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Saturday, September 17, 2011

Women at the Altar

Philadelphia, 1974
If a tree falls in the woods and no one hears it, does it still make a sound?

If an historic, revolutionary event takes place and you didn't know about it until after the fact, is it any less historic or revolutionary?

Blessed Louie Crew reminded us that yesterday, the 16th of September, marked the 35th Anniversary of the of the day that the General Convention of the Episcopal Church voted to end discrimination against the ordination of women with a resolution that read:
Resolved, the House of Deputies concurring, That a new Section 1 of
Title III, Canon 9 be adopted, with renumbering of the present Section 1
and following, the said Section 1 to read as follows: Section 1. The
provisions of these canons for the admission of Candidates, and for the
Ordination to the three Orders: Bishops, Priests and Deacons shall be
equally applicable to men and women.
This was, of course, preceded by the historic revolutionary events of the ordination to the priesthood of eleven deacons in Philadelphia in 1974 as well as the ordination of four deacons in Washington, DC, in 1975.

I was a non-practicing Roman Catholic in 1974 - a dutiful young wife with two young children, miserably unhappy with life in general and the church in particular. I loved my babies but I knew my marriage was a sham, although I didn't yet know why, exactly. Yet. That would happen in 1976.

I was received into the Episcopal Church at the Cathedral Church of St. Luke in Portland, ME in 1977. That had nothing to do with sensing a call to ordination and everything to do with feeling fully accepted, welcomed and included in the church.

I would not confront my vocation to the priesthood until September 5, 1982 when I saw the front cover of The New York Times Magazine.

It was the first time I had ever seen a woman in a clerical collar.

There she was, the Rev'd Martha Blacklock, sitting on the front steps of St. Clement's Church, an experimental church-theater on Manhattan's West 46th Street, in her jeans, leather sandals, clergy shirt and collar. Her little dog was at her feet.

I could barely read the story by Mary Knox Barthelme which declared that, at that time, "more than 500 women ordained as Episcopal priests are redefining the church's mission - and their own".

Five hundred? As in 5.0.0? Five.... Hundred? How could that be?

If five hundred women are ordained and one woman doesn't know it, are they still ordained?

I looked at the picture for a long, long time and could feel waves of .... I don't know .... Relief? Acknowledgment? Joy?....sweep over my heart, filling my eyes with tears and spinning my mind out of control with possibilities.

Just then, Ms. Conroy walked into the living room of our home in Portland, ME. I remember it clearly. We had just returned home from church with our eleven children (six of our own - mine, hers and ours - and five foster kids). We had just fed the kids their lunch, I had put a roast in the oven for dinner, and Ms. Conroy had organized the children into afternoon activities.

She had our youngest,who was then about four months old, on her hip. She saw the tears in my eyes, looked at the cover of the magazine, looked back at me and said, "I wondered how long it was going to take you to figure this out."

If a vocation is denied for years, does it mean it didn't exist?

In 1982, I was blissfully unaware of the details and the enormity of the struggle to ordain women in The Episcopal Church.  I soon learned.

When I finally got up the courage to speak with my rector about my sense of vocation ("I think I am....what I mean is I believe.... I mean to say that I'm feeling.... called.... to.... the..... pppppp... I mean (ahem)... ppprrrriesthood"), he began to tell me the story.

From his perspective, it was an awful-wonderful thing. While he was fully supportive, many of his dear friends - male and female, lay and ordained - were not. Still.

Indeed, even the diocesan bishop at the time, one Frederick Barton Wolf, had voted against it in 1976, making an impassioned speech on the floor of the House of Bishops which included the statement, "Just imagine a half-naked woman on a cross. It's obscene!"

I once asked him about that. He shook his head and said, "I was a drunk who was deeply closeted about my alcoholism and sexuality. That's not an excuse. That's just where I was at the time."

I think the church was drunk on patriarchy at the time. We've been sobering up ever since. We're not yet in full recovery, but we'll get there. One day at a time.

Meanwhile, 35 years later, women - and men -  are being ordained, blissfully unaware of the struggles involved in something they now take for granted.

Meanwhile, 35 years later, the vocational path of women to the councils and corridors of power are certainly better but clearly no where near equal to that of men.

If you forget history, are you doomed to repeat it?

In one of Monica Furlong's books, she says that writers and priests are always failures. They're almost supposed to be: 'They are justified only by their powers of being and of seeing.'

If we refuse to acknowledge the equal status of ordained women, does it mean they do not deserve equality?

I had that issue of the NY Times Magazine which contained the cover story about Martha Blacklock framed. It has hung in every church office I've ever occupied ever since. I was delighted to find that article online - complete with pictures - and was even more delighted to read it again.

The Rev. Martha Blacklock meditates in a small chapel at St. Clement's
Here's the same snippet that caught my eye then and catches my heart again today:
(After tending to some scheduling difficulties between the theater group that used St. Clement's Church)"...Miss Blacklock leaned forward and said: "I'm interested in something that enables a person to get a taste of what is traditionally called the communion of God, that conveys the fact that reality is something upon which you can base hope. I'm trying to suggest the existence of the possibility of redemption. This is what liturgy is about, and could be what theater's about. The word 'gospel' means good news and it's the church's job to go out and spread the news. We don't have to be God's Spirit , we just have to be the body that makes sure the church is here. Through it, God will act or reveal Himself.”
That's as true as it was in the early church as it is for us in today's church.

If no one is the body that makes sure the church is here, will it continue to exist?

If no one spreads the Good News in new and different ways, will it continue to be heard?

If no one marks anniversaries of revolutionary, historic events, will they be remembered?

If no one continues the revolution, will the evolution of the Gospel and the revelation of God continue?

I don't know, you tell me.


Jane Ellen+ said...

I did not recall the anniversary date, but there are things I do remember....

I remember serving as an acolyte: a radical new innovation, so much so that girls were permitted only on a limited basis-- never as crucifer or thurifer.

I remember overhearing horrified altar guild conversations in whispered tones in the sacristy ("but what if she's... you know... That Time of the Month!!").

I remember writing a paper on the subject for my high school English class, and my (male) teacher's raised eyebrows.

I remember my childhood bishop - the Rt. Rev. William C. R. Sheridan - being wholly opposed, a signer of a document that women would never be ordained during his tenure. They weren't.

But I also remember the moment when a woman was presented for ordination to the priesthood... and the then-retired Bp. Sheridan not only attended, but quietly came forward to join in the laying on of hands.

And I remember my own stuttering conversation with a bishop, when the holy 2x4 of God's call could no longer be ignored or set aside. And receiving support and encouragement and challenge to godly listening that differed in no way from my male colleagues.

So I would answer that even if the date be unremarked and unremembered, the evolution (or the Spirit's work, or the inbreaking of the Kingdom, or whatever you care to call it) continues. Thanks be to God.

All Saints Church, Pasadena said...


it's margaret said...

I remember. I remember the day the women were ordained --and it was like lightening hit me, top to bottom --a new life. Affirmation.

And then it all got worse and worse. It got so bad I left church entirely for a few years --a decade.

And, I weep now to read your thoughts --we still have so far --soooooo far to go. I watch women and men in ministry in the church and I see such conscious and unconscious discrimination it makes me shudder and grieve.

But, we know... we. know.

And, there is no time or place the gospel is not incarnate. Of that, I am sure. And only those who have eyes to see and ears to hear will see and hear and know. That's all!

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Jane Ellen+ - We all have so many very clear memories, even if the anniversary date passes us by. I think that matters even more than the date of the anniversary.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

ASP - Thanks!

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Yes, Margaret, we most certainly do. I'm glad I've got sisters like you to travel the rest of the stoney road we trod.

Dom said...

Thanks for the nice post. It seems to me that women still have a way to go to reach equality. I am somewhat saddened by the relatively low percentage of woman priests and rectors here in Austin, TX. And since Austin is a relatively progressive place (at least by the very conservative standards of Texas), I suspect the situation is worse in more conservative areas. Hopefully progress will continue.

Matthew said...

I apologize for the tone of my last comment.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Matthew - I'm not sure about your last post but if you feel an apology is necessary, apology accepted.

Turtle Woman said...

I well remember that historic day eons ago. It's when I first heard of Carter Heyward... I remember just loving the name "Carter" as a woman's first name... it sounded so "authoritative and powerful." And years later, I was lucky enough to meet and talk to her many times...including our national events at Christian Lesbians Out Together CLOUT. There were lesbians in that first group of ordained priests, and now we're getting a couple of lesbian bishops as well! It's all great, except sadly, I just can't stand being in churches with men in them at all. I wish our women priests would develop services for large groups of lesbians in major cities.
Imagine a high mass with a lesbian bishop presiding, with an all woman congregation of say 500! I'm just putting this wish out in the universe. Lesbians need to be served in a big way, where we fill up a cathedral! I'd come back for that!

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

You know what, Turtle Woman? I think your idea of a Lesbian Mass is actually one that could have some traction. I don't know if Bishop Mary Glasspool would agree, but I think it's worth beginning the conversation.

zenpooh01 said...

Yes please.

zenpooh01 said...