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Breaking Barriers

Breaking Barriers

by Linda Ryan

Why climb a mountain? Because it’s there! – George Mallory

We live in a world of challenges. Whether it’s getting to work on time when the freeway is backed up 20 miles, there’s too much month at the end of the money, or physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual challenges that keep us from feeling safe, secure, and on track. The world is full of barriers that we must deal with in some way or form, either by ignoring them and moving in another direction or figuring out a way to get over the barrier and continue the journey in a relatively straight line. Sometimes circumstances dictate the course of action when challenged by a barrier, but sometimes it is pure choice as to how to handle the challenge.

On July 29, 1974, a crowd gathered in a church in Philadelphia to watch a barrier being broken, a challenge being taken, and a calling being answered. On that day, 11 women faced the barrier of church tradition and ruling and accepted the challenge of God’s call to them to be ordained priests in the Episcopal Church. It had been a long struggle, fighting the tradition of a male-only clergy by seeking ordination to the priesthood.

It’s incredible that in the Episcopal Church, it wasn’t until 1970 that women were allowed to be delegates to the General Convention. One of the goals of the women at that convention was to change the canon in order to do away with the order of Deaconess, an order that allowed women to function in the practical aspects of the diaconate (caring for the poor and needy) but not allowing them to perform the liturgical duties of a male deacon. Needless to say, the attempt failed but did have support from the House of Deputies. Three years later, it again failed to pass in General Convention, but it failed narrowly.

We come to 1974. Eleven women who had been trying desperately to fulfill the commitment they felt God had called them processed down the nave of the Church of the Advocate and stood before the altar of God, facing three brave, retired bishops who consecrated them to God’s service as priests. There was an immediate reaction from many Episcopalians who felt that tradition had been thrown out in favor of a radical new thing they really hadn’t expected or even wanted, truth be told. The House of Bishops immediately labeled them as “irregular” and inhibited their practice of priestly functions. It didn’t stop the momentum, however; about two months later, 4 more women were ordained in Washington, D.C. The issue stood until General Convention in 1976 when women were accepted into the priesthood as of January 1, 1977.

I remember talking to one of the 100 or so first “regularly” ordained priests (those ordained in 1977) who remembered walking the halls of GC, wondering if they would be allowed to be ordained and able to practice priestly duties and praying that God would make it happen. She remembered being overwhelmed with joy when the vote came through.

We all face challenges in all kinds of ways every day. Some of them are small but still annoying or slowing us down, but others are huge and can halt us in our tracks or even cripple us in major ways. Usually we fight, sometimes exhausting ourselves, in order to scramble over the barrier that holds us back, but then sometimes we, like George Mallory, accept the challenge and climb the mountain simply because it is there in front of us. The Philadelphia Eleven, like Moses, climbed the mountain, not just because it was there, but because it was what they felt they had to do to answer God’s call to the very utmost of their ability.

Perhaps when I face challenges and barriers that feel like mountains (even if they really are molehills), I need to remember the pilgrim’s progress of the Philadelphia Eleven and all those who came after them. They did not get an immediate victory, but each skirmish made them stronger and gained them support that eventually helped them gain the mountaintop. Not being one who sees mountains as things to be climbed simply because they’re there, I need to start looking at them that way. There may be a way around the mountain, but it would be miles and miles off track. I might as well just start the hike up — one foot in front of the other, stopping now and again to look out at not just the top of the mountain but also at the view around me.

Who knows? Maybe I’ll find that with patience, fortitude, and a driving sense of purpose, I can answer the call to the top. When I do, I need to remember Merrill Bittner, Alla Bozarth-Campbell, Alison Cheek, Emily Hewitt, Carter Heyward, Suzanne Hiatt, Marie Moorefield, Jeannette Piccard, Betty Bone Schiess, Katrina Swanson, and Nancy Wittig. Perhaps too I should remember the three retired bishops who followed their hearts and prayerful consciences and performed the ordinations: Daniel Corrigan, Robert L. Dewitt, Edward R. Welles and Antonio Ramos of Costa Rica (the only bishop with jurisdiction and much to lose). 

For these women and men and all who follow them, may God’s richest blessings be upon them and for those who have gone to greater glory, may God’s light perpetually shine upon them. They followed the call and overcame the barriers.



Linda Ryan co-mentors 2 EfM Online groups and keeps the blog Jericho’s Daughter.  She lives in the Diocese of Arizona and is proud to be part of the Church of the Nativity in North Scottsdale


Image: Philadelphia Eleven


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Linda Ryan

I wish there had been time enough and room enough in the reflection to talk about all the barriers that had been broken, not just the Philadelphia Eleven. That was an event for all women — not only LGBT ones, although I recognize what a great thing it was to single out particular groups who have struggled long and hard. Please don’t label me as anti-LGBT, but sometimes I need to remember women as a group, not just ones divided into subgroups. I hope you can understand why — and it isn’t privilege.

Linda Ryan

Yes, Bishop Ramos was present and participating. I know we are all grateful for his presence and cooperation. Still, I was focusing on the women who were “firsts” — even though Florence Li Tim-Oi was the first woman priest ordained in the Anglican Communion. I envy your being present at the one on July 29th. Would love to have been there myself!

Linda Ryan

Thank you, Elizabeth. Your comments are always so valuable. I appreciate Alla Bozarth’s poem. Thanks for including it. I was referencing one barrier — but there are still more to be overcome. Thanks to people like you, you keep the vision in front of us.

Elizabeth Kaeton

Another poem by Alla – written on the 40th Anniversary of the Ordination of Women

Godmothers of a New Creation

Through the darkness of history

we see your eyes glisten in Easter light—

Now you are coming, our daughters,

descendants, sisters in Christ,

and you are worthy of the price.

No longer the female patriarchs of our fears or past years

{or now in the furnace rooms of our institutions},

you are women come of age, seekers of life at the edge,

explorers of inner galaxies, giving hope and acknowledging

holiness in life, knowing it must include death for resurrection.

With recognition in your eyes and hands, you become

true channels of the healing power of Mother/Father God.

You are daughters of Wisdom Women

of Holy Scripture and the Ancestors,

Spirit in your veins, Grace flowing like rivers

through your hearing hearts and responsive words,

prophetic fire still shining in your faces.

You are old, young, mothers,

daughters, grandmothers, sisters.

Though wounded, God-blessed,

and by your courage and your Yes made whole.

You bear the fullness of faith more deeply

into the world, promise of the Easter Christ

alive in our midst and throughout

the radiant body of Cosmos.

Through harrows into heavens,

we stand grateful and small in the Gate of Mystery.

We receive help from Great Mystery and pass it on to you,

receiving from you as well, passing the Gifts of God to others together.

With outstretched hands, the bread of Life, the cup of Healing,

overflowing for all the hungry, broken and poor on the earth,

with our hearts tuned to the pulse of the risen Christ in the world.

Moment by moment we accept

our calling as midwife and friend,

teacher and mother, healer and healed,

sister to sister and sister to brother.

And so we who came before

now bless you who have come

and are coming after.

We bow before you and with you,

Godmothers of a New Creation.

Alla Renėe Bozarth

Michael Hartney

And assisting at the Ordination was Bishop Antonio Ramos of Costa Rica. He is pictured at the right of Bishop Welles. He was the only bishop with jurisdiction who participated, and thus risked the most. The others were retired. Though I was there I am not pictured as i was in the first rows of the congregation – one of the only deacons that day not ordained to the priesthood! 🙂

Elizabeth Kaeton

Thank you. This is lovely. It’s interesting to me that, for those of us who broke whatever barriers or walls or barricades or fences made of stone or wood erected due to race or gender, sexual orientation or gender identity (or a combination thereof), ‘lovely’ is not the word any of us would use to describe the experience. How wonderful that, 43 years later, there can be ‘lovely’ reflections on the experience. I sometimes fear that we may slip over into the ‘sentimental’ – which may eventually happen – which could be dangerous.

So, I encourage us all to read some of the books and reflections which have been written by those who were ordained that day and/or those who have interviewed them.

Start with books from two of the Eleven: “A priest forever” by Carter Heyward and “Womanpriest: A Personal Odessay” by Alla Bozarth-Campbell. I offer Alla’s poem “Pearls” to give you some sense of the struggle.

You are pearls.
You began
as irritants.

The ocean pushed
your small,
nearly invisible
rough body
through an undetected
crack in the shell.
You got inside.
Happy to have a home
at last
you grew close
to the host,
to the larger body.

You became
a subject
for diagnosis:
invader, tumor.

Perhaps your parents
were the true invaders
and you were born
in the shell—
no difference—
called an outsider

You were a representative
of the whole
outside world,
a grain of sand,
particle of the Universe,
part of Earth.
You were a growth.
And you did not go away.

In time
you grew
so large,
an internal
that the shell
could contain
neither you nor itself,
and because of you
the shell Opened itself
to the world.

Then your beauty
was seen
and prized,
your variety valued:
precious, precious,
a hard bubble of light:
silver, white, ivory,
or baroque.

If you are a special
irregular and rough
pearl, named baroque
(for broke),
then you reveal
in your own
body of light
all the colors
of the Universe.

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