Profiles in Prophetic Voice - The Reverend Bliss Williams Browne

Frank Brown

The Reverend Bliss Williams Browne is a woman of firsts. Back in 1969, she was among the first women to enroll at Yale. In 1979, two years after a pioneering ordination into the Episcopal Church as a woman, a banking job took her to London and she became the first female priest to preach in that city’s hallowed Westminster Abbey. Nowadays, the 56-year-old mother of three spends ten months of each year overseas, being the first to introduce her novel concept of “Imagine” to dozens of countries.

“I love going into pioneering situations and making them work. I’m so attracted to the edge, in between the future and the present,” says Browne, going on to explain how she discerns the “edge.” “I think you listen and watch. One of my favorite words is prolepsis – something that is happening in the present but belongs to the future.”

Browne’s ability to find the edge and, more significantly, to encourage others to do the same, has defined her life since 1992. That’s when she founded Imagine Chicago, an organization that started by bringing young adults and local community builders together to talk and launch projects. Browne’s model is now in place in cities across the world. She spends most of her time traveling abroad, planting Imagine initiatives. In Chicago, past programs included a training initiative to help local leaders develop community projects, an endeavor aimed at giving the city’s public school teachers a sense of renewal and a literacy project for parents.

In many ways, Browne’s journey began at Yale, specifically with an encounter with William Sloane Coffin, who encouraged her to become a minister – at a time when the Episcopal Church didn’t ordain women. It’s something she talked about at a May 2006 memorial service for Coffin, when she recalled hearing him speak the previous year.

“I was very moved by what he said, and by realizing how very much his words and witness had shaped my own life and work in ways I had not realized. My life had been lived, personally and professionally ever since I left Yale, at the intersection of faith, imagination, and public life, but for some reason I had forgotten how much his legacy and witness had imprinted and given courage to my own. After I heard Bill speak last year, I went and stood outside, on the very spot where he had stopped me that day my senior year and pointed me toward God’s future as the one demanding my attention. I took stock of the ways my life had been marked by his witness and presence.”

It wasn’t easy moving in the direction of God’s future, as Browne recounts with a degree of relish. Upon moving to London and taking up her post there at the First National Bank of Chicago, she was greeted with letters from three top Anglican clerics, who had somehow gotten word of the female priest’s arrival. Each letter, according to Browne, delivered the same general message: “We know you’re here. Behave yourself.” She did, more or less, and returned to Chicago to continue banking and begin serving in first a local parish and later the cathedral. Browne worked under supportive senior clergy but, in some cases, the laity was much less so. “There was discrimination,” she recalls, “having someone come up to you at coffee hour and say, ‘Why do you want to ruin our church? What are you trying to prove?’”

As she grows older, Browne talks of how a “conversation with God” that she’s kept up since she was a child is moving beyond being an “inside conversation that made me bigger than who I am.” Now, she increasingly centers on the external, “on the still point of the turning world, where the dance is.”