|Six of the original Philadelphia Eleven|
Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
Let me being by saying what a real pleasure it is to be with you this weekend. Some of you may know that your rector, Jon Richardson, did two years of his seminary field education with me and then, did his diaconal work as the Interim Missioner for Youth and Young Families, and was ordained priest. I’m very proud of his skills and abilities, his hard work and creativity and his willingness to take risks for the Gospel of Jesus Christ. You are very fortunate to have him as your priest.
I want to talk a bit about this pearl of great price as a metaphor for the ordination of women. One of the Eleven, Alla Renee Bozarth, wrote this poem about Pearls. I’d like to read you the first part of that poem:
You are pearls.
The ocean pushed
through an undetected
crack in the shell.
You got inside.
Happy to have a home
you grew close
to the host,
to the larger body.
Perhaps your parents
and you were born
in the shell—
called an outsider
You were a representative
a grain of sand,
particle of the Universe,
part of Earth.
You were a growth.
And you did not go away.
No matter your vocation, or calling – as a doctor or lawyer, a journalist or judge, a pharmacist or chemist, a teacher or executive, a plumber or electrician, an artist or musician, a deacon, priest or parent (yes, I believe one is called to parenthood and family) – following that call by God to a life of service to others requires a certain measure of persistence.
There are always going to be obstacles – finances, time, and a variety of other, compelling commitments – which demand your time and attention. But, when you are doing what you are supposed to be doing, when you are following the path you are meant to be on, a way always seems to open.
However, when you are called to do something that goes against the grain, which is something someone of your gender or race or color or creed or sexual orientation or physical ability or class status has not done before – you are an outsider to the system – and obstacles become even more formidable. The persistence required to fulfill your vocation is even greater.
You become, 'Divine Sandpaper'. Or, as Alla Bozarth writes, a pearl. You start off as an irritant. An annoyance. You are pushed by the strong tide of vocational call until you crack the shell and get inside where you agitate some more.
Indeed, that kind of vocational call can be especially annoying and agitating even to you. Sometimes, you wonder why on earth God has called you to the task and wonder why God won’t just leave you alone. A vocation can feel less a ‘call’ and more a push or a shove.
I clearly remember when I first said out loud that I felt called to the priesthood. I was about 6 or 7 – a young girl in a Roman Catholic school – when Sister asked each member in my class that question we all get asked at about that age: What do you want to be when you grow up?
When it was my turn, I said, with every bit as much calm and confidence as the boys who said, “Doctor” and the girls who said “Nurse,” – “When I grow up, I want to be a priest.”
Sister laughed the way adults laugh when you know it’s not funny and said, “Well, dear, girls can’t be priests. Only boys can be priests. So, what do you want to be when you grow up. “
I said, “I want to be a priest.”
The nun wasn’t laughing this time. She said, with an edge of anger in her voice, “I said, girls can not be priests. Girls can be nuns. Girls cannot be priests. So, why don’t you tell us what you want to be when you grow up?”
I knew what I was supposed to answer. I knew the answer Sister wanted me to make. Still, I knew the answer in my heart. I said, “I want to be a priest.”
And then, Sister took a few steps forward, looked me square in the eye and slapped me right across the face. She said, “Don’t you ever say that again.”
When I went home that afternoon, I told my mother what Sister had said and done. My mother became very angry and said, “Well, what did you expect? Don’t ever say that again or I will have to slap your face.”
So, I never said those words again. Well, not for another 25 years. I also left the church which would not allow me to serve at the altar, much less have any role of ordained leadership.
I still believed in God. I still loved Jesus and wanted to serve the people of God through the church. I believed God was calling me to the priesthood. I just didn’t believe it would be possible. Ever.
And, then, one day – July 29, 1974 – eleven women who had been ordained deacons in The Episcopal Church were ordained to the priesthood by three retired bishops at Church of the Advocate in Philadelphia, PA.
They would become known as “The Philadelphia Eleven”.
They were/are: Alison Cheek, Suzanne (Sue) Hiatt, Marie Moorefield [Fleischer], Alla Bozarth-Campbell [Alla Renée Bozarth], Betty Bone Schiess, Jeannette Piccard, Merrill Bittner, Emily Clark Hewitt, Irene Carter Heyward, Katrina Welles Swanson and Nancy Hatch Wittig.
The service caused about as much distress in the church as that nun who slapped me across the face when I was a child. Some churches flew their Episcopal flags upside down. Other churches draped their doors and windows in black bunting and declared themselves in mourning. Some rectors and vestries passed resolutions which stated that they would leave The Episcopal Church to join The Roman Catholic church if the ordinations were found to be valid.
I am not making this up. It happened just 40 yrs ago.
The ordination service would eventually be determined to be valid. “Irregular”. But, valid. At the next General convention, in 1976, a resolution was passed which affirmed the validity of the ordination of women to all three orders of ordained service – deacons, priests and bishops.
An interesting note about that debate. At the same time as the ordination of women was being debated, the divorce canons were also being changed. Yes, a little more than 40 years ago, if you divorced you could not be remarried in the church; many were not welcome at the altar rail.
A “new” prayer book was also being brought into being. That would be the “new” 1979 Book of Common Prayer. A debate ensued about the use of gender for humankind. The “traditionalists” or "conservatives" who did not want to change the language of the “new” prayer book, wanted to use the male pronoun for God and humankind.
They said that “mankind” was inclusive of male and female.
However, when these same conservatives went to debate against the ordination of women, they argued that the word “man” in the canons meant the male members of the species.
The women and our male allies, however, called them on that assertion, reminding them of what they had just said in the conversations about the language of the “new” Book of Common Prayer.
Man/Mankind is either inclusive of women or it is not. You can’t say that it excludes women for ordination but includes them in prayer.
I think the term is “hoisted on their own petard”.
As a compromise, the gender pronouns in the BCP were italicized and, where appropriate, “brother/sister” was added.
So, the next time you see an italicized ‘he’ or ‘him’ in the BCP, I hope you’ll remember that little story and how it was part of the argument for the ordination of women.
I do believe there is plenteous redemption with God. Even our most difficult stories can be redeemed by another story. For every story of suffering, there is a story of redemption. For every story of crucifixion, there is a story of resurrection.
Here is one that is redemptive to my story from when the nun slapped my face:
Bishop Barbara Harris tells the story of one of her visitations early in her episcopacy. She was standing at the back of the church, ready to process, when she spotted a little boy with his father. He was standing on the pew and pointing to her. She assumed the child was probably being rude. After the service, the boy’s father sought her out. He said, “My son was so excited to see you. He asked me, ‘Dad, some day, can boys be bishops, too.’?”
My prayer is that, one day soon, that will not be a question any girl or boy will have to ask. Vocation is not about gender. God calls everyone – male, female, old, young, rich, poor, black, white, gay, straight,
For I am convinced, with St Paul that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord – or from the call of God to serve the people of God..
Jesus said, "Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.
Let me conclude with the end of Alla’s poem about Pearls
that the shell
neither you nor itself,
and because of you
the shell Opened itself
to the world.
Then your beauty
your variety valued:
a hard bubble of light:
silver, white, ivory,
irregular and rough
pearl, named baroque
then you reveal
in your own
body of light
all the colors
of the Universe.