Belanger ordained as Episcopal Church’s first French female priest

Bishop Pierre Whalon of the Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe celebrates Holy Eucharist during the Feb. 1 ordination of the Rev. Fanny Sohet Belanger (standing on Whalon's right). Photo: Harvey Bale

Bishop Pierre Whalon of the Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe celebrates Holy Eucharist during the Feb. 1 ordination of the Rev. Fanny Sohet Belanger (standing on Whalon’s right). Photo: Harvey Bale

[Episcopal News Service] The Rev. Fanny Sohet Belanger loves to help people grow in their relationships with God. At the same time, she says, it is important not to be “trapped” in the church but to engage in mission and to reach out to people where they are. These are the principles that have guided Belanger’s spiritual journey, a path that led to her Feb. 1 ordination as the first French female priest in the Episcopal Church.

“My ministry is not to bring religion to people, but to enable them to craft their own theology and spirituality by helping them know their tradition and engage with the Scriptures,” she told ENS in a recent interview. “Prayer is very important to me and I consider it the heart of the church.”

Belanger, 38, was ordained by Bishop Pierre Whalon at Virginia Theological Seminary (VTS) in Alexandria, where she moved with her husband, Xavier, in August 2011 to complete a Master of Divinity degree. She was ordained a deacon at VTS in March 2013.

Whalon, bishop-in-charge of the Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe, described Belanger as a “candidate of extraordinary qualities [with a] very inviting, warm pastoral presence … She is a woman for all people.”

Belanger was born in Grenoble, France, and raised Roman Catholic. She discovered the Anglican Church in her early 30s and began attending St. Marc’s Church, a member of the Church of England’s Diocese in Europe. In 2011, she helped to launch an Anglican Eucharist for French speakers at St. Marc’s.

Belanger has studied philosophy and theology, and “always had a great desire to become a priest,” she said. “I admired so much our parish priest when I was a child. I was devastated the day my father told me I could never become a priest because I was a girl. I felt it was so unfair – and there was nothing I could do about it. But many years later, God found another way … I discovered the Anglican Communion and soon made my home there. For the first time I could talk about my sense of a call without being dismissed.”

The Rev. Fammy Sohet Belanger with Bishop Pierre Whalon. Photo: Harvey Bale

The Rev. Fanny Sohet Belanger with Bishop Pierre Whalon. Photo: Harvey Bale

During the ordination sermon, Whalon said Belanger is “a woman of great gifts, among which is an ability to bring the Gospel to all kinds
of people. You are a fisher of people too. But before anything else, you must always make sure you are following where Christ is leading. It is easy to get caught in the ministry trap, where the priesthood is a career, and your gifts are what you use to advance.”

According to Whalon, Diocese in Europe Suffragan Bishop David Hamid felt that Belanger would be better suited to ordination in the Episcopal Church rather than in the Church of England. Belanger told ENS she had always felt drawn to the U.S.

English congregations were established on the Continent before the Reformation, leading to the formation of the Diocese of Gibraltar in 1842 and the Diocese in Europe in 1980. Meanwhile, after the American Revolution, American Episcopalians began worshiping from time to time at the American Embassy in Paris. As American interests developed in the 19th century, Episcopalians in various cities started congregations. Today, the Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe serves a culturally diverse demographic of Christians in some 20 parishes and missions throughout Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Poland and Switzerland. Two other Anglican jurisdictions operate in Europe: the Reformed Episcopal Church of Spain and the Lusitanian Church of Portugal.

Belanger is currently serving as an intern at the Church of the Epiphany, in Washington D.C., where she works among the homeless, preaches, leads Bible studies, “yet most of the time, I just listen to people and try to be present,” she told ENS.

Before that she served for 18 months as a seminarian at St. John’s Church, Lafayette Square, also in the district.

Asked what has defined her journey, Belanger said “joy and wonder … I would never have thought I would find a church that really felt like home, would never have believed I would be heard about my sense of a call … I think I’ve learned God can do extraordinary things with ordinary people or at least to ordinary people like me. I’ve learned to trust, I’ve learned to believe God loves me and guides me.”

Belanger said it fills her with pride and happiness to be the first French woman to become an Episcopal priest. While Belanger and her husband – VTS’s system and network administrator – plan to stay a little longer in the U.S., she understands that her ordained ministry will likely call her back home to France. In the meantime, she is hoping to find a new opportunity for ministry in the Washington D.C. metro area.

“It took a lot of work, boldness and faith to get me here – and also a lot of love and support from my husband and friends along the way,” she said. “But at the same time, I feel sad. Sad there are so many ministers here in U.S. and so few in France. Sad Christians in my country can’t find a priest to baptize their children and bury their dead. In France, lay people have so much to do with so little time and sometimes not enough education.

“I am sad such valuable people ‘cannot’ be ordained because the Roman Catholic Church won’t allow it,” she added. “I think people in U.S. don’t always realize the chance they have to have a real freedom to worship. Yet I am hopeful the Episcopal Church will be able to spread its mission in Europe.”

Whalon acknowledged that in France, Belanger would likely face some challenges as a female priest serving in a predominantly secular society and where the main Christian denomination is Roman Catholic. But, Whalon added, she has a special gift and an “ability to speak to French people who have a hardened shell without battering it down.”

Said Belanger: “We don’t need so many skills to become a priest, we need a heart. People out there are dying to be loved and to be understood.”

– Matthew Davies is an editor/reporter for the Episcopal News Service.

Comments

  1. The Rev. John T. Farrell, Ph.D. says:

    Esta é uma notícia maravilhosa. Faz-me orgulhoso de ser um episcopal.

    • The Rev. John T. Farrell, Ph.D. says:

      Well, I feel stupid. I meant to offer my congratulations to Madame Belanger in French, but I blurted it in Portuguese. I’ll try again: Ce sont d’excellentes nouvelles. Qui me rend fier d’être un épiscopalien.

  2. Félicitations, Fanny, je suis heureux d’apprendre cette nouvelle. Que Dieu vous bénisse dans votre ministère ! Et puisque vous exprimez le désir de revenir en France, pourquoi ne pas créer une mission francophone à Paris ? Cela fait 10 ans que je suis épiscopalien et je connais pas mal de gens qui seraient prêts à vous y aider, moi y compris !

  3. Toutes mes félicitations pour cette bonne nouvelle, d’un autre français prêtre anglican à Londres depuis 18 ans. Que Dieu continue à bénir ce qu’il a commencé en vous.

  4. Nathaniel F. Queen, Jr. says:

    Que Dieu soit avec vous dans votre nouveau ministère et où que vous soyez.

  5. Mary Jane Wyant says:

    You have a beautiful outlook, and you will be a blessing wherever you serve!

  6. Mes felicitations ma con-soeur, et que le Seigneur vous benisse pendant les annees prochaines. Le monde est certainment ouvert a vos talents, vos services et votre coeur. Mes annees chez la communaute francophone du Quebec etaient parmi les plus excellentes dans ma vie – je suis certain que vous allez trouve’ l’opportunite ou’ notre eglise a manque’ son appel.

    Le Rev’d Samuel S. Thomas, Ph. D.+
    Eglise Saint Martin
    Clewiston, Floride – E-U

  7. The Very Rev. Thomas C. Chesterman+ says:

    Que continuons chanter le chanson de Dieu en toutes les langues.

    Thomas C. Chesterman
    Vicar Emeritus, True Sunshine Church, Chinatown, San Francisco

  8. Having known Fanny at St. John’s, I can say that the Communion is fortunate to have her. She will be a gift to any congregation.

  9. Denis Le Moullac says:

    Vous tracez un chemin qui conduit à la Joie, que Dieu bénisse ceux qui, avec vous, le suivront.

  10. Sandrine Sohet says:

    Tu as su partir, te remettre en question, pour imposer ton destin.

    Que ta route soit belle !

  11. Florence Le Lann says:

    C’est un don magnifique et l’aboutissement d’un long chemin. Merci à l’église épiscopalienne d’avoir su l’accueillir. C’est une promesse d’avenir pour notre petite communauté épiscopalienne en Europe.

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