This July 29th marks the 40th anniversary of the Philadelphia 11, the first women ordained to the priesthood in the Episcopal Church. A version of this essay appears in the materials commissioned by the Episcopal Church Women to commemorate the celebration.
I wore a cross underneath my alb when I was ordained to the priesthood 12 years ago. Probably not unusual. Clergy love to wear crosses of all types, as a reminder of whose we are, perhaps. The cross I wore wasn’t mine. It belonged to Mary Redd who served the Episcopal Church in Alabama as a deaconess beginning in the late 1930‘s. Its silver features were worn from years of use as a symbol of her ordained ministry. The four angels on each part of the cross weren’t as detailed as they once had been. Deaconesses were ordained (consecrated, set apart, blessed - the church got a bit nervous about the terminology when women started talking about being ordained to the priesthood) in the church in the late 19th century through the mid-20th century for a life of ministry.
When the bishop and other priests laid hands on me during my ordination and I was vested, I felt the cross underneath my alb and chasuble, and I wondered what she would think about my ordination. Had her call been fully to serve as a deaconess, or was that the only option given to her by her Church? Had she gone to her rector, expressed her desire to serve God, and been told, "Well, because you're a woman..."
That isn’t to diminish her ministry as a deaconess or any of the deaconesses. Our own Dictionary of the Episcopal Church notes that, “deaconesses were more purely diaconal than their male deacon counterparts in care of the needy.” The Church and the world certainly benefitted from their yes to serve God and neighbor in that holy order. Yet that yes was from a much shorter list of options than men who were called to ordained ministry. When women of the Church responded, “Yes!” to God’s call to serve God and neighbor in an ordained ministry, the Church told them, “No,” and instead, edited God’s call for women to a much shorter list...simply because of gender. A cursory glance at the timeline of the journey to women's ordination shows that the journey was not easy or calm. In fact, some male priests who rested their hands on me for my ordination had earlier in their careers voted, "No" on the decision to ordain women and been vocal opponents of welcoming women into all the orders of the Church.
We humans, throughout our experience with the Holy, have limited, excised, and tried so desperately to contain the movement of God into something we could control. The Holy, by its very nature, is an agent of change, birthing creation and newness into the world. And we often respond by clenching fearfully to that which we have known, even when what we have known is vested in exclusion and prejudice instead of loving God, our neighbors, and ourselves. Make no mistake - to exclude a child of God for reasons of how that person was created by God to be does not respect the dignity of humanity; it does not love one another. God responds to our sin by expanding, including, and bursting forth - sometimes quietly and unassuming, but sometimes with great flourish. God is, after all, God.
When the women knelt in Philadelphia, when bishops laid on hands, when the people said, “Amen!” 40 years ago, our selves and souls expanded. Our Church burst forth from one more self-induced tomb. No longer were women limited to a few separate and unequal opportunities to serve God. Girls and women of all ages who hold up half the sky could now listen to God's whisper guiding them to ordained ministry, and say, “Yes!” And by joy, courage, and God’s love, the Church could say, “Yes!” in return.
I still have the cross. I wore it under my alb when I was instituted as rector, after I had responded yes to another call from God to serve. It is a treasured witness of the gift of women to our Church. I give thanks for Mary Redd and all the women through decades and centuries and even eons who never stopped saying, “Yes,” to God, and I give thanks to God for never ceasing to call us forth from the tombs of our limitations.
To access the resources commissioned, including a timeline of the journey to women's ordination, prayers, hymns, and other essays by clergy, click here.