by Lisa G. Fischbeck
In July we celebrated the 40th anniversary of the ordination of women in the Episcopal Church. Though the first 11 women were ordained before the General Convention of the Church had given its approval (that would come two years later), the ordination of the “Philadelphia 11” was the beginning.
When our nation celebrates the life of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, on MLK Day each year, we recall the stories of the Civil Rights Movement and of Dr. King’s pivotal role in that Movement. But also we consider how that story might inspire us to carry on the life and legacy of Dr. King in our world today. Many respond by illuminating and crossing, if only for a day, the racial barriers that still exist. Others look for ways to serve and engage with those who are on the margins of our society today, or to take a stand against current injustice.
As we celebrate the anniversary of the ordination of women in the Episcopal Church on July 29, 1974, we remember the event. We tell the stories of the women who were called and who were willing and courageous enough to come forward. We tell the stories of the bishops and other male clergy who were willing to stand against the traditional and canonical ways of church polity and culture. We lift up the proponents, and we remember the opponents. We reflect on how those people, and that event, inspire us as a church today. There are many dimensions to that inspiration.
The first is to see the ordination of the Philadelphia 11 as a celebration of women in the Church. We trace the role of women throughout the history of the church, locally and globally. Time lines are created, short and long biographies written. The single event is seen in a context of an historical progression. Any obstacles or barriers to full involvement of women in the Church are illuminated as a focus for our future efforts. Many of these barriers are seen in developing nations, tempting American Episcopalians to become so focused on the church “over there” that we grow distracted from what needs to be done to clean up our own house here.
Second, the ordination of the Philadelphia 11 can be seen as a celebration of inclusion in the Church. The call for inclusion is very much rooted in an understanding of Jesus’ life and teaching. Jesus pitched a big tent. Those who follow Jesus are continuously challenged to consider how God might be nudging us to open the tent of the Church more widely still.
Historically, the work for equal rites for women was closely followed by a call for equal rites for LGBT Christians. Not just access to ordination, but also to the church’s blessing of their loving and committed relationships. There is still a lot of work to be done in this regard. Not only for women and LGBT Christians, and not only for those excluded by our polity, but also for those excluded by our patterns and practices.
Third the ordination of the Philadelphia 11 can be seen as a celebration of justice. The ordination of women followed close on the heels of the women’s movement in the United States, which called for equal rights for women. For many outside of the church, and many within the church, the ordination of women was “a women’s rights issue”. Regardless of Scripture or Tradition, these proponents of women’s ordination believed passionately that women deserved full and equal access to all that men had access to. This, frankly, was off-putting to those who believed that consideration of women’s ordination was theological and not political. That rather than being a women’s right issue, it was a matter of following the teaching of Jesus, or expanding our theological understanding of the priesthood, or reinterpreting the Tradition of the Church. Nonetheless, the inspiration of the Philadelphia 11, calls us to be bolder in addressing issues of injustice in our church and world today. Immigrants, voters, victims of our criminal justice system and more, all cry out for help from a justice-minded Church.
A fourth, and perhaps the most challenging dimension to our celebration of the 40th anniversary of the ordination of 11 women, is to see it as a celebration of change in the Church. Whenever there is change, old ways of doing and perceiving have to die. The ordination of women fundamentally changed the way the Episcopal Church perceived ordination and church leadership. Beyond women, inclusion and justice, the church was called deeply to consider what ordination was all about. Who, and what, is the priest at the altar, and how do we determine who can be ordained? How do gendered appellations for church, God, and “Reverends”, shape our understanding of what is possible, and what is Truth? Even more fundamentally, how do we interpret the Tradition? How do we interpret the Scriptures? This 40th anniversary extends an invitation to us all to reflect on how change happens, or does not happen, in the church.
We know how it happens according to the Canons of the Church. Resolutions of General Convention lead to a re-working of the Constitutions and Canons and/or the Book of Common Prayer. But what happens before those resolutions are passed is not always so clear. Truth be told, change in the church often happens after a faithful few step outside the existing polity and practice of the church, and give witness to another way. ie: they are willing and able to “push the envelope”, as happened in Philadelphia in 1974. There is a certain “chicken and egg” aspect to change in our church. Resolutions of Convention move practice in the church. Practice in the Church moves resolutions in Convention.
The Philadelphia 11, and those who supported and ordained them, inspire us to consider the aspects of our life and polity today that might need to be similarly challenged. How are we being called to step outside our polity, practice and pattern in order to push the envelope? Even more, what are we willing to let die in order for life-giving change to happen, in order for the church to be a more faithful witness in our own day and age?
It could be how we prepare people for ordination, or what is required of those taking on leadership in the church. Maybe it is how we worship, or who has the authority or the license to do what, and how do they gain that authority or license. It likely has something to do with how the Church will faithfully engage with an increasingly secularized society that grows more global and diverse every day, and also more entrenched in one polarity or another.
If the Holy Spirit is alive and well and moving in the Church, as we believe, change will come. The Philadelphia 11, and those who supported and ordained them, inspire us to embrace that change, and be faithful.
The Rev. Lisa G. Fischbeck is the Vicar of the Episcopal Church of the Advocate, a mission in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.