Today is a special day on the church calendar for a couple of reasons. First, it is the feast day of Mary and Martha, the sisters who were among Jesus’ closest friends, who provided him with a safe place of hospitality, study, and rest. These sisters have a special place in the heart of St. Dunstan’s since they are the patron saints of Mary and Martha’s Place, where Maggie Harney, later joined by Rebecca Parker, has provided a safe place for women to study spirituality and theology for 26 years.
Today is also the anniversary of the first ordination of women priests in the Episcopal Church. It happened 46 years ago today at Church of the Advocate in Philadelphia. It was, as the preacher that day said, “an act of holy defiance” because it came two years before the Church officially approved women’s ordination. I think of the Philadelphia 11, as they became known, as the Church’s equivalent of the Civil Rights greats. They, and the men who supported them, were called by God to push the Church toward a broader, more inclusive understanding of God and God’s Church. Pasted below is a reflection I wrote about this day several years ago. It will give you a little lesson in an important chapter of church history.
I have a couple of other things to share with you.
First, proud papa Hollis Holland lets us know that his daughter Tanya Holland, a renowned chef and owner of the acclaimed Brown Sugar Kitchen restaurant in Oakland, California, has a new podcast, called Tanya’s Table. Here’s what a critic from Sunset Magazine has to say about it:
“Conceived before COVID and produced during the crisis, the show is an organic extension of Holland’s career, which has always centered around the table, and all it stands for: hospitality, community, conversation, and nourishment of body and spirit.” -Hugh Garvey
You can read Sunset’s story here:https://www.sunset.com/food-wine/celebrity-chef-tanya-holland-podcast
You can listen to the podcast here:https://www.listennotes.com/podcasts/tanyas-table-podcast-tanyas-table-wn-HFfK985p/
If you are longing for the day when we’ll be together in church again, you aren’t alone. For a little reassurance and a lot of fun check out this Hamilton parody by the Rev. Lonnie Lacey, rector of St. Anne’s Episcopal Church in Tifton. “You’ll Be Back,” he promises. I promise it will bring you a bit of joy. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CFduNE4pXAQ
See you online for Compline tonight.
A Holy Act of Defiance
The summer of 1974, the year I graduated from high school, most of my energy was focused on getting ready to attend college in the fall. When I paid attention to the news at all, it was to follow the Watergate hearings that dominated the headlines and airwaves.
On July 29 that summer, I watched on television as the House Judiciary Committee passed the second article of impeachment against President Richard Nixon, accusing him of abuse of power. The events of that day that were to have the largest impact on my life barely registered with me at all.
On July 29, 1974, at the Church of the Advocate in Philadelphia, 11 women were ordained priests in the Episcopal Church.
The impact of those historic ordinations on the church has been as monumental as the impact of Watergate on the government.
As we approach the 40th anniversary of that act of ecclesiastical disobedience, an act of great courage and faith, it seems an appropriate time for a little lesson in church history.
Usually ordinations begin with grand and joyful processions, full of banners and crosses, acolytes bearing torches and swinging incense, a parade of those who are to be ordained and their families, priests and bishops decked out in colorful vestments.
But death threats against the women who were to be ordained prevented any great procession into the old French Gothic church. Several did not invite their families to the service for fear there would be violence.
Instead, the women came in through the sacristy, led by the crucifer, Church of the Advocate’s senior warden, a woman named Barbara Harris. You’ll hear more about her later.
The women’s fears were not unfounded. Protesters, described in an account of the day as “mostly white male clergy in black clerical attire,” some armed with stink bombs, stood angrily outside the church. Church women had buckets of water lined up, ready to douse the bombs.
The Rev. Pat Merchant, now a priest in this diocese, read the gospel at the service as a newly-ordained deacon.
She remembers that in the service, from the 1928 prayer book, the bishop asked the congregation “if there be any of you who knoweth any Impediment, or notable Crime, in any of them, for which they ought not to be received into this holy Ministry, let him come forth in the Name of God, and show what the Crime and Impediment is.”
At that, a group of “men in black,” all clergy, came forward and read a statement. “You can no more make these bodies of women priests that you can turn stones into bread,” they said, then turned around and walked out.
“You could have heard a pin drop in the place,” Pat told me this week.
Even some who supported the idea of women priests did not support the ordinations of the Philadelphia 11 because women’s ordination to the priesthood had not yet been approved by the General Convention.
In 1970, the first year that women were even allowed to be deputies to the convention that is the Church’s governing body, deputies approved the ordination of women to the diaconate, but voted against female priests. They voted against it again in 1973. Official approval did not come until 1976.
The Rev. Paul Washington, rector of Church of the Advocate, who hosted the ordinations against the wishes of his own bishop, acknowledged those criticisms in his welcoming remarks that day in 1974.
“Our actions today are untimely,” he said. “But the dilemma is what is one to do when the democratic process, the political dynamics, and the legal guidelines are out of step with the imperative which says, ‘Now is the time!’
“May we accept the rightness of this action as a call above its timing,” he said. “May we accept the justice of this action as a call outweighing technicalities. May we praise the Lord for those this day who act in obedience to God.”
Dr. Charles Willie, the first African-American vice president of the Church’s House of Deputies and the preacher at the service, called the ordinations “a holy act of defiance.”
The congregation cheered when he spoke of justice delayed being justice denied.
“As blacks refused to participate in their own oppression by going to the back of the bus in 1955 in Montgomery, women are refusing to cooperate by remaining in the periphery of full participation in the church in 1974 in Philadelphia,” he said.
The first of the 11 to be ordained was 79-year-old Jeannette Piccard, who had dreamed of being a priest since she was a child.
“My mother came into my room one night when I was 11, sat down beside my bed and asked what I wanted to be when I grew up,” Piccard recalled years later. “When I said I wanted to be a priest the poor darling burst into tears and ran from the room. That was the only time I ever saw my Victorian mother run.”
July 29, 1974 was not Piccard’s first foray into history. Forty years earlier she piloted a hydrogen balloon 57,579 feet above Lake Erie, more than 11 miles above the earth, making her the first woman to enter the stratosphere, and earning her an induction into the International Space Hall of Fame.
At the moment of ordination, the priest-to-be kneels before the bishop. All the other priests present come forward and lay their hands upon the ordinand as the bishop prays, “Therefore, God, through Jesus Christ your Son, give your Holy Spirit to this person, fill her with grace and power, and make her a priest in your Church.”
As Jeannette knelt almost 100 male priests gathered around her while the bishop prayed. Barbara Harris, standing next to the bishop to hold his microphone later said she was convinced “that at that moment I heard, as on the Day of Pentecost, the rush of a mighty wind.”
So much has changed in the 40 years since that historic day. Thousands of women have been ordained priests, including Barbara Harris, who was ordained a priest in 1980 and nine years later was elected the first female bishop in the Episcopal Church.
In June 2006, Katharine Jefferts Schori was elected presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, the symbolic head of our denomination.
But just as having an African-American president has not meant the end of racism in this country, a female presiding bishop has not meant the end of sexism in the church.
At the time of Bishop Jefferts Schori’s election there were still three dioceses in the church that refused to ordain women. Since her election the bishops and some congregations of six dioceses have left the church, in part in reaction to her election..
Even with those dissidents gone, many women priests still find their paths impeded by their gender. Studies show that it takes women longer to become rectors than its does their male colleagues, and that male clergy on average earn 15 percent more than women clergy.
In other words, there is still work to be done. It is important not to forget that.
But today we celebrate the progress that has been made and remember with gratitude the courageous women and men who made it possible.
One of those men, Bishop Robert DeWitt, who was censured by his colleagues for presiding at the ordinations in Philadelphia, put it in perspective at the 25th anniversary of that occasion.
“The Philadelphia 11 belong with the likes of Susan B. Anthony and Rosa Parks,” he said. “They are of that goodly company of women through history who have seen that in overcoming the restrictions which circumscribed their own lives they brought release to countless others.
“The human family is the beneficiary.”