A reflection on the 40th anniversary of the ordination of women to the priesthood in the Episcopal Church.
In the summer of 1974 I was seventeen years old and preparing to start college in the fall. My family had left the Mormon Church, the church of my ancestors and my childhood, when I was fifteen. I had no desire or intention of ever returning to an institutional church. Therefore I had no idea of what transpired in a church in Philadelphia on July 29th when Bishops in the Episcopal Church ordained, out of order, eleven women to the priesthood. Although the church did not specifically deny women ordination, neither did it endorse women’s ordination to the priesthood. That endorsement came several years later at General Convention. Then I had never even heard of the Episcopal Church, let alone ever considered what it would take to be ordained in the church.
Twenty years later I was an active member of the Episcopal Church, having found my way back to the institution in 1989. My husband and I bought our first house in a little neighborhood on the Northwest side of Chicago. Nearby was a little stucco church with red doors and a lovely rose garden. My desire to return to church was strong enough that I had considered joining the Roman Catholic church, in which my husband had been raised. But I simply could not abide by their practices, beliefs, and requirements to join. After some conversation my husband and I decided to consider the Episcopal Church, recommended to us by the United Church of Christ minister who had married us a few years prior. That this lovely little neighborhood church was an Episcopal Church seemed fortuitous to me. I called and left a message for the priest, letting him know that we’d be coming on Sunday. My husband, one year old daughter, and I were embraced by the church. To this day it remains our “home church,” even though we have long since moved away.
My experience of church in this congregation was formative in ways I never anticipated. I found friends and community and good priests who answered my questions and helped me feel welcome. Before long my husband was on the Vestry and I was a reader and served on the altar guild. In time I began to discern a call to ordained ministry, but not to parish ministry. It was clear to me that being a female priest working in parish ministry was a path I did not want to travel. My beloved home parish had rejected a highly competent female candidate for rector, stating that she did not have enough experience. They spoke poorly of their experience with a female seminary student, calling her “strident.” I was not interested in trail blazing a dominant male domain. I wanted a simple path. I thought hospital ministry was my calling and had solid female mentors already in hospital ministry to guide me along the way.
Then, my very first day at seminary a woman priest presided at the service and preached. She was the first woman I had ever seen in this role, the chaplain at Northwestern University in Evanston, affiliated with Seabury-Western Seminary. I remember her confidence and presence and the power of her sermon. I wondered if I could ever be like her?
The last year of seminary I worked at an internship in a large urban church. Paradoxically the Rector was the same female priest my home parish had “rejected” for her “lack of experience.” She and her male associate treated me like an equal part of a leadership team. I began to feel the pull of parish ministry, the gift of being with people through all stages of life and the rhythm of congregational leadership. The Rector was smart, mentored me well. She wore lipstick and had regular manicures, and loved to have a glass of wine with dinner, she was a woman, a wife, a mother, and a priest. A new vision of ministry opened up for me, and I began to see the potential for me to be a parish priest as well. Ten years after we joined that little neighborhood church I became the first person, in its 150 year history, to be ordained in the building.
I’d like to say that these fourteen years of serving as a parish priest have all been fabulous. (Don’t laugh). We all know that when one works in ministry one works with real people and that means there will be times when work is messy. I have experienced the challenges of being a woman priest, challenges that come in many forms, subtle and sometimes blatant. I have also experienced the blessings of being a woman in ministry, an affirmation of what is possible for all women and girls.
My ordination came twenty-five years after the first eleven were ordained in the Episcopal Church. Due in part to the risk they took, I have been able to serve three congregations as the first woman Rector. Each call has been a gift in its own right, teaching me about myself and deepening my relationship with God as I strive to be the kind of priest God is calling me to be.
Now, on this 40th anniversary of the ordination of the Philadelphia 11, as the first women priests are remembered, I give thanks for the true trailblazers. Their courage and conviction and willingness to take this gigantic risk paved the way for so many of us who followed. I wish, all those years ago, in the summer when I was seventeen, that I had known of this event and that I could have celebrated it. Nonetheless I am grateful for their witness and for the women who followed, especially those who mentored me – Mollie Williams, Linda Packard, Jacqueline Schmitt, and Ruth Meyers – and offered me a vision of a life I could not have imagined when I was seventeen.
Presiding Bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori preaching at the 40th anniversary celebration in Philadelphia