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Monday, December 25, 1995 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Colman Mccarthy

`And All May Be One . . .'

Washington Post Writers Group

WASHINGTON - While celebrating the Eucharist on Christmas Day at Christ Episcopal Church in Rockville, Md., the Rev. Betsy Hague will have an extra blessing to be thankful for. Two weeks ago she fulfilled a longstanding dream: ordination to the priesthood.

Though somewhat short of the miraculous - Episcopalians have been ordaining women for some time - the event did qualify as extraordinary. For the first time in anyone's memory, an Episcopalian bishop and a Lutheran bishop participated jointly in an ordination ceremony.

The ecumenical breadth was wider than even that. Methodist clergy who trained Hague in the seminary were also at the altar. A Jewish cantor read from Hebrew scripture. A group of Roman Catholic nuns who belong to the Medical Mission order, in which Hague was a member for eight years,were prayerfully present.

This diversity of beliefs - which included atheists and agnostics who were among the 350 people at the ceremony as friends of Hague and her psychiatrist husband and their three children - was enhanced by a moment of religious harmony. Differences in dogmas and liturgy were displaced by a spiritual cohesion that supported one new priest answering the call to serve one God.

Little in Hague's early childhood hinted that her faith journey would climax in the sacrament of holy orders in the Episcopal Church. One of eight children in a Catholic family in Pittsburgh, she attended parochial elementary and high school. She went to daily mass. At 18, Hague joined the Medical Mission Sisters, a religious order of women doctors, nurses and health workers.

Had the religion of her formative years sanctioned what many Protestant denominations accept as routine, Hague might now be a Catholic priest and serving a church that has a near-desperate shortage of clergy. But the sacrament of holy orders is denied Catholic women. On Oct. 28, Rome's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith - formerly the Holy Office of the Most Sacred Inquisition - ruled that the church's teaching against ordaining women is "irrevocable" and "infallible."

Betsy Hague's leaving Catholicism had no bitterness. She continues to be an affiliated member of her former religious order. What led her to this Episcopal church and eventual ordination was meeting a woman priest at a neighborhood parish. "She was married and had children of the same age as mine," Hague recalls. "She was a wonderful model as a wife, mother and priest. Now that I have joined her and other ordained women I think I have something relevant to offer those who are raising families and struggling to integrate religion and spirituality into all parts of their lives."

Hague, who is 51, and has worked for much of the past 25 years as a psychiatric nurse, studied at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington because it has an urban ministry program. She will begin serving at a Lutheran church in downtown Washington that has one of the city's largest rehabilitative programs for homeless women.

Hague is not much given to debating the theological or biblical issues surrounding women's ordination. With humor, she recalls a conversation with her Catholic mother: "She asked me once, `If Jesus intended for women to be priests, wouldn't he have had them as Apostles?' My response was, `Who do you think did all the cooking and serving of meals for Jesus and the Apostles? There were women as heads of local churches and women who traveled with Jesus, but because men wrote the books of the Bible little attention was paid to women.' My mom said, `You're probably right, Betsy.' "

It isn't open to debate what Christians, especially during the Nativity season, are called to do. At Betsy Hague's ordination ceremony the congregation was led in prayer: "For all who fear God and believe in You, Lord Christ, that our divisions may cease and all may be one as you and the Father are one, we pray to you, Oh Lord."

Many divisions did cease that day. The promise of Betsy Hague's priesthood is that in time many more will, too.

(Copyright, 1995, Washington Post Writers Group)

Colman McCarthy's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times.

Copyright (c) 1995 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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