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Toward Columbus: Women's ordination marks 30-year milestone
Debate changed face of church

By Mary Frances Schjonberg
4/21/2006
[Episcopal News Service]  Thirty years ago this spring the Episcopal Church approached the 65th General Convention with much trepidation -- and some wondering what the church would look like when the gathering adjourned.

As the church heads toward the 75th General Convention in Columbus, Ohio, June 13-21, the ordination of women is widely -- but not universally -- accepted. Yet predictions of a church torn apart did not fully materialize. 

Although some left the Episcopal Church over the issue, many observers feel that others joined because of the inclusion of women in all orders of ministry.

An entire generation, both in chronological age and in terms of their membership in the Episcopal Church, has known nothing but a church in which women serve as priests.

"I can go through a whole year now with nobody having a problem that I'm a priest," the Rev. Carol Chamberlain of Philadelphia, one of dozens of women ordained to the priesthood in January 1977, said five years ago (in a story at www.episcopalchurch.org/41685_3309_ENG_HTM.htm).

"I'm proud of our church. We've come a long way. We've led the way. Wonderful ministry is being done around the country by ordained women and men working together."

In the fall of 2005, among 16,523 Episcopal clergy, there were 4,607 women priests with 2,033 actively employed, 332 retired and 913 considered inactive because they are not working in organizations who contribute on their behalf to the Church Pension Fund. There are 1,329 women deacons. Of the church's 292 bishops, 12 are women.

Many, if not most, in the church have "come to the conclusion that there is a rich diversity brought by women to the church," said the Rev. Margaret Rose, director of the church's Office of Women's Ministries.

Rose suggested that women, both lay and ordained, are continually changing the Episcopal Church by "the way in which they exercise ministry in a hierarchical church." She said that women have a relational style of ministry to the church. "I think the whole church is richer for it," she said.

The same convention that opened the priesthood and the episcopate to women also took the first step toward approving a revision of the Book of Common Prayer that emphasized baptism as the call to ministry for all people. The church has been living into an understanding of its Baptismal Covenant, unique in the Anglican Communion, ever since.

"Inch by inch," women's ministry is showing the church that the Gospel is about relationships, not hierarchical power, Rose contended. She said women deal with many issues at the same time, are concerned about the wisdom of both human bodies and of the Body of Christ, and bring the needs of those on the margins into the center of the church's work.

Women want to focus more on the question of "whether we love each other, not whether we are right or wrong," she said. That approach can push the church to be a more outward-looking and caring church where people who are crying out for healing can be embraced, she said.

An underlying issue in the debate before and during the 1976 General Convention was whether or not the sacramental ministry needs to include both sexes in order to represent all of humanity fully. Opponents of women's ordination said that the tradition of an all-male priesthood had its origin in the commissioning of the apostles by Jesus and that an all-male priesthood adequately represented the whole of humanity throughout the history of the Church. Proponents said that the past nature of the priesthood had been largely a matter of cultural conditions which have now changed, and to uphold an all-male priesthood denied half the human race full access to the Body of Christ.

Rose said her experience on a mission trip many years ago to the Seychelle Islands taught her something new about how the presence of women priests would change the church. Many of the women she encountered on the trip wanted to talk about divorce, domestic abuse and other relationship issues.

"It brought out into the open the ways in which the church has been pretty repressive" in its response to those sorts of concerns, she said. With the image of women at the altar, women could begin to "claim themselves as made in the image of God."

The sight of a woman priest, eight months pregnant, presiding at the altar on Christmas Eve is a powerful sign of the bodily nature of Christianity and the Gospel, Rose contended.

Remaining work

Yet, Rose and others say, there is more work to be done. Calling herself a "pathological optimist," Rose said "I want to be realistic about where we aren't."

"We have only to look at the membership of the House of Bishops to know that we have a long way to go," she said. There are 12 women bishops among the 311 bishops eligible to sit in the house.

Of 5,829 parish clergy listed in a 2004 study using various church resources, slightly more than 29 percent were women and 23.2 percent of the "senior" or "solo" clergy were women. There were 813 men in the "senior" category and 133 women. In the "solo" category there were 2,664 men and 918 women. There were 653 female associates and curates, and 648 males. The report is available at www.episcopalchurch.org/documents/WM_WomenClergyDiocese04.pdf.

In 2004 the median salary for women clergy was about $10,000 less than men. Among senior clergy the gap was about $13,000, about $6,000 for solo clergy and about $4,000 for associates, assistants and curates. The latest compensation report by the Church Pension Fund (download.cpg.org/home/publications/pdf/2004comp_report.pdf) details the differences between the way male and female priests are paid.

At a gathering a few years ago of women who had been ordained 20 years or more, one priest said that women had to decide either to stand for election as bishops "or forget it," Rose said. The attitude was "the church is worth it, let's take it."

Rose's office plans a conference October 2-6 at the Kanuga Conference Center in Hendersonville, North Carolina, about empowering leadership among ordained women. The conference aims to gather emerging women leaders in the church and thinking strategically about how they can use their gifts and skills.

At the 65th convention

The 1976 convention faced nearly 50 resolutions address the question of ordination, with most calling for canonical change that would open the priesthood and episcopate equally to men and women.

On June 15, 1976, 67 bishops announced they would co-sponsor legislation at convention to permit the ordination of women to the priesthood. Fifteen other bishops announced they would vote for the legislation, thus forming a majority in the House of Bishops.

In August 1976, ENS reported that "a vote against admitting women to the priesthood and episcopate is urged by some of the resolutions which ask that the exclusive male priesthood be affirmed, or that the Episcopal Church defer a decision until consultation has taken place with other members of the Anglican Communion or with the churches with which the Episcopal Church is in ecumenical dialogue."

Needing 58 affirmative votes in the clerical order in the House of Deputies, the canonical change to open the priesthood and episcopate to women on January 1, 1977 received 60. Clergymen from 39 dioceses voted "no" and 15 dioceses were divided in the clerical order. Among the laity 64 dioceses voted "yes," 56 "no," and 13 were divided. Fifty-seven "ayes" were required for passage. The House of Bishops' vote was almost unanimous.

The bishops also had to decide at that convention what to do about the 15 women "irregularly" ordained in 1974 and 1975 at Philadelphia and Washington. The bishops accepted the recommendation of their Theology Committee that the women may be enrolled in the priesthood by their bishops in completion or conditional ordination services in their dioceses without being reordained.

On the last day of the convention, ENS reported that the convention had dealt with "the most controversial and potentially explosive issues to come before the supreme legislative body of the church since the very first such meeting in 1785."

"It dealt with them, despite ominous forecasts of schism and disruption, in an atmosphere of marked restraint and mutual respect for opposing views, often reflecting profound depth and passion, and with a general spirit of acceptance of majority rule. With a handful of exceptions, both clerical and lay champions of defeated causes reacted to their losses in a spirit of professed Christian acceptance, pledging continued loyalty to the Episcopal Church," ENS reported.

Yet ENS reported that some people were considering "the formation of a separate, non-geographic diocese within the Church, within which its adherents could continue to reject women priests and use only the 1928 Prayer Book." The current version of Book of Common Prayer got the first of two needed approvals at the Minneapolis convention four days after the approval of women's ordination. It was approved for the second time in 1979.

In May, 1977, ENS reported that priests and members of Episcopal parishes in Southern California, Nevada and Colorado formed a temporary diocese of the North American Province of the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, claiming that the Episcopal Church had departed from tradition by approving the ordination of women as priests and the "radical alterations to the Book of Common Prayer." Albert A. Chambers, retired Bishop of Springfield (Illinois), confirmed about 100 persons as members of the new Diocese of the Holy Trinity.

In September of that year, Presiding Bishop John M. Allin told the House of Bishops that he was "to date ... unable to accept women in the role of priest," ENS reported.

"The Christian faith is being tested in many ways in the Episcopal Church," Allin said. "The faith quality of our episcopal leadership is being tested. The question being put to us: Is our leadership comprehensive, flexible and sufficiently responsive to relate and release our diversity into the multiple channels of our Lord's one mission?" he continued.

At that same meeting, the bishops adopted a statement of conscience which affirmed that "no bishop, priest, or lay person should be coerced or penalized in any manner" for opposing women's ordination-or for supporting and implementing it.

As of 2006, only the dioceses of Fort Worth, Quincy and San Joaquin do not permit the ordination or deployment of women as priests. Women seeking ordination in the Diocese of Fort Worth are transferred by arrangement to the neighboring Diocese of Dallas.