Ordinations of Women to Priesthood Ruled Invalid

Diocesan Press Service. August 15, 1974 [74215]

Isabel Baumgartner

CHICAGO, Ill. -- The eleven women deacons of the Episcopal Church on whom hands were laid July 29 at Philadelphia's Church of the Advocate remain deacons, despite the intent of the officiating bishops to ordain them priests.

The Church's House of Bishops ended a day and a half of intensive conference and debate here on the afternoon of August 15 by declaring the Philadelphia ceremony invalid.

The majority vote was overwhelming: 129 to 9, with 8 abstentions. *

The bishops asked all concerned about the ordination of women to priesthood and episcopate to "wait upon and abide by " whatever decision the Church's General Convention makes on the issue. It convenes next in the fall of 1976 in Minneapolis.

The House mildly rebuked members who had shared in the July service, but refrained from taking against them any of several stronger measures which some observers had predicted. The House's collegiality and the corporate nature of the whole Church were prominent threads that ran through the discussions.

The House voted down an agenda committee recommendation that its first-day deliberations take place in closed session; press people in numbers were present throughout the meeting, which was held at O'Hare International Tower.

The four bishops who participated at Philadelphia -- Daniel N. Corrigan, retired Bishop of Colorado and former head of the office of domestic mission; Robert L. DeWitt, resigned Bishop of Pennsylvania; Edward R. Welles, retired Bishop of West Missouri; and J. Antonio Ramos, Bishop of Costa Rica -- opened the called meeting of the House by reiterating that their key motivation for the irregular ceremony was loyalty to "a higher obedience." As Bishop Welles put it, "We do not consider ourselves above the law, but the laws of God and the gospel of Jesus Christ take precedence over man-made rules. "

Official charges against three bishops (Bishop Ramos, though present at the service, had not joined in its episcopal segments) were filed on the morning of August 15 with Presiding Bishop John M. Allin by Bishop Harold Robinson of Western New York, Suffragan Bishop J. Stuart Wetmore of New York, and Bishop G. Paul Reeves of Georgia, and some 20 other bishops.

They withdrew the charges after the House action; had they stood, Bishop Allin would have been required to set in motion processes which could lead to legal action by the House's Court for the Trial of a Bishop.

Speaking for the House's Committee on Theology, Bishop Arthur A. Vogel of West Missouri defined ordination as "the culmination of a process which begins in the local community which is to be served by the person ordained. The community states the intention which is focused in the action of the bishop . . . . We cannot accept (the Philadelphia event) as an ordination; the ingredients of ordination simply were not present. "

The right to ordain belongs to the bishop of the ordinand's home diocese; if he wishes, he may ask another bishop to act on his behalf. These three bishops acted not only without such requests; they acted in spite of strong objections from at least some of the bishops in charge of dioceses where the deacons reside.

None of the eleven deacons had received prior certification from the four pre- scribed local sources: vestry, commission on ministry, standing committee, and diocesan bishop. The contravening of these provisions would have brought strong reaction, even if the deacons had been male.

The House action acknowledged that "genuine anguish " stems from the Church's unwillingness, to date, to permit the ordination of women beyond the diaconate.

A related resolution authorized the formation of a House committee to offer pastoral counsel to any women deacons who wish it. Disciplinary action toward the eleven deacons, if there is to be any, can properly be taken only by authorities of their home dioceses.

The House's stand drew immediate and bitter response.

House of Deputies vice-president Dr. Charles Willie of Harvard University, who was on the scene, concluded a stormy invective by exclaiming, "To question the ability of a woman to be priest is to question the judgment of God Almighty. "

Most of the deacons were present, but were not invited to speak to the House. They issued a statement questioning the bishops' "authority to rule on such a weighty question" and accusing them of "escalating the conflict and disunity in our Church." They insisted that "each of us will make her own decision as to how and when to affirm the priesthood she knows to be hers. "

Church statutes provide that only the bicameral General Convention -- the House of Bishops plus the House of Deputies (456 priests, 456 lay persons) -- can legislate for the Church.

At its 1972 meeting, the House of Bishops endorsed, by a straw vote of 74 -61 with five abstentions, the principle of women's eligibility to both priesthood and episcopate. The vote had no legal impact; it expressed only "the mind of the House." At this special meeting the bishops declined to express opinion on this matter a second time, despite an effort to bring the question to a vote.

At the 1973 General Convention in Louisville, the House of Deputies rejected the same principle. A voting system many Episcopalians term "archaic " provides that, in a vote by orders, a divided vote (two for, two against, in a diocesan deputation of four priests or four lay persons) has the effect of a negative vote. On a subsequent Louisville ballot the Deputies defeated a move to revise the voting system.

When Presiding Bishop Allin was asked at the close of the meeting whether or not he would urge favorable action on women's ordination at the 1976 Convention, he replied that "to be a protagonist or antagonist would inhibit my function." He said his present post requires him to enable the whole Church to act, not to attempt to influence Convention decisions. "Prelacy is dead," Bishop Allin added, "and hierarchy is out of date."

About women's ordination, he said, " There are no theological reasons against it; I'm looking for real theological reasons for it. My prayer is that, when (the enabling) decision is made, it will be made with great joy. "

The regular 1974 meeting of the House of Bishops is scheduled for October 13-18 in Oaxtepec, Mexico.

* Voting No: Bishops Roger Blanchard, retired of Southern Ohio; John Burgess of Massachusetts; E. Otis Charles of Utah; William Crittenden, retired of Erie; Charles Hall, retired of New Hampshire; H. Coleman McGehee of Michigan; J. Antonio Ramos of Costa Rica; Robert R. Spears of Rochester; and Edward R. Welles, retired of West Missouri. Abstaining: Bishops Daniel Corrigan, retired of Colorado; John P. Craine of Indianapolis; Wesley Frensdorff of Nevada; Robert B. Hall of Virginia; Paul Moore Jr. of New York; Francisco Reus - Froylan of Puerto Rico; William B. Spofford of Eastern Oregon; and John T. Walker, suffragan of Washington.

[Contact the Archives for the text of the Report of the Committee on Resolutions - Ed.]