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