Ordination of Women: Keep it Irregular

October 27, 1974 at Riverside Church in NYC. Photo by Chris Sheridan/RNS

The year before I was ordained, 1973, I spent every Tuesday night reading Beyond God the Father by Mary Daly with five nuns and a Presbyterian laywoman. We read a dozen or so pages each Tuesday. We also drank a lot of wine and ate a lot of cheese.

We were part of the great feminist religious underground—(otherwise known as “The Holy Grail,” h/t Dan Brown). Quarterly, we went on a retreat. We stayed together as a women’s group for many years and even published an illustrated cookbook of all the good food we had eaten together.

One of our members recently died. Another, Sister Rachel Fitzgerald, will receive the dedication of my forthcoming book on Pope Francis.

On the day I was ordained, Reformation Sunday, October 30, 1974, I had asked if my women’s group could be a part of the laying on of hands part of the ritual. The five nuns were not deacons but teachers. One was a principal of a large school. My judicatory and its Committee on the Ministry said absolutely not.

No non-ordained hands.

When the time for the laying on of hands came, all six of the women in my group arrived to lay on hands, and nobody could do anything about it at that moment. I was kneeling in the middle of a group of 40 or so men, feeling weird as hell, when six women nudged in and touched me. I felt doubly ordained. First by the United Church of Christ and then by my women’s group and Mary Daly’s God.

We had prepared a joke when we heard the laying on of hands was going to be prohibited. We and all of the women we could contact would wear pink undies. We did. We had a quiet bond. It was doubly good to have a loud bond as well as a quiet one. The judicatory and the Committee on the Ministry was apoplectic. Most people in the room didn’t really know that women couldn’t do what my friends were doing so they just thought the mixture of genders was sweet. I never heard from the judicatory about this rogue and renegade behavior. And I have gone on to serve over 40 years in the ordained ministry of the UCC.

I had experienced what Roman Catholic women experience now. We could be servant leaders, “Christian education” directors but not sacramental purveyors. I was raised in a church that still doesn’t ordain women, the Missouri Synod Lutheran Church.

After the UCC received me, I left the Lutherans. And the next year the Lutherans decided to ordain women. The Lutherans paid for me to go to six years of seminary while they lollygagged on the topic of women’s ordination. They just didn’t know how to say no so they waffled. When I had one of my endless exams, they actually asked me if I had “gender issues.” My Strong Vocational Interest Bank, then designed for men only, like the priesthood, had come back saying I would be best as an army general.

Rejection is big for me. Acceptance and welcome is also big for me, as being taken in when you have been thrown out means a lot to a person. But what means the most to me is the rogue behavior, the civil disobedience that marked my own ordination into the church.

Never forget that is how the first 11 women in the Episcopal church were ordained. On July 29, 1974, in Philadelphia, 11 women were ordained as the first female priests in the Episcopal Church. They became known as the “Philadelphia Eleven.” While there was no law explicitly prohibiting the ordination of women, there also was no law allowing it. We continue to refer to this moment as the irregular ordination.

Two years later, the Episcopal Church’s General Convention voted to ordain women.

It is great that the Pope is putting together a commission on women deacons, widely thought to be a possible route to women’s ordination to the priesthood. But that decision matters more to the church than it does to women. Women know that God loves us and that we are more than equal to men.

I do love this Pope. He may even be the one who will see the light. In I Heart Francis I argue that his own internal logic of inclusion will prevail. I even think he can’t not ordain women and continued to receive the respect he now has. But I am only placing my bets there.

The rogue and renegade will be the most effective way to move ahead. Who would really want to be a regular priest anyway?