Book Review/Reflection--The Philadelphia Eleven

The Philadelphia Eleven, by Darlene O'Dell, is a book about the first eleven women ordained as priests in the Episcopal Church on July 29, 1974, in Philadelphia.  Their story is interesting for many reasons, but most significantly because it was done "irregularly"--by three retired bishops without official permission from the Episcopal Church as a whole.  The book touches on that, as well as the fallout in the aftermath of the ordinations and the efforts of those women to function as priests given their "irregular" status.

To understand the story, the book does an excellent job of laying out the political situation in the Episcopal Church in the early 70s regarding women's ordination.  The General Convention of the Episcopal Church, which meets every 3 years, consists of two bodies--the House of Bishops (all active and retired Episcopal bishops) and the House of Delegates (consisting of four clergy and four lay people from each diocese).  In 1970, the General Convention considered a resolution that would authorize the ordination of women to the priesthood (the Episcopal Church had been ordaining women as deacons for some time at that point).  The House of Bishops approved the proposal, and an actual majority of delegates in the House of Delegates approved it as well.  However, the House of Delegates utilized on convoluted voting procedure that resulted in the motion failing by a small margin.  The same motion came up in '73, and again the bishops approved it and the House of Delegates rejected it based on the weird voting rules.  In the aftermath of the failure in '73, the Philadelphia Eleven decided to go ahead with the ordinations.  In '76, the issue came up again, and this time both houses approved the ordination of women, as well as "regularizing" the eleven (and four others who were ordained in Washington, DC, after the eleven).

Two things really jumped out at me in the book.  The first thing that struck me was the reaction of the bishops to this development.  Keep in mind, by the time of the ordinations in 1974, a majority of Episcopal bishops had been on the record, twice, in support of women's ordination.  And yet, other than those bishops who agreed to perform the ordinations, all of them freaked out when the ordinations occurred, and attempted to prevent the Philadelphia Eleven from acting as priests.  The reason for this reaction, to a man, was a need to enforce the rules of the Episcopal Church and respect proper procedures.

To be fair, in some cases (especially with regard to the bishop of Washington, DC) it seems pretty clear that it was a token reaction, done for effect.  After a long ecclesiastical trial of a priest in DC who invited some of the women to consecrate the Eucharist in his Church, the bishop of DC (who did not initiate the trial) basically "punished" the priest by telling him not to do it again.  But there were cases of bishops who had been vocal supporters of women's ordination imposing serious penalties on priests who assisted the Philadelphia Eleven.  In one case, a young priest's career was destroyed for his support.

The author of the book makes it clear that she sees the reaction of the bishops as a sign that they were insincere in support for the cause of women's ordination, and this business of enforcing the rules was only a pretext.  That strikes me as unfair.  Surely, some of them probably did support women's ordination tepidly, and were more than willing to crack down on "uppity" women.  But I don't think the concern for the rules was entirely pretextual, or misplaced.  If you are going to have an organized, hierarchial church, then you need to have some measure of rules and procedures.  True, the Philadelphia Eleven argued that the rules must give way to more fundamental Gospel values, and I mostly agree with them.  But it doesn't follow that the rules become irrelevant, or that concern that they be maintained is illegitimate.

There is another thing that I am sure was in the minds of at least some bishops that the author doesn't acknowledge.  The structure of the Episcopal Church, as opposed to, say, the Catholic Church, is designed to allow for the input of the non-bishop clergy and laity on big issues like women's ordination.  That's a good thing--I would certainly love to see something like that in Catholicism.  But if that consultation is to be real, the decisions reached by the clergy and laity need to be respected.  And the House of Delegates had voted down women's ordination, twice.  Sure, that was the result of a wonky voting system that was designed to make it very hard to change things.  But those were the rules in place.  If the bishops had unilaterally decided to start ordaining women, they would have been sending a message that the input of the laity was really just a show, and didn't really mean anything.  That's a bad message to send, even if you think the decision made by the laity and clergy was terrible.  Living with terrible decisions made by others is an inherent part of democracy.

The other thing that jumps out at me is the question of whether the Philadelphia Eleven actually accomplished anything with their rogue ordinations.  After all, the mantra of the bishops prior to the ordinations was "don't do anything rash, wait for '76 and hopefully the women's ordination vote will pass."  The book makes clear that there was a segment of women in the Episcopal Church who followed this counsel and waited until things were officially approved.  In fact, these women went out of their way to distance themselves from the Philadelphia Eleven, fearing that the irregular nature of the ordinations would hurt the cause.

The book, and the Philadelphia Eleven themselves, argue that they had no assurances that women's ordination would pass in '76, given the two previous failures.  Why would '76 be any different from '70 or '73?  Moreover, the women's ordination motion actually got fewer votes in '73 than it did in '70, and the opponents of women's ordination took the position that the idea was dead after '73.  I don't think it was unreasonable for these women to be skeptical that they would get the answer they wanted in '76.  Having said all that, at the end of the day the bishops urging them to wait for the process to work itself out were ultimately vindicated, in a sense.

The other argument advanced in the book is that the ordination of the Philadelphia Eleven was a catalyst for the ultimate decision in '76.  Obviously, this is ultimately an unanswerable counter-factual.  But my own intuition is that the book is right about the catalyst effect of the ordinations.  I suspect, to borrow a term from blogger Zach Hoag, that the ordinations represented an "Eruption of the Real."

Here's what I mean.  Many issues, not just in the Church but in everything, are talked about in abstract terms.  Abstract discussions are often useful in clarifying and thinking through tough problems.  But one of the problems with abstract discussions is that the positions that you take in these discussions are costless.  If you take a position against the interests of women, or any other group for that matter, there is really no consequence since you are not opposing any individual person, but the abstraction of "women."  It is easy to take rigid positions on principled grounds (or, at least, ostensibly principled grounds) about something like women's ordination when the "women" part is purely theoretical.

But the moment the abstraction of "women" becomes an actual woman, it is a completely different ballgame.  The issue is no longer an abstraction, but becomes embodied in an actual person that you can see and talk to, and who has feelings and aspirations. Suddenly it becomes harder to stake out these ironclad positions that deny a real live person her chance to follow her call.  That's the Eruption of the Real--the experience of interacting with a real life person causes you to rethink positions that were formed when the issue was an abstraction.

Eruptions of the Real are, in my opinion, the cause of the seismic change in people's attitudes on gay rights questions.  But, in my experience, Eruptions of the Real play a big part in the women's ordination question as well.  Until I started hanging around the Episcopal Church, women as priests was entirely abstract to me.  To be honest, I didn't really have a strong opinion one way or the other, which is practice ends up being a default to the "no" column.  But once I saw actual women actually functioning as priests--preaching, reading the words of consecration, etc.--the issue looked entirely different.  Seeing a woman in that role makes the experience normal, and not scary.  I went to a service with a woman as the priest, and earth did not stop revolving around the sun and everything is fine.  Not that I actually thought any of that was going to happen, but when you see it, you realize it is fine.  And then you begin to support it.  After all, why shouldn't she be allowed to be a priest?  What's the big deal?

I suspect I am not alone in how I reacted to seeing a woman on the altar for the first time.  I suspect that there were people who saw the Philadelphia Eleven and had the same experience I did.  It's not crazy to think that this Eruption of the Real swayed the small handful of delegates that were need to tip the balance in favor of approving women's ordination.

All this makes me think of the Roman Catholic Womenpriests movement.  I have to think this movement is intentionally modeled after the Philadelphia Eleven--a retired bishop conducts otherwise valid but irregular ordinations of women, for the purpose of making a demonstration about the issue.  No doubt, they hope to have the same ultimate outcome as the Philadelphia Eleven--being regularized  one day by the Catholic Church.  There is no question that these women are facing far greater headwinds than the Philadelphia Eleven.  As ultimately frustrating as the votes in '70 and '73 were for the Philadelphia Eleven, they did represent a majority of the bishops publicly supporting women's ordination.  There is nothing like that in the Catholic Church right now.

When I first heard about the Womenpriests idea, I was dismissive.  Not because I objected to women as priests, but because it seemed like a futile gesture.  Why fight against headwinds that are probably going to be too strong?  Just become Episcopalians, and get on with the business of serving God and God's people, I thought.  Now I'm not so sure.  If the Philadelphia Eleven were an Eruption of the Real, maybe these women will serve the same function for the Catholic Church.  I can't say I am optimistic about their chances, but I now understand why they would want to try.  So, God speed, ladies.


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