glory of god

glory of god

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Women, Ordination, and the Radical Fringe

Some years ago, before I had even heard of a town called Wakefield, I began to think about a vocation in ministry. In fact, all through high school and college I toyed with the idea. I even went to a high school student visiting day at Luther Northwestern Theological Seminary in St. Paul. But it wasn't until my junior year of college that I really began to think that this might be an option for me. So, I wrote to several of the seminaries of the Episcopal Church to find out what I would have to do, first to be admitted and then to pursue ordination.

Especially interesting to me was the varied responses I received. A few just sent me a catalogue. One sent me a copy of the canons, and a couple of the seminaries were very helpful. Interestingly, they were the schools closest to me: Nashotah House and Seabury-Western Theological Seminary. Nashotah House sent an encouraging letter and several back issues of their alumni newsletter, along with a catalogue. Unfortunately, when I read the Nashotah catalogue, I realized it probably wasn't the place for me. It had a quotation by a female graduate who said something on the order of "It's not really as bad for women here as I had expected." Not exactly a ringing endorsement. Seabury-Western was really great. They even called me. I'm not sure how they got my number, since I didn't include it in my letter to them. I guess they phoned the college to find me. They were very nice, but as I spoke with the admissions director, she made a comment about how Seabury served "the broad mainstream" of the Episcopal Church, and not the "radical fringe." Having always been liberally inclined, I wasn't sure what to make of that. I wasn't sure if I'd fit in there, and I thought that perhaps where I really belonged was the fringe. So, I gave the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge a second look, despite the lack-luster initial response to my inquiry.

I can't imagine having studied anywhere else. As it turns out, I was never as "fringy" as some there. In fact, my New Testament professor told me once that I was among the most conservative students there. I'm not so sure about that. But I definitely tried to learn from all of the voices and perspectives I could. I guess that's why I am so interested in the concept of comprehensiveness.

But as much as I have a concern for maintaining a delicate balance in the church between the various views, one of the issues I am rather uncompromising on is the ordination of women. I was born as a Lutheran and women were already pastors by the time I came into the world. Women were approved for ordination in the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada when I was less than 4. And Anglicanism had its first woman bishop when I was 16. So, it seems strange to me that this issue is still being debated, as it is across the Anglican Communion.

Today, July 29 is the anniversary of the first ordinations of women to the priesthood in the Episcopal Church. It happened in 1974. But not officially. Rather, it was an "extraordinary" or "irregular" event (some might and did call it illegal). On that day in 1974, in the city of Philadelphia, the face of ministry in the Anglican Church was forever changed. Eleven women deacons were "irregularly" ordained by three retired bishops. It was irregular, because neither the Episcopal Church, nor any church in the Anglican Communion, had yet approved women’s ordination; although, one courageous woman, Florence Li Tim Oi, had been ordained in Hong Kong in 1944, but was subsequently asked not to serve as a priest and was not recognized in other parts of the Communion. After years of working tirelessly to change the church through the usual power structures by appealing nicely to the men in power, by working through the democratic processes of synods and conventions, and after being turned down again and again, these 11 women and three men who were committed to living out the Gospel of Christ in its fullest sense decided to stop being polite and took matters, literally, into their own hands.

On this anniversary, I would like to share their story. The late Suzanne Hiatt, one of the 11 women, and the primary organizer of that historic event reflected on it in a letter to women working for ordination in the Church of England, published as "July 29, 1974--Kairos as Paradigm Shift," in No Easy Peace: Liberating Anglicanism, ed. Carter Heyward and Sue Phillips, (Lantham, MD: University Press of America, 1992).. This is an abridgment of what she wrote:

When we arrived at Church of the Advocate at 9:00 a.m., the feast of Ss. Martha and Mary of Bethany, it was already two-thirds full. The church is a barn of a building, holding in excess of 2000 people. We had contingency plans in case of a riot or an interruption of the service. There was a basement room where we met to vest and to take the oath of conformity and where we planned to reassemble (bishops and deacons), in case of emergency, to finish the ordination. Because the opposition was so shrill and violent, I was sure we had chosen the right course. I think we all felt the same steely determination that morning.

By 11:00, the church was packed--standing room only--and the press and TV cameras were adding to the general bedlam, heat, and excitement. Paul Washington, the rector of the church, quieted the crowd and began the proceeding with an eloquent welcome. He compared our situation to that of a pregnant woman - the church says it's an inconvenient time to have a birth, but the baby comes when its time is here. This analogy was followed by the opening strains of the hymn, 'Come, Labor On.' The accident of juxtaposition produced a roar of laughter and on that note the procession began, led by crucifer Barbara Harris, Warden of the parish, and later first woman bishop in the Anglican Communion.

The procession was slowed by people pressing in to embrace us and sustained applause and cheering when the bishops emerged. I remember my lay presenter shouting over the din, 'They're going to do it. They're really going to do it. The Holy Spirit has grabbed them by whatever hair they have left and they're actually going to do it!'

The sermon came first. The preacher, Dr. Charles Willie, an African American layman and Vice President of the Episcopal Church’s House of Deputies, spoke of justice delayed as justice denied and made the obvious parallels with Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement.

When the time came for objections there was a line of black-suited clergymen. When all had their say, the bishop who was presiding read a simple statement to the effect that we had weighed our action carefully in the light of Gospel imperatives and were not dissuaded. The opponents left after making their objections.

Then the ordaining began. About a hundred priests joined the bishops for the laying on of hands - the line stretching to the back of the church. The press contributed much pushing and shoving and flashing of cameras. The spirit of the day was high excitement and delirious joy. We had been prepared for just about anything, but the outpouring of love and support from so many people was astonishing. It was a sign that the time was right--a truth we'd sensed but now knew beyond doubt.

The ordination was only the beginning of 18 months of intense struggle. It was followed by a special meeting of the bishops, declaring the ordinations so irregular as to be invalid. Afterward we began functioning as priests whenever and wherever we could. Prior to that August meeting we had refrained from priestly ministry to give them a chance to decide how to deal with us. When they refused, we felt we had no choice.

A year later in 1975, four more women were ordained irregularly in Washington, DC. Women's full ordination was officially approved in the U.S. in 1976, and the 15 women ordained irregularly in '74 and '75 were fully accepted as priests. There were some who argued that the women would have to be re-ordained, as the first ordinations were not valid. The women obviously disagreed, and argued back that by ordaining them a third time, after their diaconal and priestly ordinations, it would not make them priests but, in fact, bishops! The men in power definitely didn't want to go there, so they were accepted “as is.” The Anglican Church of Canada also began ordaining women to the priesthood in 1976, watching events in the U.S., but without the catalyst of such revolutionary actions. Actually, Canada began ordaining women legally two months before the U.S. By contrast, it took the Church of England another 20 years, approving women’s ordination in 1994, and only now debating whether women can be bishops.

There are many Anglicans who look to these 11 women as prophets and pioneers. Others, even some who approve of women’s ordination, are still frustrated by this dramatic action, which broke the rules so precipitously. Anglicans, it seems, are by nature rule bound.

The author of this reflection, Sue Hiatt, and two of the other women ordained that day--Carter Heyward and Alison Cheek--were among my professors at the Episcopal Divinity School, part of that radical fringe. They have had a profound impact on my life, my understanding of Christian discipleship, and my own sense of what it means to be a priest, as I know they have for others as well. Bishop Ann Tottenham (retired suffragan in Toronto) told me once that she was opposed to women's ordination until she met some of these pioneering women, who obviously changed her mind. And consider the result: A small, radical movement that began with 11 women and three retired bishops ushered in a new age in our church, one which now, three decades later, includes thousands of women clergy, 25 women bishops across the world in the United States, Canada, Cuba, Australia, and New Zealand, including Bishop Gayle Harris, who ordained me, and even the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church.

I can't imagine the Church without the ministries of these women, and especially the women who have shaped my own ministry: pastors, field education supervisors, professors, bosses, rectors, bishops, and friends. On this anniversary day I say to them congratulations and thanks. And most especially I ask God to continue to bless them.


  1. thank you so much for this. I still feel the call but at my age I will content myself with cheering on the nest and future generations....of men and women who will lead as Christ has commanded us.

  2. Thank you for writing this. This year I am celebrating the 20th year of my ordination. Without these women, I am not sure how long it would have taken for the rest of us.