On July 29, 1974, eleven women deacons in the Episcopal Church were ordained in Philadelphia as priests. This ordination service, performed by four bishops who were retired or had resigned, was denounced as “irregular” and these women became known as the “Philadelphia Eleven.” A firestorm of controversy erupted in the church: charges were filed against these dissident bishops and an emergency meeting of the Episcopal House of Bishops was convened on August 15, 1974. Two years later, on September 16, 1976 the General Convention of the Episcopal Church adopted a resolution to change the church’s canon law to allow the ordination of women to all three orders of ministry (bishop, priest, deacon). Thirty seven years later, it seems hard to imagine why this event caused such a stir in the Episcopal Church. But it was hard for some to imagine a woman celebrating the Eucharist or proclaiming God’s blessing to a congregation. Then in 1988, the diocese of Massachusetts elected the first woman bishop, which caused a stir in the Anglican Communion. But in 2006, the General Convention of the Episcopal Church elected a woman bishop as the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church USA. Episcopal priests, who happen to be women, are serving faithfully throughout the country and the Anglican Communion. This year the diocese of Washington elected a woman priest as the new diocesan Bishop, and on Sat. Dec.10, St. Alban’s had a Celebration of New Ministry to install the first woman rector, the Rev. Deborah Meister. Again, for some, it is another paradigm shift to realize that the diocesan bishop is a woman and our new rector is a woman. I am proud that the Episcopal Church continues to expand its vision and elect leaders, whom God has called to serve, regardless of their gender, physical abilities, ethnic or racial background or sexual orientation. God is continually “making all things new”, and raising up men and women who will lead and reach out to those in need to proclaim the Good News of God in Christ.
This Sun., Dec.18, we will hear the gospel lesson that describes the angel Gabriel’s annunciation to Mary. “The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.” (Luke 1:30-31) Of course Mary was afraid! This was totally unexpected, unimagined and scary. She hadn’t envisioned that her marriage to Joseph would be so complicated, or that she’d have a child by the Holy Spirit, or that she was capable of raising a son to become the savior of the world! God was doing a new thing. Every woman I know who has sensed a call to ordination has had the same trepidations as Mary – How will I serve as both a priest and a wife? How will my children manage with a mother who cares for other people, too? Will the value of my leadership and ministry be diminished because I am a woman? But the angel Gabriel gave Mary a sign to help her accept the mission she was given. Her cousin Elizabeth, who was barren, was also expecting a child. “For with God nothing will be impossible.” Remember that God is always creating and responding to the needs of the world, and will be with us through the struggles and adjustments we make. Whatever challenges you face, or whatever changes you experience in the church, remember Mary’s acceptance and trust in God, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
And what gift from God each of these women–and many more–are to the church. I believe we’re well on the road to gender equality in ECUSA, if not in the Anglican communion. Now let’s also look at inclusive language to broaden our conceptions of God.
In Louie Crew’s, “101 Reasons to be Episcopalian,” he collects many thoughts and ideas. One idea comes to mind, “Pregnant Priests Celebrating.” I know it’s occurred and happens today. I pray to see that visage in living color. My question is: “Does the baby “kick” when the Sanctus bells are rung?”