Forty-nine Years Ago

by the Rev. Katherine Bush


Forty-nine years ago, on July 29, 1974, eleven women were ordained to the priesthood in the Episcopal Church. There are eleven particular stories to tell about these women, and more stories to tell about the three bishops who chose to lay hands on their heads and bring them into the priesthood. And more stories about the families and friends who walked alongside each person, and about the musicians who played at the service, and about the altar guild members who prepared that table, and about the people who came to witness and support these women. It takes a lot of people to make church happen, and all those people have stories. 


Then there are the stories about the people who sat in the congregations where these women preached and more stories about the children who looked up from their coloring sheets to see a woman standing at the altar for the first time. There are stories of welcome and joy offered to these women, and there are also stories of spit and ugly words thrown at them. There are stories of four more women who were ordained “irregularly” to the priesthood later in the fall of 1974. And there is a story about the General Convention’s approval of women’s ordination two years later in 1976.


I can’t tell all those stories. I can barely see the contours of my own story. I am forty-eight years old. Women have been ordained in the Episcopal Church all of my life, and women’s ordination has been approved by the Episcopal Church’s governing body for forty-seven of my forty-eight years. Still, I didn’t see women serving at the altar here in Memphis and West Tennessee for most of my childhood. 


I was sitting in the congregation of an ordination of a family friend listening to him respond affirmatively to the vows he was asked to take on when I leaned over to tell my sister that I thought I could answer those questions. I was halfway through college at the time and planning on heading to law school. It was the beginning of a new chapter in the story of my life. My story is largely one marked by supportive encouragement, though I’ve certainly met plenty of people who think I “ought not” be occupying a pulpit nor standing behind the altar. I give thanks that I was able to follow in the footsteps of other women who cleared roads for me and many others to serve God in this particular fashion. I give thanks for the men who made room at the table and who stood up alongside women, sharing the power and authority of the priesthood to open it to more of God’s people. 


And I give thanks for all the people who are simply growing up or showing up in church, hearing and seeing all kinds of folks teaching, preaching, and celebrating without even knowing it was ever an issue. 


And I give thanks that since the beginning of the story, women have been integral to sharing the gospel. “Mary Magdelene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord;” and she told them that he had said these things to her.” John 20:18

38 thoughts on “Forty-nine Years Ago”

  1. Katherine, while i am considerably older(74) than you, I must have spent my early years before 1976 not realizing women were not approved to join the priesthood, but now I cannot imagine priesthood without women. I cannot put myself in the shoes of those who are still opposed to it. Thanks for your enlightening story. JOHN

    1. John, it’s so interesting to think about how we don’t notice what or who isn’t there, right? It can be hard to name an absence until after it’s filled. Thanks for reading!

  2. Beautifully said.
    Everytime I hear or read one of you sermons it moves me. I too am happy you are where you are.
    Unbelievable that there are churches still debating this issue in 2023. God‘s blessings on you Katherine Bush. Keep on keeping on.

    1. It is unbelievable that people are still debating this issue, and yet the majority of Christian churches still don’t allow women to serve in all the ways God calls.

  3. We are so blessed to have you, and all the other women who have become deacons, priests, and bishops. Thanks be to God!

  4. Thank you for your words. I’m thinking back to this time. Two of these women were from the Diocese of Minnesota and they preached frequently at my church, St. Christophers. It is unthinkable that anyone would think that the priesthood would be closed to them.

    1. Barbara, So glad to know of your connection and first-hand experience with these barrier-breakers! I’d love to hear more sometime 🙂

  5. One of the primary reasons I left Catholicism and joined Calvary was the ordination of women. Nearly all of the heroes and role models in my life have been women, so it felt appropriate and congruent to attend a church where women lead along side men.
    I’m so grateful for your work at Calvary and for always giving me a fresh perspective on things. You’re a wonderful leader!

    1. Thanks, Beau, I think women are often (unsung) heroes and role models for people, certainly a lot of women leading despite not being allowed “out front.”

  6. How well I remember the ordination that you recall here, when you realized that you could answer those questions (that, I might add, were being posed to a man). Your ordination has meant so much to me personally, to my family and to so many.. Thanks, Katherine, for your inspirational preaching, teaching, consciousness-raising and so much more.

    1. Mandy, thanks for reading and holding this memory with me – with so many other memories of our intertwined lives!

  7. I am so grateful to be at Calvary, where our lives have been touched by / enriched by you, Katherine, and by Gay, Eyleen, Amber, Audrey, Mimsy, and so many others representing both the Episcopal faith, and many others. Wouldn’t have it any other way! Thanks be to God!

    1. It’s a wonderful crowd of women to be associated with … Many of the women you named helped shape me too!

  8. You are a treasure! We are so very blessed to have you as a Priest at Calvary Church in Memphis!

  9. Women behind the altar was a long time coming and quite the struggle for all involved! I remember some of my Seabury classmates traveling to other dioceses to be ordained in 1981 or 1982 since Bishop Montgomery was not on board at all. In 1982 or 1983 he allowed Bishop Primo to ordain women locally! I was privileged to work/serve with one with one of them! Janice was English and an exceptional actress! She graduated Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago, then to Seabury for some exposure to the American church! My 1983 classmates went on to serve and distinguish themselves in the following years! The Church has been blessed by their ministries and yours!!!

    1. Thanks, Ted, I love hearing these first-hand stories. It’s so important, and it reminds us that the “past” wasn’t all that long ago!

  10. Katherine, I remember do well the time frame as I was very active at Holy Communions EYC and thought I would be one of those one day. I even went to Syracuse University to study Comparative Studies in Religion. The Chaplain there was a newly ordained woman and I loved her. Life took me in different directions but was so thankful it was even a possibility. I am thankful for you and Calvary.

  11. Katherine, I well remember the struggles my friends Ann and Senter were faced with before they were ordained. And I am glad I have lived long enough to see witness so many positive changes to our beloved Episcopal traditions. We are the better for them. And thank you so much for your presence and your gifts to Calvary.

    1. Nancy, my path was clearer because they went ahead and fought a lot of battles that I didn’t have to. Thanks for reading and sharing your memories.

  12. I love and admire many Episcopalian women.
    I keep coming back because of the courageous, ordained Episcopalian women!!! Glad you are part of my life, Katherine Bush!!!!

  13. As I have said to you many times when we have been your parishioner to priest, you bring the Feminine to our worship . It is so very special to worship with you. Besides, you married one of my favorite people!!!

  14. This is one of the most poignant memories of my life and my relationship with you. So honored to have been sitting beside you then and cheering your wonderfulness on now…

  15. Katherine, Thanks for this remembrance of these pioneering 11 women 49 years ago. I wasn’t at that General Convention, but Reynolds was. Years after, he told me stories of how powerful that convention was, and those stories have lived on in our institutional history ever since and have been retold many times. I remember our own diocesan pioneers — Anne Carriere and Senter Crook. It gives me such pleasure to hear you preach and see you at the altar. That pleasure is enriched hearing your story of your early pull toward ordained ministry. I’m so glad you are in our midst at Calvary.

    1. Stephanie, Reynolds was a chief supporter! So glad to have been surrounded by encouraging folks like you and to follow Anne and Senter.

  16. I was fortunate to be at the ordination of one of the original 11 at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Seattle. though I don’t think I knew it at the time. I had the idea she was the first woman ordained, and now I can’t remember her name. It was quite a joyful event. It’s wonderful to hear this history and know you, Katherine, are one of the pioneers, too. The world needs lots more women leaders.

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