Lessons about Women’s Ordination from Palm Beach’s Social System

Some readers of the blog are doubtless buffaloed at my blasé attitude regarding what Anglicans call WO (women’s ordination.)  I explain some of my rationale here but some of that comes from being a product of the Palm Beach social system.  That system–exclusivistic and highly non-industrial–moulds everyone who lives there in ways that aren’t obvious until they get away from it.  So here are some reflections on the effect of that system and why it’s relevant in the church today.

First, a core feature of the system is the simple fact that women have been powerful and played a central role in the system long before the move to “liberate” them got going.  An easy-to-understand example of this was Marjorie Merriweather Post, who owned Mar-a-Lago for so many years.  Mar-a-Lago was (and is if you ignore the fact that it’s a private club now) the largest private residence on the island, and she was prominent (including the square dances she held.)  But she was only one.  Palm Beach was a place where work was a four-letter word in the past for many people (or in their ancestors’ past.)  With this a person’s position based on the job they did (and for many years it was the men who did most of the paid jobs) didn’t really bear on where you stood in the scheme of things.

This tended to put women in the driver’s seat in many ways–overseeing households (where they routinely told men what to do,) controlling fortunes (based on the terms and conditions of those fortunes) and organising events.  There’s power in all of that.  It’s hard to swallow industrial-era based complementarianism when you’ve been exposed to that.  (A cursory reading of Proverbs 31 should also put paid to such thinking, but I digress…)

The second is that power is not always exercised in the open.  We are routinely regaled with things such as “the first woman to…” and so forth.  And these accomplishments should not be gainsaid.  However, one thing one learns in a place like Palm Beach (and should be learned elsewhere but frequently isn’t) is that real power often resides in the hands of those who aren’t in the limelight, or who don’t have the formal position.  That, just about as much as anything, drives me crazy about American political dialogue.  The whole rise of the Religious Right in politics was based on the idea that, if we could win enough elections, we could take American back for God again.  We now know that this was not true in the 1980’s and certainly isn’t now, although elections are important.

An interesting example of how this played out relevant to the topic of women took place when the Vestry of Bethesda-by-the-Sea Episcopal Church, led by shirt magnate William Cluett, booted the ladies’ rummage sale from the parish hall on “scriptural” grounds.  In those days vestries were an all-male affair, and in a complementarian world the ladies would be compelled to sit down and shut up.  They didn’t; led by prominent socialite Helene Tuchbreiter, they moved their operation elsewhere and started the Church Mouse resale shop, which is today a part of the scene in Palm Beach.

So why is Palm Beach’s social system educational for the rest of us?  Well, “moving up” is a big deal for Americans in church and elsewhere.  You simply cannot promote industrial-era complementarianism one the one hand and the desire of upward social mobility on the other without running in the simple fact that, when you reach the peak of the latter the former isn’t operative.  For all of its unBiblical aspects, Palm Beach’s social system in many ways reflects a time before what job someone had defined their status in life, and that’s something that everyone needs to remember.  If we could get past that, we could liberate ourselves from many things.

P.S. One thing I didn’t touch on was the exclusivist nature of Palm Beach’s social system.  We hear many opponents of Christianity decry churches as “country clubs” but if you’re a product of a system where being in a club was a big deal that isn’t much of an insult.  And if we’re going to implement things such as the “Benedict Option” that aspect will be a key to our survival.  But again that’s another post…

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