On this day the Lord has acted;We will rejoice and be glad in it! (Ps. 118:24)
I imagine these words are on the lips of many in the Episcopal Church today as we commemorate this date in history, forty years ago, when three male bishops from the United States, joined by the bishop of Costa Rica, laid hands on eleven women and ordained them into the sacred order of priests. It was the first time the church had allowed women to be part of the sacramental priesthood since a bishop in Asia made Florence Li Tim-Oi a priest in the 1940s. The Anglican Communion quashed her ability to function as a priest, but Rev. Li Tim-Oi never renounced her orders.
This act, denounced at the time as "irregular," is now quite common throughout the Episcopal Church. The Church's General Convention in 1976 agreed it was time to recognize not only the Philadelphia Eleven, and the Washington Four that followed the next year; it was time for the Church to get on with accepting that God calls whoever God wants into the role of a sacramental priest, most especially the least likely characters. At that time, it was women. In recent times, it is members of the lesbian and gay and transgender communities.
To read a wonderful, personal reflection on this historic event, I direct you to "Telling Secrets" to read Elizabeth Kaeton's sermon from this past Sunday.
I was too young to have a definitive memory of this momentous occasion in the church. I hadn't quite reached first grade yet. But I do remember that not too long afterwards, sometime around 1979, Christ Church in Exeter called the Rev. Fran Potter to be our deacon. And I was in awe to see a woman standing in the front of the church in an alb. I remember secretly praying at her inaugural service that everything would go well for her. I realized there were rumblings among some of the older members, and no doubt my brother, that we were participating in some "experiment" by having a female deacon. But it was an experiment that said to me, and likely every girl sitting in the pews on Sundays, "The kingdom of heaven includes you, too!" I now had a sister-in-Christ-and-in-arms in my own effort to bust the gender norms of the church. I had already wrecked the convention of casting girls as angels and boys as shepherds in the Christmas pageant.
"I want to play a shepherd," I told the pageant director.
"But, Susie, little girls are angels. Little boys are shepherds."
"Well, then, I want to be a shepherdess!"
Worn out from arguing with a child, I was allowed to don a robe and a head dress and played a shepherdess. I knew I could do it. They were supposed to be afraid of the angel Gabriel, and I could shiver and quiver better than any of the boys.
That same time of the arrival of Deacon Potter, I pressed to become an acolyte. Our rector insisted that I had to be confirmed first.
"Why?" I demanded.
(This didn't go over well. Children were never to ask the rector questions). He kept giving me excuses and pats on the head, and telling me I'd have to wait. But I kept saying that I wanted to do this now, and that I shouldn't have to wait until I was confirmed.
And, just like my insistence years earlier that I wanted to be a shepherd, my rector agreed to let me be trained to be an acolyte. It was only later, when I had left and gone to college after serving for seven years along side the priests at Christ Church, that my rector confided to my mother that allowing me to be an acolyte at that time was one of his best decisions. He was taking a lot of flack from people about women in the priesthood, women serving at the altar, women being front and center as part of the sacramental life of the church.
"Well, what about Judge Gage's daughter?" he would ask. "Should she be allowed to assist with the setting of the Lord's Table?"
That would usually end the discussion because most of the older and more staid members of our congregation loved to watch me at the altar, lighting or extinguishing the candles, bringing the cruets of wine and water to the priest. I made these members feel as if they were in a cathedral in a big city instead of our little low Protestant Episcopal Church on Pine Street. I was one of these kids who didn't shuffle my feet as I walked. I was precise and reverent. If only they knew that I was cracking jokes as I handed the elements to the priest as the altar was being set!
What they did know was that I was acceptable... even as a girl with long hair... as someone who was performing a sacramental role in the service. And if they could agree that "Judge Gage's daughter was OK," they very quickly understood that anybody's daughter was truly God's daughter... especially the ones who had been ordained. Without knowing it, I had helped the rector make the case for women priests to the reticent and grumpy ones in our congregation.
I titled this entry "Mary, Martha, Lazarus and the Philadelphia Eleven." Today, in the church calendar, the "official" saints of the day are the two sisters and their brother from Bethany. One could celebrate their day with their readings... or one could use alternate readings set out for this anniversary of the first eleven women ordained in the Episcopal Church. Interestingly, the Gospel lesson pulled for that recognition is from Luke 10, the story of Mary sitting at Jesus' feet as Martha rushes around and finally demands that Jesus tell Mary to get up and help her in the kitchen. Jesus gently reminds Martha that "Mary has chosen the better part." This is often seen as Jesus lending weight and credence to those who engage with Him in a contemplative, rather than an active, prayer life. But, as I have said in other postings, I think we have to be careful to not put too much emphasis on one form of prayer or the other being "better than."
We need both Mary energy and Martha energy in our lives. And we need Lazarus, too, who is absent from this particular reading, but probably was in the background allowing Luke to give women center stage in a gospel story. I think this story is a good one to use with the remembrance of the courageous act done out of obedience to Love back in 1974. Certainly the women who took part had spent many hours figuratively sitting at the foot of the Savior and inquiring much of what they should do with the inner stirrings of their hearts. And finally it took taking an action to answer the call, an action which required the aid of men willing to defy the orders of then Presiding Bishop John Allin not to do it, to make this happen and move the church forward. Fitting that the collect for Mary, Martha, and Lazarus reads:
Generous God, whose Son Jesus Christ enjoyed the friendship and hospitality of Mary, Martha and Lazarus of Bethany: Open our hearts to love you, our ears to hear you, and our hands to welcome and serve you in others, through Jesus Christ our risen Lord; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
What those women did in 1974 was to be the visible sign to all of the generous nature of God, and to open more hearts, ears and hands to enter into the service of Christ to the world. Let us rejoice and be glad in it!