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Rebels and the risk they took

25 July 2014

Bernard Palmer recalls the ordination of the Philadelphia Eleven

Front-page stuff: the irregular Philadelphia ordinations reported in theChurch Timeson 2 August 1974

Front-page stuff: the irregular Philadelphia ordinations reported in theChurch Timeson 2 August 1974

The Story of the Philadelphia Eleven

Darlene O'Dell

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THIS month has brought theclimax of the ding-dong battleover women bishops in the Church of England. Next Tuesday will be the 40th anniversary of the ordination (the Church Times index, though not its report or scathing comment, added inverted commas) of the first women priests of the Episcopal Church in the United States. Those ordinations could perhaps be described as "irregular"; the 11 women concerned were threatened in various ways, aswere the bishops who had ordained them.

Darlene O'Dell is a historian, novelist, and teacher, and her latest book makes enthralling reading. She would be the last to describe it as completely impartial, but it seems to me fair and reasonably objective in the tale it tells. O'Dell certainly has the novelist's gift of making her story come to life and in maintaining her readers' interest, even though they already know how it will end.

The key factor in the story is that the 1974 ordinations took place only two years before the general ordination of women to the priesthood was approved by the US Church's General Convention, meeting at Minneapolis. And the bishops who officiated at the 1974 ceremony in the Church of the Advocate in Philadelphia had had to decide whether such a possibly irregular ordination, though it might be valid, was likely to help or hinder the crucial decision at Minneapolis in 1976. They decided that it was a risk worth taking, and therefore went ahead. A year later, four more women were similarly ordained in Washington, DC.

In the event, the Convention did give the green light for women priests - but only by the narrow-est of margins. The House of Bishops decided in favour by 95 votes to 61. In the House of Deputies the procedure was more complicated. In the clerical order,58 votes were needed for the resolution to pass; in fact it re-ceived 60 votes, with 38 againstand 16 divided. In the lay order, 57 votes were needed; 64 were forthcoming, with 36 against and 12 divided.

But that wasn't the whole battle. The validity of the ordination of the 15 women of Philadelphia and Washington had also to be determined by the House of Bishops. They had three options beforethem: reordination, conditional ordination and a "completion" ceremony that would avoid another laying on of hands. The women concerned ruled out the first two options as making a mockery of the sacrament, but the bishops voted 87-45 in favour of conditional ordination. They then changed their minds overnight and voted unanimously the next day for completion - which the women were happy to accept. Some called the bishops' change of heart a mir-acle and the work of the Holy Spirit.

Much of O'Dell's book is concerned with the feisty personalities of the women who formed the Philadelphia Eleven and the Washington Four. They certainly showed tremendous courage in coming forward in the first place, and then in having to undergo a period of semi-isolation and sometimes downright hostilityfrom their opponents. In the end, vindicated by the bishops' sudden change of heart, they achieved comparative peace with honour. Eleven of the 15 are still alive, and proud of having helped push open the doors to women's priesthood in the United States.

O'Dell's final paragraph sums up the story to date. Since 1977, nearly 38 per cent of Episcopalian priests in the US have been women; and, since 1989, women have constituted just over eight per cent of the episcopate. (The Church's present Presiding Bishop is a woman.) The opposition has not, of course, vanished. But women clergy are now an undoubted force to be reckoned with in the Episcopal Church.

Dr Palmer was editor of the Church Times from 1968 to 1989.

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