In 1995 I bought myself a pitch pipe.
When we lived in Chicago (1994 - 97) we worshipped with a very small congregation. There were two men who took turns leading singing, although neither of them had any musical training to speak of. Our congregation had conducted a study of women's roles in the church, focused on Scripture, and there seemed to be general agreement that many of the traditional restrictions against women's participation were not well-founded.
As it came to pass, there was a Sunday coming up when one of the regular song leaders was scheduled to preach, and the other was going to be absent. I was asked (ahead of time) to lead singing. Some time before, I had visited a friend's music store in Tupelo, Mississippi, and bought that pitch pipe. Just in case, I thought. It couldn't hurt to have one, I thought.
That certain Sunday, I put my pitch pipe in my pocketbook and when we arrived at church, our friend who was assigned to preach, took me aside and told me that he had spoken too soon in asking me to lead singing. The congregation was not ready. He had mentioned it to some who declared themselves "offended." (Don't get me started about what "offended" means in this situation.) He would have to preach and lead singing. I understood. (He is a dear friend, and he was embarrassed and upset by this development. I really did understand.)
I have never had a calling to preach, but when we lived in New Haven we worshipped at the Whitney Avenue Church of Christ, and at that time (1990 - 93, for me) that congregation allowed women to serve communion, which I did. Women also took an active role in worship planning and could serve as trustees of the congregation (we had no elders). I was proud to serve as one of the trustees there.
The thing I have most wanted to do at church--and feel I'm qualified to do--is lead singing. I have always loved to sing, and I sang in Lipscomb's A Cappella for four years. I am confident that any of the men who spent that much time in A Cappella have been asked to lead singing in their congregations.
Once a year, Chris and I attend the Society of Biblical Literature convention the weekend before Thanksgiving. There is always a Church of Christ worship service that takes place at the meeting; it is listed in the program as the "Churches of Christ Professors Meeting." The worship service is unplanned, except for the communion devotional. There is no sermon. At the beginning, someone calls the service to order and invites anyone who has a prayer, a hymn, or a reading to participate. Several years ago, D'Esta Love asked the organizer of the meeting if the announcement really meant, "anyone." And the answer was, yes. That year, D’Esta read the Annunciation as part of the service. It seemed to me the perfect choice, and it seemed strange and yet perfectly natural to hear those words spoken aloud by a woman’s voice.
The following year, several of us planned to participate in the worship service. We talked about it. There are a number of women who attend the conference as academics; they teach religion. Some of those women teach in places where their public participation in worship would not be welcome. There are others who attend as spouses. My husband does not teach at a Church of Christ school. It was safe for me to participate, safe in a way it would not be for others.
I thought long and hard about which song to lead. It had to be something I was comfortable with, vocally. It had to be an old standard, a song that everyone knows by heart--there are no song books. The words should be appropriate, but not self-aggrandizing. (I love the song, “Purer in Heart,” but that didn’t seem right. “It is Well With My Soul”--again, one of my favorites, but in this context, it seems a little too self-satisfied.) After much consideration, I chose “Whispering Hope.”
Soft as the voice of an angel,
Breathing a lesson unheard
Hope, with a gentle persuasion,
Whispers her comforting word.
Wait til the darkness is over
Wait til the tempest is done
Hope for the sunshine tomorrow
After the shower is gone.
Oh how welcome thy voice
Making my heart
In its sorrow, rejoice.
--by Alice Hawthorne
That Sunday morning, I was one of the first to lead a song. I wanted to go early, before I lost my nerve. My friend read a scripture next, I can’t remember which one. My heart was beating so loudly, I could barely hear her.
It is now 2009. I have led singing once in our church building, on ladies day a few years ago (we do not have ladies day every year). Several ladies made a point of telling me how beautiful the singing was, how meaningful my song choices were, and what a good job I did. Standing up there and hearing those women's voices singing, was one of the proudest moments of my life.
I have read scripture once, in a church. I was asked to read the scripture at my friend Bev’s wedding. She is a Methodist, and got married in a Methodist church. She asked me to read because she knows I am a Christian, and she wanted me to be involved in her wedding. I doubt if she realized that I had never read scripture in public before. I practiced ahead of time.
The congregation where we worship now (and have for the last 10 years) is very small and very traditional. Women prepare the communion trays, but they do not pass them in the assembly. Women do not preach, or lead singing, or pray in the worship service. They are a group of good and loving people, and they love us, despite our strange ideas.
When I go to church now I see the worship service partly through my father’s eyes. He is 86 and has Alzheimers, but he loves to go to church, and we take him with us most Sundays. Our little, small town church is familiar to him in a way that a more progressive church would not be. The hymns are familiar, and give him comfort. The rhythm of the service fits his needs. I am grateful that our congregation is accommodating to him, and feels like home.
The Church of Christ is my church, and I do not plan to leave. It is mine as much as theirs, and they cannot force me out. I was baptized at a gospel meeting in 1972. My mother, my father, my maternal grandfather, and my great-grandmother were all members of the Church of Christ. I grew up going to church three times a week and having the visiting preacher stay at our house every summer when he came to hold a meeting. Clyde Miller was the preacher at the Gideon Road Church of Christ when I was a baby, and Frances Miller was my first Sunday school teacher. I remember my father selling copies of Pat Boone’s books out of the back of his pickup at the Midwestern Children’s Home annual fundraiser. I went to Lipscomb and attended the Ashwood Church of Christ for four years, listening to Rubel Shelly preach the sermons that turned into the book, “I Just Want to Be a Christian.” I married into a family whose Church of Christ roots are deeper than mine, and I love them for it.
I have heard Katie Hays preach at the Cahaba Valley Church of Christ in Birmingham, at the West Islip Church of Christ on Long Island, and at the Lawrenceville Disciples of Christ. She is a wonderful preacher, and I wish I could hear her preach more often. I was so, so glad to be at several of the sessions at the Christian Scholars Conference where Katie, and André Resner, and Kathy Pulley, and D’Esta Love and others talked about their faith journeys.
Some folks who are dear to me have left the Church of Christ because their gifts were not welcome. I mourn the loss of those people. I do not need to know everyone’s reasons for going or staying; it is not mine to judge. I hope that in my lifetime, change will happen.
I still have the pitch pipe. I keep it in my sock drawer.
--Mary Lou Hutson