|The Rev. Allison Cheek after the first public celebration of the Eucharist by a woman|
Nov. 10, 1974 at St. Stephen's and the Incarnation, NW DC
Photo by the Washington Post
Today is a big deal, at least for me, anyway. Today is a big deal, because forty years ago, the first women priests in the Episcopal Church, the Philadelphia Eleven, were ordained at the Church of the Advocate in Philadelphia, PA. They were irregularly ordained, which means they were ordained outside of church law, which only caught up with them two years later. These women, and the male bishops who ordained them, risked their vocations (and, I'm assuming for the bishops, their pensions) in order to live out what they believed to be true -- that God does not discriminate by gender when God calls someone into the sacramental priesthood, and that God was calling each of these women to serve God as a priest in God's church. It's beautiful, and it's true.
I love these stories, these stories about the first women priests in the church. I love hearing about them, I love to read about them. (If you are interested, Grace in Motion by the Rev. Dr. Judith Maxwell McDaniel is a great place to start.) I love these stories because I feel like they are my stories, and because even though I was born eleven years after the Philadelphia Eleven, and even though I began to seek ordination thirty-one years after the Philadelphia Eleven, I was told, when I began my process, that my priest would not be supporting me for ordination because I was a woman, and he did not believe that woman should be priests. This set off a series of chain reactions in my process.
It took me nine years to be ordained to the priesthood.
There are many things I could say about that experience, but what I'm thinking about today is the enormity of the courage, effort, prayer, persistence, tenacity and sheer grit it takes to make a change toward justice in an unjust system. Women and their male allies had been fighting for decades before 1974 to see this change happen, and when women finally were ordained, they had to find jobs that would hire them, deal with belittling, sexual assault, physical violence, death threats, the never-ending balance between family expectations and work, and not to mention the nearly inevitable sacking after becoming pregnant, at least in the early days. I've heard these stories from some of the women who have experienced them.
What astounds me now is how easy it was for all of those decades to be flippantly dismissed with a few offhanded words from one person in authority. But do you know what? That didn't stop the Eleven. It didn't stop women from becoming professors and deans of schools or cathedrals, from raising families while running churches, from serving the poor or the sick, or from becoming authors and world-renowned preachers and not least, bishops. And with their help, it didn't stop me.
So, today is a big deal. I'm so grateful for those women, and all that they've done, and continue to do. I can't wait to see what the next forty years has in store.