Altar Egos

Anita Darras (shown with husband Norman): "I had my Rosa Parks moment."
Daniel Kramer

On a recent Sunday morning, Anita Darras showed up at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church with her husband and a friend with a handful of cash. The former was for moral support; the latter was for bail in case of arrest.

In preparing for Darras's arrival, the South Houston church's vestry locked a gated entryway and hired an off-duty police officer to sit in an unmarked car in the parking lot in case he needed to bust out the cuffs.

With the gate locked, Anita and Norman Darras had only one way to get inside the building. Once inside, they were stopped by clergy and congregants guarding the sanctuary's closed doors. Their chattering drained into silence, Wild West showdown silence.

Then, Anita Darras spoke: "Are you denying me entrance into the house of God?"

And the clergy replied: Yes.

The couple turned around and left the building. The others opened the sanctuary doors and, in the wake of incense and the organ's somber tones, commenced the Eucharist.

In 1976, the Episcopal Church USA approved the ordination of female priests, and 100 women had been ordained by 1978. The Right Reverend Barbara Harris of Boston became the first female Episcopal bishop in 1989. As of 2003, women composed 22 percent of the Episcopalian senior or solo clergy, according to the church's Web site. Today, the only dioceses that refuse to ordain women are in Fort Worth; Quincy, Illinois; and San Joaquin, California.

Darras, 52, embraced the idea of female ordination. It was one of the reasons she loved the Episcopal Church; she believed in a denomination that, within the Anglican tradition, historically has taken bold steps. The Church's founder ordained the first black Episcopalian priest, a former slave, in the early 1800s. In 2003, New Hampshire's Gene Robinson became the first openly gay Episcopalian bishop.

For Darras, who was raised Methodist, entering the Episcopal Church was not a casual decision. She says her first husband, a Catholic, was a domineering military man with assignments that took him for long stretches from their North Carolina home. Meanwhile, Darras attended college and developed an interest in theology. She liked reading about different denominations and would often drop by an Episcopalian church near her house. She says that when her husband returned to their home briefly, she told him about her interests and he slapped her across the face.

As much as it stung, she was still drawn to the church. A few years later, after divorcing and obtaining a master's degree in library technology, she was confirmed in the Episcopal Church.

"I don't take it lightly," she says of the church's role in her life.

Darras says she also supports the female ordination policy for another reason: her daughter. The 20-year-old is studying theology at Monmouth College in Illinois and is considering entering the seminary. Monmouth is within the Quincy Diocese -- a constant reminder that even though many young women might feel a calling, there are still places they're not welcome.

St. Barnabas, with about 50 members, hasn't had a full-time priest for six years. Darras felt that, in the interest of a small church's survival, it'd be wise to draw from as many candidates -- male and female -- as possible. As a choir member, a lay reader and a delegate to the Diocesan Council, Darras was an active member, and she didn't want to give all that up.

Church members say that three years ago, an overwhelming majority of them indicated in a survey that they did not want a female priest. They reiterated their feelings at a recent parish meeting -- a meeting in which Darras says she wasn't even allowed to fully state her case for having a priest who was a woman.

She fired off an angry letter to the interim priest, the Reverend Bill Houghton, accusing him of condoning discrimination by not making a case for interviewing female priests.

A week later, things got ugly: Darras claims that church senior warden Stephen Smith passed her over at the altar rail, so, right there in the middle of the Eucharist, she called Smith "a liar, a hypocrite and a sexist."

"I had my Rosa Parks moment," Darras says.

St. Barnabas, as a self-supported parish, has the right to choose its own priest, although Darras condemns its members' attitudes. In a letter to Houghton, Darras wrote that, in observance of Dr. Martin Luther King's birthday, she reread King's noted "Letter from Birmingham Jail." "When was the last time you read it, Bill? It still has much to say on the issue of fairness and equality. After reading Dr. King's words, I know I must speak out."

Smith received a similar letter. After he read it and witnessed Darras's outburst at the altar, he notified her that she was no longer welcome.

"You can't have local option on morality," Darras says. And she expects the Episcopal Diocese of Texas to agree with her.

"We do what is right," says St. Barnabas member John Hughey. "We love each other…we don't like people coming [to church] with agendas." He says he likes St. Barnabas for its "old traditional values."

Meeting for coffee and doughnuts after the service that Darras was barred from attending, other congregants echo Hughey's feelings. Houston has plenty of nontraditional churches, including one with a jazz Eucharist. They believe Darras has plenty of options -- why try to make them bend to her will?

And this sentiment doesn't come from just men.

Cindy Smith, wife of Stephen Smith, says Darras has a "feminist vendetta."

Bronwyn Campbell, an 18-year member and church cantor, says the Bible clearly states that women cannot be priests.

"The sacraments are holy, and I don't think that you're supposed to interfere with or tinker with something…that God has provided us," Campbell says. But, she stresses, "this really isn't about women priests. What it's about is one woman didn't get her way at a church meeting and is sort of throwing a temper tantrum. Because all churches have meetings at which people disagree, and they don't end up with the offended party running to the media."

Houghton declined comment, and Stephen Smith did not want to say much more than what he wrote to Darras last month: "St. Barnabas is and has been a conservative parish. That is not likely to change in the foreseeable future."

Darras says this issue is much bigger than St. Barnabas, and she wants an audience with local Bishop Don Wimberly. But the Episcopal Diocese of Texas doesn't have an opinion, according to spokeswoman Carol Barnwell.

"You can't force a church to take someone they don't want as a leader," she says. "You can put the option" of male or female candidates "in front of them and ask them to participate in the search. And we found that that works the best."

Barnwell was asked if the diocese has a responsibility to encourage churches to make progress for the sake of the entire tradition. For example, what if members of a church demanded only a white priest?

"This is their church and they can choose who they want to be the clergy person," she says.

While the diocese does not feel an obligation to encourage local churches to explore different ways of growing, the Reverend Dr. Bill Kondrath feels otherwise.

Kondrath is an associate professor at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He believes it's good for the Episcopal Church as a whole for dioceses to weigh in on controversies within local churches. The idea isn't to admonish, but to at least engage in discussion.

"Bishops, diocesan councils, local leaders, should be seeing that the [Episcopal] Church moves forward," Kondrath says. "One of the hopes I would have for the Church is that it can find a way for people to live alongside one another who have radically different beliefs."

Kondrath says that while it's unfair to expect a small conservative church to change overnight, change is possible.

But in the case of Darras and St. Barnabas, it sure doesn't look that way. Both are passionate about their beliefs. And while they're reading from the same Good Book, they're on completely different pages.

While Darras wants to find a new church where she'll feel comfortable, she ultimately wants Bishop Wimberly to admonish St. Barnabas. In a recent e-mail to Wimberly, she wrote, "Bishop Wimberly, either you do or you do not fully support the rights of women. You can no longer encourage equality among the genders to be optional. This argument was settled twenty-nine years ago. It is time for all parishes to acknowledge that fundamental belief or quit calling themselves Episcopal Church USA."

Wimberly has not replied.

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