On the 40th anniversary of the irregular ordination of the group of women who became known as the "Philadelphia Eleven," Darlene O’Dell introduces us to the women involved, the paths that brought them together on that that momentous day - and what has changed (or not changed) in the life of the church over the intervening years. This is the first book to document the story in first-person interviews. It includes a Foreword by Carter Heyward.
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The Story of the Philadelphia ELEVEN
By DARLENE O'DELL
Church Publishing IncorporatedCopyright © 2014 Darlene O'Dell
All rights reserved.
JULY 29, 1974
A day or two before her ordination to the priesthood in the Episcopal Church, Carter Heyward received a letter from a priest in Texas, someone she had spoken with a few times. He was writing to plead with her to abandon her plans to be ordained that week, noting he respected her work as a minister of the Gospel, but that on this single point they were "sworn and bitter enemies." The letter filled four single-spaced, typewritten pages, concluding with a postscript squeezed into the left margin that read, in part: "When we next meet, I will truly be able to vent my anger with you by addressing you as 'The Rev Mother Fucker.' Love and Kisses, Father ____." This would obviously not be your run-of-the-mill ordination.
In fact, security for the event, which was held on July 29, 1974, at the Church of the Advocate in Philadelphia, a nineteenth-century Gothic structure modeled after the Cathedral of Amiens in France, included a busload of police officers stationed down the street, plain- clothed officers scattered through the congregation of two thousand, a large group of radical lesbians some of whom—according to the rector of the Advocate—were "trained in crowd control and karate," and buckets lined up along the church's walls in case of bombs or fire.
Episcopal churches haven't traditionally been feared as hotspots for unruly crowds and violent offenders, but this was the sort of day, as the priest from Texas had made clear, that created enemies. Eleven women, tired of waiting for the church to decide whether to allow the ordination of women priests, took the matter into their own hands and with the blessings of four bishops, became the first women priests in the Episcopal Church in the United States. Some in the Church would have preferred to have studied the issue further, but as supporters of women's ordination pointed out—and without a hint of exaggeration—the Church had been studying the issue for over fifty years and had never found theological reasons preventing the ordination of women; in fact, the Church was attempting to study the "women into submission." Others were much more direct in their opposition, declaring that one could no more ordain a woman than he could ordain a rock, a piece of wood, a jackass, a cow, or even a monkey in a tree.
From the beginning, the media was captivated by the event. In the planning stages, the organizers had hoped and prepared for only a limited media presence, attempting to keep the ordinations quiet for as long as possible and notifying only those personally invited, the diocesan bishops of the eleven, and a few trusted media sources. In fact, the invitation Heyward sent to her family and friends asked for their confidentiality and warned them that the service would be "highly irregular and potentially dangerous." At one point, those involved discussed conducting the ordinations in a venue that would provide more privacy than an Episcopal church. A tennis court at the home of one of the ordaining bishops was mentioned, though that idea was quickly dismissed by those who wanted to hold the service in a church. Their efforts, however, to maintain a low profile were brought to a halt when the Bishop of Pennsylvania, Lyman Ogilby—who had attended one of the planning meetings to argue against the ordinations—wrote the members of the clergy in his diocese asking them to refrain from participating. The organizers realized that the news he had released would spread quickly and that it was only a matter of time before the press would begin asking questions. "For me, that was a red alert," wrote press agent Betty Medsger. Medsger had been a highly recognized and respected journalist from Philadelphia's Evening Bulletin, but was a freelancer when she was asked to be the event's press agent. Instead of waiting until a few days before the event as planned, she made a handful of phone calls to a few major media outlets and released the information in time for the July 20 editions of the newspapers. Then she sent out a news release of the event itself, two to three page biographies of each of the ordinands, plus plenty of quotes from the eleven women and the three bishops. "It was crucial," Medsger said, "that we be the first with the news. If anti- ordination forces preceded us to the press, the condemnation of the event would make the first and most memorable public impression. We had to announce the news so as not to be put in a defensive position." On the day of the ordinations, she set up thirty chairs for the press corps near the altar of the church, but would ultimately need two hundred. "I was pushed, shoved, even kicked by the reporters and photographers," Medsger said. "The jostling for position was unbelievable." Every major network was there, including the BBC. In the week leading up to the ordinations and in the months that followed, stories ran in The New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Minneapolis Tribune, The Guardian, The Washington Post, The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Richmond Times-Dispatch, The Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Miami Herald, The Boston Globe, The Newport News Daily Press, The Honolulu Advertiser, The San Diego Evening Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, The Times- Union, The Democrat and Chronicle, The Courier-Journal, The Kansas City Star, The Christian Science Monitor, The Charlotte Observer, The Sun, Time, Newsweek, Ms., Christianity and Crisis, Christianity Today, The Witness, The Christian Century, National Catholic Reporter, Commonweal, People, among others at home and abroad. Heyward was on the cover of Ms. and one of the eleven, Alison Cheek, was named a Time magazine woman of the year. Heyward, Cheek, and fellow ordinand Nancy Wittig appeared on The Phil Donahue Show. The Today show covered the ordination, as did Walter Cronkite on the CBS Evening News. The story was recognized as the top religious story of 1976 by the Religious Newswriters Association, beating out the election of Southern Baptist Jimmy Carter as President of the United States and the Bicentennial Project of the Roman Catholic bishops. Bishop Robert DeWitt, one of the ordaining bishops of the eleven, wrote in humble understatement that they had "touched the nerve of institutional injustice."
The weather alone was the sort that would set a person's nerves on edge. It was "beastly hot and humid," ordinand Alla Bozarth-Campbell (referred to by her current name Bozarth throughout the book) remembered. "Blistering," another said. Unfortunately, the heat provided an apt—if not medieval—atmosphere for at least one of the prevalent metaphors that came to be associated with the event: the comparison of the eleven with witches. The editor of The Witness made note of the image years later, writing that the expressed fear was that when "you mix women and rituals ... you get witches," adding, "and they burn witches, don't they?" Apparently the judge who was asked to issue a temporary injunction against the ordinations thought so. He refused to hear the case, telling the church to handle it in its usual manner, "at the stake." And one priest, protesting the ordinations, stood at the Advocate and told the congregation, "God here now as father and judge sees you trying to make stones into bread. You can only offer up the smell and sound and sight of perversion." He could, he warned, smell the sulfur in the air.
When the crowd began laughing at and booing this and other protests, the Advocate's rector Paul Washington asked the congregation to remain respectful. Washington was no stranger to handling situations where violent language and degrading characterizations were leveled against opponents. Some of Philadelphia's most powerful and vocal leaders had made such language infamous. A former police commissioner had once dubbed inner-city North Philadelphia, where the Advocate was located, as "the Jungle." And the powerful and bombastic mayor at the time of the ordinations, Frank Rizzo—who had fostered a long, troubled, and violent history with the city's African-American community—was a constant source of controversial statements, boasting in a 1975 election campaign that he would be so tough as to "make Attila the Hun look like a faggot." But Paul Washington was not easily intimidated. An African-American born in Charleston, South Carolina, he had been promised to God even before his birth in a deal his mother had struck the Almighty: if God would give her a son, she would dedicate him to God's service. She named that son Paul after the apostle. "My course had already been carefully set," Washington wrote. He had come to the Advocate in 1962, after serving in the black parish of St. Cyprian in Philadelphia. While at St. Cyprian, the suffragan (assistant) bishop asked him to take on the additional duties of serving the all-white congregation of St. Titus. The official appointment, however, was never made. A delegation of lay people had sidestepped the suffragan bishop and approached the bishop directly, telling him that they liked Washington personally, but that they had daughters to consider. Washington never forgot it, writing in his memoir that he "lived with the feeling that whites whom I considered friends can come to a line of race that they cannot cross."
When he arrived at the Advocate, Washington was determined his new church would be an open and welcoming one, a place for people who, in the words of Barbara Harris, "had no place else to go." Harris was a member of the Advocate and a public relations officer for Sun Oil. She served as the crucifer at the ordinations of the eleven and would later be installed as the first woman bishop in the Episcopal Church—and in the worldwide eighty-million member Anglican Communion.
Washington's choices concerning who received refuge in the Advocate were not only controversial within the city of Philadelphia, but also within much of the nation at large, the ordination of the women being only one example. He also supported the Black Power Movement, hosting various Black Panther events and providing a place for Stokely Carmichael to hold a Black Panther rally in 1966. He opened the Advocate for a fund-raising defense rally for Angela Davis who, for a brief period, had been on the FBI's most wanted list and then imprisoned in California. Later acquitted of the charges against her and, continuing her activism, Davis became a renowned writer and scholar. As rector, Washington was adamant about his priorities: "If I have to offend you to please God," he once said, "I'll do it." And he did. On that hot day in July, when the procession marched through the Advocate for the purpose of ordaining the eleven women, many within the Episcopal Church and from other denominations were more than offended. They were outraged.
The intense level of rage surrounding the event—the media firestorm that erupted, the amount of civil and uncivil discussion it evoked, the number of letters from other priests and bishops calling the women "childish," "selfish," or "arrogant," the ecclesiastical trials that ensued, the careers destroyed—has proved to be somewhat confounding in hindsight. The Episcopal Church was not even the first denomination to ordain women in the United States. The Presbyterians and Methodists had been ordaining women since 1956; the Universalist Unitarians, Congregationalists, and Disciples of Christ since the nineteenth century. In fact, the Episcopal Church was not even the first within the Anglican Communion to ordain women. In 1944, Li Tim-Oi was ordained in the Anglican diocese of Hong Kong, followed in 1971 by Jane Hwang and Joyce Bennett. Why, then, the media uproar?
Some argue that though the Episcopal Church is a relatively small denomination in the United States and not a leader in the women's ordination movement in the country, its historical influence and power is widespread in American politics and culture and its decisions carry great economic weight. To no small degree, then, these ordinations caught the attention of the dominant national culture because the women were white, predominantly middle-class, and from the United States. Additionally, those who were lesbian kept their sexual identities hidden. Others argue that the attention was the result of the ordinations occurring at an energetic moment in the women's liberation movement that included highly publicized debates around the Equal Rights Amendment, the decision in Roe v. Wade, the emergence of NOW, the coming of the International Women's Year, and even the defeat of Bobby Riggs by Billie Jean King in the tennis match The London Sunday Times called "the drop shot and volley heard around the world." Some have joked that the ordinations occurred on a slow news day, though in the context of Watergate, a global recession and spiraling inflation, and the continuing nuclear bomb tests spawned by the Cold War, it would seem that journalists had enough with which to occupy themselves.
The anger unleashed over the proposed ordinations also raised particular issues for Washington and many other African-Americans who placed themselves in the heart of the struggle. Historians and other critics have pointed to problems created by white liberals who assume that African-Americans and other disenfranchised groups will necessarily join their political battles out a sense of community. It can be a dangerous place for the vulnerable to occupy. "Whenever white liberals have been at odds with each other," wrote Mudflower—a collective of Black, Hispanic, and White Christian women that included Carter Heyward— "they've benefited from pulling in black folks to side with them, to bolster their positions. In this way black people have been used a great deal on behalf of white interests. In such a case the only sure loser is the black person." The morning after the ordinations, Washington believed his position within the larger church was the most tenuous of anyone involved: "At the time I knew only one thing: A black priest in an aided parish had disobeyed his bishop, the presiding bishop, and the General Convention in an action that was broadcast to the world. I was in trouble." It was, he wrote, "the lowest and perhaps the loneliest moment of my life."
Certainly, one of the reasons the debates about the ordinations became prominent is the relationship between the Episcopal Church and the Catholic Church and their shared tradition of Apostolic Succession. Simply stated, Apostolic Succession is a belief that the ordination of bishops has occurred in an unbroken line beginning with the original apostles, usually with the laying on of hands. Often connected to that argument is the idea that because Jesus and the apostles were men, women could not possibly be part of the succession, though scholars in the women's ordination movement pointed out that Jesus and the apostles were also first-century circumcised Jews (not twentieth century, English speaking Gentiles) and that to assume being a male was a necessary prerequisite for the priesthood was faulty theology.
Many of the supporters had hoped that the ceremony on July 29 would create a domino effect and influence the Catholic Church's own policy on ordaining women. Within the Episcopal Church, that minority who wished to reunite with the Catholic Church was terrified at the impact the ordinations would have on their chances for reconciliation. Their fears, of course, were not unfounded. The Reverend Richard Cornish Martin, curate at the time of St. Paul's Parish in Washington, D.C., warned that women's ordinations to the priesthood would be divisive to what he called an already vulnerable Episcopal Church:
Schism is not a threat, it is inevitable, this is a promise! And this little Episcopal Church can ill afford further division.... within Catholic Christendom, Anglicanism is the weakest link, the most vulnerable church, and it will be a push over.... For many such action will make Anglicanism incredible and her claim to Catholicity a fraud.
At the 1976 General Convention (the governing body of the church that meets every three years), the bishops opposed to the ordinations issued a statement, emphasizing their most critical and crucial concern. They warned that "the ordination and consecration of women priests and bishops will raise for us the gravest of questions—that is, how far this Church can accept such ministrations without fatally compromising its position as a Catholic and Apostolic Body." In a statement indicative of how connected he believed the two churches to be, Bishop Stanley Atkins wrote that "the General Convention of the Episcopal Church has no more right to change the Catholic priesthood than it has to change the Catholic creeds, or the Catholic canon of scripture."
In letters, sermons, press releases, and other statements, this fear of alienating the Catholic Church was raised repeatedly by opponents of women's ordination to the priesthood, prompting Sue Hiatt, who spearheaded the organization of the ordinations, to ask if these Episcopalians had remembered the Protestant Reformation, when in the sixteenth-century Martin Luther nailed his ninety-five theses to a church door in Germany and the then unnamed protestants began a process of separating from the Catholic Church.
Excerpted from The Story of the Philadelphia ELEVEN by DARLENE O'DELL. Copyright © 2014 Darlene O'Dell. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
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Table of Contents
Foreword Carter Heyward xi
Chapter 1 July 29, 1974 1
Chapter 2 The Deacons' Tale, Part I 13
Chapter 3 The Deacon's Tale, Part II 35
Chapter 4 The Gathering 54
Chapter 5 "That Great Gittin' Up Morning" 71
Chapter 6 The Bishops' Tale, Chicago 84
Chapter 7 The Priests' Tate 99
Chapter 8 Wind Shear 112
Chapter 9 Letters, Scarlet and Otherwise 123
Chapter 10 The Trials, Part I: "Adjectives Are Always Dangerous" 137
Chapter 11 The Trials, Part II: But Conjunctions? 153
Chapter 12 The Washington Four 175
Chapter 13 Farewells; The General Convention of 1976 190