The picture of the woman in her garb, and then the picture of the red bikini....priceless. This a good read.


By THE REV. DR. AMY RICHTER


Published: April 20, 2012





I stood by the mailbox holding a package that weighed about as much as an apple. Inside, I knew, there was a bikini. I was almost afraid to open it. How could something so small hold such a big risk?


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As an Episcopal priest, I am usually more interested in what is going on inside a person than in what shows on the outside. Most days, if I have official duties, I put on my black clergy shirt, my white collar and a suit that looks decent and head out looking like a priest.
Now here I stood with my package, wondering how “priestly” I would look in its contents. The fabric was fire-engine red; a sprinkling of rhinestones along the edge caught the light.
I needed the bikini for the physique competition at the Wisconsin State Fair. I started training the year before. I loved how strong it made me feel. Now I was about to compete in front of hundreds of people.
The competition would be on a Sunday morning, a day I had requested off for “a personal enrichment experience.” I would not know many people in the crowd. No one from church would be there. Men and women would perform poses of “front double biceps,” “side triceps” and “back lat spread,” while at the other end of the exhibit hall, judges would award ribbons for apple pie and pickled beets. This was a wholesome environment; still, I knew I couldn’t share widely what I was doing.
Decades ago my church decided that the ordination of women was a just and morally responsible thing. Some people left over the decision. Some people still tell me they struggle with the idea. Now many women serve as priests, and many parishioners applaud this fact.
But somehow, despite our belief that both sexes can serve the church, it seems there’s still something unnerving about a priest who is a woman. It has to do with having a woman’s body.
A parishioner told me that he thought I was a great priest, but that if I became pregnant, it would be too weird for him to see me at the altar. Merely holding hands with my husband, even when I am not in clerical clothes, has elicited the comment “Can you do that? I mean, in public?” Another parishioner told me I was too petite to be a priest. I’m 5-10. I have never been called “petite.” I think he meant “female.”
What about when a priest wears a bikini? What if she complicates the picture by having sizable biceps or well-defined lats? Can “buff” and “holy” go together? “Ripped” and “reverend”? If the “reverend” is a woman?
On the day of the competition, when I put on the bikini, I felt almost giddy. The stealthy nature of my mission — to win the title of Ms. State Fair, with few people knowing I even entered — added to my excitement.
Competitors hurried to do final preparations. We checked our makeup and did calisthenics to make our muscles stand out. We passed around spray cooking oil to give ourselves a thin coat.
The competition started with the judges calling out poses. We performed them in unison. The similarities to liturgy stuck with me: in church, the smells of beeswax candles and furniture polish. Here: Pam and tanning lotion. In church: gestures called out by the celebrant (usually me). Here: poses called out by a judge.
For our solo routines, each of us was introduced to the crowd as we came onstage. “Next we have Amy Richter, from Milwaukee. She is 37 years old, and she works as . . . a priest! Well, hallelujah!” The applause was loud. I performed my routine perfectly to a song by Macy Gray. I couldn’t stop smiling.
I came in second. Third went to an amateur wrestler. I wonder if she tells people she was beaten by a priest as quickly as I say I beat her. I carried my three-foot-high trophy proudly through the fairgrounds. The trophy was so flashy that children stopped to ask how I won it. “Tell them you got it for reading a lot of books,” my husband advised. Noble, but no way.
I wanted to say I won it for being the strongest priest in the state, for being a woman who is a priest with a really strong and healthy body. I wanted to tell them I won it for being brave, but that wasn’t really true, because I hadn’t been brave enough to tell the people it would be the biggest risk to tell.
“I got it for being myself,” I said.
The Rev. Dr. Amy Richter is now rector of St. Anne’s Parish in Annapolis, Md., and author of “Enoch and the Gospel of Matthew,” to be published this year by Wipf and Stock.
E-mail submissions for Lives to lives@nytimes.com. Because of the volume of e-mail, the magazine cannot respond to every submission.



A version of this article appeared in print on April 22, 2012, on page MM82 of the Sunday Magazine with the headline: Heavenly Body.