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Commemoration of the Philadelphia Eleven

Updated: Aug 10, 2023

Commemoration of the Philadelphia Eleven

Readings: Exodus 1:15-21; Sirach 1:4-15; C. Heyward, A Priest Forever; Luke 24:1-11

St. Aidan’s Episcopal Church, San Francisco

The Rev'd Cameron Partridge

July 30, 2023

Good morning, St. Aidan’s.

On the morning of September twenty-first, 1991, the fall of my first year at Bryn Mawr College, I woke up and made my way to a hillside overlooking a playing field. Something within me seemed to be afoot. I wrote in my journal about the crispness of the air, the sharpness of the light. After about an hour I made my way to a room in the old library complex that was reserved for quiet reflection, pleasure reading, journaling, or napping – no work allowed. There were two egg chairs in there – quasi-Eames chairs enclosed by rounded plastic with soft, cushioned interiors. As I sank into one of them, resting and praying, I had one of the very few experiences I’ve ever had in my life of feeling as though God had clearly spoken to me, or within me. I scribbled down what I could recall and then made my way to the actual library. There, as I wrote in my journal later that day, “I found [a] book quite by accident… The book is called Womanpriest and it’s by a woman named Alla Bozarth-Campbell, an Episcopal priest.[1] It’s an autobiography explaining how she felt called to be a priest. I couldn’t believe my good fortune at having found it. As soon as I got back to [my] room, I sat down and began to read it.” Looking back on that day, I can see a before and an after. Before, I had been wondering off and on if I might be called to the priesthood, unlikely as such a vocational trajectory was as a young person assigned female at birth in the contexts of my high school and peer groups, among the professions of my family members, and in the particular Episcopal parish I had attended growing up. But the combination of that prayerful experience and the discovery of the memoir changed everything. Now, after, not only did I know much more about the life and vocation of Alla Bozarth-Campbell, but I had also learned about the group of the ten other pioneering priests and their allies. They had caused an earthquake in the Episcopal Church that registered beyond ecclesial walls into the women’s movement rippling across this country in the 1970s. Now, after, I truly understood that one could be a feminist and a Christian. One could be a woman and a priest. Or, as I would later realize, a queer person and a priest. Still later, a trans priest. One could upend gender norms, could join with others in an ever-expanding call to transform injustices of all kinds, not despite but because of the gospel. Because the just, world-upending reign of God has come near, and God is constantly inviting us, calling us in many and various ways, to join it.

Forty-nine years ago, as of yesterday – fifty as of next year – the Philadelphia Eleven, as they came to be known, were ordained to the priesthood at the Church of the Advocate in Philadelphia. We commemorate this day in our worship as part of a churchwide effort to prepare the way for this anniversary to be added officially to the Episcopal Church’s sanctoral calendar, the annual commemorations of holy events and lives of our tradition. When we make such an addition as a church it is because of how the event, individual, or community proclaims the Good News to us, reveals Christ to us in a way that is profoundly formative. Shaped as we are by the stories in which we immerse ourselves throughout the Church year, the question arises as to how the stories surrounding the Philadelphia ordinations form us, what questions they open in us, what space they make in us and for us to breathe the breath of God into our lives, our communities, our world. This is one of the most formative stories of my life—as I’ve said there is a distinct before and after this story made its way into my heart. Yet also, as I’ve come back to it over the years, I’ve discovered new dimensions of it. It is not simply one story but many – a narrative complex. More than Alla Bozarth-Campbell’s. More than Carter Heyward’s, another one of the Philadelphia Eleven, whose 1976 memoir A Priest Forever I read as a first-year seminary student. It is more than the nine women who were also ordained that day. There are the stories of the lay and ordained people who helped them, and of those who resisted and sought to squelch them. The stories of how the institution of the Church struggled to accept the women—how their ordinations were first deemed “invalid” by the House of Bishops, then ultimately “irregular,” and how each of the women had to have their ordinations received by their bishop once the canons of the Episcopal Church were changed by the General Convention of 1976.[2] There are the stories of when the women were or were not licensed to officiate publicly, and how difficult it was for them to find jobs as visible path-breakers, lightning rods of controversy.[3]

The readings for today’s commemoration[4] lift up the reality that what these women and their allies were unleashing in new ways was the unsettling, renewing Spirit of God. They were harbingers, messengers of new life. The first reading from Exodus tells of the Hebrew midwives who in the face of orders from Pharoah to kill the newborn sons born on their watch, refused. And not simply in a bold, straight-forward way – this wasn’t the time for quite such an approach if they wanted to live themselves – but shrewdly, that their lives and vocations as well as the newborn babies might be preserved. The midwives were strategic in their resistance. Through it, they became part of a movement that birthed and increased new, God-dreamed community into the world (Exodus 1:15-21). I imagine this story was chosen at least in part because of the theme of untimely birth that the Philadelphia Eleven heard again and again. As Carter Heyward reflected in A Priest Forever, the women received significant feedback that the time was not right. “‘Why couldn't you wait?’ ‘The change was coming.’ ‘People were almost ready.’”[5] Bozarth-Campbell as well as Heyward write about kairos, “God’s time,” in their accounts of the events leading up to that day.[6] God’s time interrupts the more regulated, predictable flow of chronos time. In fact, just before the service began, the Reverend Paul Washington,[7]Rector of Church of the Advocate, spoke to this argument that the ordinations were happening too soon by connecting the concept of kairos with a birthing metaphor: “What is one to do when the democratic process, the political dynamics, and the legal guidelines are out of step with the Divine Imperative which says ‘Now is the time’? What is a mother to do when the doctor says, ‘Your baby will be born on August 10th,’ when on July 29 she has reached the last stages of labor…’ Seconds later the processional [hymn] began: ‘Come, Labor On.’”[8] The congregation roared.

Our gospel passage (Luke 24:1-11) amplifies this theme of new life emerging in an unexpected, even unwelcome manner. The women had approached the tomb by custom to care for the body of their beloved who Jesus who had been crucified by crushing imperial Roman power. Yet what they encountered was not the end of Jesus’ movement ushering in God’s just reign, not “the dead.” Instead, they encountered a message of resurrection. Jesus was raised from the dead just as he said. In that moment they were changed forever. They took the message and proclaimed it to, Luke says, “the Eleven,” a number whose post-resurrection significance was not lost on the Philadelphia women (unintentional though their number actually was). Yet their message was not taken seriously, dismissed by these men as “nonsense.” “It was Mary, Joanna, and Magdalene,” we just sang, “and blessed is she, is she who believes,” “is she who perceives,” “are they who see.”[9] Blessed is she who persists, who resists, who insists that Christ is raised, that new life is among us, that the power behind us is greater than the deniers, the naysayers before us (to rephrase words Bishop Barbara Harris often proclaimed). The time is now to open ourselves to God’s just, transforming reign.

Over thirty years ago, two months from my eighteenth birthday, the story of the Philadelphia Eleven began to open my heart afresh to the impress of the gospel. It emboldened me to perceive, and to take that perception seriously: “I heard my calling again today,” I wrote. “I don’t know how, but I know that I am called” to follow this path, I wrote. “Thank you, thank you, thank you God for making this so clear to me.” Thanks be to God for the witness of the Philadelphia Eleven that could light such a fire in a seventeen-year-old, gender-nonconforming college student. Thanks be to God for their courage and resilience; for their wisdom, both strategic and prophetic; for the freshness of their Spirit-led theology, lived authentically and written poetically; for their sheer exuberance. Thanks be to God for their continued presence in our Church and their willingness to continue sharing their stories all these decades later.[10]

Let us pray: God of wisdom and power, you draw our lives in unexpected directions and call us in your opportune time: open our hearts anew to your Good News proclaimed through the stories of the Philadelphia Eleven. May your inbreaking Word light our hearts on fire to proclaim your just reign by the shape of our lives. In your holy name we pray. Amen.

[1] Alla Bozarth-Campbell, Womanpriest: A Personal Odyssey (New York: Paulist Press, 1978). As it so happened, another of the Philadelphia Eleven, Jeanette Piccard, had gone to Bryn Mawr College and had donated the copy of the book I checked out of the library. The book plate indicated that it had been a gift from her. [2] Our canons had never specifically prohibited women from becoming priests. Rather, prior to 1976, they had been ambiguous, and had been widely interpreted as limiting ordination to the priesthood and episcopate to men. The 1970 General Convention had clarified that women were allowed to be ordained as deacons but had fallen short in a vote on priesthood. The 1973 Convention had also fallen short. [3] For more of these stories I highly recommend Darlene O’Dell, The Story of the Philadelphia Eleven (New York: Seabury Books, 2014). [4] The Commemoration readings (minus the Carter Heyward passage, which I swapped in) were assembled by the Liturgical Commission of the Diocese of Los Angeles and released by Episcopal News Service on July 14, 2023: “Resources for marking the 49th Anniversary of ordination of women to the priesthood” [5] Carter Heyward, A Priest Forever: The Formation of a Woman and a Priest (New York: Harper and Row, 1976), 106 [6] Womanpriest, 129-130 [7] For more on the Rev. Paul Washington: [8] A Priest Forever, 86 [9] “The First One Ever,” The Hymnal 1982 (New York: Church Publishing, 1982), #673. [10] In addition to Heyward and Bozarth-Campbell’s memoir’s, there is eds. Carter Heyward and Janine LeHane, The Spirit of the Lord Is Upon Me: The Writings of Suzanne Hiatt (New York: Seabury Books, 2014); Betty Bone Schiess, Why Me, Lord?: One Woman’s Ordination to the Priesthood with Commentary and Complaint (Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 2003); and coming very soon, the documentary The Philadelphia Eleven directed by Margo Guernsey and co-produced by Nikki Bramley:

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