Book tells story of 11 prophetic women

by Bill Tammeus

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By Darlene O'Dell
Published by Seabury Books, $28

Several new books commemorate this year's 40th anniversary of the ordinations of the first female priests in the Episcopal church.

Two of them are sidebars to the main story, though they're certainly valuable additions to our understanding of this whole matter: Looking Forward, Looking Backward: Forty Years of Women's Ordination, edited by Fredrica Harris Thompsett, and The Spirit of the Lord Is Upon Me: The Writings of Suzanne Hiatt (Hiatt is usually credited with being the prime mover behind the ordinations), edited by Carter Heyward and Janine Lehane.

But for readers who want excellent storytelling and a narrative that draws deep meaning out of the movement that led the Episcopal church to allow for ordination of female priests, the book to read is The Story of the Philadelphia Eleven by Darlene O'Dell.

O'Dell, a skillful writer who has done her reporting homework, moves out of the way of the story and lets it unfold in the surprising but relentless way in which it happened during that unsettling time of Watergate and the final spasms of the Vietnam War.

She brings us into the three-hour ordination service on July 29, 1974, on an uncomfortably warm day (and not just meteorologically) at the Church of the Advocate in Philadelphia. There, we get to experience the renegade ordination of 11 female deacons to be priests (and, the next year, the ordination of four more women in a Washington, D.C., church). The Episcopal hierarchy later ruled those all ordinations to be not just "irregular" but also "invalid," before eventually coming to accept their validity, then moving to "regularize" those ordinations, and then finally to allow ordination of women two years later.

In some ways, this is a story shaped like an hourglass. Which is to say that as the story begins we learn about 11 geographically scattered, fascinating lives that eventually wind up together in the same time and place in a history-making church service. When that central event ends, we then follow the women out into their scattered post-ordination lives.

This engaging tale of brave women willing to confront what they felt to be an unjust system in their faith community is not just about 11 individuals, however. It's also about the patriarchal system they bucked and about three risk-taking bishops who were willing to force the issue by performing the ordinations.

One was Edward Welles, who had retired recently as the bishop of West Missouri. Katrina Swanson, his daughter, was one of the 11. Welles, who kept changing his mind about whether to participate but finally did, was joined by Robert DeWitt, retired bishop of Pennsylvania, and Daniel Corrigan, retired suffragan bishop of Colorado.

They and other men who supported the women had to summon up the courage to take on their own church, and they had no guarantee that the church wouldn't retaliate. O'Dell gives readers lots of intriguing detail about how these men came to that decision.

Readers also get to read from some of the original documents that helped to create this ecclesiastical firestorm.

For instance, the 11 women wrote a "Dear Friends" letter before the ordination, explaining their reasons for moving ahead. It included these words: "We feel certain that the Church needs women in priesthood to be true to the Gospel understanding of human unity in Christ. ... We can no longer in conscience answer our calling by saying, 'Eventually -- when the Church comes around to accepting us.' "

In turn, Corrigan, Welles and DeWitt released an open letter saying that they were moved to act because of their "obedience to the Lordship of Christ, our response to the sovereignty of His Spirit for the Church."

O'Dell does a nice job of being a storyteller without being an over-the-top cheerleader on every page. Clearly, she has great respect for the Philadelphia Eleven and the Washington Four. As she writes at the end of the book, what they did was to push the church "to a place where representatives of the infinite are not limited to the powerful few within the elitist structures of religious institutions."

So this is an admiring -- but not fawning -- look at prophetic people who were moved to change the world in which they lived, changes that continue to have ripple effects far beyond the Episcopal church. Anyone who cares about where the issue of ordaining women might be headed in other faith traditions will want to understand how it happened for Episcopalians and why it matters.

[Bill Tammeus, a Presbyterian elder, writes a "A small c catholic" for NCR. His latest book is Woodstock: A Story of Middle Americans.]

A version of this story appeared in the Oct 10-23, 2014 print issue under the headline: Book tells story of 11 prophetic women.

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