An Unauthorized Ordination Happened in Washington

Diocesan Press Service. September 16, 1975 [75313]

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Four women, three from the Diocese of Washington, were ordained to the priesthood at St. Stephen and the Incarnation, D.C., Sept. 7. The ordination was performed without Bishop Creighton's authorization by the Rt. Rev. George W. Barrett, resigned Bishop of Rochester (N.Y.).

In a statement issued Sept. 9, Bishop Creighton said, "As I have said before, I cannot recognize their priesthood. Accordingly, I have written each of them 'directing and admonishing' them ' not to perform any priestly function in any parish of this diocese ' and requesting them to write me as to their intention with regard to the exercise of such priestly functions.

" I have also written Fr. Wendt, " the Bishop continued, "and admonished him 'not to invite or permit the exercise of any priestly ministry by any person whose priesthood is not recognized by me or by this church.' I have also asked for a response in writing as to his intention with regard to this admonition."

The women of this diocese (Washington) who were ordained in the unauthorized service are the Rev. Mesdames Eleanor Lee McGee, Alison Palmer and Elizabeth Rosenberg. The fourth was the Rev. Diane Tickell of Anchorage, Alaska.

In a pastoral letter read in churches in the diocese earlier the same day, Bishop Creighton asked that clergy and lay people not attend the service. After the service he said he was "heartened that very few active clergy of this diocese were participants." He added that he assumes the women will not, as he also requested, be invited to perform "priestly acts " in churches of this diocese.

The Bishop of Washington also said he is "distressed because of the undoubted injury the unauthorized ordination will do to their ministries and because it will make it more difficult to gain acceptance of women in the priesthood by the whole church."

The pastoral letter was one of several steps taken by the bishop in an effort to discourage the event. Bishop Creighton is convinced that "there is a better way to approach the ordination of women" and is determined to give the 1976 General Convention an opportunity to act. (Major steps and documents follow.)


More than 1,000 persons of all ages, many seated on the floor, were packed into St. Stephen's for the unauthorized ordination. About 50 people were in the procession including three or four parish clergy from the Diocese of Washington, several of the women ordained in Philadelphia last year and the Rt. Rev. Robert DeWitt, one of the bishops who had ordained the earlier group of eleven women. Bishop DeWitt, resigned Bishop of Pennsylvania, read the litany in the Sept. 7 service. About 50 people participated in the laying-on-of-hands. Special music was provided by a trio and a group of choristers from St. Columba's, D.C.

Objections to the service were heard without incident from Dr. Emil Oberholzer, a member of Epiphany, D.C., and the Rev. James Wattley, executive secretary of the Coalition for Apostolic Ministry.

The sermon was preached by the Rev. Kyle McGee, a chaplain at Georgetown University. McGee said he was "overjoyed . . . sharing in the ordination of his wife and friends " and " struck with a deep sense of sadness, knowing that what we are doing here today . . . will be an occasion of anger, bitterness and pain . . . ."

Stating that "our understanding of the priesthood is in great flux and confusion," he told the ordinands that their ordination contributes to the confusion. He said that the struggle in the church about the ministry is not how priests share their ministry with laity, but how priests can be of service to a ministering laity.

"Nothing will happen . . . today," he added, "that will make you more special or holy or righteous than any lay person in your community.

"Today, " he concluded, "we are engaged in a prophetic act. I pray that our actions will help enable we who are present and the church universal to reexamine our beliefs and practices of priesthood so that we may include all Christians in the ministry of our Lord. "


By a vote of 18-5 with one abstention, Diocesan Council supported Bishop Creighton's actions in response to the scheduled ordination to the priesthood of four women deacons by Bishop George Barrett, resigned Bishop of Rochester, at St. Stephen and the Incarnation Sept. 7. Emphasized as the vote was taken was the Bishop's request that clergy and lay people of this diocese refrain from attending the service. He further asked that none of the women "ordained in this unauthorized way " be invited to perform priestly ministries in this diocese. Three of the women are members of this diocese. A fifth person, originally included, has withdrawn. The requests, he said were to be included in a pastoral letter to be mailed to all clergy Sept. 4.

Bishop Creighton had called the Council meeting a week ahead of schedule in order that its members would clearly understand his position. He also stated the importance of his understanding the Council's position, although he was not seeking agreement with his entire statement or the decisions for which he alone is responsible. He refused, for instance, to remove from the statement his belief that nothing in the canons prevents a diocesan bishop from ordaining to the priesthood women deacons who have been approved by the Standing Committee, that the validation of such ordinations would be beyond question and that he and a substantial number of other bishops will do so if the 1976 General Convention fails to act affirmatively.

During the meeting, the Rev. Lee Wiesner, a deacon on the staff of St. Margaret's, D.C., read an open letter to the five deacons scheduled for ordination Sept. 7. It was signed by six women deacons who do not propose seeking ordination by unauthorized bishops. The women expressed their concern "about the presently prevailing tone of the movement for the ordination of women" and asked their sister women deacons "to consider our views before proceeding. "

Reminded by some Council members that he has called the discrimination against women in the priesthood unconscionable and immoral, Bishop Creighton expressed his conviction that unauthorized ordinations prior to the next General Convention will not solve the existing injustice. He told Council that he believes the Convention should have another opportunity to approve the full ministry of women in the whole church. He further reminded Council that the House of Bishops have twice approved the ordination of women and that the vote in the House of Deputies in 1973 failed only because of the system of counting votes so that a split diocesan delegation tallies as a negative vote. He fears, he said, that "even the proposal of the service is having an adverse effect throughout the church upon the cause of the ordination of women" and the careers of women whose ordinations are unauthorized by their bishops. "Only God can judge the spiritual efficacy of any Christian ministry, " the Bishop said, adding that the fact remains that such ordinations are "not recognized by the church and cannot be recognized by me."

In his statement to Council, Bishop Creighton also referred to the consents of vestries and the Standing Committee required by canons prior to ordinations. He said it is his understanding that these consents have been given to him "as the diocesan Bishop and under the canons of the church and that they have not been given for an irregular ordination by an unauthorized bishop. "

Reinforcing his understanding was a letter from the Rev. Dr. Edgar Romig. Unable to be present at the Council meeting, Dr. Romig, a seven-year veteran of the Standing Committee and currently its president, wrote that he had recommended many deacons for ordination and it had always been his intention that he was recommending qualified deacons for ordination by the Bishop of Washington or his agent.

The Rev. William Swing, rector of St. Columba's where the vestry had strongly supported the Rev. Alison Palmer's bid for ordination last year, said the vestry by an overwhelming majority voted against hosting the Sept. 7 ordination by an unauthorized bishop, nor could they support her proposed participation in such an event.

Bishop Creighton mentioned to Council members his scheduled meetings with the Standing Committee and vestries on Sept. 3. These sessions, he said were for the same general purpose -- to make his position clear and to clarify the intent of these groups.


One of the canonical requirements for ordination is the consent of the vestry of the church of which the candidate is a member. During the first week of September, Bishop Creighton met with the vestries of St. Augustine's and St. Stephen and the Incarnation. St. Columba's vestry had previously announced its position with respect to the Rev. Alison Palmer.

Although the meetings were private, Bishop Creighton reported that the rector and vestry of St. Augustine's stated that their prior certification of the Rev. Betty Rosenberg, a member of the parish at the time, was for her ordination by Bishop Creighton, or someone designated by him. However, the vestry of St. Stephen's continues to support the ordination of the Rev. Lee McGee by Bishop Barrett.


Following their meeting with him Sept. 3, Washington's three women deacons said they have never questioned Bishop Creighton's "authority or support" in the diocese. However, they stated their conviction that he would have the same support had he agreed to ordain them to the priesthood now as he has for the position he has taken. They remained convinced that they had "no alternative but to be ordained by another bishop. " In an earlier statement the Rev. Lee McGee said that "ordination, even irregular, will be an asset " in her ministry as a chaplain at American University. She also stated that "it is imperative for the church's sake . . . to be open to the spiritual gifts in all persons in our Christian ministry. "

McGee is a graduate of Maryland State College and Yale University and has completed special training in human relations. In addition to her work at AU, she has served as a consultant at Georgetown and George Washington Universities.

To the Rev. Alison Palmer, Bishop Creighton's decision to uphold the democratic process by waiting for the 1976 General Convention before ordaining qualified women is a "political, morally, practically, theologically and pastoral unsound way to proceed." She, like many others including Bishop Creighton, believes that a diocesan bishop has the canonical authority, with the appropriate consents, to ordain women to the priesthood.

Currently director of the State Department's office of International Labor Affairs, Palmer has served as a foreign service officer in several African countries and in Vietnam. She holds degrees from Pembroke College and Boston University.

"I know the only reason we have not already been ordained priests is that we are women," said the Rev. Dr. Betty Rosenberg. "It is unchristian of the church to discriminate against women who have been called to this ministry and are fully qualified." Believing that ordination is important to her career as a pastoral counselor she said she has been "frustrated by not being able to represent Christian values and faith in Christ more explicitly. "

In May, Rosenberg became one of the first two persons to receive a doctor of ministry degree from an Episcopal seminary -- Bexley Hall. She also holds degrees from the Universities of Delaware and North Carolina and from Virginia Theological Seminary.


I am convinced, in conscience, that I cannot refuse to act in this instance, " said the Rt. Rev. George W. Barrett prior to the unauthorized ordination Sept. 7. He maintained that stance in spite of heavy pressures from many people throughout the church that he withdraw. Acknowledging Bishop Creighton's advocacy of the ordination of women, he added that "we are faced with strong and tragic differences on how to accomplish the end we seek."

"It is tragic for the church to face the ridicule of the secular world for its lack of faithfulness to the Gospel," he recently stated. " I felt that I must do what I can to eliminate this injustice and scandal, both in justice to the persons who suffer from it and for the integrity and witness of the church in our society. "

Bishop Barrett stated his belief that the action had solid theological support and said he would not participate unless he believed the ordinations "valid." He is convinced that the irregularity "is far less damaging than continued acquiescence in offense against basic standards of justice and charity."

The resigned Bishop of Rochester (N.Y.) is executive director of Planned Parenthood in Santa Barbara, Calif. Diocesan from 1963 until he resigned in 1970, Bishop Barrett served in California and New York parishes earlier in his ministry and is a former General Theological Seminary professor. He was chairman of the House of Bishops committee studying women in the ministry in 1966 and served on a similar Lambeth Conference committee in 1968. "These studies," he revealed, "convinced me that the case is clear, both theologically and ethically. "


"Without any doubt the two issues of central concern in the life of the Episcopal Church are liturgical renewal and the ordination of women," Bishop Creighton told news media during a press conference, Sept. 4. "Both of these issues," he added, "are emotionally charged. "

Bishop Creighton expressed his belief that, while he is convinced diocesan bishops do have the authority to ordain any qualified candidates to the priesthood, it is worth waiting for the action of the 1976 General Convention on both issues. He hopes that action will result in a "perfectly clear approval" for the ordination of women and be "included liturgically in the revised prayer book."

He reiterated his position, backed by many other bishops and church people, that the proposed unauthorized ordination is damaging to the overall cause. He believes the theological arguments have abated and that only cultural and traditional objections remain. It can also, he fears, be very damaging to the future ministries of participating women. Saying that the question of women in the priesthood is part of the whole problem of human sexuality and the role of women in society, Bishop Creighton added that achieving acceptance of women priests and their placement is an even greater problem.

The bishop reaffirmed his intention to ordain qualified women in this diocese after the 1976 Convention, saying that " if the church fails to act affirmatively . . . the essential injustice will not have been dealt with and other action will have to be taken."

Bishop Creighton was asked in a variety of ways what action he would take if the unauthorized service were held in spite of the many efforts to discourage it, what steps he would take toward the concerned women deacons, other clergy and lay people who participated, and what avenues he would pursue if, in spite of his request to the contrary, the women thus ordained practiced priestly ministries in this diocese. The bishop's response to all these queries, which he regarded as premature, was that the event being discussed had not at that point taken place, that he still hoped it would be averted, and that he had given no serious consideration to what be could or would do if it did.

To specific questions concerning more drastic canonical steps he might take prior to Sept. 7, Bishop Creighton said that he prefers to use persuasion in the belief that the relationship between a bishop and his people is one of trust and confidence. However, he said he has no canonical control over the actions of the vestry of St. Stephen's, because Episcopal parishes are autonomous units. He reminded reporters that the women lack required consents of the vestries, Standing Committee and himself and that he had officially informed Bishop Barrett that he lacks the canonically required permission of Washington's bishop for performing the ordination.

[For attachments please contact the Archives. --Ed.]