Thursday, July 29, 2010

Where Were You on July 29, 1974?

A question has arisen on HOB/D as to where people were on the day of the first ordinations of women. It is interesting that some posting there were not even born yet. Most of my Episcopal friends can remember the event, but after all I am 60+. Like the day when JFK was shot, or MLK was shot, those ordained women of a certain age remember this day as a milestone in their journey. Our lives have not been the same because of that day.

I remember not the day itself but I remember the day after when the Philadelphia ordinations were reported in the news paper. I was a novice in a Roman Catholic convent outside of St. Louis. You can imagine what the conversation in the community room was that Sunday afternoon! Needless to say the opinions ranged from total rejection to total and unequivocal support. But it was the discussion of what the priesthood was that continued for months following that was important. And I believe that it is that conversation that still continues in Roman Catholicism, TEC and all churches because of July 29, 1974.

What was interesting was that one of our community had been interviewed by the local newspaper revealing that she felt called to the priesthood. Some of the sisters considered it “bad form” to speak of such things when it was not possible in the RCC. They did not question her vocation, they just thought being visible was wrong. For others in the group, it made us challenge our own vocations. What did it mean to be a religious? What did it mean to serve the Church? What did it mean to serve God? What did it mean for women to think of themselves as having parity with men? What was the priesthood anyway? What did it mean to be a sacramental presence in the community of the faithful? These women, most of the professed, had served as teachers or principals of schools in parishes where they had had to work with male priests. They knew these men were not holier than they. They knew they were better educated than most parish priests. And most of them had far better teaching, administrative and pastoral skills and left the priests in their parishes in the dust. But I never saw disrespect for the clergy. And like wives of men who are not especially talented, they mostly functioned as helpmeets to them.

Those were heady days. I know that the Philadelphia ordinations began me thinking of what my vocation really was. I knew I was called by God, but all the baptized were called by God. My vocation was not a calling to teach or even be a missionary: the first understanding of my vocation. But each time I attended Eucharist, I knew that my life centered on that act. I would watch each action; meditate on each word spoken at the altar. It was there my day began and in the darkness of the chapel each day it ended in the single flame of the altar light.

I left the convent in 1975. I loved the community and still do. I loved the women who belonged to it. But I did not belong there. The regimen was not difficult; the rules were not abusive. I loved being a part of the liturgical movement of life that religious life portrayed. But religious life is a sub-culture and I did not belong to it. I belonged to parish life. I belonged to the altar that stood among the lives of people who came from their daily lives each week thirsting for a touch with the Holy.

The Philadelphia Ordinations began a process in which the Church opened the door to ask “What is a priest?” Vatican II had done some of that in the early 1960’s, but the ’74 ordinations didn’t ask questions. They made real what had been mere speculation. There was to be no more study, they said. Those who accepted that women were equal to men accepted it. Those who could not, didn’t.

A female colleague recently said that she wished that the Philadelphia group hadn’t done what they did because it makes it impossible to say to current dissadents "well, we obeyed the canons so now you must too". I know that is a wonderful “what if.” But I truly believe that the ’77 ordinations would not have happened without the “clerical disobedience” that happened 36 years ago. Like the LGBT issues that have been debated for 40 years or more, I believe we would never have adopted women’s ordination at GC1976. And without Women’s Ordination, the LGBT issues would never have been addressed. Law never really addresses changes until there is revolution. The consecrations of +Gene Robinson and +Mary Glasspool are to be seen in that light.

What does surprise me is the fear of someone of the caliber of the Archbishop of Canterbury of women bishops. The loss of the adamant those who cannot abide the authority of women in the C of E is not a loss any more than the loss of the Ikerites, Schofieldites, or Duncanites. Men who are incapable of dreaming of a Church in which there is no ‘slave or free, male or female, Greek or Jew’ (and might I add, ‘queer or straight’) cannot serve the Church of the Third Millennium. Inequality cannot be a sign of God’s Good News.

But one thing continues to worry me. What is to be the future image of ordained ministry in the Church? One of the concerns I have is that many who present themselves for ordained ministry to the Church continue to image the priesthood as the leader of large congregations. They have come to understand the priesthood as a privileged class of leaders rather than servants of the Church. They have taken on the trappings of a “profession” rather than a ministry. Granted, even when I attended seminary, the image of the “professional” was paramount —the professional counselor, the academic and scholar, the corporate and capable administrator was what everyone strove for. The thorough grounding in the liturgy was offered but did not always create the community that Christianity offers. Consequently many of the baby-boomers who now run our Church have no idea of the kind of Christian community that they are called to serve and create. We often make the role of bishop the kind of climb to the top analogous of CEO’s rather than a unique ministry of the Church to foster collegiality and Christian community.

If the emerging church or what is going to serve humanity as the locus for its quest for the Holy, we must be willing to look clearly at what the role of the priesthood is. If we do not, we will continue to try to provide leaders for those who do not wish to be led. We will need to figure out what we believe it means to have God Incarnate in our midst and how we are going to sign that presence for ourselves and for others. This kind of discussion must be in our vestry meetings and in our living rooms, over our GnT’s or our Martinis, at coffee hour and in Sunday school classes. And MOST of all, in our confirmation classes.

 I give thanks to all those women who served the Church for the sake of us all--those who formulated and acted on the question that is still with us.  So where were you on July 29th, 1974 and how has it changed your life?  And what does it mean for the future?


Mary Beth said...

Interesting, this. I wrote about it at my place.

Mary Beth said...

I linked to this at my place, where I reflected on same. Hope that is okay. :)

Muthah+ said...

Not a problem! Even though you are a mere puppy (ahem!)it is facinating how you understood what women's ordination would be at an early age.

Mompriest said...

Sometimes, as with the 11 and with some other more current issues/events we need to allow the Holy SPirit (and I do believe she is at work in this)to move in and through us. Often our efforts to keep things as they are end up being efforts that contain the HS - at for a time until she finds other ways to speak and move.

ANyway, I appreciate this reflection. In 1974 I was a dechurched 17 year old heading off to college..and I have absolutely no memory of it. I love hearing about it through your experience.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks for this reflection, Muthah+. I hope someone will keep records of all of the wonderful memories.

Erika Baker said...

"And I believe that it is that conversation that still continues in Roman Catholicism, TEC and all churches because of July 29, 1974."

Maybe in the US. My Lutheran church in Germany ordained the first woman priest in 1968, and as the country was then evenly split between Lutherans and Catholics, the conversation in the RC church in Europe at least dates back a little earlier than maybe that in the US.