Friday, August 1, 2014

On the Media: 40th Anniversary of Women's "Ordination"


Being an educated, liberal, white male, Crusty Old Dean is, of course, also an avid NPR listener (but not solely defined by that aspect of his demographic; COD is also an Old School Rap gourmand, having seen Public Enemy in concert, the only time he has been frisked).  One of Crusty's favorite NPR shows is "On the Media" (or OTM to junkies like COD) which, as its name implies, takes an in-depth,
Yeah, boy-eee!
critical look at how the media covers various events.  One of its great contributions is debunking myths often created by media hype.  For instance, demythologizing
 the hyperbolic news reports that a computer had "fooled" humans and thus passed the so-called Turing test and the day was coming soon when computers would be able to outthink people and we were not far from a Terminator-like scenario when computers decide to destroy humankind – when, in fact, the situation was far more nuanced and complex.  One of Crusty's first introductions to OTM was when it debunked the emotionally-charged narrative that Vietnam Vets had been "spat" on when they arrived back in the USA; doing extensive online searches of newspaper archives, they noted that this charge did not appear in print in any form until 1978, five years after American troops returned home.  What is often considered a defining aspect of nation’s response to the Vietnam War may have never actually happened.

Now that the commemorations have concluded, Crusty wanted to offer some OTM thoughts on the anniversary of the ordination of the Philadelphia 11, looking at some coverage of the commemoration of this event, and how this, in turn, informs how Episcopalians look at our own history.  Crusty thoroughly enjoyed much of the media coverage, both as an historian of The Episcopal Church and proud clergy spouse of a female priest.  CODW (Crusty Old Dean's Wife) is a far, far better priest than he will ever be and COD watched with unabashed admiration in the late 1990s as she bucked two forms of discrimination and was an ordained female clergy person at age 25, at a time that was the nadir of The Episcopal Church's seemingly institutional refusal to ordain younger persons.  CODW gave her own reflections on the anniversary hereYeah, she rocks.  Crusty knows that, suckahs.

OK, so let's allow COD to get the first thing off his chest:

A)  THIS WAS NOT THE 40TH ANNIVERSARY OF WOMEN'S ORDINATION.  Yes, Crusty resorted to all caps.  Let's count the ways this is wrong.

1)  The 1970 General Convention approved the ordination of women as deacons.  Deacons are ordained persons.  Therefore women ordained deacons are ordained women.  Not only did the 1970 General Convention approve women to be ordained deacon, it also ex-post-facto’d, abracadabra’d, double-secret probation’d, what-do-you-mean-Flash Gordon approaching’d, grandparented women
What do you mean, Crusty Old Dean approaching?
previously consecrated deaconesses and magically made them deacons as well (Crusty once met an aged deaconness who was not in favor of this decision, while being in favor of women's ordination, thinking that the action muddled the waters and understanding of the two offices of deacon and deaconness).  While not considered "ordained," deaconesses had been an approved office in the church since 1889, and involved the laying-on of hands by a bishop and invocation of the Holy Spirit for the office of deaconness.  Where were the media in 2010 on the 40th anniversary of the approval of women's ordination?  Or in 1989 on the centennial of women's ordination?

2)  This was not the first time women had been ordained to the priesthood.  Some accounts mentioned Florence Li-Tim Oi, who was ordained a priest in 1944 but voluntarily declined to exercise the ministry of priest.  But it was not just Florence Li-Tim Oi.  In 1971, the Anglican Church in Hong Kong ordained two women as priests as affirmed Florence Li-Tim Oi's standing as a priest.  Where were the media in 1984, or 2011, celebrating the 40th anniversary of the ordination of women to the priesthood in the Anglican Communion?

Crusty sometimes wonders if part of this discussion has to do with The Episcopal Church's reflection of American exceptionalism -- that somehow we are unique in the Anglican World and at the forefront of everything, when, in fact, the situation is far more complex and nuanced than that, and often The Episcopal Church is not the first or best or most distinctive.  For instance, there is the oft-repeated fetishization of the General Convention as the largest deliberative democratic body apart from the Indian Parliament, when this is utter hogwash, and the General Convention isn't even the largest deliberative denominational body in the United States:  the United Methodist General Conference and the ELCA Churchwide Assembly are both larger (admittedly depending on how many bishops show up for the House of Bishops). Likewise some Episcopalians seem to have an image of the Church of England liturgy being Mr Bean reading from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer; when, in fact, there is arguably greater liturgical creativity and diversity in the Church of England than there in the Episcopal Church.  The Anglican Church in Hong Kong ordained women before The Episcopal Church.  The Anglican Church in Canada approved it in 1975, before The Episcopal Church did.  Hong Kong, Korea, Kenya, and Canada admitted women as deacons before the Episcopal Church, in 1968. Of course, this aspect of exceptionalism can be spun both ways; part of some conservative narratives is that The Episcopal Church charges ahead without concern as to what the rest of the Anglican world does.  The Episcopal Church was third in women's ordination.  The Anglican Consultative Council and the 1978 Lambeth Conference acknowledged that provinces could be of a different mind on this question; it wasn't something foisted onto the rest of the Communion.

B)  OK, how about another:  the narrative surrounding the nature of the ordinations themselves and their aftermath.  They were clearly irregular: the deacons did not have consents of their Standing Committees and their diocesan bishops did not delegate the ordination to the retired bishops who presided.  Of this, pretty much most accounts are agreed.  It's not as if there's anything about calling these ordinations "irregular", however, that implies any sense of their value.  It's incontrovertible they
Stay thirsty, my friends.
were irregular. But so what?  They weren't even the first irregular ordinations.  There was Florence Li-Tim Oi in 1944.  Bishop James Pike ordained a deaconness in 1964, declared he saw no difference in the ordination rites between deaconnesses and deacons, allowed the person to be called "Rev" and wear a clergy collar.  Going back to the founding of The Episcopal Church, Samuel Seabury's consecration was also considered irregular, as was his performing episcopal acts for persons not resident in Connecticut.

OK, so the fact they were irregular goes without saying.  But then there's the question of the response to that.  Some have argued The Episcopal Church "condemned" the ordinations, or somehow implied they were invalid.  The House of Bishops decried the actions of the retired bishops who presided, and modified an initial resolution declaring the ordinations "invalid" with one stating they were "irregular."  At the 1976 General Convention, the bishops again modified an initial resolution.  Originally the HOB was to consider a resolution calling for "conditional ordination" for those irregularly ordained, but in the end permitted local diocesan bishops to devise a ceremony of their own design to "regularize" the ordinations.

The real drama was not about the validity of the ordinations (they were pretty much considered valid but irregular in every official final action of the church), but rather the issue of the exercise of priestly ministry by those ordained.  It's telling that the first celebration of the Eucharist by those ordained was at the non-denominational Riverside Church, and not in an Episcopal Church.  There were more ecclesial charges filed over the irregular ordinations against Episcopal clergy who permitted celebrations of the eucharist in their churches in contradiction to pastoral directives from their diocesans than with the bishops who performed the ordinations (of the four ordaining bishops, only one resulted in an inhibition, with others censured). 

C)  And why can't the Washington 4 get no love??  Being the youngest of five children, Crusty knows well that often attention goes to those who are first.  Larry Doby doesn't get as much press as Jackie Robinson, who came up the same year as Robinson, was also a great baseball player, and endured the same
Washington 4.
racism as Robinson, but Crusty hasn't seen any movie about him, nor has he had his number retired by every single major league team.  Several accounts of the commemoration of the Philadelphia 11 didn't even mention the additional irregular ordinations.  Crusty has a fondness for the Washington 4, if only that one of them, the Rev Lee McGee, taught at Yale Divinity School when Crusty was there.  Plus, while there aren't very many good photos of the Philadelphia 11 easily accessible in the public domain, there's a good one of the Washington 4, which Crusty had framed and hangs in the seminary where he is dean...and appears to the right.

D)  Then there's the role of these ordinations in the debate surrounding the approval of the ordination of women to the presbyterate and episcopacy.  Some accounts spoke of them as "leading" to the approval of ordination of women to the presbyterate and episcopate in 1976 at the General Convention.   Many of the members themselves argued they were essential in getting the church over the hump from narrow defeats of women's ordination in 1970 and 1973 to narrow approval in 1976.  Lee McGee, who was at YDS when Crusty was there, shared with us this conviction.  One narrative is the church has been that the 1974 ordinations flowed from the 1973 General Convention's narrow defeat of approval of ordination of women.  While true that in 1973 the House of Deputies narrowly defeated the measure, in part due to the process of voting by orders, which requires, in essence, a supermajority.  The House of Bishops did not vote on it, but had indicated in informal votes that a majority of bishops were in favor.  But the nature of this "flow" to 1976 is more complex.  Crusty had another long conversation with someone who was a bishop at the time, who was wholeheartedly and vocally in favor of women's ordination, but opposed to the irregular ordinations, thinking it might, in fact, inspire backlash in 1976 in a vote that was going to be close, and that the 1976 Convention would have approved women's ordination, anyway, without the 1974 and 1975 ordinations.  Crusty's not trying to adjudicate who was right or wrong, only that the march from 1973 to 1974 to 1975 to 1976 was not as linear as laid out.

E)  Despite being in favor of the ordination of women, Crusty has always been  troubled at the precedent set in 1974 and 1975:  that one’s interpretation of Scripture and the Christian tradition permits someone to contravene the discipline of the church.  Even though supporting the ordination of women, this has troubled COD for a couple of reasons.

--It begs the question why we have Constitution and Canons at all if we enforce some but not others.  Many congregations and some dioceses openly offer communion to the unbaptized, in direct contradiction to the Constitution and Canons.  If we can ignore canons because we don’t agree with them, it leads to

--Selective enforcement of the canons based on any number of factors.  For instance, you could make a strong argument from Scripture and Tradition that we can ordain persons directly to the diaconate, priesthood, or even episcopacy, and do not need to have sequential ordination (that is, one must be ordained deacon before being ordained priest, and ordained priest before being ordained bishop).  You could argue it is a justice issue (that the transitional diaconate obscures the full and equal status or vocational deacons; that not allowing qualified lay persons to be eligible for election as bishop violates our understanding of baptism as the grounding of all ministry, and so on).  Could any bishop just ignore those canons?  Yeah right.

--Selectively enforcing canons gives us less credibility when we do bring charges against people, and can leave one at the whim of moving from one diocese to another and having what was considered OK in one diocese leaving one open to canonical discipline in another.  

Crusty doesn’t have a solution to this, he is honestly torn – supportive of the ordination of women, but always troubled by the precedent set: that if you think you’re performing a prophetic action and can marshall biblical and historical precedents, it’s OK to violate the Constitution and Canons of the church.  COD thinks if we're going to have canons, then we change the canons.  COD realizes, of course, that this question is, in a nutshell, part of Dr King's response to his clergy colleagues in Letter from a Birmingham jail who were counseling him to wait and let the process of civil rights unfold without civil disobedience.  Like Crusty says, he's torn; how to balance the place of prophetic witness and the possibility of dysfunctional canonical chaos? 

F)  Crusty is thankful, however, that many of the accounts of the commemoration of the ordinations of the Philadelphia 11 rightly point towards the future, and not just the past.  Forty years after these ordinations, despite making up more than half the population of the people of God, women account for about a third of the clergy; women also hold disproportionately fewer positions as rector, let alone as rector of larger congregations; and we have fewer women diocesan bishops now than previously.  Many if not all of the accounts covering the anniversary noted these elements.  In the 40th anniversary symposium held at Temple University on July 26, moderator the Very Rev Katharine Ragsdale of Episcopal Divinity School eloquently noted "the infuriating reality of how far we still have to go." This infuriating reality is not solely confined to issues of women's ministry, sadly.  Crusty spoke at a congregational forum a week after Gene Robinson's confirmation as Bishop of New Hampshire at the 2003 General Convention and opened with the words, "We need to spend less time celebrating and more time working to create a truly inclusive church.  Confirming Gene Robinson's election didn't solve the problem of human sexuality in The Episcopal Church."  Never mind the overwhelmingly white makeup of The Episcopal Church in an increasingly multicultural country.  The Rev Dr Carter Heyward stated something similar, noting that electing Barack Obama as president did not mean racism in America was over; likewise forty years after the ordination of the Philadelphia 11, issues of gender equality and sexism in the church are not over, and we are far from being as inclusive as we strive to be.  

FWIW, now that the official commemorations are over, these are Crusty's thoughts on remembering the anniversary of the irregular ordinations of the Philadelphia 11 to the priesthood.  Studying the past often holds up a mirror to our own context; witness the changing and disparate interpretations of everything from the American Civil War to the Fall of the Roman Empire to the Holocaust to the causes of the Great Depression.  Studying the recent past is, if anything, even more complex, without the advantage of perspective.  How we discuss the Philadelphia 11, and how the story of women's ordination in the Episcopal Church is told, is, in many ways, a mirror that reflects our current perspectives.  Which, if anything, is why it has been essential through organizations such as the Women's History Project to collect as much of the historical record as we can.  The study of the past doesn't need to be a reflection of our current projections and biases; ideally it is something which provides perspective and context.  Otherwise the study of history is just a way to get your history piece of pie in Trivial Pursuit.


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