Reflecting on the 35th anniversary of the ordination of women to the priesthood

Published July 30, 2009

Growing up in the 60s, I lived in a world with clearly defined roles for men and women. Most of my friends’ fathers worked and their mothers stayed home and took care of the children and the house. The few women whom I knew worked were nurses, teachers, or secretaries.

At church, there were similarly defined gender-based roles: the priest was a man as was the bishop who confirmed me. The organist, the church secretary, and the Sunday school teachers were all women. The warden was a man and my memory is that women organized the coffee hour and ran the Nearly New, the church’s thrift shop.

In 1974, one of these roles changed. On July 29, at the Church of the Advocate in Philadelphia, 11 women were ordained to the priesthood by three bishops of the Episcopal Church. At the time, this was a life-changing moment; one that rocked the church in ways similar to Gene Robinson’s election and confirmation as bishop of the Diocese of New Hampshire in 2003.

In 1999, on the 25th anniversary, the then-Bishop of Pennsylvania, Robert DeWitt, remarked, “It is ironic that what happened 25 years ago here at the Advocate was for a time seen more as an issue of three misbehaving bishops than as a breakthrough created by 11 pioneering women. Make no mistake; the event was a creative action of, by, and for women. The bishops were only accessories.”

Since learning that today is the 35th anniversary of the ordination of women, I have reflected on these ordinations and the many ways both the church and the world have changed and not changed since that time. How the world I grew up in, with its imposed limitations on what girls and women could do, is different in so many ways from the context my 27-year-old daughter grew up in, recognizing that there are still areas where women and girls are marginalized.

In 1974, the newly formed Episcopal Divinity School invited two of the newly ordained women, the Rev. I. Carter Heyward and the Rev. Suzanne R. Hiatt to join the faculty (sharing one position), with the understanding that they could exercise their priestly ministries in St. John’s Memorial Chapel. This was significant as most in the church did not recognize these women’s ordinations at this time.

Looking for contemporary voices, I contacted women priests and lay persons asking them to reflect on the impact women’s ordination has had on their lives. While these women come from different contexts and range in age, their reflections were marked by similar experience.

“I would never take women’s leadership as a ‘given,'” said EDS faculty emerita, Dr. Fredrica Harris Thompsett. “Our number of women bishops, parish rectors, etc. has not grown to reflect our population, let alone among Latina women and women of African descent. As Sue Hiatt would say, ‘Pharaoh’s army has not been wiped out by the Red Sea.’ [Presiding] Bishop Katharine is a plus to be sure, yet even she is badly treated and/or ignored by many members of the Anglican Communion’s leadership.”

The Rev. Jane Gould, a parish priest in the Diocese of Massachusetts, who was a college freshman in 1974 said, “In 1974 I did a paper on the theological reasons for and against the ordination of women in the Episcopal Church. In doing this research, I discovered that the Philadelphia Ordinations were on the 18th anniversary of my baptism.

“A year later I was privileged to attend the Washington ordinations and experience the coming together of my social activism and the life of the church. Vocation began to take shape because courageous women in Philadelphia and Washington created possibilities for me. Seven years later, when I arrived at EDS as a first year MDiv student with the pathway to ordination wide open, it awed me to meet Carter Heyward and Suzanne Hiatt as my professors and to have Alison Cheek in my first year Hebrew class. I could pursue my calling because they had forged the way.

“Thirty-five years later, my sons presume women deacons, priests, and bishops. And yet, as the data presented at the Episcopal Women’s Caucus breakfast at the General Convention make clear, barriers continue to exist to equal access for ordained women in the leadership of the church,” she said.

Former EDS Academic Dean the Rev. Dr. Sheryl Kujawa-Holbrook recalled reading about the Philadelphia ordinations in Time magazine. A Roman Catholic high school senior at the time, she decided to do her term paper on women’s ordination from her own denominational perspective.

“Within ten years of that eventful July, I was an Episcopalian, a seminary graduate, and looking forward to my own ordination,” she said, noting that while she has experienced some pain due to discrimination, she knows of other women who have endured much more.

“When I graduated from seminary in the early 1980s, very few ordained women had yet to become rectors; most of us envisioned ministries as associate clergy indefinitely. Given these limitations, my own vocation took a different path into ministries with young people, teaching, and writing.”

Kujawa-Holbrook continued, “Without a doubt, the events of July 1974 transformed my life. At the time, many believed that the church, too, would be transformed. I often wonder if we have lived into the promise of those days, and if not, where have we fallen short of that dream?”

“My heart is moved by this anniversary with deep and emerging understanding of what it means to be a woman standing in leadership in our great and not-always-great church,” reflects the Rev. Eva Cavaleri. Ordained in 2004, Cavaleri often finds herself feeling extraordinarily grateful for the women and men on whose shoulders she stands. A mother of two young children, she discovered that her relationship within the church changed when she became pregnant, sensing less tolerance from leadership while at the same time hearing from people in the pews that “bringing my pregnancies and ‘ripe’ femininity along with me was a profoundly spiritual experience.”

Recently, Cavaleri left her position in parish ministry and returned to Minnesota to become a chaplain at an Episcopal boarding school. She shares, “This move feels both hopeful since I believe it could be an authentic fit for me, given my background and care for young people, but honestly I imagined staying in parish ministry for the long haul (and honestly I may go back) but the choice to go felt a little less like a choice.”

As these stories illustrate, women still have a way to go before full parity is reached. “The Philadelphia ordinations changed everything yet, like the work of redemption, the pivotal event launched a process of change that is still working its way to fruition,” remarked the Very Rev. Dr. Katherine Ragsdale, EDS President and Dean. “When I applied to enter the ordination process almost a full decade later I found that my diocese had never ordained a woman, nor employed one ordained elsewhere. Even today, the numbers of women in leadership in the church are nowhere near commensurate with the numbers of women in the pews, the seminaries, or the pulpits. We tend to end up in smaller churches with fewer resources, smaller salaries, and fewer paths to wider leadership. The work begun centuries ago (in Christ there is neither male nor female) and raised to new heights in Philadelphia in 1974, is not yet complete.”

For all except one of the women interviewed, the July 29, 1974 ordinations represented a door opening. Yet Cavaleri, for whom this door has always been open notes, “I was so naive. I had no idea how hard these folks worked for me and others to stand in the places that I (we) have. These five plus years have taught me so much about the deep lethargy for change in our church institution along with signs of hopefulness around the edges.”

For me, one question remains: What more can we, as faithful disciples of Christ, do to continue God’s work in the world, to build together a vision of the church and the world, true to who God calls us to be?

A longer version of this article may be read here.

Nancy Davidge is director of communications and marketing at Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts.


Here is some background information on women’s ordination in the broader Anglican Communion:

By Episcopal News Service staff

In the Anglican Communion, formal discussion and debate on women’s ordained ministry began in 1920 when the Lambeth Conference first considered the issue.

Florence Li Tim-Oi was the first woman in the communion to be ordained to the priesthood on January 25, 1944. Her ordination caused much controversy after the end of World War II and Tim-Oi decided not to continue exercising her priesthood until it was acknowledged by the wider Anglican Communion.

The 1948 Lambeth Conference refused to recognize Tim-Oi’s ordination, as did two successive archbishops of Canterbury. That conference reaffirmed a decision made in 1930, saying that women were only qualified to be deaconesses.

The Episcopal Church’s General Convention agreed in June 2006 via Resolution A059 to commemorate annually Tim-Oi’s ordination. Her feast day was set as January 24.

At the 1978 Lambeth Conference, the bishops recognized that the Diocese of Hong Kong, the Anglican Church of Canada, the U.S.-based Episcopal Church, and the Church of the Province of New Zealand had begun to ordain women to the priesthood and noted that “eight other member churches of the Anglican Communion have now either agreed or approved in principle or stated that there are either no fundamental or no theological objections to the ordination of women to the historic threefold ministry of the church.”

Today, as many as eight of the Anglican Communion’s 38 provinces have yet to ordain women as priests. Fourteen provinces currently make provisions for women in the episcopate.

The Church of England opened the priesthood to women in November 1992, five years after women were first ordained to the diaconate, and continues to take small steps towards accepting women bishops.

The process involved in allowing women in the episcopate of the Church of England is complicated and ultimately will require endorsement by the British Parliament before any measure can take full effect. It is generally estimated that — assuming all stages of the legislative process proceed without delay — women bishops will not be canonically possible until at least 2014.

The General Synod, the church’s main legislative body, will next address the issue in February 2010 when it is expected to hear back from a revision committee that will have spent 12 months reworking draft legislation.


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