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Celebrating the Philadelphia 11, 40 Years Later

 |  NCR Today

Imagine a church service so controversial that police officers are stationed down the street and throughout the congregation. People trained in crowd control and karate are scattered in the pews. Buckets are lined up along the church walls in case of bombs or fire.

What kind of service is so controversial that people feared serious violence? Well, it was – believe it or not – the ordination of women priests! This was July 29, 1974 -- 40 years ago today -- and 11 women were about to be ordained to the priesthood in the Episcopal church. That church had not approved women priests at that point, but these 11 women could wait no longer.

And so 11 courageous Episcopal women walked down the aisle of the Church of the Advocate in Philadelphia and rocked the boat of the Episcopal church as they were ordained (albeit "irregularly") as priests. Within 18 months, the Episcopal church officially approved women as priests, although it took a bit longer to "regularize" the original 11.

All this is hard to believe when we see the Episcopal church of today. There are now hundreds of female Episcopal priests and several female bishops, and the presiding bishop of the U.S. Episcopal church is a woman, Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori. And just days ago, the Anglican church in Britain (part of the same communion) reversed an earlier vote and approved female bishops.

I remember the Philadelphia 11 pioneers very well. The media coverage was intense and positive. And the women's ordination movement in the Catholic church was just gaining some steam. We were still basking in the afterglow of the Second Vatican Council, and the Catholic Women's Ordination Conference's first meeting was being planned for Detroit.

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But there was no visible progress in the Catholic church. In fact, the Inter Insigniores was issued in October 1976, just as the Episcopalians were moving the other way.

By 2002, we had our own pioneers of women's ordination: the Danube Seven, ordained on a boat on the Danube River, avoiding any particular diocese. I was on that boat, and I'll never forget it. After the ordinations took place, the boat turned around, and someone quipped, "We've turned the Bark of Peter around!"

Well, maybe. Or maybe not. Despite the more than 100 ordinations of women as Catholic priests since then, we have yet to see movement on this issue in Rome, even from a warm and friendly Pope Francis.

Why the differences? There are many. The clergy and leadership of the Episcopal church could marry since the beginning, and thus were more comfortable with women. In addition, Episcopal women were already deacons in 1974, one step from priesthood. And although the Episcopal church respects tradition, it is much more flexible than the Catholic church, with no claim of infallibility (or inflexibility) on any score. But most of all, the U.S. Episcopal church makes its decisions democratically by vote of a House of Bishops and a House of Deputies. It is possible to convince a variety of decision-makers of the need for change in the Episcopal church, something very different from the monarchical decision-making of one man, a pope.

But in spite of all this, the Spirit blows where she will! And I've said for years: When the Catholic church finally decides to ordain women, the press release from Rome will begin: "As we've always said down through the ages ... "

To hear my interview with Emily Hewitt, one of the Philadelphia 11, and Darlene O'Dell, author of a book about that day, click here.

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