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Sunday, October 30, 2016

Remembering (Nasty) Women (Witches).

On this day in history, October 30, 1971, 60 women, clergy and laity, gathered at Virginia Theological Seminary,  just outside our national capital, to organize the effort at the 1973 General Convention to allow access to all three orders of ordination in the church - deacons, priests and bishops - to women. 

(NB: Women had been ordained deaconess since 1889 but not considered within the diaconte until 1968 and began being ordained deacons alongside men in 1971.) 
 

They crafted a letter to then Presiding Bishop Hines, stating their shock and distress over the latest meeting of the House of Bishops in the Pocono Mountains which voted to refer the "issue" to yet another commission to "study". 
 
Over the years, the good Bishops had commissioned, received and apparently forgotten a whole series of "studies" including a "blue ribbon" study done as recently as 1967.

The letter to Presiding Bishop Hines, signed by all 60 women present, expressed their shock and disappointment and informed him that none of them would serve on the commission if asked. They also told him that they would not encourage any other woman to serve on the commission, since the time for study had long past.

They also requested (and eventually received) money from the Board of Theological Education (BTE) to hold a series of regional conferences for women and men about the ordination of women.

In signing the letter, the group constituted itself as "The Episcopal Women's Caucus.
 

Let me press "pause" here for a moment, to let that sink in.

Forty-five years ago - today - sixty women of absolutely no standing or authority in the church wrote to the Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church and said 'Fie!" on your special commission. 
 
These sixty women of "low estate" proclaimed to the man who held the highest office in the institution that they were boycotting his special commission and encouraging every woman in the church to do the same.

Oh, they said, and we want you to give us money so WE the PEOPLE - you know, the ones we 'talk' about as "the priesthood of all believers" and refer to in the invitation to the Service of Ordination with the words, "God willing and the PEOPLE consenting"? - can bring "the issue" to the people for consideration.

What a perfectly uppity thing to do, right?

Or, in current parlance these were some "nasty women". 
 
Herstory notes that those uppity, nasty women were not successful, first time up at bat. Indeed, they were a colossal failure. The resolution they crafted to change the canons of the church to allow for women to be ordained deacons, priests and bishops, which they took to General Convention in Louisville, 1973, failed miserably. 

The vote in the House of Deputies was more profoundly anti-woman (in a vote-by-orders of the clergy) in 1973 than it was in 1970.  That seemed like prima facia evidence that bishops had been very busy ... um... "talking" with their clergy.

It was devastating, simply devastating. That was so because, in part, they were naive.

I recall Marge Christie, one of the founders of The Caucus,  saying, "You know, we really thought that if we just had the opportunity to allow women to tell their stories, people would see the strength of their call and do the right thing."
 
I think - I'm not absolutely 100% certain, but I think - this was the moment when merely "uppity women" became strong, bold, brave, convicted, focused - and otherwise "nasty" - women. 
 
It was time to use the rules to break the rules and bring about justice. 
 
If the theological argument was one of "ontology"; if the presumed presenting barrier to the ordination of women was that they did not possess "sufficient ontological matter to be an authentic bearer of a sacerdotal presence," then, by God, it was time for the incarnation.  

Or, as my dear friend Ed Bacon has said, "I'm so glad Mary didn't wait for the formulation of a Doctrine of the Incarnation before she said 'Yes" to God."
 
On July 10, 1974, seven women who were deacons met with four bishops to discuss a possible ordination. A date was set for July 29, 1974 - the Feast of Mary and Martha of Bethany - where, at 11 o'clock in the morning,  eleven women who were deacons were "irregularly" ordained to the priesthood at the Church of the Advocate in Philadelphia, PA. 
 
There were supposed to have been 12 and there's a backstory about "good deacons" and another strong letter from another strong woman to another bishop which I'll leave for another time.
I want to hit the "pause" button again and ask you to let that all sink in.  

The event we so easily refer to as "The Philadelphia Eleven" happened three (3) years after sixty (60) uppity women of little or no institutional standing sent a letter to the Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church, rejecting his offer to "study their issue" and asking for money for the "priesthood of all believers" to determine the issue of ordination for women. 

That ordination - and the ordination of women in the church - would not be "regularized" and the canons changed to allow for the ordination of women for another two (2) years

It was not until General Convention in Minneapolis, in September 1976, that the canons were changed. Women began to be ordained "regularly" on January 1, 1977 - six years after the founding of The Episcopal Women's Caucus.
 
Just pause for a moment and put yourself in their sacristy slippers. Imagine waiting two years after your ordination to be declared "legal" and "legitimate". 

Let that sink in.  
 
Now, add to that and understand that in those intervening two years the church absolutely erupted in turmoil. Churches flew their Episcopal flags upside down and at half-mast - a combination of the symbols of international distress and a significant death.  (I am not making this up.)
 
Male clergy who allowed the newly ordained to preside at Eucharist at the altar in their churches were brought up on ecclesiastical charges for "disturbing the peace and well being of the church". (Because, you know. prophetic action never disturbs the peace.)
 
On August 18, 1974, Dr. Charles Willie, the first African American to be Vice President of the House of Deputies, resigned his position in protest of a statement of the House of Bishops which called the ordinations in Philadelphia "invalid"; he referred to the statement as "a blatant exercise of male arrogance." (And, it was, but there was more to come. To wit - )

On October 27, 1974,  a special service was sponsored by the National Council of Churches and held at Riverside Church in NYC to honor and support the Philadelphia ordinations. A  collection was made and sent to Presiding Bishop Allin for the the Presiding Bishops Fund for World Relief. 

Bishop Allin returned the check because of its "tainted" genesis. (You can NOT make this stuff up.)

There's so much more of the story to tell. So much that makes me ashamed of my church. So much that gives me hope for the church.  
 
So much that is the stuff - the good, the bad and the ugly - of the Body of Christ.  
 
As Jack Spong has said, "The church will die of boredom long before it dies of controversy." 
 
But, here's the lesson learned: 'Incarnation beats Idea' any day of the week and twice on Sunday. 

Let me pause and let that sink in: "Incarnation beats Idea". 
Jane Holmes Dixon, Cynthia Black, Mary A.R. MacCloud

After July 29, 1974, ordained women were no longer an abstract idea. 
 
They were a reality. 
 
They were incarnate. 
 
Their "ontological matter" was, in fact, "sufficient" to be an "authentic sacerdotal bearer," because, well, there they were. 
 
Women. And, ordained priests. 

Whatcha gone do now, bro?

Or, as the astute, modern theologian, Woody Allen, once said, "Showing up is 80% of life."
 
I encourage you to read Marge's history of The Caucus. as well as all the many wonderful books that have been written, some by the Philadelphia Eleven themselves. 

I still strongly recommend as an excellent place to start Carter Heyward's, "A Priest Forever" and Alla Bozarth's "Womanpriest."
 
All these books on the ordination of women in The Episcopal Church provide study lessons in religious community organizing which, I think, honors the past and serves the future of this amazing church of ours. 

I write this not just to honor and celebrate The Episcopal Women's Caucus, an organization I was privileged to serve as President/Convener for over a decade, but also because I feel it is more and more imperative that we remember our herstory. 
 
I know. That's probably just the old woman who has quite suddenly (and, without invitation, I might add) taken up residence in my body, talking that mess again. But, I have to admit that I am especially alarmed when I listen to young, newly ordained women who have absolutely no idea about the struggles which allowed the privilege of their status of ordination. 
 
Indeed, as privilege is of't want to do, these women seem completely oblivious to the privilege which is theirs which was hard fought and well won by their sisters.
 
I watch them and I listen to them complain about the flagrant injustices in opportunities and compensation, the insensitivities demonstrated by their bishops and rectors - and the harsh judgements and incessant demands of some of their congregations -  as they try to juggle priesthood and parenthood. 
 
Oh,  hear me clearly: This is not to deny that the struggle is real. It is. Very real.  
 
They complain and seek solace from other clergy, and everyone is empathic and pastoral, but when someone raises the possibility of organizing to change diocesan policy around things like employment, compensation or parenting leave, it stops the conversation immediately. And then, a few months later, someone else posts a complaint and the cycle repeats itself. 
 
Some progress has been made in a few dioceses but the overwhelming status of women in the church is, on average, pretty dismal. Sexism and misogyny continue their powerful presence in our structures and attitudes.
 
I write that even as I celebrate that the church has elected two women to the episcopacy this year alone -  two diocesans, back to back (Spokane and Indianapolis). 

And, and, and... besides the first African American diocesan bishop to be a woman, this is the first time a woman diocesan has been followed by the election of another woman diocesan - the first time that's happened in the church since 1996. (That's 20 years but who's counting?)

That's progress at the top levels of the church.  Which is progress. Undeniably.
 
In my experience (see paragraph above), "trickle down theology" is no more effective than its cousin in economics. That said, I am "a very prisoner of hope" that, as we move past the novelty of "firsts" and even "seconds" and reach a "critical mass" of women in the House of Bishops, the status of women throughout the church will improve.

It's always astounding to me when, at the Booths at General Convention, at least two to three women a day look at the banner proclaiming, "The Episcopal Women's Caucus," and, befuddled and bewildered, ask, "What's that?" 
 
I didn't attend the last General Convention, but I'm told the same thing happened - to the same astonishment of the members of The Caucus. 
 
I actually, physically cringe - because it causes actual emotional, spiritual and physical pain - when I read what some women write in social media. This was posted just the other day about the first African American woman to be elected a Bishop Diocesan, "I just like to see qualified candidates. I don't look so much as to color and gender and race. Those things are divisive." 
 
Le sigh.  See also: The perils of being naive.

The Witch of Endor
I write this, on the occasion of the 45th anniversary of the founding of The Episcopal Women's Caucus to point us to another "nasty woman." 

Tomorrow, October 31st, is the lesser feast of All Hallow's Eve (BCP 106). 
 
In some circles - mostly inhabited by women, it is the even lesser feast of the Witch of Endor.  Indeed, her story (1 Samuel 28:3-25) is included as the first reading of All Hallow's Eve. 

What I love about this story is that it raises lots more than the ghost of Samuel.  Like?  Well, like the fact that misogyny in Endor is as old as the Garden of Eden.
 
Power that can't be controlled must be Evil and if the power of a woman can't be controlled, she must be the embodiment of Evil. The 'woman' of Endor is considered the 'witch' of Endor. 

Women who don't know their place are "uppity".

Women who know how to play political hardball with the big boys are "nasty" and have "so much hate in their heart" they should "lock her up" and any contribution she could make must be "tainted."
 
As we head into this sacred time of facing into what scares and frightens us as we prepare to remember the dead, I ask that you hit the 'pause' button in your life to remember the women.
Remember them and give thanks for all the women / witches in your life and our lives of faith: The Witch of Eden. The Witch of Endor. The Witch of Bethlehem (who had to become a Virgin for her story to be heard and believed!!!). The 60 Witches of The Caucus. The 11 Witches of Philadelphia. The four Witches of Washington. 

Remember that, without a woman named Mary of Bethlehem, God could not have achieved God's greatest creation in the sacrificial, salvific incarnation of Jesus.

And then, do something bold and brave and risky yourself.
 
Say 'no' to same-old-same-old.
 
Say 'yes' to possibility.
 
Be 'nasty' your very own badself and demand the financial resources which will  enable the people of God to remove walls of ignorance and intolerance and build bridges of knowledge and understanding.

Know that you are standing on a very firm foundation.
 
You are standing on the shoulders of giants who were the 'nasty' women of their day. 

You are held in the arms of some pretty amazing witches.

Now, just hit 'pause' for a moment and let all that sink in.

6 comments:

Linda McMillan said...

Thank you, Elizabeth. I honestly had no idea! You have convinced me that i need to up my game and do some research. I am ashamed to have inherited such a firm foundation without sufficiently appreciating where it came from. This is one of the best essays you've written, and I think one of the most important.
Lindy

Penny said...

I appreciate this very much, but I believe that the newly elected bishop (suffragan) for the Armed Forces, Carl Walter Wright, is a man.
Blessings, Penny Bridges

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Hi, Penny. I'll check that. I thought sure a woman had been appointed. I remember seeing a picture of her with an antique artillery gun. Hmmm . . . .

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thank you, Lindy. I greatly admire your writing so this is a real gift.

Bex said...

The Pope yesterday seemed to rule out women's ordination in the RC church by using the word "never." I believe we've seen this movie before. as Martin Luther King said, "The arc of history is long, but it always bends toward justice." A comment I saw somewhere today echoed that. "The Holy Spirit never says never."

Robin Sumners said...

You continue to be the voice to those who need to know, the voice of those who need courage, and the voice that gives everyone hope. You remind us all that voices can be heard.
Robin Sumners