chromosomes. She could not stop being female; it wasn’t something she did or a way she conducted herself that made her female. Thank God that Anna did not let anyone keep her from serving God. She became the first test case for women’s ordination at the 1880 General Conference. It would be 75 years later before women could be fully ordained with all the rights their male counterparts have.
When I think about the trials and sufferings of good Christians like Anna Oliver, I realize that I must utilize this position to the fullest extent. I must be fully committed to my ministry, the local church I serve, and the God I worship. This was not handed to me on a silver platter; it was hard fought and hard won. I owe it to countless people to be, not a good pastor, but a great pastor who honors and testifies to those who gave of themselves and their resources to this great Christian Church into which I was born and raised. I owe it to God to recognize the blessings I have been given, and those who would not stand by quietly while their call was denied, but who professed their belief in God and their call to their own detriment. Now it’s my turn to empower those who would be silenced, give voice to the voiceless, and ensure that, as far as my power extends, no one will be kept from speaking the truth of God for the glory of God. Thank you, Anna Oliver, for not going quietly into the night, but bearing the light of Christ into the darkness so that my path would be well lit and paved long before my time.