Stories from the past: 45th anniversary of women’s ordination

Today is the 45th anniversary of the first ordination of a woman to the priesthood in the Episcopal Church, and the 40th anniversary of the first woman ordained in ECCT – The Reverend Joan Horwitt. To celebrate and reflect upon the past 45 years, I met with our Archivist, Greg, to see if he had any fun and interesting finds around women’s ordination. I not only acquired a new online folder of scanned images of newspaper clippings and whole booklets from the 1970s arguing for and against women’s ordination, but Greg and I dove deep into one theological question: symbolism associated with the clergy person. 

So, for this blog post, I wanted to highlight that conversation – don’t worry, I will include images of those newspaper clippings as well. I must note that there were many manytheological debates and conversations happening around women’s ordination (just look at those newspaper clippings), and this is just one. Nay, this is a fragment of one. But, Greg and I really found ourselves engaged in this question the most, so we decided to explore it more.

I wanted to draw your attention to two things: first, that the conversation around women’s ordination brought up deep theological questions around the relationship between the congregation and the clergy, and the role clergy play in worship. And second, those same questions are still alive in our own hearts every time we engage in the Eucharist, how we understand what is happening when the person behind (or in front of) the altar moves their hands and says the magic words. 

Here’s Greg: “Historically, the matter of ordaining women to all orders of ministry has given rise to numerous forms of theological debate, and, to this day, can challenge us to consider ways in which we engage clergy, whether female or male, as a symbolic element fundamental to our worship of divinity. For me, a couple questions come to mind; first, how does gender factor in my apprehension and understanding of Jesus Christ as “indwelling” in those who are called to ordained priesthood? Second, what can be said of the value added to the life of the church since women have been participating in its ongoing life as fully authorized clergy at every level of the religious order?” 

 My conversation with Greg really hovered over these two questions he brings up, and the ones I mentioned earlier. How do we actually understand the role of a clergy person – are they a stand in for Christ or are they a stand in for humanity in making offerings to God? And, how has the ordination of women emphasized or challenged these two understandings of clergy? 

If clergy are a “stand in” for Christ, and one believes Christ was born male on this earth and that God is masculine, then there is some theological weight behind the pushback of and tension around a woman assuming this predominantly masculine role. 

Greg said, “In the past, there were many who believed that since Jesus was male and God is understood as “Father”, that women could not fill a clerical role representative of Christ. And, there were others who believed that the image of God could not be fully conveyed by women clergy, especially when engaging other Christian symbols like the bread and wine of the Eucharist, or the literal symbol of the Cross.

“Yet, it would seem that such objections have not been born out over time, and that with regard to the necessary proclamation of the totality of redemption for all humanity, the American reform begun in 1974 to finally ordain women (really just a short time ago) has brought forth a new radical period of growth in the Episcopal Church that is not just about expanding demographics, but rather about enhancing inner qualities of our being, such as those having to do with intelligence, nurturance, and steadfast maturity, just to name a few.”

If the thing about Christ which we worship is not the gender but the fully divine and fully human existence that emphasizes particular qualities humans strive to achieve, then Greg is right – ordination of women assisted in the spiritual growth of the church because it is not the gender of Christ we worship but Christ’s human/divine essence. 

And, if one believes the other role of clergy as a “stand-in” for all humanity in making offerings to God, women’s ordination is also quite fitting as it expands our understanding of what a symbol of humanity looks like. Masculine is no longer the default. 

Greg said, “If the clergy are to be understood as symbolic of our humanity, as such stands in direct relation to God, Our Creator, it would be plainly natural in our current pluralistic world for clergy to be of any and all types of diversity, including that associated with gender. In this way, we are best represented in our worship, in our service, and as citizens in our global community. However, the work is not yet done, with so many places on earth still to walk in this new light.” 

The ordination of women to the priesthood, deaconate, and episcopate brought up tension on many levels, including the uncomfortable need to assess our own understanding of what happens in the Eucharist, and who plays what role. This tension still exists today, not just on a major denominational level across the larger Christian church, but also within our own hearts. 

The Rev. Joan Horwitt

Every time we gather for the Eucharist, we are invited to reevaluate, recommit, and reflect upon the various roles and symbols associated with this mystery: ourselves, the clergy, the bread and wine, the words, and the collective whole gathered. It is a chance for us to continue to open up the story of our own salvation and relationship with God and Christ anew, each and every time. 

To learn more or see the collection, reach out to Greg Farr, ECCT’s Archivist and Historian at gfarr@episcopalct.org.

8 Comments Add yours

  1. John Tuthill says:

    This story episode is very interesting and it stirs up other questions in me;

    What is found in the Bible about the roles of men and women in His church?

    Are the roles of men and women in His church the result of the way that He created men and women from the beginning, according to the Bible?

    Are the roles of men and women in His church also the result of the way that way sin entered into the world, according to the Bible?

    Does any of the above matter at all?
    Did it used to matter, but not now?
    If it used to matter but not now, will it matter again? Do we know?

    p.s.
    “magic words” ?

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    1. These are very interesting questions, and I am glad this article stirred them up for you. The “magic words” was just to bring some lightness, not a reflection of my own Eucharistic Theology. Thanks for your comments. -Alli, Digital Storyteller

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      1. John Tuthill says:

        Thanks again for this article and for responding. I can understand wanting to bring some lightness into writings about most things. But, lightness on the subject of Christ our Passover I’m not sure that adds something needed there. If you see what I mean. Thank you.

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  2. John Tuthill says:

    Hello!
    This article is really interesting.Thank you! I tried leaving a comment a while ago, but for whatever reason there was not an inclusive or accepting decision so far which would have allowed it to appear here.
    This story as it is written certainly does raise “deep theological questions” as they are called;
    In His church, is the reason that God assigns different roles for men and women traced back to the way He made men and women, according to the Bible?
    Additionally, is the reason for God assigning different roles for men and women in His church able to be traced back also to the way sin entered the world, according to the Bible?
    If it mattered in ages past that God made different roles for men and women in His church, when did we decide no longer to humble ourselves to obey that?
    If what God says in His Word mattered to people in the church in the past and no longer does, will it matter to us again at some point? Is it too late for us to repent?
    Thank you. I’m not really anticipating that my comments matter or will be included here. But thank you for this article, thank you either way.
    If you look at this picture here of our late sister in Christ, Joan Horwitt, and if you never had the pleasure to meet her as I have not, do you note the expression on her face? Does it appear defiant? If so, is that something to be admired? The answer may depend on Whom you believe she is defying at that moment, either man or God.
    Grace to you!

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    1. Sorry your first comment was not approved quicker. Still learning the backend of the site. -Alli, Digital Storyteller.

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  3. John Tuthill says:

    “new light” ?

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  4. Fantastic article, Alli, that shows both the snail’s pace of change and the huge transformative power of each step toward a truly inclusive church!

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  5. corrigansr1 says:

    Hi Alli and Greg,
    Thanks for doing a story on the 45th anniversary of women’s ordination. It is an important milestone. I have some documents that are in my possession from the time of the Ordination of the Philadelphia 11, including the sermon given by Dr. Charles Willie, a statement about their intentions from the three bishops who ordained the women, a statement by then Presiding Bishop, John M. Allin, and one or two other pieces. I have shared these recently with Margo Guernsey, who is creating a film documentary of the event that took place on July 29th, 1974.
    If you have any interest in them, please let me know!
    Sylvia Robinson Corrigan bar1n@optonline.net

    Like

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