A CLOUD OF WITNESSES
By THE REV. MARY GLOVER
Many are familiar with the phrase that “it takes a village to raise a child.” I’d suggest the same is true when it comes to raising a priest and I’d like to honor the women – those I never met and those I know – who paved the path toward my own priesthood. Rather than a village, though, I describe them with a phrase that comes from the church. They are, and I am among, “a mighty cloud of witnesses.”
It can be daunting and disruptive to sense and pursue a call to the priesthood. But, it’s humbling and reassuring to know that, once that title is conferred, dozens of men and women have actively guided, encouraged, and helped discern the way along that path. My ordination is in The Episcopal Church, the American branch of the worldwide Anglican (Church of England) Communion. In its long history, the ministry of female priests is still young. But it’s due to the efforts of many, many women and decade after decade of talk, talk, talk, and finally action.
A little history. In the 1880s, several “deaconesses” were approved for service in the church, but the U.S. General Convention made clear, as late as 1919, that they were installed, not ordained, and were not “clergy.” The Lambeth Conference – a meeting of world-wide Bishops every ten years in England – early conferred the status of ‘clergy’ for deaconesses, but back-tracked that definition in 1930. So the bumpy road toward fully ordained ministry for women continued. A milestone event became necessary because of the Japanese capture of Hong Kong during World War II. Florence Tim-Oi, already serving as a deaconess, took over the work of area priests who had been restricted from travel. In recognition of her work and calling, the Hong Kong Bishop ordained her as priest – the first in the Anglican Communion – in 1944, but her official status remained uncertain. After a suspension of her service after the war, she eventually resumed her role as priest in 1979 and moved to join family in Toronto, Canada, where she served until her death. She is celebrated in the Episcopal Church annually on January 24th.
Despite Tim-Oi’s ordination in the ‘40s, official approval of women as ordained priests remained stalled for the next several decades. The 1973 General Convention considered, but rejected, the question. Within a year, the House of Bishops recommended approval, but resolved to wait until General Convention as a whole approved it. The next gathering would not be until 1976. Recognizing that actions speak louder than more years of words, on July 29, 1974, in a service attended by over 2,000 people, four Bishops ordained eleven women as priests at Church of the Advocate in Philadelphia. These women – Merrill, Alla, Allison, Emily, Carter, Suzanne, Marie, Jeannette, Betty, Katrina, Nancy – are still known and celebrated as the “Philadelphia Eleven.”
Censure and various punishments for the ordaining Bishops followed, but that did not dissuade another Bishop from ordaining the “Washington Four” – Lee, Allison, Betty, and Diane – on September 7, 1975. The ordinations of all these women were deemed “irregular” and invalid, but the actions certainly led to the debates and actions of the next General Convention in 1976. Over 50 resolutions regarding women’s ordination were brought forward and after debate, silence, and prayer, official approval was reached… by majority vote in the House of Deputies and nearly unanimous approval in the House of Bishops. At last, the official date for approved women’s ordination in the Episcopal Church was fixed as January 1, 1977. By action of the Bishops, the ordinations of the women ordained prior to that date were ‘regularized’ and then in 1977 over 100 more women were ordained as priests in the Episcopal Church.* Despite the official date of January 1, 1977, there are many who still celebrate July 29, 1974, as the true anniversary of women’s ordination in The Episcopal Church.
All of those actions – the century of uncertainly, rebellion, and persistence – are the backdrop of my own journey. When I entered Seminary in 1998, I was one of ten women in my class who would receive Masters of Divinity and later become priests. Most left behind professional careers – from pharmacist, attorney, art curator, to entomologist – to follow this calling in the church. At 42, I was the third youngest woman in the class. The two younger, Lisa and Rhoda, became consistent study mates, meal companions, and dear friends. (We were known on campus as “the trinity.”) Later, we each had a role in the others’ ordinations, as well as one wedding and the baptism of another’s child. It’s significant that the classmates older than me were not generally called to ministry later in life, but were among the many women who – had they pursued ministry after college or as a first vocation – would not have been eligible or accepted for ordination by their church. But, because of Tim-Oi, the Eleven, and the Four, and a half a generation of women who preceded us, that had changed and we were now welcomed, nurtured, and encouraged in our study and preparation for ministry. Each of my women classmates and ‘fellow’ priests – Susan, Teresa, Gail, Maureen, Posy, Lisa, Margaret, Rhoda, and Joyce – played a part in my story and a role in the church’s history. A number of these women represented “firsts” for their local churches or geographical dioceses. A Mighty Cloud. Two of those dear classmates have died, one or two have retired, but the others continue faithful ministries in their local parishes.
Our education itself was enriched by women professors, each of whom were also ordained Episcopal priests. Like Susan, our Ethics professor, Flora, who taught Systematic Theology, was the first woman to hold that position at the Seminary. Her own story captured a bit of the timeline for women’s ordination. She graduated from Seminary before women’s ordination had been fully recognized. At least one of her male classmates pledged to postpone his own ordination until she could receive hers. Cynthia, our New Testament professor, had graduated after ordination was approved but early enough that one noted Christian author made a point of attending her celebration because he “hadn’t seen a woman ordained before.” Cynthia remains at the Seminary, but is now the Dean and President, the first woman to hold those titles. All were mentors, friends, and colleagues, but also pioneers in the journey.
I have to recognize Amy, too, a graduate before me and staff chaplain at an Austin hospital. When hired, the secretary asked how her name tag should read, and Amy inquired how they had addressed their former chaplain. “Father John” was the reply and she said “that’ll do.” So, “Father Amy” it was! Over the years, I’ve answered to “Father Mary” from kids at summer camp and quite a number of church folk. One of my favorite encounters was with an older gentleman, a custodian, at Hendrick Medical Center. We were sharing an elevator, I had on my collar, and he asked: “are you a sister [a nun] or a father?” “I’m a Father,” I was delighted to say. And, by authority of the church, and through the persistence and devotion of that great cloud of witnesses, I am Mother, too. But, I must confess, Mother Mary is not the title I prefer… best leave that one for Paul McCartney’s wise mum.
I conclude with Liz. She was the first woman priest at my local church and the first that I spent hours talking to, praying with, and learning from. After several years – she had moved by then – I told her that I sensed a call to ministry. She said something to the effect: “well, woe to you [it’s disruptive, remember], but greater woe to one who senses it but doesn’t follow.” I followed. And, about six years later, it was Liz who placed my priest’s stole around my neck at ordination, with a bit more whispered advice. I thank all of these women, I celebrate their role in the history of the church, and I’m humbled to be a part of so great a cloud of witnesses. There are some, of course, who still object or reject the role of women clergy, but I’ll just offer the patient words of wisdom of mother Mary… “let it be.”
*[The full time-line and more about Florence Tim-Oi is found at on Episcopal News Service at http://episcopaldigitalnetwork.com/docs/timelines/women-ordination.]
The Rev. Mary Glover is rector of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church.