From the Book of Judges:
At that time Deborah, a prophetess, wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel. She used to sit under the palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim; and the Israelites came up to her for judgement.
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Judges 4:4-5 – August 2, 2012)
So . . . how is it (would someone please explain to me) that people have a problem with women in leadership roles in religious communities? Say, for example, as presbyters or bishops in the church? Today’s Daily Office reading is but one example of women in the Holy Scriptures exercising leadership among God’s People. If Deborah could be a prophetess and a judge over Israel, what is it that prevents a woman from being a priest and an overseer over the church?
This past Sunday, the Episcopal Church marked the 28th anniversary of the women known as “the Philadelphia Eleven” who were ordained on July 29, 1974. Four retired bishops (Daniel Corrigan, Robert DeWitt, Edward Welles and George Barrett) chose to defy the General Convention of the Episcopal Church which, at its regular triennial meeting in 1973, had voted against opening the priesthood to women; women were already eligible for ordination as deacons. Joined by male presbyters who supported them and the candidates, they ordained eleven women deacons to the priesthood: Merrill Bittner, Alla Bozarth-Campbell, Alison Cheek, Emily Hewitt, Carter Heyward, Suzanne Hiatt, Marie Moorefield Fleisher, Jeannette Piccard, Betty Bone Schiess, Katrina Martha Swanson, and Nancy Hatch Wittig. Shortly thereafter, four additional women were also “irregularly” ordained: Eleanor Lee McGee, Alison Palmer, Betty Powell, and Diane Tickell. A firestorm of controversy erupted in the church: charges were filed against these dissident bishops (Daniel Corrigan, Robert DeWitt, Edward Welles and George Barrett) and an emergency meeting of the Episcopal House of Bishops was convened on August 15, 1974.
However, the “stained glass ceiling” had been shattered. The next meeting of the General Convention was held in September 1976, and a resolution to change the church’s canon law to allow the ordination of women for all three orders of ministry (bishop, priest, and deacon) was adopted. Since then women’s ordained ministry has been recognized not only in the Episcopal Church but in several provinces of the Anglican Communion and has proven a great blessing to the Church.
These women were not the first to be ordained to the Anglican priesthood, however. During the Second World War, Florence Li Tim-Oi was ordained to the presbyterate on January 25, 1944, by the Rt. Rev. Ronald Hall, Bishop of Hong Kong, in response to the crisis among Anglican Christians in China caused by the Japanese invasion. No male clergy could be found who were willing to take on the onerous ministry, but Ms. Li was, so she was ordained and served with distinction. After the war, the Archbishop of Canterbury sought to make the bishop and the priest rescind the ordination, but neither did. Ms. Li voluntarily ceased serving as a priest until more than 30 years later when she immigrated to Canada where the Anglican Church, following the Episcopal Church’s lead, had begun to ordain women. Her priesthood was recognized and she served as an honorary canon in Toronto, ministering among the immigrant Chinese population.
These women have stood in the footsteps of Deborah and other women described in Scripture (in both the Old and New Testaments) who led and served God’s People. The great women leaders of the Bible demonstrate, as do the fruits of ministry of these women and the many who followed them, I believe, that there is and should be no impediment to the full inclusion of women in all orders of the church’s ministry. I simply do not understand how anyone could believe otherwise.
Father Funston in the rector of St. Paul”s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.