The Modern Woman Priest

Joy Carroll Wallis was among the first women to be ordained to the priesthood in England, in 1994. She tells her story in The Woman Behind the Collar: The Pioneering Journey of an Episcopal Priest (The Crossroad Publishing Company), a portion of which appears below. Carroll Wallis lives in Washington, D.C., with her husband (Sojourners editor-in-chief Jim Wallis) and their two children.

"I ask that you greet the results, whatever they might be, with a dignified silence." Tension filled the debating chamber of Church House in Westminster. George Carey, the Archbishop of Canterbury, was about to put an end to the agonizing wait. I had not moved all day from my seat. My body cried out for food, coffee, and painkillers for my pounding headache, but I wanted to hear every word spoken for and against the motion to ordain women to the priesthood of the Church of England.

At the end of the debate, we voted. I rose to my feet and moved toward a large oak door engraved with the words "Clergy Ayes." On either side of the door stood tellers carefully counting each body that passed through. My hands were sweating, and my heart was beating wildly. This was the precious vote I had been elected to cast.

The three houses - Bishops, Clergy, and Laity - each had to secure a two-thirds majority for the motion to pass, and we knew it would be close. On the other side of the doors, in the circular corridor surrounding the chamber, those who had voted spoke in hushed tones to one another. I stood beside one of my women colleagues, a good friend from the Manchester diocese. She whispered to me with a look of agony on her face, "It feels like we've been pregnant all this time, preparing for new birth, and now, at the last minute, we're not sure whether the baby will be born alive or dead."

As I moved around the corridor, I passed those who had come through the "Clergy Noes" door. It was then that I saw Father Andrew Burnham, my great friend on Synod who was against the ordination of women. We had vowed to respect each other's position and to remain friends throughout. We looked at each other in this clear moment of difference, having come through different doors, and we hugged. Though we didn't yet know the outcome of our votes, we were both aware of the pain that one of us would soon feel.

After what felt like hours, we were all summoned back into the chamber. Into the silence, the archbishop now read the numbers that had been handed to him. House of Bishops: 39 for, 13 against. House of Clergy: 176 for, 74 against. House of Laity: 169 for, 82 against.

We madly tried to do the math. Had it passed or not? We weren't sure. My stomach clutched as the archbishop spoke the words, "The motion is passed."

We had in fact just achieved the two-thirds majority in the House of Laity by one vote! If one layperson had voted the other way, the whole process would have to be set aside until a new synod was elected. There would have been no women priests in England for another five to 10 years. It was amazingly close and took a few seconds to sink in. In the "dignified silence," I and other women clergy around me beamed and threw our hands in the air with tears of joy and relief streaming down our faces. It was finally settled. We could now get back to the work of ministry without being sidetracked. As one of my colleagues, Bernice Broggio, once put it, we had been "common-law priests" and now, on Nov. 11, 1992, the church had decided to "make honest women of us."

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