Hymns, Heat & Heaven — Can Women Be Ordained?

Step back in time with me, won’t you? Imagine a church constructed of logs, filled to the brim with 250 people singing hymns without accompaniment. The majority of those people are Old Order Mennonite, dressed in their Sunday go-to-meeting clothes. Balconies on either side of the meetinghouse burst with young people, while down below are people of all ages.

The scene was a Harmonia Sacra Sing in Hamburg, Virginia, in the Shenandoah mountains, last Sunday. The temperature rose to the high 90s outdoors, and it was significantly hotter inside. I can only guess at the temperature in those balconies. Despite the heat, most of the men wore long pants and long sleeved shirts, while the women wore long-sleeved dresses.

The singing was a cappella out of a hymnal published in the 1830s, with a unique method of harmonizing. The words, also, are different from what we usually sing in church. One song praised God: O Lord you build and you destroy. I couldn’t remember having praised God for destruction before. I found the sentiment curiously refreshing. Another song’s lyric told the tale in its title: O Sweet Affliction. I couldn’t remember praising God for affliction that draws me closer to Him. And even though I’ve experienced the strengthening of faith that affliction brings, I can’t say I embrace that lyric so wholeheartedly. Without some nuance, that thought can be used to paint God as rather a monster. Many of the hymns had to do with heaven, and quite a few quoted the Psalms about Jerusalem, which made me glad.

I sat on a wooden bench beside my husband and shared a loaner book. Since I can read music, I enjoyed every tune, no matter how unfamiliar. People took turns leading the singing. The mood was solemn but happy, and full of peace. The only woman who got up to lead a song was wearing contemporary dress. Like me, she was an outsider.

We sang for two hours, then had a potluck lunch on the grounds, as the folks like to say. The food was potluck style, laid out on three long tables made of wooden planks over saw horses. I had a glass of sweet mint tea, very soothing for the voice, and loaded my plate with country ham, okra, potato salad, and the most delicious tomatoes I’ve ever eaten. We ate sitting on the ground under a spreading tree.

After lunch, I stood in line for the ladies’ room with a group of girls from Dayton, Virginia, who were quite friendly and curious to talk to me. I noticed that a couple of them kept staring at my hair style, which is short and spiky. They each had long hair done up in a bun which was hidden under a plain white cap. Their faces were smooth and beautiful. The oval of their faces seemed more prominent, perhaps because of the outline of their caps. They were each wearing the same dress pattern, but all of different prints. When the first girl spoke to me, I was surprised to hear such a young voice speak in a thick German brogue.

We talked about a recent trip they’d taken to Baltimore to see the Aquarium. They asked me if I liked to sing, and if I liked to sew, and it was easy to chat about these subjects.

Emboldened by my conversational success, I decided to approach another group of young women who were standing outside the log church. These young women were a bit older and dressed more conservatively, in dresses of solid dark green. To break the ice, I asked if they knew all the songs we were singing. They said Yes

Which are your favorites?

They all are.”

I told them, When I was your age, I played lots of hymns on the piano. They looked interested so I continued. My teacher was my minister’s wife and she wanted me to learn to play every hymn in the hymnal.

I would love to do that, one of the girls said, play the whole hymnal through. She sighed.

My teacher wanted me to learn to play the organ, too. She told me I had the right touch. And she said I was the kind of girl who might marry a minister. It’s always handy for a minister’s wife to play the organ.

Well, did you? asked one of the girls, with sparkly eyes.

I laughed. No I didn’t, I said. It turns out I became a minister myself.

There was a moment of shock, and I felt a bit guilty. Here I was, a stranger, crashing the party. I felt I had to say more, so I tried to explain, My piano teacher was trying to pay me a compliment, I know. She thought it was a good thing to be a minister’s wife. And it IS a good thing to be a minister’s wife. But it’s a good thing to be a minister too.”

The young women had leaned toward me, listening, so I kept going. “But it wasn’t easy. The church I grew up in didn’t ordain women, so I had to leave that church and join another one. It took a long time.

The sparkly eyed one said, You have to do what God tells you to do.

I said: Yes you do. Then I excused myself. I felt I’d intruded enough. But as soon as I left them, the sparkly-eyed girl sought me out. She wanted to know how my parents reacted, and other people too. So I told her. She listened intently and told me a bit about her family.

Then it was time to go back into the log church and sing some more. My husband stayed outside, he’d had enough singing. I sat beside a woman who was singing soprano to my alto. We harmonized well. The temperature was even higher, and our bellies were full. A breeze came through the open window, and I noticed the shadows of birds flying past. After two more hours we sang A Parting Hymn and then left the log cabin, lingering in the shade.

I cannot tell you when I have experienced more genuine hospitality.


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