Washington resident Martha Sherman was named a bishop last weekend at an ordination ceremony in Coralville. While Sherman is a Roman Catholic, her position is not recognized by the church itself, which forbids women from serving as priests.
Instead, the title is granted by the Midwest region of the Roman Catholic Womenpriests (RCWP,) a group whose members are technically excommunicated, but still adamant about their beliefs.
“We consider ourselves a part of the Roman Catholic Church, we were raised Roman Catholic, we are culturally Roman Catholics,” Sherman said. “They really can’t take that away from us … to come to one of our liturgies, our public worship, is to come to a Catholic liturgy.”
RCWP was founded in 2002 after an anonymous bishop recognized by the church agreed to ordain seven women on a boat in the Danube River, which technically did not fall under the jurisdiction of any diocese. Since then, the movement has expanded to 34 states and four other continents.
Catholic spiritual leaders have declined to permit women behind the altar, often invoking “In persona Christi,” the concept that a priest represents Jesus as a person during mass, suggesting that the position is an inherently male figure.
Sherman disagrees, citing scripture and archaeological evidence uncovered in the last few decades.
“In the early church, about the first thousand years of the Roman Catholic Church, women had been ordained,” she said. “Paul, in his letter to the Romans, says that, ‘There is no male or female,’ ‘There is neither Jew nor Gentile,’ that we’re all the same in Christ … And Jesus never discriminated against women in his ministry.”
Sherman has been a priest for nine years, six of them serving in RCWP’s leadership, three of those as the group’s U.S.A. Branch President. Still, the newly ordained bishop said she was excited to step away from administrative duties. Unlike the Catholic Church proper, RCWP’s management is separate from its religious leadership.
“We have the office of deacon, and the office of priest and the office of bishop, but we view everybody on the same level, decisions are made by the entire community,“ she said. ”I did administration at the national level … I’m glad to have given my time to that, and now to step aside and do the pastoral work, which is what I’m really trained to do.“
While RCWP is publicly excluded from the Catholic Church, members continue to identify with the faith as they push to reform the institutions behind it. Sherman cites the body’s previous positions in favor of slavery, and conquering the New World, stances religious leaders eventually backed away from as times changed.
”What historically happens (is) somebody stands up against the church and says, ‘You’re wrong,’ and goes ahead and does what’s right,“ she said. ”Somebody has to push the envelope, somebody has to challenge the Church. Somebody has to show them that over 60% of the people in the pews want to see women ordained.“
RCWP has plenty of other differences from Catholic institutions writ large. The organization’s mission statement is more progressive than that of most parishes, calling on members to “ … challenge the dominance of patriarchal systems by promoting practices of equality that lead us to recognize and stand for justice on behalf of all people, locally and globally, and on behalf of the urgent needs of Eco-justice for our planet.”
Despite those differences, Sherman remains a devout Christian. She has a master’s degree in theology, she’s trained as a hospital chaplain and a spiritual director, and her decision to join the movement came only after its members demonstrated a firm grasp of scripture.
She said she remained strong in her convictions.
“When I was accepted to the program of discernment to become a Roman Catholic priest, it felt right,” she said. “I’ve always wanted to serve, I’ve always felt called to serve, so here I am.”
Other RCWP leaders said Sherman was a natural fit for the title.
“We chose a person who has proven herself as a good and dependable leader so many times before,” Retiring Midwest region Bishop Nancy Meyer said at the ordination ceremony Saturday afternoon. “Martha, we look forward to your guidance of our region in our years ahead. And I think I can speak for all of us when I say, we stand by ready to help you, if ever needed.”
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