Episcopalians to honor ordination of women; Church to celebrate 25th anniversary of first female priests


Just before she was ordained in 1977 as the first female priest in the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland, Phebe Lewald graced her bishop with a small gift.

"I gave him a pair of purple woolen socks -- you know, purple for bishop -- with a card that said, 'This is so you don't get 'cold feet,' " said the cleric, who is now the Rev. Phebe McPherson.

A generation ago, the issue of women's ordination ignited passions and split the church. But what was once precedent-setting has become commonplace: 46 women preside at the Eucharist in the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland, and about 3,000 female priests serve nationwide.

The diocese will recall their struggle tomorrow when it celebrates "A Continuing Journey," a commemoration of the first "irregular" ordinations of 11 women to the priesthood 25 years ago in Philadelphia, prior to canonical permission.

The program, which runs from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. and includes an 11 a.m. Eucharist, will take place at the Diocesan Center, 4 East University Parkway.

Those who were involved in the campaign to permit women's ordination recall it as a time of turmoil and frustration.

"Good people were opposed to the ordination of women," said McPherson, rector of Epiphany Episcopal Church in Odenton. "It was not a simple debate when you know the right side. It was a very difficult question."

Grace Clark, a parishioner at the Church of the Redeemer in North Baltimore, was president of the Maryland Committee for Women's Ordination in the mid-1970s and spoke on the issue at many parishes in the diocese.

"It was a really insightful experience for me to find out how strongly some people felt against the ordination of women and how bitter and nasty people could be about it," she said. "People would talk about the whole idea of female priests as a perversion, that Communion would be a perversion of Christianity. And that hurt terribly."

The General Convention, the Episcopal Church's governing body, had approved ordaining women to the diaconate in 1970. The 1973 General Convention voted on ordaining women to the priesthood, but failed to approve it. Frustration among women was growing.

On July 24, 1974, on the Feast of St. Mary and St. Martha, three retired bishops ordained 11 women in Philadelphia, setting off a firestorm. For a time, the House of Bishops declared the ordinations invalid; they are still referred to as the "irregular" ordinations.

It was about the time of the controversial ordinations that McPherson decided she, too, wanted to be a priest. A 1972 graduate of Goucher College, she had been studying at Union Theological Seminary without a clear idea of what she would do afterward. She received her clearest sense of "call" when she was hospitalized with tuberculosis in 1974.

"As I looked around, I sensed the one institution I wanted to help build up was the church," she said.

The General Convention approved women's ordination in 1976. McPherson approached Bishop David Leighton, who agreed to ordain her.

"To bring this other element into the ministry really was completing," said Leighton, now retired. "If the ministry is trying to show forth who God is, we were lacking half of who God is, because he created us both male and female in his image, Genesis says."

But before that first ordination, there was still opposition, based on tradition and Scripture: Jesus was male and chose men as his apostles. But most Protestant denominations in the United States had already decided that women could be ministers.

"We had a lot of clergy who were threatening to boycott the ordination and protest and come with banners and cause a riot," Leighton said. "As it turned out, it was very quiet, beautiful and serene. But the atmosphere before that was terrifying."

After the ordination, McPherson, the other female priests and their male counterparts and congregations, had to wrestle with this novel reality. It made for awkward moments and more conflict, and interesting questions, like, "What do we call you?"

"David Leighton called me 'Father Phebe' for five years," McPherson said. "I finally said, 'Please don't call me that.' He said, 'I thought that's what you wanted.' "

And then there was clerical garb.

"There were no women's clergy clothes, so we had to make our own," said the Rev. Linda Fernandez, rector of Christ the King Episcopal Church in Woodlawn. "One of the concerns was with these clothes would we be become de-gendered? How would we portray ourselves? One of the ways we kept our femininity was to adapt styles to fit us."

And of course, there were no role models. "There was something called a priest, and you're supposed to fit yourself into that box. Well, it's not a box at all," McPherson said. "It's a much more internal process than an external process. And that was the issue back then -- it was focused on externals, literally."

An overriding early concern among parishioners the women served seemed to revolve around sexuality and childbirth.

"The quote I was given was, 'As long as you're not pregnant, we can pretend you're a man up there. But the moment you're pregnant, we can't pretend that anymore,' " Fernandez said.

At first, parish positions were hard to come by for the women. "They worked as chaplains, they did a lot of institutional work," said Saundra Cordingly, rector of Christ Church in West River.

Eventually, parishes began to open up, but issues of equality remain, particularly when it comes to salaries and advancement.

"One of the difficulties women experience is while it's easier for women to move into their first parish, moving up the ladder is more difficult," said Fernandez. "You get your pension based on your highest average compensation times the number of years. Women haven't been able to get into the highest compensation.

"Many of us who have been around a long time have been working part time, so you don't even get full credit for the years that you've worked," she said. "That has to change, and for whatever reason, it hasn't."

What women's ordination has brought to the Episcopal Church, say female priests, is a different leadership style.

"There was a real fear that 'father knows best' would become 'mother knows best,' and we didn't want that," Cordingly said.

"One of the things I've discovered is our leadership style tends to be much more mutual and holistic as women," said Fernandez. "We tend to see the big picture. We tend to look around and weigh the consequences of actions. We tend to involve more people in decision-making."

And they often bring the experience of being mothers to their ministry.

"The other thing I think women bring, and especially those of us who have raised families, is we know right off the bat that we're not in control. I mean, I've got two teen-agers," said Cordingly.

"We say that as Christians, that God is in control, but I think women understand that from a gut level. It just comes more naturally to us, and we can work with other people around that issue of things being out of control in their lives."

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