Holmes Dixon Crossed the Altar, Busted Barriers

Since I’m now in my mid-50s, I can really say I’ve grown up right along with the women’s movement. As a reporter, I’ve had a front seat as women have fought to attain the place in society that was always their due.

One place you might think of as different from the corporate boardroom, the anchor desk or a presidential debate, is the altar. In my lifetime I’ve watched as women moved from one side of the altar, kneeling to receive communion or demurely waiting to kiss the groom, to take their place on the other side, as clerics, just as empowered to preach and teach as their brothers, husbands, fathers and sons.

So it was with sadness and shock that I heard of the passing of Bishop Jane Holmes Dixon early on Christmas morning. She was the second bishop in the Episcopal Church of the United States, the American branch of the worldwide Anglican Communion.

The news that women would be allowed ordination rocked the Episcopal Church when I was a teenager. Holmes Dixon, in her early 40s at the time, headed to seminary to become one of the first women priests in the American church. At a time when many Episcopalians were not sure they could accept a woman presiding at Communion, baptizing babies or running congregations, she plunged right in. She was, by all accounts, a success as a pastor.

I have been lucky to live in an era of outstanding, barrier-busting women. There is no shortage of women my daughters can look to, and see a possible version of their future selves. When Holmes Dixon became a bishop she had to clear many of the same hurdles she faced as a parish priest, but in a magnified way. Would the people of her diocese — men and women — accept a woman wearing the mitre and carrying the crozier of a bishop?

Some conservative parishes openly rebelled. Even decades after women became priests there were many who had a hard time watching a woman in procession down the center aisles of their churches carrying the authority of a bishop. In business, in politics, in many walks of life, women getting ahead was fine in the abstract but tougher for some to handle in real life.

Aware that her own behavior was watched far beyond the borders of the Diocese of Washington, Bishop Jane did not back down. Her authority was not hers alone, but represented an important threshold question for the future of women in the church.

It certainly helped that she was a good teacher, a strong preacher, great with kids, approachable and warm. In her life and work she was one of a generation of women who shattered the association of so many jobs with “men’s work.” As my own daughter heads off to seminary to begin training for the priesthood, I am thankful for the life of Jane Holmes Dixon.

Ray Suarez is a senior correspondent with PBS NewsHour. Follow him on Twitter @ RaySuarezNews.