Lisa Hunt is the rector of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Houston, Texas. The church opened in the Montrose neighborhood of the city in 1928, and has been a leader of progressive religion in the city for most of its history. During the Civil Rights era, the church was the first in Houston to integrate its primary day school. St. Stephens was the first Episcopal Church in Texas to appoint a woman rector and continued to lead the way on gender and LGBTQ equality during the 1980s and 1990s. We spoke with Hunt about her own experiences being a priest in the early years of women’s ordination as well as her views on faith and progressive politics.
—Zoe Matranga for Cosmologics
Cosmologics: What brought you to the clergy?
Lisa Hunt: I was raised in an evangelical church, the Church of God, that was headquartered in Ohio. It was a deeply loving congregation, but fairly anti-intellectual. So when I graduated from high school, Christianity didn’t seem intellectually viable to me. When I went to college, I didn’t go to church; those four years were exploratory for me. I realized though—I was an English major with a minor in philosophy—that I had no idea what I was going to do when I finished school. I think this is the case for a lot of young people, and I wasn’t unusual in that way. But I really despaired about this. I had not been a person of prayer, particularly, when I was an undergraduate, but I became pretty panicked and ended up going for a walk around my university. There, I had a religious experience—I hadn’t had a religious experience in a long time, but I had this sense that going to divinity school was the next step. For me, it wasn’t a call to the ministry, it was a call to study. I knew that in the tradition in which I grew up, our clergy did go to seminary. My college advisor, however, had done a bachelor of divinity at the University of Chicago and had not become a clergyperson. So I knew you could study religion and not be a priest. When I had that experience, I thought, “That’s right. I need to study this part of myself.” I had basically left the heart and spirit piece of me to the side while I was doing my undergraduate work. Also, my father was an agnostic who thought faith was irrational. That was a big influence on my thinking about these matters.
Even when I applied to graduate school I wasn’t planning to be a priest. I thought that I would go and study religion at a good university and that would help me apply to a PhD program in English. Vanderbilt Divinity School in Nashville gave me a full ride—they really like people who are seekers. During my degree, I did my fieldwork in an Episcopal congregation at Saint John’s the Old Hickory that was in a company town outside of Nashville built by DuPont. After I had been doing fieldwork there people said, “you’d be really good at this!” And so I became an Episcopalian. This was in 1982—the Episcopal church had begun ordaining women in 1976. The priest I was working with was very progressive, and he really wanted a woman priest. So he pushed me to go ahead and apply, and I was twenty…four. [laughs] I was a baby! At twenty-four, I started the process of ordination in the Episcopal church through the Diocese of Tennessee. I’m laughing at that because I would say that I was ordained for a while before I really felt like I was a priest.
That was the process. Because I wasn’t at an Episcopal seminary, I had to do a year of Anglican studies in New York City, at General Seminary, which was really great experience for me. I had always wanted to live in New York, and it gave me an opportunity to see what the Episcopal church was like in a different area of the country. In New York, the Episcopal church was (besides the Catholic church) the big church in the city. There was an Episcopal church on practically every corner. It was a very different from being a Southern Episcopalian! I’m really glad I had that experience.
The ordination of women became possible in 1976, and I started the process in 1982. I was the second woman to be a rector in the Diocese of Tennessee, and I was twenty-eight when that happened. I was considered young at that time. Importantly, the Episcopal Church wasn’t ordaining young people anymore. The church wanted priests to have life experience, so people would do other vocations and then come and become priests once they were older. But what that meant is that we lost a whole generation of young people in leadership. I’m kind of an anomaly, to be in my mid-fifties now and have thirty years of experience, because I started so young.
When women became rectors they would be called “mothers.” I hated that. I was never called mother. I never wanted to do the patriarchal “father knows best” model and just add a woman at the head of it.
Cosmologics: What was it like being a priest only six years after they started ordaining women?
Lisa Hunt: It was difficult because it was new, and I was often the the first woman clergy person that people had ever met. I can remember there were people who would not take communion from me. If they were coming up to the communion rail to receive the elements, they would make sure they were in another line, rather then being in the line that I was serving. Generally speaking, I think that people scrutinized women’s work more.
Coming out of that experience, I was convinced of the importance of relationality. You can be conceptually against something, but when you meet someone, that relationship challenges your assumptions. People can say, “Ew, ick, I’m against women clergy, women shouldn’t be priests,” until their mother’s sick and you’re tending to them and their mother. Or until their child is needing to be baptized, and you’re there and you understand what it’s like to go through that experience of childbirth. I saw that as people started having more experiences with women their perspectives changed.
Institutionally, it was also difficult because I was married at the church that I served first as rector, and they’d never had a pregnant priest. There were no parental leave policies! Also, I was much younger than any of the other women. In 1982 in Tennessee, there was a backlog of women, often in their middle-age, who had been waiting to be priests for a long time.They were often married and their husbands had money, so the church could get away with ordaining them but not offering them a salary. It was much more difficult to be a woman and insist, “I want a full-time job, and I need paid benefits.” And there was a lot of competition among the women for positions because there were so few congregations that were ready to call women. To this day there is a pay disparity between women and men clergy: there’s a ten thousand dollar gap across all sizes of congregation and all tenures of service.
Sexism is still very ingrained in the church. People’s willingness to elect women as rectors of major congregations is still rare. Women bishops tend to be assisting bishops. The more things change, the more they stay the same, on a certain level. But, but, I do think women have added a lot to the priesthood, and I think our impact is definitely stout.
Cosmologics: Absolutely. And in what kind of ways?
Lisa Hunt: I think that the ordination of women in the Episcopal church enabled us to have conversations about sexuality much sooner than many other denominations. We’ve been having the conversation about LGBT folk for 40 years. Much of the initial fear that people had of women being priests really was from the question, “maybe some of our priests are gay?” We had to grapple with sexuality and gender. Also, women were first ordained during the AIDS crisis. Women priests were not afraid to be pastoral in that space. My predecessor here, Helen Havens, was a real leader in Houston and created an AIDS respite care team at St. Stephen’s. It was a testament to Helen’s courage and empathy for the community.
Similarly, because we’re not in the positions of power, women clergy have allowed the church to take greater risks than people who have a clear track in the church hierarchy. For instance, we’ve had to do some real reflection on the family as a model for Church life. Many Episcopal priests go by “father,” and so there was often a situation which there would be a man rector and a woman assistant. And when women became rectors they would be called “mothers.” I hated that. I was never called mother. I never wanted to do the patriarchal “father knows best” model and just add a woman at the head of it. I think this sort of questioning helped open the church to thinking about God in some new ways, because of the way we incarnated and embodied our ministry.
Cosmologics: What brought you to Houston?
Lisa Hunt: I was the rector at Saint Anne’s in Nashville, I had been there for seventeen years, and I was on the school board in Nashville, and had a very full life in ministry. St. Stephen’s rector Helen Havens retired after 22 years as rector here, and a former member of my congregation in Nashville was on the search committee. He gave the search committee here my name and they said, “why don’t you consider coming to Houston?” I had never been to Texas, ever, and it was a very foreign concept for me to think about coming to Houston. I had a feeling that I could serve St. Stephen’s well, and I was open to a change, having served on the school board in a public school environment in Nashville. I was really interested in what the church could do with education. St. Stephen’s has a day school that goes from preschool through high school, and I thought, from a spiritual and justice perspective, that there were interesting things to be done here.
Cosmologics: In what ways was Houston different from what you were expecting?
Lisa Hunt: I wasn’t prepared for the diversity and scale of Houston, I wasn’t prepared for that! I also wasn’t prepared for the way in which business is the heart of Houston. In Nashville, business is important, but it’s only one cultural strand. There are other forces that are a very important: history, music-making, food, and story-telling! But in Houston, money-making dominates. Initially, that was disconcerting to me. What I’ve come to love about Houston, though, is how achievable things are. Once the city decides that it wants to do something, it can do it. I really admire that sense of capacity. There’s an equality of opportunity, there’s no old family money here, so you can make your own way and have a place at the table. It doesn’t matter that your grandmother wasn’t here with money. I think the fluidity around that is really very interesting and surprising.
It matters theologically how government functions, how children are raised, how the planet’s taken care of. God cares about those things, and the church also needs to care about those things.
Cosmologics: How do you think about the differences between St. Stephen’s and other churches in Houston that are larger and take a different theological approach—for instance, preaching something like the prosperity gospel?
Lisa Hunt: One of the things that’s really wonderful about the United States is how diverse our religious landscape is, and that we have such diversity of religion, all religions. But there is also diversity within each religious tradition. Houston is a big city, so we have a wide range of theological perspectives. I do think, however, that as income inequality rises, the salience of prosperity gospel will be less and less. Prosperity gospel speaks to the hunger people have for hope. But one of the challenges in the Christian community is to contend with who is responsible for the public and the common good. In mainline kinds of traditions, Roman Catholicism, or Orthodox, there’s is a sense of public responsibility for the polis. It matters theologically how government functions, how children are raised, how the planet’s taken care of. God cares about those things, and the church also needs to care about those things. I think that if religion becomes too individualistic, it doesn’t equip people effectively for the responsibility for social good. We’re entering an era where this is more and more important. This is what the Pope is speaking to in his focus on environmental justice and the impact on the poor. I think that this individualism that’s so much a part of prosperity gospel doesn’t really equip individuals to be part of families or cities.
Cosmologics: Where does St. Stephen’s see itself in these transitions?
Lisa Hunt: We’re interested in what it means to be a neighbor. We recognize that schools and churches are pivotal institutions in neighborhoods, and we have both at St. Stephen’s. We’re a part of a connected system, and we have a history of being on the edge of social justice matters in Houston. Ours was the first day care nursery in Houston to integrate, we just accepted our first transgender student at our day school this year, and we’re thinking deeply abut housing and incoming inequality. How do we as a private school bring in diversity economically? How can we offer green space to the neighborhood, as the city becomes more and more dense?
If money is our primary sacrament as a city, that’s a scary topic.
Cosmologics: You talked about the richness of church diversity, but what is it like moving through more conservative spaces than a church that is known for what we could call “acceptance” of different sexualities and genders?
Lisa Hunt: I think that now St. Stephen’s is seen as a resource. For example, I just got an email from a colleague in an East Texas town where she’d been approached to do a gay wedding. “How do I do that? Are there special things I need to do in the preparation?” You know. “Help me.” That that’s an unusual place for St. Stephen’s to be, when you become “norm,” it’s a different role to be taking. That’s why this conversation about affordable housing is interesting to our leaders, because this issue of income inequality is deeply un-Houston. If money is our primary sacrament as a city, that’s a scary topic. That’s one of the reasons we want to engage it because it’s a scary topic. But we’re also becoming mainstream now on this other thing. We’re finding a lot of young adults coming to us because they want communities of inclusion. I will say, that I think it is no longer okay to put the onus on LGBT people to test the waters for where they’re going to be welcome or not welcome. We need to have some truth in advertising, like GMO labeling. We need to do that in our churches so that people know! I don’t think it’s up to individual people to have to test that out. I think in St. Stephen’s context, however, the challenge is around this economic conversation. We’re not of a common mind on that, so living with that ambiguity is important.
Cosmologics: What part of your faith tradition motivates you or the church to respond in the way you have? To be “on the edge of things,” as you put it.
Lisa Hunt: The social gospel movement has been very formative to me personally. In the Anglican church, historically, that sense of care for the poor is part of the worship and spiritual life of the church. The church is to care for the world and to be engaged in rectifying injustice. That’s been a very important tradition for me personally. It’s a very deep strand of that in the Episcopal church, but in the late 20th century and into the early 21st century Evangelical Christianity has seen such a rise, and these other traditions are not as pronounced. It is interesting being a minority theological position, but I don’t think that success is about being a megachurch. For us to bear this historical tradition which is no longer the majority view is important for this community. We have muscle in being the minority.
I don’t think that prosperity gospel is going to preach to this generation. But I think authentic faith and authentic spiritual tradition and practice are important. It’s important for us to be able to maintain who we are and what we know, and to offer alternative visions of Christian life.
Cosmologics:What keeps you at St. Stephen’s?
Hunt: What keeps me at St. Stephen’s is that there’s something new all the time. I really like being in places where it’s not clear. Things aren’t clear in Houston, they’re not clear in Montrose, they’re not clear in the Episcopal church in Texas, they’re not clear at St. Stephen’s. That sense of creativity and chaos as part of the precondition for creation, it’s really interesting. So for me, that’s not a sign of things falling apart. It’s a sign of the next thing being formed.
Zoe Matranga is a senior at Rice University, majoring in Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies.
Image from Flickr via khrawlings