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Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Philadelphia Eleven: A Herstory of Women and Ants

It seems like only yesterday.

It was, in fact, July 29, 1974.

Which makes today the 34th Anniversary of the “Philadelphia Eleven” – the eleven brave women who were, the church would come to say, “irregularly ordained” by four courageous bishops.

The so-called irregularity resulted from the fact that although there was no specific canon that specifically prohibited ordaining women to the priesthood, the canons required a recommendation from the standing committee. The eleven women who were ordained that historic morning in July did not have such recommendation.

On August 15, 1974, the House of Bishops, called to an emergency meeting, denounced the ordinations and declared them invalid. Charges were filed against the bishops who ordained the women and attempts were made to prevent the women from serving their priestly ministries.

In September 1976, the General Convention of the Episcopal Church approved the ordination of women to the priesthood and episcopate.

Anything sound even vaguely familiar here? In the midst of the Lambeth Conference, I am feeling like it is "deja vu all over again."

It reminds me of a story by a woman who was one of a long line of people who struggled in the second half of the eighteen hundreds in South Africa that women and blacks might eventually be treated as children of God. You have probably never heard her name but she is part of the long line that led to Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu. This is a story of God as told by Olive Schreiner of South Africa.

A woman on a journey asks, "Why do I go to this far land where no one else has gone before? I am alone, utterly alone. My efforts seem so futile. Who am I to change anything, to make any kind of difference?"

A wise old one, who stood close by, bid her to be silent and to listen to what she heard. She listened intently and finally said, "I hear the sound of feet, of a thousand times ten thousand feet that beat their way." The wise one said "They are the feet of those who shall follow you. Lead on. Go into the new land. Go directly to the water's edge. Where you stand now the ground will be beaten flat by thousands upon thousands feet."

She said, "How will I cross the stream?"

The wise one said, "Have you seen the locust how they cross the stream? First one comes down to the water's edge and it is swept away, an then another comes and another. At last with their bodies piled up, one on the other, a bridge is built that the rest pass over."

She said, "But, of those that came first, some are swept away and are heard of no more; their bodies do not even build a bridge."

“Yes,” the wise one responded, "Yes, and are swept away and are heard of no more. And, what of that?"

"And, what of that?" she echoed in amazement.

"They make a path to the water's edge." the wise one answered.

"And, over the bridge which shall be built of our bodies who will pass?", she asked.

The response of the wise one was: "The entire human race!"

And, the woman grasped her staff and turned down the path toward the water.

This is a story of God.

Let us sing the praises of our brave "ant-ies" on whose backs we all stand, forming a bridge as the pathway to the liberation promised in Christ Jesus.

Philadelphia 11 are:

Merrill Bittner
Alison Cheek
Alla Bozarth (Campell)
Emily C Hewitt
I. Carter Heyward
Suzanne R. Hiatt (deceased 2002)
Marie Moorefield
Jeanette Piccard (deceased 1981)
Betty Bone Schiess
Katrina Welles Swanson (deceased 2006)
Nancy Hatch Witting

Ordaining Bishops:
Daniel Corrigan
Robert L DeWitt
Edward R Welles
Assisting: Antonio Ramos


liturgy said...

Always cool to visit here, thanks.
Hope you'll pop back to my place
and consider linking.
Let me know.

Bill said...

Being a slave to tradition never changes until somebody takes a chance along with a tremendous leap of faith. We’ve seen it time and time again; from the Founding Fathers of American Revolution, to Abraham Lincoln, to the Gandhi, to Martin Luther King, to the Philadelphia Eleven and on and on. Nothing of social significance which upsets the “status quo” of power, ever goes gentle into that good night.

We should never be complacent. We should never be lax in our vigilance. We should never assume that somebody or some group isn’t trying to undo what has been done. Given half the chance they would throw women out of the clergy, ban and criminalize homosexuality, and bring back slavery. Far fetched you think, than re-read your history. There is nothing done which cannot be undone.

Kirkepiscatoid said...

Even as a latecomer to TEC, I know a little of the story b/c my own vicar delayed his ordination until the "women's ordination thing" got cleared up. He could not, in good conscience, be ordained when his female seminary colleagues could not.

I keep remembering that when he slips and goes "old school" and always asks a female to be in charge of the food at an event (wink)....It's the big things that matter, not the little ones!

it's margaret said...

thank you for this. My assistant, the Rev. Edgar Adams was present at this ordination. I asked him to tell me of it just a few weeks ago. Even now, it brings a thrill. I remember receiving the news of the ordinations --so affirming --it was like layers of rotten clothes had been taken off my shoulders (I had not been allowed to be an acolyte because I was a girl).

Yes, this story is awfully familiar. We must not give in. Not now. Not ever.

Muthah+ said...

Thanks for remembering. More than any one thing that has upset the apple cart of the church in the past 30+ years it was this event. The one thing that helped was that there was 11 of them. +Gene is only one/\.

Unknown said...

July 29 is the anniversary of my own ordination to the priesthood. I was fortunate to be educated by several of the Philadelphia 11. As a cleric who is gay I know that my own vocation is a direct result of theirs. I am proud and humbled to share the date with them. I can only hope to be gifted with a small portion of their courage.

Lisa Fox said...

Thanks for marking the date, Elizabeth. It's on my personal calendar, but I failed to write about it. :(

You can blame one of "The Eleven" for bringing me into the Episcopal Church. While I wandered, seeking a spiritual life but abused by the church, she gently introduced me to TEC's way of being church and following Christ. I will never cease in my gratitude.