STILLPOINT Archive: last updated 08/21/2007

ARTICLE | Standing In The Gap

Story Susan Skillen
Photo John Skillen

The Anglican-Episcopal Church of Orvieto meets in a long, vaulted, chapel-sized room in the diocesan office building, the Palazzo dei Papi, the Palace of the Popes. Sunday worship is at 10 a.m., and I arrive at 9:30 along with my altar guild, Rosemarie, to prepare the altar. When the 15 parishioners are settled in their places, I stand before them in my alb, stole and chasuble--the vestments a priest wears to celebrate Holy Communion, known as the Eucharist in liturgical churches. We raise our voices in songs of praise, rather tentatively at first, but finishing with confidence and even a bit of harmony.  

I am an American Episcopal priest in Orvieto, a small city in Umbria in central Italy, and also home to the Gordon in Orvieto program. Our fledgling parish has been meeting for over a year now--an assortment of American, Australian and British expatriates, some mixed-marriage couples (Anglo wife, Italian husband), our own family, and some students from the Gordon in Orvieto program. As priest and pastor of this small church plant, I stay busy with the many ordinary tasks: planning services, typing bulletins, writing sermons, meeting with people for pastoral care and counseling, leading church council meetings, organizing pot-luck suppers, and teaching Bible studies. But occasionally I am struck with amazement at where God has placed me: in this ancient Italian town where there are no other Protestant churches, and where a woman priest is a novelty.

But my entire journey to ordination and ministry has been full of surprises. Fifteen years ago I was opposed to women's ordination, and 10 years ago I would have laughed at the idea that I would be ordained. The changes and the call came about gradually, chiefly through opportunities given to me in my home parish, All Saints in West Newbury, Massachusetts, to develop gifts of teaching, preaching and leadership. After serving in our church's healing ministry for several years, I took training to be a spiritual director--a spiritual mentor or advisor. I began leading spiritual direction groups and retreats, teaching Bible studies and adult education classes, and preaching occasionally.

In the meantime I turned 40 and was still wondering what I was going to do when I grew up. Occasionally a friend asked, "Have you ever thought of becoming a priest?" My answer was always "No way!" I had very few models of women in ordained ministry and couldn't imagine myself as a priest. Once I recognized this mental obstacle, however, my perspective began to change--and I began to sense that, in fact, God was calling me to ordination. Through the sponsorship of my home parish and the support of my bishop, I began attending Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

Five years later--and two years ago now--I was ordained at St. Paul's Within the Walls, the American Episcopal Church in Rome. Shortly after my ordination I sensed God nudging me, under the sponsorship of St. Paul's, to start a mission parish in Orvieto, where our family lives and where my husband, John, directs the Gordon in Orvieto program. Ironically, I never took a church planting course in seminary because I was certain God would never ask me to do that. Perhaps with the naiveté of the uninitiated, I approached the Roman Catholic bishop of Orvieto to ask permission to open a Protestant church for English-speaking people in the city. With graciousness far beyond what one might expect in this town less than two hours from Rome, Bishop Scanavino welcomed me, recognizing me as a priest (even though a married woman with four children), and arranged a place for the parish to meet--first at the Convent of San Lodovico and then in Orvieto's Papal Palace.

Since then this ecumenical friendship has grown. In December 2006 Bishop Scanavino and I organized a joint Italian-English/Anglican-Catholic Lessons and Carols service in the large historic church of Sant'Andrea. With 180 people in attendance, I presided at the service of Scripture readings, hymns and choir anthems with three Anglican priests, three Catholic priests and the bishop seated in the front row pews. At the end of the service Bishop Scanavino spoke words of encouragement to all of us to recognize one another as brothers and sisters of the same faith: "We are instruments of God to create communion and unity. We have all heard the same words and we have told the same story of faith. That's what unites us, and those things are great and important." At the end of his talk, the bishop asked me to give the benediction in English. When I raised my hand to make the sign of the cross over the congregation, he raised his hand beside mine, and we blessed the congregation together.

In January the diocese of Orvieto-Todi has an annual ecumenical prayer service for Protestants and Catholics, this year in the little village of Ficulle outside Orvieto. Some members of my congregation and I participated at that service. Later in January we were invited by Bishop Scanavino to participate in a Sunday evening Eucharist. I did not participate at the altar but sat in the front row pew and gave the homily dressed in my clericals. When I preached you could have heard a pin drop-people were so stunned to see a woman in this role. Then the bishop gave another homily, saying that Orvieto was very fortunate to have other churches in their city, the Orthodox and the Anglicans. He said that I was not "acida"--bitter or vitriolic--but a gentle presence with my family in Orvieto. Then we had communion together. Surely it is the deepest sign of our unity in Christ that we share this meal, this sacrament, together.

A little-known bit of history is that here in Orvieto the original breach between the Catholic Church and the Anglican Church occurred, for it was here that the power players met. Pope Clement VII received the emissaries of Henry VIII requesting the annulment of his marriage to Catharine of Aragon, which Pope Clement VII denied. How ironic that 500 years later the breach that began in Orvieto should be quietly patched and healed through a humble Catholic bishop and an unassuming woman priest from America.

Today, as we usually do following the service, our congregation makes its way down the Via del Duomo, past the ceramics shops, jewelry stores and coffee bars that line the cobblestone street to our favorite café, Montanucci. Along the way people turn their heads to get a better look at the woman in the priest's collar. In the restaurant we order cappuccinos, café lattes and pastries for our Sunday coffee hour. As we drink our coffees and chat, I notice a young Italian woman half-hidden behind a dracena plant with her camera focused on me--to get a shot of this sight she has no doubt never seen before: a woman priest. She'll be able to amaze her friends with this photograph.

The Reverend Susan Skillen, a priest in the Episcopal Church, received her M.Div. from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and did further study at Ridley Hall, Cambridge, U.K. She trained as a spiritual director with the Shalem Institute and leads retreats in the U.S. and in Italy. Rev. Skillen is married to Dr. John Skillen, who has been director of the Gordon in Orvieto semester program since 1998. Rev. Skillen lives and ministers in Orvieto, a medieval city in southwestern Umbria, Italy. The Skillens have four daughters, two of whom are Gordon graduates and one a current student.


Susan Skillen