On Rites and Symbols

Cardinal Sean O'Malley and Rev. Anne Robertson (George Martell/Pilot New Media)

A divorced, Scottish Protestant Clergywoman anoints an Irish Catholic Cardinal.


Fifty years ago, as Vatican II was sending the ecumenical spirit soaring, Cardinal Richard Cushing was invited to speak at the Sudbury United Methodist Church.  In that new spirit of Protestants and Catholics getting along, he accepted the invitation and gave the gathered congregation of Protestants and Catholics about 90 minutes of his best stuff.

To honor the anniversary of that event, Sudbury's current pastor, the Rev. Joel Guillemette, invited Cardinal Sean O'Malley to follow in Cardinal Cushing's footsteps and preach at Sudbury.  There was exactly one date in all of 2014 that was open on the Cardinal's calendar, January 12, 2014, which happens to be the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord on the Church calendar.  Like his predecessor, Cardinal O'Malley accepted the invitation and was encouraged to bring about 20 minutes of his best stuff. 

Joel is not only a colleague but a good friend of mine, and he has a great gift for sniffing out opportunities for solid Christian theology to meet the rubber of the Christian-worship road.  With that exquisite sniffer in high gear, Joel decided that if we were to have a worship service celebrating Christian unity on the day that the Church remembers the baptism of Jesus, it would be a fitting capstone to celebrate the Reaffirmation of the Baptismal Covenant, a liturgy that can be found in the United Methodist Hymnal. 

After some initial uncertainty, the liturgy was given the green light and, following the fine homily by Cardinal O'Malley, United Methodist Bishop Sudarshana Devadhar was assigned to lead us back to the moment when each of us first took the name of Christian. All of us together--Catholic, United Methodist, and the many other Protestant denominations that would be present--would reaffirm the vows that we took or that were taken for us at our baptism.


Because Joel and I are friends, when I wrote to congratulate him on Cardinal O'Malley's acceptance of his invitation, he invited me to travel the hour and a half to attend the service, vested in my white robe and stole, and to be introduced in my role as Executive Director of the Massachusetts Bible Society.  I was delighted to accept, not only because I wanted to support Joel, but because MBS is an ecumenical organization.

Bible Societies and Roman Catholics have not always had a congenial rapport, and although we have had Catholic Board presidents and currently have four Catholic Trustees, the distrust has been palpable when I have spoken in some Catholic gatherings.  This was a chance for me to be a symbol to the many Catholics who would attend that any historical animosities between us have been laid to rest. Indeed, our new Bible study materials are being used in quite a number of Roman Catholic parishes in the Archdiocese and are being used with Protestants and Catholics together in many settings.  So I happily told Joel that I would be there. 

As the time drew close and it became clear that there would be a large crowd, Joel prepared an overflow room in another part of the church with a live feed of the sanctuary on a large screen.  But this presented a problem for the liturgy.  The Reaffirmation calls for the people to come forward and to receive the sign of the cross on their foreheads from the blessed waters in the baptismal font.  Cardinal O'Malley and Bishop Devadhar would be doing the honors for those in the sanctuary, but the logistics of the overflow room were problematic.  To address that, Joel had me and a Catholic priest in attendance suit up as the B Team to take the water to the overflow room and anoint the folks in there.


Bishop Devadhar finished the spoken part of the liturgy and the blessing of the water.  Joel then took four little glass bowls and filled them with water from the font.  The first two went to the Cardinal and the Bishop who then took their places--Cardinal O'Malley in front of the pew where the honored Catholic clergy, including Bishop Walter Edyvean, were seated and Bishop Devadhar on the other side, in front of the similar pew reserved for myself and the other Protestant clergy. 

My new priest friend, Tom, and I were up next so we came forward and took our respective bowls.  I was lost in wondering if anyone in the overflow room was going to have an issue with accepting the water from a woman.  Ecumenical gatherings are not always warm, fuzzy events for women of the cloth.  Most of us have experienced many types of exclusion, even within our own congregations, let alone when we try to join with Christian groups that don't believe women are fit for ordination.  And in this group there might well be those who wouldn't have wanted such a blessing from any Protestant, even a male one.  I was deep in thought as I received my bowl.

Our exit toward the overflow room took us directly past Cardinal O'Malley.  Fortunately, Tom's brain was more engaged in the moment, and he was not about to lose out on the chance to have the man who might well be Pope someday anoint him.  Tom stopped in front of the Cardinal and asked for his blessing.  I stopped with him and Cardinal O'Malley was gracious enough to anoint me, too.

And then, as the two of us stood there together, Cardinal O'Malley looked me in the eye and asked me to anoint him.  I did.  The divorced, Scottish Protestant clergywoman anointed the Irish Catholic Cardinal in front of a pew of Catholic clergy and a Catholic Bishop, any one of whom would probably have given their eye teeth to have the honor.  I choked back sobs all the way to the overflow room.


At the root of the word "significance" is the word "sign," and that is what occurred in that moment of anointing.  You don't get to be a Cardinal by being unaware of the significance of your public acts.  In a completely spontaneous moment, Cardinal O'Malley seized the opportunity of signifying the truth of Galatians 3:28, "There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus."  Which is, of course, also the truth of baptism.

In that moment of anointing--as he anointed me and I anointed him--we were not Protestant or Catholic, Scottish or Irish, male or female, cardinal or clergywoman.  We were Christians, babes in Christ, spiritually naked before the Lord who called us both to service.  Nothing could have better signified what everyone in that room had just reaffirmed.  In baptism, we are one.

The things that came to divide us after our baptism exist still.  There was a reason beyond the accident of the day that we celebrated a reaffirmation of our baptism together and not Holy Communion.  There are uncomfortable realities even in the world of Protestants, even in the world of United Methodists, that resulted in me being the only vested clergywoman of any kind in that service.  And there were other symbols of unity that it was not even possible to signify because those exclusions run too deep still.

It was imperfect.  In a perfect world this reflection would not exist because a a United Methodist clergywoman anointing a Roman Catholic Cardinal would be routine and unremarkable.  In a perfect world Cardinal O'Malley and I would preside together at the Lord's Table.  In a perfect world I might preside with a Cardinal Brighid O'Malley. 

But grace exists, even in our imperfections--perhaps especially because of our imperfections.  And yesterday afternoon, Jesus took the hands of his servants, Cardinal Sean O'Malley, and Rev. Anne Robertson, and had them anoint each other, thereby signifying to all of us what heaven will be like.

"Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven."


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