Updated July 31 to add more quotations from the anniversary celebrations. —Ed.
By the Rev. Elizabeth Eisenstadt Evans
At the 40th anniversary of the Philadelphia 11’s ordinations to the priesthood, ordained and lay women leaders celebrated the milestone, while also urging participants to be active in confronting other areas in which they felt injustice still prevailed. Their concerns included income disparities between ordained men and women, a lack of opportunities for women to advance as leaders, discrimination based on sexual identity, and racial inequities, which some speakers felt had been left unaddressed in the wake of the historic ordinations.
The daylong celebration on July 26 featured a symposium at Temple University and a Eucharist at the historic Church of the Advocate, site of the ordinations in 1974.
Although participants were mostly middle-aged and older, the event included a sprinkling of younger clergy, laypeople, and a few infants and toddlers. The gathering was billed as a celebration of the ministry of all women in the Church.
Giving the keynote address at the morning’s symposium, retired Episcopal Divinity School historian and theologian Fredrica Harris Thompsett invited participants to turn to their neighbors and recall a personal “first” in their own lives.
“You intervene in history to make even more history,” she said. “You look backward in order to move forward. … This celebration should not be honored by excluding others.”
She challenged Episcopalians to focus on the centrality of baptism as the main prerequisite for ministry (“We all share the work of the healer, the teacher, the prophet”), to “claim our bodies as sacred vehicles of spiritual authority,” and to address church authority by working to combat sexism and discrimination in clergy searches and substantially raise the number of women in the House of Bishops.
Harris Thompsett’s address was followed by a panel of lay and ordained women, including the Rt. Rev. Carol Gallagher, clinical psychologist and deacon Pamela Nesbit, the Rev. Sandye Wilson, social worker and educator Nokomis Wood, and the Rev. Miguelina Howell, a native of the Dominican Republic who is vicar of Christ Church Cathedral in Hartford, Connecticut. The Very Rev. Katherine Ragsdale, dean and president of Episcopal Divinity School, moderated the panel.
Deacons are called to express a vocation common to everyone in baptism, as leaders of the diakonia or work of the Church, said Nesbit, who added that the reality of the diaconate “was sometimes a strange one.” Acknowledging that relationships with priests, including her sister clergy, were not always comfortable, Nesbit said she was offering “a word of love and of challenge.”
The “ordination that we all share is really the most important one,” Wood said. She attended the service in 1974 as a neighbor and friend of the Rev. Suzanne Hiatt, who died in 2002. Wood was not jubilant at that service; instead, she feared that the civil rights struggle would be eclipsed by the debate on women in the priesthood. “The Episcopal Church was just beginning to talk about racial equity and racial justice,” Wood said. “The conversation about women’s ordination just allowed [the church] to put it back further.”
After the panel discussion, Wood amplified her remarks. “I thought the issue of women’s ordination derailed the issue of race and vocation,” she said. “They have continued to be parallel conversations, but they haven’t had equal value. … It can’t be either/or. People of color will remain people of color.
“The church would be better served not to chase popular culture as it tries to address the evils shown in our society, but to hold fast to what our church believes we are called” to do, she said.
Wilson echoed Wood’s comments, saying she was “ordained in a very white church” in 1981. “It’s still a very white church.” Noting an “intersection of oppressions,” she added: “Friends, we have to name these things, because if we don’t name them we will repeat them.”
While the occasion was a celebration of diversity, Ragsdale said, she also heard in the remarks made by panel participants “the infuriating reality of how far we still have to go.”
Randy Johnson, administrator for ministries in the Diocese of Newark, attended the event with his partner, who is in discerning a possible call to ordination. “The work is not over,” he said. “It’s still a male-oriented church, and God is not male.”
The symposium ended with a meditation by the Rev. Nancy Wittig, one of the Philadelphia 11.
In the afternoon, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori spoke before a responsive congregation of approximately 600 by pondering the differences women bring to ministry, including footwear.
“Moses took his shoes off when he stood on holy ground; I think Miriam probably put on her high-heeled sandals when she danced and sang her song of liberation,” she said.
“Women in all orders of ministry — baptized, deacons, priests, and bishops — can walk proudly today, in whatever kind of shoes they want to wear, because of what happened here 40 years ago. We can walk proudly, even if not yet in full equality, knowing that the ranks of those who walk in solidarity are expanding. Wisdom is afoot everywhere, freeing her people from oppressors, and she enters all sorts and conditions of human beings bound for the glory of justice and peace. Together, we are marching upward to Zion.”
The 1974 ordinations, which occurred before the Episcopal Church’s canons permitted women in the priesthood, were swiftly followed by charges against the participating bishops, an emergency meeting of the House of Bishops, and attempts to prevent the 11 women from exercising priestly ministry. But the 1976 General Convention changed the ordination canons, making them equally applicable to men and to women.
Gina Zinda, a former Congregationalist minister who is now an Episcopalian, wore red shoes in honor of the Philadelphia 11. “The message overall was We’ve come a long way, baby, but we’re not there yet,” said Zinda, who attended with her 16-month-old son.
“Most people were really quite delighted,” she added, noting that pervasive change can take a long time.
In 2012, according to figures kept by the Church Pension Fund, women comprised approximately a third of employed priests in the Episcopal Church.