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Irena SendlerowaHallo again to all.

Two months ago, a 97-year-old woman named Irena Sendlerowa died in a Warsaw nursing home. We have a hunch that the vast majority of AO readers will not have heard of her, and we would like to do our small part to change that by making her a person correctly known as one of the most noble of the long, deadly twentieth century.

A devout Christian, Irena was an employee of the Warsaw municipal health department during the Nazi establishment of a ghetto to segregate, starve and weaken Jewish Poles before their transport to extermination camps. She was also a secret member of Zegota, a resistance organization directed from London by the Polish government in exile. In her capacity as a social worker, she was permitted to enter the Warsaw Ghetto during a critical period that included 1942 and 1943. In closely-documented visits to her countrymen in dire need, she smuggled babies and young children—one by one—out of the ghetto, giving them new identity papers and placing them in non-Jewish Polish homes. As she did so, she wrote down the original names of the children on cigarette paper, twice for security, and deposited the names in milk jars. At the end of the war, there were 2,500 names in each jar.

Irena Sendlerowa oversaw—one might even use that dangerous Greek infinitive επίσκοπειν—one of the most substantial, beautiful, unusual, sacrificial and dangerous Christian ministries of which we have ever heard.* We tremble to think about whether we could have behaved in a remotely similar way given the same circumstances. As is the case with most saints we have known or about whom we have read, she was disappointed that she did not accomplish more: 'I was brought up to believe that a person must be rescued when drowning, regardless of religion and nationality. The term "hero" irritates me greatly. The opposite is true. I continue to have pangs of conscience that I did so little.' Less well known even than her good works, though, are the circumstances that forced the end of her work: torture by the Gestapo, broken legs, and a lifetime of walking on crutches as a result of her injuries. Having been the hands, mouth, feet and eyes of Jesus Christ in the world, she likewise shared in her own body his suffering for the very sins of the world she strove to right. She brought her personal gifts and abilities directly into the darkest of human creations, changing the world tangibly and permanently; in her place and time, only she could have been called to do this: as a woman, a Pole, a person with a specific background and a willingness to respond to a need many others either would not or could not see. We can only understand her life in light of a specific gift of the Holy Spirit, a charism granted to this woman for the work she was born to do.

In voting this week to begin the process intended to lead to the consecration of women to the episcopate—perhaps as late as 2014—the Church of England made a decision to draw closer in practice to many of its ecumenical partners: the Lutheran churches of the Porvoo and Meissen agreements, Moravian and Methodist churches around the world, the Old Catholic national churches of the Union of Utrecht, among others. This vote also brought the Church of England in nearer conformity of polity to many parts of the Anglican Communion: churches in Cuba, Canada, New Zealand, the United States and parts of Australia have long looked to women as diocesan and assistant bishops for decades as they have joined in the councils of the church and the sacramental ministry of unity to the clergy and congregations entrusted to them. This week's decision was controversial, and it has brought joy to many, many people, though it has caused real confusion and dismay to others, too. The Anglican world remains in a process of 'open reception' about the ordained ministry of women in particular churches, with a wide variety of practice on this matter accepted explicitly as 'loyal' to Anglican Christianity as received by each local church.

What has been left sadly unsaid in the wake of General Synod's decision this week, with all its resulting discussion of provisions and separations, is that the Church of England has decided to bring into the highest levels of its leadership the uniquely charismatic gifts—such as those of Irena Sendlerowa—that have always been granted to women for the good of the communities in which they live.

The women who receive and answer calls to ordained ministry in Anglican churches going forward will have obstacles and resistance unprecedented in twenty centuries of Christianity, but they also stand to bring into the church's life fresh ways of showing God's love for the world. Tonight it strikes us as likely that they will search hard for better models of modern women superintending, overseeing and administering the work of God in a fallen world than Irena Sendlerowa. She was not a bishop in her church—on this we must be clear—but the singleness of purpose, unswerving obedience to God before man, nurturing attention to individual persons created to love God and one another, and transparency to the power of Jesus Christ to renew and repair the world she made incarnate will be critical qualities for those women who will become of the first of their sex in the Church of England. It may well be that men-bishops even learn how to be better men-bishops by having as their colleagues women-bishops, special bearers of Christ's love in ways that rightly inspire our awe, gratitude and admiration.

See you next week.

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Last updated: 13 July 2008

* επίσκοπειν or episkopein, to oversee, is the Greek verb from which come the English words episcopal, episcopate, episcopacy and bishop.

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