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.
Image: Philadelphia Eleven