Happy Anniversary: ordination of women in the Episcopal Church

The first women were ordained priests in the Episcopal Church on July 29, 1974, though General Convention had not yet passed a resolution. The “Philadelphia 11,” Merrill Bittner, Alla Bozarth-Campbell, Alison Cheek, Emily Hewitt, Carter Heyward, Suzanne Hiatt, Marie Moorefield Fleisher, Jeannette Piccard, Betty Bone Schiess, Katrina Martha Swanson, and Nancy Hatch Wittig, were ordained by Bishops Daniel Corrigan, Robert L. DeWitt, Edward R. Welles, assisted by Antonio Ramos.

On September 7, 1975, four more women, Eleanor Lee McGee, Alison Palmer, Betty Powell, and Diane Tickell, were ordained by retired Bishop George W. Barrett. The 1976, General Convention, which approved the ordination of women to the priesthood and episcopate, voted to “regularize” the 15 forerunners.

Until 1976, the canons regarding ordination were assumed to say that “men” meant male persons though according to common usage of the day “men” was the inclusive term for humankind. The women and the bishops went ahead with the ordinations before General Convention could clarify this. Elsewhere in the canons “men” and “man” was interpreted to mean “people” or a “person.”

Spirit of a Liberal , 2009, quotes one woman, Alla Bozarth-Campbell:

Bozarth reminds us how the torch is passed from one oppressed group seeking justice to the next,…

Bozarth continues,

I [had] heard Christ calling me to lay claim on the dignity that is mine as a human being created in the image of God, female … I [had learned] to expand my vision of God, to recognize that God is more inclusive than any human idea of deity has ever been.

But then she encountered a powerful, angry man, in the person of the Dean of her seminary: “we were greeted with indignation gradually blooming into ripened rage.” Later, she was frustrated by the failure of resolutions to authorize the ordination of women at the General Conventions of 1970 and 1973, even though majorities at both assemblies voted in favor of the resolutions, but procedures required a supra-majority.

I began to question the inconsistencies between the Church’s teaching and practice with regard to women. I perceived that the Church which had taught me to believe in my human dignity had itself denied me that dignity…

I began to understand that I was unacceptable as a woman by the very Church that had taught me to celebrate my womanhood … Eventually, anger subsided into heartache and deep loneliness. I had no thought of leaving the Church; I felt that it had already left me. The denial of my calling to the priesthood was the denial of me as a child of God.

Defying convention and The Conventions, the Philadelphia Eleven, along with a few good men, forced the issue. “What the Episcopal Church needed was a fait accompli. God was soon to provide.”

Episcopal Women’s History Project show what was happening in the church in 1975 here.eight-of-the-philadelphia-eleven.jpg

8 surviving women of the original eleven (click to enlarge)

All dioceses of The Episcopal Church now ordain women as priests and several have bishops who are women. The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori was elected Presiding Bishop in 2006.

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