A New Rector, A New Way

| 28 Apr 2015 | 05:11

The faithful are thoughtful at Saint Michael’s Church on West 99th Street.

“Come in, ask your questions, be full of doubt, be thoughtful, you know, we welcome that,” said Katharine Flexer, whom the church will install as the congregation’s 11th rector on Sunday. She will be the first woman to hold the position in the more than 200 years since the parish was founded, in 1807.

Flexer, though, is unfazed by the history-making. “I’ve been the first woman other places now, so I don’t really feel any kind of ooh about that,” she said. After she worked as a staff priest at St. Michael’s from 2005 until 2010, Flexer became the first female rector at the Episcopal Church in Almaden in San Jose, California.

She said she will focus less on the landmark than on pondering the complexities of a new job that involves a broad range of responsibilities including writing and giving sermons and serving as the landlord of the church’s cemetery in Queens. “It’s a big job, it’s complicated,” she said.

She thinks of herself as intellectually curious, a good fit in a church known for openness. “The Episcopal church has always struggled with this, the more abstract view of God,” she said, “because it’s not the most straightforward answer that people want.”

Her own vision of God fits that abstract description. “In the end, ultimately, God is indefinable,” she said.

Before the Church’s service a few Sundays ago, Flexer looked relaxed. She adjusted her robes in the high-ceilinged room with flowing natural light. Acolytes and the assistant priest, Sam Smith, chattered among themselves. Flexer joked about a young acolyte’s sandals and brightly colored toenails, saying she thought everyone in New York wore only black.

“New York City, I never thought would be a part of my biography,” said Flexer. She grew up in Seattle and thought she might become a professor before she settled on becoming a reverend.

After completing seminary school at Grand Theological Union in Berkeley, California, she entertained the idea of doing a Ph.D. She did a post-graduate year of non-degree studies in Oxford, England, through an exchange with an Anglican seminary there.

Ultimately, she realized her strength and passion lay more in connecting with people than in creating original academic work. “I married a Ph.D. instead of getting one,” Flexer joked. Her husband, Jim Hinch, has a Ph.D. in English from UC Berkeley.

She spent much of her early pastoral career in California churches. When she came to work at St. Michael’s for the first time, she was not sure what to expect.

Flexer quickly found New York a fitting home. “I think it’s easier in New York City because people are thinking more abstractly in general, so there’s a readiness to go there in intellect.”

“She’s intellectual, but warm. Caring, but thoughtful,” Gayle Robinson, a local resident and member of the church for 12 years, said after service one April Sunday.

And while Flexer may not make a big deal about being the first woman rector of this parish, at least some members of the church are excited. Meredith Kadet, 33, has been a member of the church for three years and recently graduated from Union Theological Seminary in Morningside Heights. “I count it as a great thing that she’s a woman,” she said. “The Episcopalian church has a long history of woman ordination, but you don’t always find women in positions of power.”

Flexer can’t help but give in to her congregation’s excitement at least a little bit. “I mean I love it that they were excited,” she conceded. “It’s awesome, when I think about it.”