Eleven Women Ordained Episcopal Priests

Diocesan Press Service. July 31, 1974 [74200]

PHILADELPHIA, Pa. -- Eleven women were ordained priests in the Episcopal Church on July 29 in the Church of the Advocate in Philadelphia, marking the first time in the history of the American church tint women have been ordained to the priesthood.

Though women may now seek ordination to the diaconate, the lowest of the three orders of ministry, church law forbids ordination to the priesthood and episcopacy.

The Rt. Rev. John M. Allin, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, indicated after the service that the ordinations of the women are " irregular and may be found invalid."

Bishop Allin said that the ceremony in Philadelphia "was contrary to the Constitution and Canons of the Episcopal Church."

"Any bishops involved in such a service," he said, "have exceeded their authority and have not acted for the whole Church, as is the norm in ordinations. "

Bishop Allin pointed out that according to church law, " diocesan bishops are bound to restrict any deacons receiving such ordination from exercising priestly functions. " The 11 women who were ordained are under the ecclesiastical authority of eight different diocesan bishops.

The Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church does not have such authority to restrict the deacons receiving such ordinations from exercising priestly functions.

Bishop Allin said that he regrets the incident of the ordination of the women because "the church should be investing all energy in developing the full role of all members of the Church, including women, in mission."

" My concern, " he concluded, "is the growing development of Christian relationships throughout the household of faith and beyond. "

Bishop Allin had sent telegrams to the officiating bishops and to the women the week before the ordinations, begging them to reconsider their decisions, but his plea was rejected.

The ordinations were done before a congregation of some 2,000 worshipers by Bishop Daniel Corrigan, Denver, Colo., former suffragan bishop of Colorado, now retired; Bishop Robert L. DeWitt, resigned bishop of Pennsylvania; and Bishop Edward R. Welles II, Manset, Me., retired bishop of West Missouri. They were joined by a fourth bishop, the Rt. Rev. Antonio Ramos, Bishop of Costa Rica, the only one of the four currently exercising jurisdiction in the church.

Bishop Ramos, who did not participate in the actual ordination, but joined in the laying on of hands, issued a statement in which he said that the ordination event "stands as a prophetic witness on behalf of and for the oppressed. " He added that the ordination of the 11 women can "be characterized as an act of disobedience, ecclesiastical disobedience on our part, willfully done to abolish a system of canon law which is discriminatory, and which can no longer stand the judgment of the liberating Christ."

Dr. Charles V. Willie, professor of education and urban studies at Harvard, and vice president of the church's House of Deputies, preached a sermon in which he said that he participated in the service "not because I wanted to speak out but because I could not remain silent. "

Saying that he believes "it is a Christian duty to disobey unjust laws," Dr. Willie, a black layman, compared the event to the civil rights movement. "It was an unjust law of the state," he said, "that demeaned the personhood of blacks by requiring them to move to the back of the bus, and it is an unjust law of the church which demeans women by denying them the opportunity to be professional priests."

However, he said, the ordination must be celebrated "not as an event of arrogant disobedience but as a moment of tender loving defiance. "

The service was interrupted when Bishop Corrigan, the officiating bishop, asked "If there be any of you who knoweth any impediment, or notable crime " in any of the women to be ordained priest, "let him come forth in the name of God and show what the crime or impediment is. "

Several priests proceded to the chancel steps and were permitted to read statements contesting the service.

"The proceedings here enacted are unlawful and schismatical constituting a grave injury to the peace of Christ's Church," read the Rev. Canon Charles H. Osborn, executive director of the American Church Union. Canon Osborn indicated that the statement, accompanied by a bill of particulars of five items, had been signed by more than 70 persons, including bishops, presbyters and laypersons.

The Rev. R. Dewitt Mallory, New York City, read a statement on behalf of the Committee for the Apostolic Ministry, in which the four bishops were asked "not to shatter the unity and peace of our Church, " but rather "to obey the. will of the Church and carry your case to the Church in the proper legislative channels. "

The Rev. George W. Rutler, Rosemont, Pa., in a statement that was greeted by some with boos and laughter, said, "You do not gain 11 priests today, but you lose four bishops."

"God here now as father and judge," he continued, " sees you trying to make stones into bread. You can only offer up the smell and sound and sight of perversion. "

The Rev. James W. Leech, Providence, R.I., spoke of the "travesty" of ordaining the Rev. Jeannette Piccard to the priesthood because, at age 79, she was well beyond the retirement age for priests.

The Rev. John M. Scott, Philadelphia, said that while he and other priests of the Diocese of Pennsylvania "are firmly convinced that the Holy Spirit is leading the Church to ordain women to the priesthood," they opposed the ordinations "outside the decisions of the General Convention." He urged fellow Episcopalians "to work and pray" for the endorsement of the ordination of women to the priesthood at the 1976 convention.

The officiating bishops responded that they were acting in obedience to the spirit of a risen Christ, adding, "Hearing his command, we can heed no other," and, "The time for our obedience is now. "

At a press conference following the service, Bishop Welles said that he presently has "no intention" to ordain other women to the priesthood, but he said that if the General Convention in 1976 does not change the canons to permit such ordinations, there will be a "second wave of ordinations. "

The Rev. Carter Heyward, New York, in response to a question about what she plans to do now that she is an ordained priest, said that she will talk with her bishop in order to get a clear picture of the situation and then decide how to act.

The Rev. Nancy Wittig, Newark, said, "I don't like confrontations, but I must be obedient to the call of the gospel and that is where I stand."

Bishop Ramos, in explaining his participation, said that "the only way to do justice is to challenge injustice. " He said that the canon law system that was challenged in this event "is not really that much of a Christian system."

[Contact Archives for statement by the Presiding Bishop - Ed.]