- A Thoroughly Irregular Priest, Theologian, and Universalist ChristianInterview with The Rev. Isabel Carter Heyward, PhD
feminist, justice-love, mutuality, sexuality, theology, universalist Christian
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[End Page 131]
Until I enrolled in Carter Heyward's Christology class in 1999, I knew next to nothing about Jesus, other than what I had learned from Linus in A Charlie Brown Christmas. And so, although many of my seminary classmates could have written volumes on their understanding of and relationship with Jesus the Christ, at that time, mine would have fit comfortably on a cocktail napkin. Carter Heyward changed all of that and with it, the trajectory of my life and vocation. Carter's 1998 book Saving Jesus from Those Who Are Right had just come out when I first enrolled in her class at Episcopal Divinity School (EDS).1 I read the book before I met its author. I had never encountered such an invigorating and compelling suggestion of the relationship between justice and power as it relates to gender, sexuality, spirituality, and salvation. Carter's radical theology was a potent and transformative game changer for me, and it set my course on an adventure toward a brand new horizon.
The notion that Jesus's presence is manifest in the fullness of compassion and forgiveness and not just in the empty tomb opened a new way for me to think about the meaning of Christianity and my belonging in that realm. Carter's prophetic imagination, her innovatively disruptive way of understanding and communicating the presence and promise and power of God planted in me a passion for that God that I had theretofore not known.
Carter Heyward is nothing if not an agent of transformation and a lifelong trailblazer. In addition to the profound substance of her work as a theologian, professor, priest, preacher, prophet, and beacon of fresh and refreshing invitations, her example of courage and creativity in breaking boundaries and crossing borders is a major legacy that has served an untold contingent of budding theologians and ministers all over the world and will serve generations to come.
Carter was one of the youngest of the history-making "Philadelphia Eleven," the clan of courageous women first and irregularly ordained to the Episcopal church in 1974. The ordination was designated "irregular" because the ordaining bishops stepped around the canon of the church and offered holy orders without institutional blessing. But as it turns out, "irregular" is a fine and fitting description for the depth and breadth of Carter's life and work as a whole.
Although the Philadelphia ordination was not the first border crossing in Carter's then twenty-nine years, it ushered her squarely onto the national stage (she was on the cover of Ms. in December 1974, among other high-profile appearances) and freed her to raise her profound and prophetic voice in ways that might never have been possible without her groundbreaking ascent to the priesthood in an institutional church that for centuries had ignored and often denigrated women. Much of the raw power in Carter's life and work after her ordination flowed directly from the way in which she was accorded her power in the church. [End Page 132]
Since that historic event, Carter has changed the face of feminist liberation theology, taught and inspired legions of aspiring priests, prophets, and theologians, and welcomed and educated a steady stream of just plain folks from all walks of life who are curious about God and the way the divine works in our fleshy world. She has published twelve books and contributed to many more. She was the Harold Chandler Robbins Professor of Theology at EDS in Cambridge, Massachusetts, for thirty years (1975–2005). As a preacher and teacher and keynote speaker in a variety of venues large and small, she has served as a witness and a prophetic voice for the virtues of mutuality and justice-love and the sacred pursuit of kindness.
Carter is currently retired and residing in Brevard, North Carolina, a founding member of the community of Redbud Springs where...