Beyond the Barrier: What the 40th Anniversary of Women's Ordination Means Today

By Rebecca Grossfield

Ordinands at the altarOn July 26, 2014, a celebration honoring the first women ordained as priests in the Episcopal Church took place at the Church of the Advocate in Philadelphia, PA. The group of 11 women famously forced the issue of women’s ordination on a tumultuous and hot summer day in 1974.

Dr. Fredrica Harris Thompsett, Mary Wolfe Professor Emerita of Historical Theology at Episcopal Divinity School (EDS), was keynote speaker for the anniversary celebrations. The feminist historian and theologian called EDS “home” for over 35 years. During that time, she witnessed EDS stand in the face of adversity, establishing itself as a leading seminary committed to inclusion in the church.

The Revs. Merrill Bittner, Alison Cheek, Alla Bozarth, Emily C. Hewitt, Carter Heyward, Suzanne R. Hiatt, Marie Moorefield, Jeanette Piccard, Betty Bone Schiess, Katrina Welles Swanson, and Nancy Hatch Wittig became known as the “Philadelphia Eleven.” Bishops Corrigan, DeWitt, and Welles presided over the ordination before a congregation of nearly 2,000 worshippers.

Soon after the 1974 ordinations, EDS moved to invite Revs. Hiatt and Heyward to join the school’s faculty. Both women recently shared their experiences with EDS Now.

“Irregular” Ordinations & the Pursuit of Justice: Women as Priests

Forty years after women’s ordination, it’s hard to imagine the trepidation leading up to this pivotal moment. Darlene O’Dell (2014) captured the story of these brave women in incredible detail in The Story of the Philadelphia Eleven.

Bishop John M. Allin, the 23rd presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, sent a telegram to Rev. Cheek warning against the pursuit of women’s ordination. In response to that July 23, 1974, message, Rev. Cheek wrote, “Women are striving to define themselves, name them- selves as whole persons. This, it seems to me, goes to the heart of the Gospel” (O’Dell, 2014).

“The Philadelphia ordinations turned out to be a movement for justice for women within the Episcopal Church,” Rev. Carter Heyward told EDS Now.

Women listening to Dr. Chas Wilkie’s sermonRev. Heyward said the group of women found much to be encouraged about, including drawing strength from one another. “It was very obvious that many, many people in the church did indeed want women priests,” she said. “We were also encouraged by a number of bishops, priests, lay people, and hundreds and thousands of people in the larger church.”

But O’Dell noted, “The level of rage that erupted around women’s ordination also raised the question of why many who had dedicated their personal and professional lives to eliminating racism, protesting the Vietnam War, and alleviating poverty, not only found it difficult to take a strong stand for a woman’s right to be ordained to the priesthood, but adamantly opposed such a position.”

By 1976, however, the General Convention approved women’s ordination—marking the culmination of a long and difficult journey towards priesthood. By 1977, women began to be ordained “regularly.”

Rev. Heyward said the group benefited from the fact that equal justice was a “front burner issue of the times.” People like feminist organizer Rev. Suzanne Hiatt— “who became the women’s ordination leader both spiritually and literally,” according to Heyward—leveraged the cultural moment of the 1960s and 70s. If ordination had not happened when it did, Heyward couldn’t say just how long it might have been before this door opened to women.

For Rev. Emily Hewitt, a graduate of Cornell University, Harvard Law School, Union Theological Seminary, and a civil rights activist who went on to serve as chief judge of the United States Court of Federal Claims, the issue was simple. “I evaluated this situation through the lens of justice,” she said. “And there was no reason that I could discern why women should not be priests.”

A Spiritual & Intellectual Home at EDS

Just like those trailblazers for women’s ordination, leaders at EDS embraced the “lens of justice” even when that decision was a difficult one. Expanding the faculty, school leadership, and establishing a feminist liberation theology program created space to explore these complicated issues. “By bringing women on board, we had the opportunity for a deeper reflection on liberation within the church,” Dr. Thompsett said. “There was no clear direction, but it was the right path and EDS had a willingness to take it.”

Rev. Hewitt said EDS became known as the most open-minded seminary of the mid-1970s. Immediately after the 1974 ordination, EDS began seeking opportunities to bring women priests on board. “EDS made a commitment to get women on the faculty at that time,” she said. “And—as a result—they ended up with a very strong feminist faculty.”

In 1975, those professors included Revs. Hiatt and Heyward, who took comfort in joining the faculty together. “EDS hired us both on a half salary and gave us an apartment together,” Rev. Heyward recalled. “We became the most beloved of colleagues.”

Carter Heyward with students“We didn’t always agree, but we certainly had immense love and loyalty for each other,” Rev. Heyward said. She found EDS to be very welcoming, though she admits the first few years had their moments of challenge. Rev. Heyward served as the Chandler Robbins Professor of Theology at EDS until she retired in 2006. These days, she runs a therapeutic horse farm in North Carolina.

In one instance, Rev. Heyward encountered a woman who told her that the fight for ordination was too political when women ought to be more spiritual. “I tried to be compassionate and caring,” she said. “But I made it very clear that I completely and totally disagreed with this perception.” For Rev. Heyward, being “political” simply meant understanding how power was being used in the Episcopal Church.

Rev. Hiatt retired from EDS in 1998. Upon her death in 2002, EDS established the Suzanne Hiatt Chair in Feminist Pastoral Theology.

Opportunities for Reflection

Rev. Heyward said she has always been interested in the “basic hierarchal and patriarchal shape of the church in terms of its governance and its theology and its liturgy.” To that end, her experience at EDS was an exciting time to enrich, expand, and deepen her work. “It was like working in a laboratory with people who really shared these same questions.”

“Forty years later, much has changed for the better. There are now thousands of women priests and dozens of women bishops throughout the United States and around the world,” Heyward wrote in the foreword to O’Dell’s book. Nevertheless, she warns against complacency and encourages movement towards radical social change.

When EDS opened the doors to women priests, professors, deans, and presidents, the decision changed the future of the school—and the church. Dr. Thompsett told EDS Now that women are the majority of the Episcopal Church today, yet only represent a minority of bishops. “We need to see those numbers reflected in our leadership,” she said.

“The current challenge for the church, and its Executive Council, is how to move beyond these familiar patterns,” Dr. Thompsett said.

Rev. Heyward agrees. “The revolution is never won,” she said. “As long as we have breath in our bodies and passion in our hearts, there is work to do out there.”

This article is from the Spring 2015 issue of EDS Now.

Photos from top to bottom:

1) Ordinands at the altar, Church of the Advocate, July 29, 1974 [Photo Credit: The Burke Library Archives at Union Theological Seminary, New York]
2) Women listening to Dr. Chas Wilkie’s sermon at the Church of the Advocate during the July 29, 1974, ordination [Photo Credit: The Burke Library Archives at Union Theological Seminary, New York]
3) Carter Heyward with Students at Episcopal Divinity School, 1990 [Photo Credit: Episcopal Divinity School Archives]