December 15th marked the 50th anniversary of five women deacons presenting themselves for ordination to the priesthood at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. This groundbreaking act of liturgical protest would pave the way for the July 24, 1974 ordinations of the Philadelphia Eleven, the first women ordained as priests in the Episcopal Church. In honor of this historic protest and all of the events that followed, on December 9, 2023, the Episcopal Divinity School (EDS) hosted a public conversation at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. This conversation, moderated by EDS Interim President the Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas, featured the Rt. Rev. Mary Glasspool, Assistant Bishop of the Diocese of New York, and the Rev. Dr. Carter Heyward, one of the 1973 women deacons and Philadelphia Eleven.
The program began with an audio clip of Carter Heyward’s statement from the ordination service of December 15, 1973. The audience and panelists listened together with all eyes on the Rev. Dr. Heyward as she sat on stage, hearing the words she spoke fifty years ago in the very same Cathedral. “To these five male deacons who are to be ordained to the priesthood: we did not come to block you, but to join you,” she said in the recording. “We are asking to be included in this service not only for our sake but for the sake of other women, for the sake of all women and men, for the sake of the Episcopal Church.”
The power of Rev. Heyward’s words and witnessing her listen back to them was palpable, and it opened the floor for an inspiring conversation between the three panelists as they reflected on the movement for the ordination of women in the Church. They discussed how Rev. Heyward and the other women deacons turned a personal calling into a broader campaign for justice, paving the way for other women, like Rev. Douglas and Bishop Glasspool, to answer their calls for ordination. The panel also reflected on the untold ways in which Black Episcopalians and Black activists more broadly supported women’s ordination. Rev. Douglas noted that the Philadelphia Eleven were ordained at the historically Black Church of the Advocate where Rev. Paul Washington was rector and Barbara Harris, later to become Suffragan Bishop of Massachusetts, as a lay member of the congregation, served as crucifer for the service. Rev. Douglas further pointed out that the local Black Panthers chapter help to provide security for the service.
The program included two other historical artifacts made available for the event by the Diocesan Archives. The Rev. Emilee Walker-Cornetta, EDS’ Director of Programming and Operations, read a statement by the Episcopal Women’s Caucus distributed after the December 15, 1973 ordination service titled “Women’s Ordination: A Christian Imperative.” Ms. Nell Gibson read a selection from a letter from Pauli Murray’s to Bishop Paul Moore about the service. The morning concluded with audience comments and questions.
“I've been part of this history,” shared attendee the Very Rev. Cynthia Kittredge, Dean and President of Seminary of the Southwest. “I was just a little bit younger than [Bishop Glasspool] and got there a little bit later, but for me, to hear this history told today is the way of making the future, and really making something new."
“Today, I felt some of the power and pain that reverberated in this Cathedral fifty years ago when five women courageously presented themselves for ordination to the priesthood and were passed over,” reflected Rev. Walker-Cornetta. “The conversation was more than just a history lesson—it was a corridor into the struggle for women’s ordination in all its messiness, vulnerability, and determination. As a newly ordained priest, I was inspired to walk the path these women have paved by taking creative, hope-filled risks in the name of justice.”
This December 9th program came on the heels of Rev. Dr. Heyward’s delivery of EDS’ 2023 Kellogg Lecture: “The Master's House and the Nagging Widow: A Stubborn Call to Dismantle." The weekend events provided a unique opportunity to reflect on the histories of justice work at EDS and in the Episcopal Church and invited attendees to continue working for liberation for all.
For more information on EDS’ December 9th program at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, including access to historical resources and the event recording, click here. Further information about the 2023 Kellogg Lecture is available here.
Images: Ron Hester