Eleven women, with the connivance of four bishops, determined to smash the barriers of "sexism" in the Episcopal church on this day July 29, 1974. Fifteen hundred people crowded the sanctuary of the Episcopal Church of the Advocate in Philadelphia to witness this confrontation with church rules and authority. A banner shouted Paul's words: "In Christ there is neither male nor female."
Bishop Corrigan asked if there was any known impediment to ordination of the eleven. "Yes," shouted several. Five priests stepped forward to take the microphones. What was about to be done was illegal and divisive they said.
They could not state all the reasons for their view. For much of church history, women were barred from ordination. The reasons were many. Women held chattel-like status throughout much of history. Their parental and nurturing roles often made it impractical for them to be active as leaders. Many men were (and are) reluctant to accept instruction from women.
Under Old Testament Passover laws, only males had to be redeemed and only male animals could redeem them. Only males were allowed to serve as priests offering the sacrifice. Christ, both priest and sacrifice, came as a man. He is the very masculine bridegroom of the church. He selected only men as apostles. Paul taught that women were not to teach men in a public church setting. Women are subordinate to men in the same way that the church is subordinate to Christ, he wrote. He argued that Eve had disobeyed first and brought Adam into disobedience. Peter taught that wives were to be subject to their husbands as Sarah had been to Abraham.
On the other hand, Christ had not spurned women. They were the first bearers of the news that he was raised from the dead. Indeed, he may be seen as the one who more than any other in history raised the status of women. With the Reformation and with the emancipation of women that followed, roles began to change. Sects increasingly gave women new responsibility. Some, while refusing to allow women to preach in formal services, thought it fine if, like the women who rushed from the tomb to tell Peter the Lord was risen, they were allowed to informally convey the gospel. Ordination remained largely taboo to women until small Protestant denominations began to grant it. Technological and medical changes also made it easier for women to assume such roles.
The Episcopalian ordination ceremony proceeded despite opposition. The eleven women became priests and offered the cup and bread. But soon afterward the procedure was annulled by higher authorities. Too many rules had been broken. Three of the bishops were retired men and not permitted to ordain without express approval. The other bishop was out of his jurisdiction. Furthermore, none of the women had been approved by their local bishops as is required by Episcopal law. Today a number of Christian denominations still refuse to ordain women. Chief among them is the Roman Catholic church. The subject remains one of the most controversial in some church bodies both at the local and national levels.
- Newsweek, August 12, 1974.
- Gross, Ernie. This Day in Religion. New York, New York: Neal-Schuman Publishers, 1990.
- Time August 12, 1974.
Last updated April, 2007.