'I Never Felt More Danger Than When I Kneeled to Be Ordained’

By Betsy Shirley 9-16-2015
Volt Collection / Shutterstock
Volt Collection / Shutterstock

In an interview that aired last week, Stephen Colbert — possibly the only Catholic whose popularity rivals Pope Francis himself — admitted that one of the times the Eucharist felt “most real” to him was when he attended an Anglican service and heard a woman consecrate the bread.

“The freshness of hearing a woman say that gave the message a universality that it always should have,” said Colbert.

Today, if you walk through the red doors of an Episcopal church on Sunday morning, the person presiding over the Eucharist might be female, gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender. But on Sept. 12, some of the first women ordained as Episcopal priests reminded the church: it hasn’t always been that way.

Forty years ago last week — before women were allowed to be priests — four women were "irregularly" ordained as Episcopal priests before the altar of St. Stephen and the Incarnation in Washington, D.C. Closely linked with the "irregular" ordination of eleven women in Philadelphia (the “Philadelphia Eleven”) the previous year, the ordination of the Washington Four — Lee McGee Street, Alison Palmer, Betty Powell, and Diane Tickell — is seen by many as a key step in securing women’s ordination in the Episcopal Church.

More than 150 people gathered at St. Stephen’s on Sept. 12 to commemorate the fortieth anniversary of these ordinations, including about twenty congregants who had attended the 1975 service and three of the original women ordained (Diane Tickell died in 2002). Now in their seventies and eighties, the women recalled the controversy — and anger — their ordinations provoked.

Lee McGee Street said that on the morning of her ordination, she asked to spend a few hours praying in the church’s chapel before the service. Though this wasn’t unusual for soon-to-be priests, Street's request was denied: the church had received bomb threats. After police with bomb-sniffing dogs inspected the building early that morning, all entrances to the church were sealed. Later, during the service, the audience included plainclothes police, members of a private security firm, and congregants trained to link arms and block anyone from racing towards the ordinands.

“I had no idea,” Street told the audience this past weekend, choking back tears. “They had kept that news from us because they didn’t want us to know the fear.”

Alison Palmer remembers a similar sense of anxiety.

“I was a Foreign Service Officer in the Congo and Vietnam during the war, but I never felt more danger than when I kneeled to be ordained,” said Palmer, who received a threatening phone call at 4 a.m. the morning of the ordination and did not invite her family to the 1975 service for fear of their safety.

“And yet, it was so joyful and it felt so right,” she said. “I know many people at that time — and perhaps still today — thought that we were damaging the Episcopal Church, hurting it, but I felt that we were healing it of the sin of discrimination.”

One year after the ordination of the Washington Four, the General Convention of the Episcopal Church approved women's ordination, prompting critics (and even a few supporters) of women’s ordination to accuse the Washington Four of being impatient. Had they just waited for the church’s vote, these people reasoned, the Washington Four could have been regularly ordained, saving themselves — and the church — a lot of trouble.

In a 1975 press release, Rt. Rev. John M. Allin, then presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, referred to the ordination of the Washington Four as “distressing and divisive acts,” and said that “so much done in good conscience for the sake of renewal can so frequently prevent that needed renewal.”

Darlene O’Dell, author of The Story of the Philadelphia Eleven, disagreed.

“The institutional church needed to see that these women weren’t going to go away,” said O’Dell before a panel discussion with Powell, Street, and Palmer.

In her book, O’Dell explains how the church and its officials tried to discredit the Philadelphia Eleven and those who affirmed their ministry through disciplinary proceedings, “godly admonitions,” forbidding the women from presiding at Eucharist, and ecclesiastical trials of a variety previously unseen in twentieth century.

“[The church] needed to see that even if they ignored the Eleven, there were going to be others who were going to stand up in sister solidarity with them,” continued O’Dell. “I think these ordinations were absolutely necessary.”

Rev. Nancy Hildebrand, an Episcopal priest who serves several congregations in the D.C. area, agreed.

“I don’t believe I would be here as an ordained priest if they had not done what they did,” Hildebrand told Sojourners.

Yet Hildebrand admitted that even today, not everyone in in Episcopal Church agrees about whether the “irregular” ordination of women in the 1970s was appropriate. She attributed this disagreement to larger debates about how change within the church ought to occur.

“Some believe change should be organic and natural,” she said. “But there are others of us who believe that prophetic action is necessary.”

For the women who led the movement for women’s ordination in 1970s — including Rev. Suzanne Hiatt, one of the Philadelphia Eleven — “prophetic action” was certainly considered an effective strategy.

“It was Sue Hiatt’s belief, as a savvy organizer, that the church would allow women’s ordination only when it became harder not to ordain women than to ordain us,” wrote Rev. Carter Heyward, a feminist theologian and one of the eleven women ordained in 1974 in Philadelphia.

“She reasoned that this would come about only if the church were pressed hard from within by women who, refusing to accept the church’s rejection, proceeded to be ordained prior to the church’s authorization of our ordination.”

Yet as Hiatt herself explained in 1983 article for the Journal of Ecumenical Studies, ordaining women without the church’s permission wasn’t just about pragmatism and institutional strategy, but also a concrete act of vocational obedience.

“I realized…my vocation was not to continue to ask for permission to be a priest, but to be a priest,” wrote Hiatt.

Several paragraphs later she added: “We saw ourselves as deacons proceeding in obedience to the insistence of the Holy Spirit that the step be taken for the integrity of the church.”

Or as Lee McGee Street told the audience last weekend, if you believe the church is excluding people from its community and its ordination because race, poverty, sexual orientation, or identity, “One doesn’t wait for the convention to vote on that kind of prejudice.”

Asked whether the Episcopal Church has ever apologized for the way the church and its officials treated the women irregularly ordained in the ’70s, or thanked them for their prophetic work on behalf of women’s ordination, Palmer, Street, and Powell — along with much of the audience at St. Stephen’s — laughed.

Rev. Elizabeth Carl, an original attendee of the 1975 ordinations in Washington who returned to celebrate the fortieth anniversary, wasn’t surprised. In order to understand why the church has never formally apologized or thanked the women, explained Carl, herself one of the first openly lesbian women to be ordained in the Episcopal Church and no stranger to controversial ordinations, “We would need to think about why our nation hasn’t made reparations for slavery; it’s easier to just keep on rolling.”

And though the women said they never received a formal statement from the church, they did note a few individual bishops and dioceses who have expressed their support and gratitude, including the Rt. Rev. Barbara Harris, who attended the irregular ordinations in the 1970s and later became the first female bishop of the Episcopal Church.

Last year at a celebration of the Philadelphia Eleven held with the “full blessing” of the Diocese of Pennsylvania, Betty Powell said that she experienced “a sense of the church standing before us and celebrating us that I can’t recall before.” And Lee McGee Street still remembers when Rt. Rev. Gary Gloster, then bishop suffragan of North Carolina, gave a reflection during a 2003 celebration of Carter Heyward’s ministry thanking Heyward and the rest of the women “irregularly” ordained for their bravery and courage.

“That was the first time — ever — that any bishop of the Episcopal Church had said ‘Thank you,’” said Street.

The women also pointed to the support they had received from beyond the church hierarchy.

“You all are standing as the church,” said Betty Powell, as she surveyed the audience gathered at St. Stephen's last weekend.

“You all are giving us so much that fills the gap of all the difficult things we went through.”

Betsy Shirley (@betsyshirley) is associate editor at Sojourners.

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