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>A Priest Forever by Carter Heyward

A Priest Forever

by Carter Heyward

published by Harper & Row.1976, pp. 80-112. (Section V)
Republished on our website with the necessary permissions

Dear Paul:

I received today your official “admonition” of my plans to be ordained on July 29. I accept this and can understand what you might be feeling, given your position. Each of these days is a day of prayer for me, seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

At this point I do intend to be ordained as scheduled. If I am hereby breaking rank with the discipline of the church, as you indicate, I believe that I am keeping rank with the doctrine of the Church—that Jesus Christ lived, died, and rose for all persons and that the orders of his ministry are to reflect this grace. I believe that the time for this is, and always will be, now....


My rector, Neale Secor, was considering presenting me for ordination. He was concerned not at all about whether or not the ordination was right. Like the majority of people in the parish, he was unambivalent in his knowledge that this should happen and that it should happen now. Neale was concerned, however, about the consequences this event might heap upon the parish itself. After struggling with the dilemma for several days, Neale decided to join us in Philadelphia—officially, as Emily’s and my rector, and as my clergy presenter. His wife, Christine, was to be Emily’s lay presenter.


There are few people to whom I have been closer than Betty Mosley, a friend at Union, at the time a counselor to women at Columbia University, and the wife of Bishop Brooke Mosley. I had come to know the Mosleys while he was president of Union Seminary. Betty had been an ardent and active supporter of women’s ordination. Moreover, she had shown me the extent to which this was an issue for all women, not just those seeking ordination.

Time and again, at lunch, late at night, at meetings, walking down Broadway, Betty and I had empathized with each other as each sought to live into her respective vocation in Church, seminary, and society at large. We had seen that the hurdles before us were similar, if not identical. And we had been able to give each other support as we went about the business of leaping over external expectations of the roles we “should” be playing— bishop’s wife, woman deacon, president’s wife, female seminarian, Episcopal lady, single girl, mother, hostess, daughter, female citizen in a male’s world. Betty Mosley enthusiastically agreed to fly to Philadelphia from their summer parish on Buzzard’s Bay in order to present me for ordination to the priesthood.

I have renewed hope that the church might yet be a place where I could raise a daughter in good conscience and experience a full life myself. By your courage, you have given a great deal to the church, and I, as a recipient, am very, very grateful to you."

—Letter to me from laywoman,
Diocese of West Virginia, spring, 1975.

About ten days before the ordination, I mailed out some fifteen invitations to friends I had not been able to reach by phone or in person. Responses returned rapidly. From Tom F. Driver, professor of theology at Union: “I’m amazed! In this instance it seems to be amazing grace.” From Bob Handy, professor of Church history at Union: “Knowing a little of your pilgrimage, I know how important this occasion is for you—and for all of us.” From Lee Hancock, seminarian: “Please know I am with you. I send you energy from the West.” John Lowick, Episcopal priest: “I’m as excited by this as by anything that has ever happened in the Church. Bless all of you for taking this tremendous leap. I’ll be there.” And from Vic, Esalen brother and Roman Catholic priest: “Love is sharing a priesthood.”


To our surprise, the news hit the press on July 20. Within twelve hours, our phones had begun ringing in tempo with the traffic light changes on the corner outside my office. A press release had been prepared for July 28, not before. We had agreed, however, that in the event the news were to break prematurely, we would offer “no comment.” We believed that the Philadelphia ordination would speak for itself; that the action would be stronger than any words with which we might attempt to explain it. There would be ample opportunity to meet the press, the public and many brother and sister Episcopalians after the fact.

I spent the last few days leading up to July 29 fending off the calls of well-meaning press people; answering correspondence from Episcopalians who had written to convey delight, disgust, bewilderment, or confidence; and helping plan, with Nancy Wittig, a retreat to be held at the DeWitt home, on July 28, for ordinands, bishops, family, and friends.


Then, on Friday, July 26, I took off for Putney, Vermont, where a gathering of intimates had long been scheduled. We shared two days—singing, dancing, and speculating every now and then in anticipation of the upcoming ordination, to which most of the group would be traveling.

Among the most elated, and deeply moved, at the thought of July 29 was Bev Harrison, my friend who had once upon a time watched me sink into despair precisely because I could not seem to stand on my own two feet and walk, as a churchwoman, as a female person.

The Vermont cabin belongs in part to Leslie, wise and gentle pragmatist, innovative head of a New York school. Leslie was an Episcopalian. For all practical purposes, she is now an “Episcopal alumna,” having left the church. As the rest of us sat marveling that women would be ordained priests on Monday, Leslie offered a wry suggestion, “You know, they really ought to be consecrating a few bishops


Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age."

Matthew 28:16-20

When Bishop Edward G. Welles II prays, one has the feeling that the Lord is bound to take notice. With him as celebrant, some one hundred people made our communion on the lawn as the July 28 sun began to disappear from the skies over Ambler, Pennsylvania. Mrs. Welles, her ordinand-daughter Katrina Welles Swanson, Katrina’s priest-husband George, and their sons William and Olof sat near the middle of a semicircle that had formed to worship and to reflect. None of the Welles or Swansons needed actually to say anything. Their faces said it all. Here were people for whom the Lord is unmistakably central. No one among us had struggled more earnestly with whether or not to participate in the ordination than Bishop Welles, who in fact continued to ponder his place in this process. Yet no one among us was clearer in his or her affect that this was just about the greatest and most Spirit-filled occasion in the life of the Episcopal Church. When William Swanson was asked why he had come, he answered proudly, “I’ve come to see my mother ordained to the priesthood and I hope my grandfather will do it.”

Our corporate body’s pulse beat joy! As ambivalent and anxious as most had been, we were amazed, even eager. I had only to catch seventy-nine-year-old Jeannette Piccard’s sparkling eyes, manifesting her recognition of a destination toward which she had been journeying since her call at age eleven, to know that all was well.

People mingled leisurely for several hours. My father and Bill Schiess, husband of ordinand Betty, stood laughing on the porch, perhaps reflecting their release from the absurdity with which each of them had viewed this dilemma all along. Methodist minister Rich Wittig, Nancy’s husband, expressed colorfully his opinion of the Episcopal Church’s treatment of his wife—and himself. Several people were startled by his frankness; nearly all of us knew what he meant. Others milled, nibbling on chicken wings, drinking wine, marveling: My mother; Elizabeth and Bishop Dan Corrigan; Neale and Christine Secor; Ann Smith from Philadelphia, who had helped organize the retreat; Mary Sue Willie and her husband Charles, our preacher; Paul Washington, rector of the Church of the Advocate, hosting the ordination; Jane Lynch, my childhood friend and church organist from Charlotte, N.C.; spouses, siblings, children, parents, nieces, nephews, rectors, colleagues, and close friends. This was no less a community celebration than a wedding—except in this case there were many principal characters whose lives were being altered irreversibly.

Not too late into the evening, our friends dispersed, leaving three bishops and eleven ordinands to our retreat. Dan Corrigan reflected with us about the priesthood. Alla Bozarth-Campbell made a spirited entry into this discussion, expressing a firm conviction that she had come to Philadelphia in order for an Episcopal body of the faithful to recognize and confirm what is already an “ontological” reality—i.e., a reality at the deepest level of her being: her participation in the priesthood of Christ.

Dan Corrigan sat back, folded his hands in his lap, and smiled, “Yes, in the ways of God—ontologically—you are already priests; you have always been priests; and you will always be priests.” Ecclesiastically, which is to say, for all practical purposes in the life of the Church, we were to “be made priests” the following day.

Each bishop then met with the women he had examined and intended to ordain. Emily, Marie, and I sat and talked with Bob DeWitt, discussing how we felt about what was happening. We believed that we were as ready as people would ever be for ordination to the priesthood. Bob said he was amazed at us. We said we were amazed at him. All of us were amazed at ourselves and at everything else.

The bishops signed the Bibles which were to be given to us during the service and asked us to bring them with us to the church. We agreed to meet the next morning as soon after nine as possible in order to dodge crowds and find quiet time together. As excited as we were, we knew we needed to go home to sleep.

As we were preparing to leave, Bishop Tony Ramos walked in the front door. He grinned.


The choir room at the Church of the Advocate was just large enough to accommodate fifteen people. Every several minutes, one of us would be called out to greet a friend or receive a gift or message—from Missouri, California, Ohio, Virginia, Canada, New York, England, Ireland, South Africa. The Secors had presented Emily and me with heavy, simple, attractive silver crosses. A Roman Catholic priest from Dayton, Ohio, had sent his cross to be worn by any one of us; Doris Mote, a deacon from Southern Ohio had given it to Katrina. Philadelphia friends had made Sue a stole for the occasion, and Bishop Welles had offered her another. Flowers arrived for Alison from her husband Bruce.

By 10:30 A.M. each of us had vested in her alb and was busy learning how to loop and knot the cincture. Each bishop was vesting in the manner in which he was most comfortable. Minutes before the service, we gathered for die taking and signing of the Oath of Conformity, which we believed required rather than inhibited our ordination.

Jeannette had pointed out that “discipline” is rooted in the word “disciple,” and that a disciple is one who follows when Christ calls.

Even those of us who viewed the “discipline of the Church” as something of a stumbling block to the manner in which we were to be ordained recognized that godly “doctrine” made the ordination imperative. We believed ourselves faced with a choice between “discipline” and “doctrine.” Time and again we must make decisions. We had made ours. We prayed that the Holy Spirit might fill the service, and we headed up the spiral staircase to await the beginning of the ordination.

Barely audible to us as we lined the wall of the sacristy and hall was the voice of rector Paul Washington, “We are all... acutely and painfully aware of the fact that the Holy Spirit has compelled us to act at a time which is considered by some to be untimely.... 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 pains and the water sack has ruptured?" Seconds later the processional began: “Come, Labor On.”

Laughing, we began to move slowly in toward the nave. Smiling, we nodded in salutation to several scores of our brother and sister clergy, vested and ready to fall in with us. An assortment of Episcopal clerics ranging from women deacons to retired priests reached out to us as we passed.

Approaching the door to the nave, my eyes began to pop. There was no aisle, no room to walk. Well over a thousand, maybe two thousand, people were pressed in close to participate. The path to the chancel area cleared itself as we moved steadily, if timidly, on through jubilant hellos, waves, hugs, flash bulbs, and television cameras moving with us.

When Bishops Corrigan, DeWitt, Ramos, and Welles stepped through the door, applause burst forth so resoundingly as to fill the space around and within us. The foundations of the Church seemed to tremble. I myself began to tremble. Tears ran down my cheeks as I turned in exclamation to Betty Mosley, “Incredible!”

When at last we were seated, Charles Willie, black educator and at the time vice-president of the Episcopal Church’s House of Deputies, was ushered to the pulpit:

The hour cometh and now is, when the true worshipers shall worship God in spirit and in truth. This is the hour of truth....

I participate in this service today not because I wanted to speak out but because I could not remain silent....

Twice during the 1970 decade, the General Convention was presented the opportunity to confirm the personhood of women by affirming their right to be professional priests. Twice it did blunder. Some might say that the actions of General Convention were not sexist and had nothing to do with discrimination against women.

But I say that an overwhelming majority of General Convention members are men. This fact speaks louder than their denial of the presence of prejudice....

There is a dictum in American jurisprudence that justice delayed is justice denied....

There are parallels between the Civil Rights Movement and the Women’s Movement and this is what we are witnessing today. In reality, both are freedom movements for men as well as women, and for blacks and browns as well as whites. Unfulfilled hope tends to turn into despair and eventually into rage....

As blacks refused to participate in their own oppression by going to the back of the bus in 1955 in Montgomery, women are refusing to cooperate in their own oppression by remaining on the periphery of full participation in the Church in 1974 in Philadelphia....

God grant that the Church may see the true mission of women as it is meant to be. Here we stand to stake our claim and our version of truth as we understand it, that all believers are priests in the kingdom of God and have a right to full participation in the affairs of Church and society. And we also vow to make no peace with oppression, whether it is sexism or racism. We can do nothing else, so help us God. With God’s help, we shall overcome. AMEN.

Intermittently throughout the sermon, the congregation roared its affirmation.

In unison, our presenters spoke to the bishops, “Reverend Father in God, I present unto you these persons present, to be admitted to the Order of Priesthood.” One by one, our names were listed. There followed the prescribed chance for any person to “come forth in the Name of God” to make known any “crime or impediment” because of which the ordinands should not be received into “this holy Ministry.”

Five male priests stepped forward to address the congregation, and principals, on such “impediments” as canonical interpretation against the ordination of women; the “perversion” implicit in any attempt to ordain a woman priest (like attempting to change “stones to bread”; emitting the “smell, sight, and sound of perversion”); Jeannette Piccard’s being “too old” to be priested; and the ordination’s timing being premature—i.e., prior to the next General Convention. Paul Washington smiled and thanked the protesters for having expressed themselves. He then turned to Bishop Corrigan, who for the bishops, responded to the charges of impediment:

Our common dilemma is presented at the outset by the requirement that each ordinand, first, declare her belief that the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments contain all things necessary to salvation; secondly, take the canonical Oath of Conformity to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America; and thirdly, make a similar liturgical promise placed in the ordinal.

The conflict between both revelation in the Scriptures and the doctrine of the Church, on the one hand, and the discipline, rules, and regulations and common practices of the Protestant Episcopal Church on the other hand, have long been both observed and experienced.

There is nothing new in being compelled to choose the truth revealed in Scripture and expressed in doctrine when this truth is in conflict with our rules and ways.

This is such a time. Neither the Word nor the great expositions of that Word forbid what we propose. Indeed, that which both declare about women in creation and in the new creation command our present action. The time for our obedience is now!

The litany was made; the collect prayed; and the Epistle read by Kate Mead, widow of Delaware’s late Bishop William Mead who had hoped to plan and participate in this very ordination. Pat Park, who had not been a deacon long enough to be ordained a priest with us (minimum requirement of time, six months), read to us from the Gospel of Matthew.

When Jesus saw the multitudes, he was moved with compassion on them, because they fainted, and were scattered abroad as sheep having no shepherd. Then saith he unto his disciples, “The harvest truly is plenteous, but the labourers are few; pray ye therefore the Lord of the harvest, that he will send forth labourers into his harvest”.

Matthew 9:36-38, KJV

The eleven of us moved to the altar rail where we were given our charge. We took our vows and knelt for the Veni, Creator Spiritus (“Come, Holy Ghost”), hymn in which the Spirit is invoked.

Each of the three ordaining bishops was to ordain the women he had known best, examined, or otherwise believed he should ordain. Within these sets of three, we would be ordained according to our seniority in the diaconate.

Daniel Corrigan and his friend of many years, Jeannette Piccard—who, he had noted, ought to be ordaining him— stepped to the top of the chancel stairs. The bishop sat down and the majestic deacon, flanked by her three sons and her aging clergy presenter Denzil Carty from Minnesota, knelt at his feet. There followed Alla, Betty, and Merrill. Possibly a hundred Episcopal and Roman Catholic priests had gathered close to participate in the laying-on-of-hands, the rite which signifies a person’s ordination at the hands of the Church.

Bishop Corrigan rose and offered his place to Bishop DeWitt. Emily was ordained; then, Marie. As Marie stepped back, I stepped forward, catching the bishop’s eye momentarily, and as if strangely transcendent of the time at hand, my whole life seemed contained within the moment: past, present, future. All that had ever mattered to me flooded within me, as a geyser of lifeblood or holy water.

Whatever “authority problems” with which I had victimized myself in the past, or would give myself over to in the future, vanished in the present glimpse of God’s holy community, both here now and always coming.

On my own two feet I stood there, supported by a congregation of faithful friends and strangers who had come on their own. Among them was my therapist, Arthur, who, following Bob, had worked with me for years, encouraging me to grasp life in my own hands and use it. Among them were others who had helped shape my ministry and I theirs, all of us yearning for community in which we could live more fully and freely into our potentials as sisters and brothers, one in Christ.

On my own feet, I stood there, a member of the Church of God, an Episcopal deacon, a willing ordinand for the priesthood which Sophie Couch had authoritatively acknowledged as hers more than twenty years before.

And on my knees, I knelt before a person who had always assured me that God breaks into our lives in surprising ways when we least expect it, empowering us with the authority to move with the Spirit into new places. I bowed my head, and the weight of the Church bore down upon me. Bishop DeWitt held my head firmly and touched my soul as he spoke:

Take thou Authority to execute the Office of a Priest in the Church of God, now committed to thee by the Imposition of our hands. And be thou a faithful Dispenser of the Word of God, and of his holy Sacraments; In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

I rose to participate in the faithful dispensation of the Holy Order of Priesthood, as my sisters Sue, Katrina, Alison, and Nancy knelt to receive it.

During the communion which followed, person upon person asked us for blessings. I placed my hands on the head of a friend and spoke of a peace which passes all understanding.

You’ve had your way—Great! Squeeze every glorious moment out of it. Actually, you’re just playing games. After all, your church’s founder, Henry VIII, was no more obedient than you and no more pleasing to Almighty God!

—Letter to me from Roman Catholic laywoman,
California, summer, 1974.

On August 1, Bishop Paul Moore phoned me. He had returned that day from his trip to Europe and wanted to hear about the ordination. Paul noted that, while he wished he could have been present for it, he knew that even if he had been in the States, he could not have participated. He then asked me to agree not to exercise my priesthood “for the time being.” The two of us concurred that either of us could step out of the agreement at any time.

Several days later, I received a note from Paul, recording the gist of the agreement we had reached on the phone. He stated in his letter that he wanted time to discuss the situation with both the Standing Committee of the Diocese and the House of Bishops, the latter having been called to a special meeting two weeks hence.

On August 8, a letter was mailed from the Bishop to all clergy in the Diocese of New York. This letter conveyed Paul Moore’s instructions: (i) that Emily, Marie, and I refrain from exercising priesthood “until further notice” and (2) that all rectors and other ecclesiastical authorities in the diocese refrain from inviting us to serve as priests.

I had agreed to refrain from all public priestly ministry only until Paul had been able to consult with the Standing Committee and the House of Bishops. I felt, as did my sister priests, that our own dioceses needed time to ascertain how they might best open themselves officially to the ministries we offered.

I celebrated several private House Communions, the first with my own family and old friends at home. And I waited to see what would happen next in the public arenas of Episcopal reaction to women priests.

What a great encouragement it is for me, an orthodox Jewish woman who’s been working for some time toward some long-overdue changes in Jewish law and attitudes regarding women, to see other religious women within an authoritarian religious community take REAL action to improve their situation, without having to step outside the tradition completely.

—Letter to me from Jewish woman,
New York City, summer, 1974.

Many people wonder why we could not have waited longer for approval of a General Convention, for permission from our diocesan bishops, for support of most Episcopalians, for some gesture, or event, or time in near or distant future in which some agreement might be reached that women can be priests of the Church of God.

The Church hierarchy is bothered by you now, but it wasn’t bothered at all last year at General Convention, when it voted for brutality to women, called its vote a fluke, and declared the subject closed for the next three years. Courage! The nation endorsed morality last week perhaps our church may too.

—Letter to me from laywoman,
Diocese of North Carolina, summer, 1974.

On August 14, 1974, Episcopal bishops from all over the United States rushed to Chicago for an emergency meeting, called by Presiding Bishop Allin for the specific purpose of responding to the Philadelphia service.

Nine of the eleven new priests flew to Chicago, too, for the purposes of being available, should the bishops wish to speak to us about our vocations, and of observing the proceedings.

The House of Bishops (the official gathering of Episcopal bishops) met for two days. We stood alongside, watching and listening. Together with other Episcopalians, who had come to observe, we were unacknowledged and treated as if we were invisible. We, however, knew well how visible and clear our presence was among the bishops.

The bishops sought some way of condemning their brothers who had ordained us, and of invalidating our ordinations, without appearing to be Pharisaic legalists. They finally produced a resolution that contained a little love, a little vindication, a little anguish, a little soft brutality, a little pastoral concern, and a little legalism.


The House of Bishops in no way seeks to minimize the genuine anguish that so many in the Church feel at the refusal to date of the Church to grant authority for women to be considered as Candidates for Ordination to the Priesthood and Episcopacy. Each of us in his own way shares in that anguish. Neither do we question the sincerity of the motives of the four Bishops and eleven Deacons who acted as they did in Philadelphia. Yet in God’s work, ends and means must be consistent with one another. Furthermore, the wrong means to reach a desired end may expose the Church to serious consequences unforeseen and undesired by anyone.

Whereas our Lord has called us to walk the way of the Cross through the questions and issues before us resulting from the service in Philadelphia on July 29th, 1974, and

Whereas the Gospel compels us to be as concerned with equality, freedom, justice and reconciliation and above all love, as with the order of our common life and the exercise of legitimate authority, therefore, be it

Resolved, that the House of Bishops, having heard from Bishops Corrigan, DeWitt, Welles and Ramos, the reasons for their action, express our understanding of their feelings and concern, but express our disagreement with acting in violation of the collegiality of the House of Bishops, as well as the legislative process of the whole Church.

Further, we express our conviction that the necessary conditions for valid ordination to the Priesthood in the Episcopal Church were not fulfilled on the occasion in question; since we are convinced that a bishop’s authority to ordain can be effectively exercised only in and for a community which has authorized him to act for them, and as a member of the Episcopal College; and since there was a failure to act in fulfillment of constitutional and canonical requirements for ordination, and be it further

Resolved, that we believe it is urgent that the General Convention reconsider at the Minneapolis meeting [next meeting of General Convention, September, 1976] the question of the Ordination of Women to the Priesthood, and be it

Resolved, that this House call upon all concerned to wait upon and abide by whatever action the General Convention decides upon in this regard.

There was no discussion of this motion. The voting simply began. As the voting came to its end, a bishop stood up and asked the presiding bishop what the resolution meant.

“Does it mean the ladies are not priests?”

The presiding bishop assured him that the ordinations were, in fact, “invalid”—that the ladies were indeed not priests.


A number of bishops then jumped up to change their votes from “aye” to “abstain” or from “abstain” to “no.” The Bishop of New York was one such bishop, who, in the final analysis, chose to abstain rather than vote yes or no.

The motion passed: yes—128; no—9; abstain—10; and Charles Willie thereupon resigned as vice-president of the House of Deputies, protesting what he called the bishops’ “display of blatant male chauvinism.”


Parable: August 15, 1974

Pushing his way through the darkness, the King pursued IT. All his life he had been taught that he must be ready for IT. Whatever IT was, IT would destroy him.

The summer had seemed longer and hotter than usual. The people had seemed restless and anxious. Troubled, the King had been pacing the halls when the word reached him. “IT is nearing the castle!” Frantically, in defense of the castle, which he had been taught to recognize as defense of the people, the King grabbed his heavy purple shield and the silver sword which had been given him by the people. He scurried into the courtyard, mounted his horse, and rode off into the night to find IT.

The air was thicker than usual, the mountains steeper than he had remembered them, and the forest seemed to him a maze, as if he had never been there before. He spurred his horse, stiffened his jaws, and charged on, as if IT were a matter of life and death.

His anger at ITS audacity became more prominent the further into the maze he rode. What was IT? Where was IT? Although he had been warned often of ITS danger, no one had ever been able to tell him what IT looked like. Come to think of it, no one had ever told him what IT wanted. As he thought about IT, he became frightened.

He bore the prongs of his heels into the ribs of his horse and struck the beast such a blow that he found himself sitting in the midst of a thicket. Slightly bruised, he sat dazed, only to listen as his horse galloped into the night. His eyes began to scan the brush. He could not see! But he knew—his sword was gone.

“To hell with IT!” he shouted to himself, and his thoughts turned to the disquieting task of returning safely to the castle on foot. He must journey back without encountering IT. In frustration, he beat his fist on what he assumed was ground and instead made solid contact with metal. “My shield!” he exclaimed. “At least I can protect myself from IT.”

Painstakingly he picked himself up, shield in hand, and began a long, slow limp in some direction. He was tired, but he dared not sleep, lest IT catch him by surprise.

All at once, he heard IT. He could not tell from which direction, but he heard IT. IT was nearby. IT sounded like a bird, but the King did not believe that birds could sing in the night. IT was against the law of nature.

“Where are you?” he shouted.

“In front of you,” came the reply, somewhat less melodiously than one might expect from a bird.

What are you?” the King demanded.

“I am a bird.”

The King was more annoyed than frightened. He squinted in the direction of the voice and spoke loudly, “Birds do not sing in the night. You are not a bird. I will ask you again, and I will expect the truth, for I am a King. What exactly are you?”

“I know you are a King, and I know I am a bird.” The voice was surprisingly stern, then somewhat softer, “Why are you troubled?”

The King was abashed. He had no inclination to admit that, in search of IT, he was lost in the forest. “Tell me,” he demanded, “have you ever heard of IT?”

“What?” the voice inquired.

“You are not making sense to me,” the bird replied, as graciously as a bird can reply to a King.

“You impudent creature!” he screamed, flailing his shield furiously in the direction of the voice. “I could smash you with this shield, and I will do so unless you tell me how you sing in the night, if you are a bird, and why, regardless of what you are, you were presumptuous enough to bother me as I strolled through the forest tonight!”

“Birds sing—day or night. That you do not ordinarily hear us is beside the point. We are not bound by the laws of nature you have established with which to understand us. We did not make these laws and you did not consult us when you made them. We sing whenever there is someone around who can appreciate our voices.”

“You do not realize how you enrage me! Be gone at once!” the King commanded.

“I thought that perhaps you needed me,” suggested the stubborn voice.

“Arghhh!” The King hurled his shield directly at the voice which he had come to hate, and he was immediately alarmed because he knew he had lost that with which he could protect himself from IT. “Szzechhh!” he snarled and stumbled on through the forest, as if he knew where he were going.

Never had he known such despair. No sword. No shield. No one. Not even a sense of direction. And IT could be lurking anywhere, watching him, waiting to devour him. Hours, days, passed. He lumbered on.

Finally, too discouraged to be frightened any more, he sat down. His head lowered and his eyes fastened catatonically downward, he saw something he could not believe: There, in front of him, rusty and purple, lay his shield—and in it, a nest of weed and bramble.

“Hello!” came the familiar voice.

Unable to believe his ears, he lifted his eyes, and there, perched in a high branch of the tree, sat what looked to him like a bird, its head cocked, waiting for response.

“I didn’t hurt you?” asked the subdued King.

“No, birds can fly as well as sing!” she assured him, and flew up a branch in demonstration of her escape.

The King bowed his head. “I’m glad. You see, you—uh, IT—IT had frightened me terribly, and I was beside myself with strange feelings.” He paused, embarrassed, then asked abashedly, “By any chance, do you know how I might get out of here?”

“Yes,” the bird nodded towards the thickest part of the forest and the steep mountain which framed it. “I can go along with you.”

The King was taken aback. Why would a creature whom he had attempted to kill make such an offer? He bit his lip and looked skeptically up at her. “I don’t know,” he mused aloud. “For all I know, you’ll lead me to IT! For all I know you are IT!”

Her small wings pressed in close to her back, her head cocked purposefully, her sharp black eyes penetrating the space between them, her narrow legs braced like steel on the limb above, she puzzled him. Her presence was both fearful and comforting.

When at last she spoke, she spoke slowly, “If you want me to accompany you, I will. If not, I will journey on alone and you can do as you please. But you will stand a better chance of making it home if I am with you. Because you are lost, and, for the time being, I am not."

A deep silence fell between them.

With some cautious hesitancy, the King sighed his consent. He reached for his heavy purple shield. Curiously, he lifted the brambled twigs out of the center as if to take the nest along. He glanced at the bird who nodded her affirmation.

As they journeyed, the air seemed to clear. The forest and the mountains seemed less tedious. In order to carry the nest without snapping its sticks and bits, the King had dispensed with the shield in a cluster of berry bushes. He fantasized a homecoming among the people. He felt more like their brother, less like their King.

On one peculiarly difficult day, as he squeezed through thorns fastened well into crevices along the mountain slope, he found himself anxious about IT. But the bird soared, beckoning him home.


Any attempt to postpone justice is a sign of weak faith. The fearful hullabaloo among Episcopal bishops—their fear of schism, of alienating powerful churchpeople, of ecclesiastical trials, of their own loss of good standing, of throwing their dioceses into chaos, of us—suggests to me that these people, taken as a collegium (which is how they have asked to be taken), do not have faith that the Holy Spirit will move where it will move. The Church will be what it will be. Yahweh said, “I WILL BE WHAT I WILL BE.” Christians are charged to believe this, without knowing just where we are going, yet knowing that it will always be a just way—and that it will always be now.

Dear Paul:

I write with a heavy heart in response to the action taken yesterday by the House of Bishops. Women with me in Chicago, and women elsewhere, stand together appalled at the bishops’ hardened, sexist resolution whereby our ordinations were deemed invalid. That the resolution was steeped in language of love and concern suggests to me only the depth, pathos, and tragedy of our brothers’ inability to relate to us as sisters. Lining the walls and halls, we were strangely invisible. Had there been any question in my mind that the July 29 ordination was inappropriate, witnessing the House of Bishops would have erased all doubt.... As of today, August 16, 1974, I end my agreement not to exercise priestly functions “until further notice.” . . .


Paul’s response followed quickly. He, too, was hurt—"traumatized," he said—by the House of Bishops. He was, however, disturbed that I had decided to end our agreement. He told me that any priestly activities on my part would only contribute to the already existent confusion about the ordinations, and he warned that he might have to discipline me in some yet undetermined way. At the same time, he sent his good wishes and affection.


Having voted for the resolution in Chicago, I find that I am in contradiction with myself, and I must recognize the fact that your orders, though highly irregular—which I am sure you recognize— are certainly valid.... I would like you to accept my apology for voting the way I did in Chicago.

—Letter to me from diocesan bishop,
Province VII (Southwest), summer, 1974.

It will always be true that we see now through a glass darkly what we shall see someday face to face. Catching only hazy glimpses of God’s glory in which we live, and toward which we move, we must either act now—and it is always now—or confess that we are not alive in the moment and cannot go with God into new places today. Maybe tomorrow.

I trust that nothing will ever dilute or diminish the joy that has been radiating from your face in the pictures the papers have had of you.... Aren’t indelible marks wonderful?

—Letter to me from Roman Catholic priest,
North Carolina, summer, 1974.

Realizing that, technically, one is granted a “license” before functioning as a priest, albeit an automatic process within one’s own diocese, I wrote to the bishop, requesting this license.

Dear Paul:

I am writing to ask that I be licensed as a priest in the Diocese of New York. As you know, I believe that such positive action on the parts of the diocesan bishops who have women priests is both appropriate and far more regular than the action the bishops took in Chicago....


The bishop’s reply was brief: No. He could not, or would not, license me. And he suggested that I knew well why not.

Be assured of my continual intercession on behalf of you and your sister-priests.

—Letter to me from Anglican laywoman,
Quebec, Canada, fall, 1974.

I regret that I must cancel your invitation to come to this church to preach. . . . In pursuing ordination to the priesthood contrary to the laws and will of the Episcopal Church, you are separating yourself from the Body of Christ.

—Letter to me from priest,
Diocese of Western New York, summer, 1974.

I have thought and prayed over the matter of whether or not I, as an individual, will consider these ordinations valid. I find them extremely shaky, but my own theology demands that I recognize them as valid. Therefore, when next we meet, I will truly be able to vent my anger with you by addressing you as “The Reverend Mother Fucker!”

—Letter to me from priest,
Diocese of Dallas, summer, 1974.

In October, 1974, New York’s three women priests and three women deacons met, at our request, with both the bishop and the Standing Committee in order to restate our requests that we priests be licensed and that the deacons be ordained to the priesthood, without further delay.

The Standing Committee’s reaction to us seemed to be that we should keep up our insistence if we really believed in what we’re doing, and that no one—yea, not even the Standing Committee itself—should be able to stop us.

What I recall most vividly from this meeting was that the windows in the large Gothic room all blew open at once when one of the women clergy mentioned the Holy Spirit.

Shortly thereafter, Paul Moore attended the regular annual meeting of the House of Bishops, this time in Oaxtepec, Mexico. As the bishops were edging toward a retraction of their Chicago statement on the “invalidity” of the ordinations, and were conjecturing that the ordinations might be “completable” at some point in the (far distant) future, we ourselves were busy planning our first public celebration of the Holy Eucharist—as valid, complete priests. Word of our plans appeared in the Mexican press, as elsewhere, and I received another letter from Paul Moore in which he expressed his regret that I continued to heap bitterness upon myself by my attitude and actions.

Snickers, chuckles, and guffaws, by Baptist, Adventists, Pente-costals, Lutherans, and other religious groups greeted your ordination to a spurious priesthood. . . . Why don’t you start your own church, name it St. Feminist, and promote yourself to the first Bishopric? You will give the people another laugh.

—Letter to me from man,
Forest Hills, New York, summer, 1974.

Dear Paul:

You said that you are sorry that I “keep doing things that needlessly exacerbate bitterness” against me . . . , furthermore that it’s quite unnecessary and that if I would just quit “doing things,” the problem would resolve itself... and we could live together as one, whole, Christian family. But like grace, reconciliation is not so cheap. The reality of our Church is that it is split wide open. . . . The signs of the times are ones of struggle—only then, of reconciliation. Anger and bitterness are to be expected....

Sincerely, and fondly,

You are all egotists and a discredit to our church.

—Letter to me from lay woman,
Diocese of Arizona, fall, 1974.

Paul wrote back, assuring me that he was not bitter and that, in fact, he admired greatly the three women from New York who had been ordained in Philadelphia. He offered his concern about me, given the tension he imagined I was having to bear. And he sent his warm greetings.

Having been a lifelong Episcopalian, it pains me, to say the least, to have to contemplate leaving the church, but that is exactly what I am thinking over at this point. It strikes me that as difficult as it is to be a Christian in the world, it is more difficult to be a Christian in the Church. I wonder how many more women feel as I do— many, I am sure. . . . There is nothing to stop us from having a home Eucharist with you to celebrate.

—Letter to me from laywoman,
Diocese of Long Island, fall, 1974.

We could have waited—until tomorrow; until 1976; until... we could have waited forever. We did not have to do it. We chose to do it. The Lord God of justice always calls people to just action now. Usually we do not respond decisively. We do not hear the call, or we do not understand it, or we do not take it seriously, or we are too busy with other priorities. Occasionally, by grace, a human being will choose to respond now.

I deeply regret the impatience that led the eleven and the four to proceed so hastily. 1 wish you were free to give yourself to your work with people instead of having to carry the burden that haste has put upon you.

— Letter to me from laywoman,
Diocese of Connecticut, fall, 1974.

Thank you for helping us come face to face with our Lord’s burning love.

— Letter to me from diocesan bishop,
Province VIII (West), summer, 1974

The manner in which you have chosen to end discrimination in our church is correct and proper and anything but civil disobedience and I encourage you to redouble your efforts.

— Letter to me from layman,
Diocese of Western North Carolina, fall, 1974.


A Service in Celebration of Women in Ministry will be held on Reformation Sunday, October 27, 1974, at Riverside Church, New York City. Commitment to the creation of this service was generated by representatives from 19 Protestant denominations, Roman Catholic organizations and ecumenical church agencies gathered on October 1 at the first meeting of the Commission on Women in Ministry, Division of Education and Ministry, National Council of Churches. Among the co-sponsors of the service are the following groups:

Chicago Ecumenical Women’s Centers
Church Employed Women, United Presbyterian Church
Commission on Women in Ministry, Division of Education and Ministry, National Council of Churches
Commission on the Status and Role of Women, United Methodist Church
Ministries to Blacks in Higher Education
National Black Sisters’ Conference
National Episcopal Women’s Caucus
Office of Women’s Affairs, Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California
Philadelphia Task Force on Women in Religion
Riverside Church Women’s Center
Women Committed to Women, Los Angeles, California
Women’s Division, Board of Global Ministries, United Methodist Church
Women in Campus Ministry
Women’s Theological Coalition of the Boston Theological Institute
Union Theological Seminary Women’s Caucus
United Church of Christ Task Force on Women in Church and Society
United Presbyterian Council on Women and the Church

In an ecumenical setting, the Eucharist will be celebrated by three of the Episcopal women priests recently ordained in Philadelphia: The Rev. Carter Heyward, the Rev. Jeannette Piccard, and the Rev. Alison Cheek. Preaching will be the Rev. Carol Anderson, an Episcopal deacon. Participants will include other women deacons, Episcopal male clergy, and women in ministry from several Protestant denominations and Roman Catholic groups.

Affirming the wholeness of the Body of Christ, we, the co-sponsors of this Celebration will lift up the ministry of women in the churches. The controversy surrounding the ordination of eleven Episcopal women to the priesthood highlights the dilemma of all women in all churches: when we are present, we are ignored; when we speak, we are not heard. So, in this moment of history, we stand beside our Episcopal sisters, offering them our ministry of support and solidarity; receiving from them a sacramental ministry which we affirm as theirs to celebrate. By our action at this service, the ministry of all women will be made visible, will be heard, and will be affirmed.

We proclaim the Good News that in Christ the walls of separation have been broken and that we are made One. We put our faith in the power of the Holy Spirit to redeem the structures of the Church so they will more faithfully reflect God’s design for the liberation and wholeness of each human being and the world.


The Greek word for the timing of our actions is kairos, “God’s time.” Kairos cannot be calculated by clocks, calendars, or conventions. Kairos bursts without warning into chronos, “human time.” Each time this happens—and it is always happening—the very human question is posed: “Why couldn’t you wait?” “The change was coming.” “The time was coming.” “People were almost ready.” Kairos is always too soon. We are never “ready” for it. But occasionally we will know that the time is at hand. We will know that we are ready. Trembling and laughing, we will choose to go forth.


Four days before the Riverside service, Victor Schramm, a priest from Michigan and the master of ceremonies for the upcoming service, joined me in a visit to Paul Moore’s apartment. I had written to Paul about our intentions to participate in this celebration, but I wanted to discuss the matter with him in person.

The visit was a relaxed one. Paul listened intently as I explained to him why I believed we must take this step, and others after it, in order to be faithful to our vocations. He told me that, while he wished the service were not happening, he also wished he could be present with us. I invited him to come concelebrate with us. He laughed and said that he would be on vacation in Connecticut that evening. He indicated that he had no idea of what reactions we would reap, but that he would do everything he could to maintain peace in the diocese.

He told me I looked tired and to get some rest. I detected sadness in his voice and face. That night, after describing my visit with the bishop in a conversation with my apartment-mate, Jean, I cried myself to sleep. Empathy? Tension? Tiredness? Alienation? Anger? A lingering need for my Father-in-God’s approval? Maturation into new levels of faith and activity? A little of each.

Go to hell, buck teeth! Someone ought to kill you. You’re filthy.

—Anonymous note, fall, 1974.


On July 29, 1974, four Episcopal bishops ordained eleven women deacons to the priesthood. On this occasion, the eleven of us agreed to refrain from exercising publicly our priestly functions for a time. Our hope was that the ecclesiastical authorities of our church would move quickly to regularize our ordinations and ordain our sister deacons to the priesthood.

However, on August 15, the House of Bishops expressed its conviction that our ordinations are invalid. At that time, we issued a statement that we could not accept the bishops’ decision, and that each of us would decide when and how to affirm the priesthood into which she has been ordained.

By late September, we had become aware that the time had come for some of us to publicly proclaim the validity of the Philadelphia ordinations and, in so doing, the valid and critical ministry of all women.

Hence, in cooperation with women in ministry from various denominations, three of us began to plan towards a Service in Celebration of Women in Ministry. We three decided that, upon such an occasion, we would celebrate the Eucharist according to the Episcopal Church’s Authorized Services, 1973. Women from other denominations, as well as our own, have been instrumental in the planning and implementation of such a service, believing, as we all do, that what has transpired in the Episcopal Church is not peculiarly an “Episcopal” problem. It is a problem facing the whole Christian Church: fundamental to church life, women remain peripheral, ignored, and invisible within its processes.

Therefore, on October 27—Reformation Sunday—the three of us join women and men throughout the church in witnessing to a common faith. Our faith is in a God who has heard our cries; who is building a community in which we find joy and grace; and who has strengthened us and called us forth to bear this witness. Such witness was made on July 29 by nearly 2000 people. On October 27, the witness continues.

On October 17, the House of Bishops reaffirmed its support of women’s ordination, in principle. While we rejoice in this action, we must note that women do not exist merely “in principle.” We are people and we are priests—not an hypothesis, but a reality. Our vocation does not lie dormant as a future possibility. The call, the time, is now.

We call upon Episcopal bishops and other ecclesiastical authorities to hear us, and to join us. Our Anglican tradition means much to us. In it we have our roots. We pray that it will be opened soon to embrace the dignity of all persons. Then, and only then, can Episcopalians stand together—in reconciliation and in true community—as ministers to a needy world.

In joy, knowing pain; in peace, acknowledging the conflict in which we participate, we celebrate this strange and wonderful movement of the Holy Spirit who brings us to this night. We recall especially the Spirit’s movement among women throughout all times.

Finally, we offer this Eucharist to the Glory of Almighty God; and in thanksgiving for the ministry of our sister priests—Betty, Marie, Alla, Sue, Emily, Nancy, Katrina, Merrill; for the ministry of our sister deacons, especially Lee, who is being ordained tonight in Washington; for the ministry of our sisters among the laity; for the ministry of our brother bishops—especially Daniel, Robert, Antonio, Edward; and for the ministry of all women, and men who have stood with us, in all churches, in all ages.

—Alison Cheek, Carter Heyward, Jeannette Piccard

As we lifted the bread, baked by women from St. Stephen’s in Washington, above our heads to break it in the offering of sacrifice, I recalled momentarily the flowers that had been sent to us prior to the service and the anonymous card that had accompanied them: “Let the Spirit flow! Love, Melchizedek.

For me it’s like a great weight being gone. . . . Hooray!

—Letter to me from woman seminarian,
Church Divinity School of the Pacific,
Berkeley, California, summer, 1974.

Dear Bishop Allin [Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church]:

Last night was a splendid and Spirit-filled occasion for us and for many of our sister and brother Christians here in New York and elsewhere. Please find enclosed both a copy of the bulletin from the Celebration of Women in Ministry and a check for $672, collected during the Offertory and made payable to your Fund for World Relief. This comes in recognition of the gross human suffering in the world and in response to the Bishop of New York’s diocesan-wide appeal for Episcopal commitment to “hunger relief.”

Your sisters in Christ,
Alison Cheek, Carter Heyward, Jeannette Piccard

I pray this will bring a new day in the life of the church everywhere,

—Letter to me from United Methodist laywoman
and seminary professor, New Jersey, fall, 1974.


Dear Friends:

Last Sunday, the Rev. Carter Heyward, a deacon of our diocese who was ordained a priest irregularly (some, including the House of Bishops, say invalidly) in Philadelphia on July 29th celebrated the Eucharist at Riverside Church. Two similarly ordained clergy from other dioceses concelebrated with her....

No one of the three clergy is recognized as a priest of our Church. The service, therefore, was not in accord with the doctrine, discipline and worship of our Church. As Bishop I directed the Rev. Carter Heyward to refrain from exercising priesthood. She deliberately defied this directive and in so doing alienated herself from the regular life and discipline of this diocese....

I hereby formally reprimand the Rev. Carter Heyward for this action and inhibit the Rev. Alison Cheek of the Diocese of Virginia and the Rev. Jeannette Piccard of the Diocese of Minnesota from ministry in this diocese....

I do not use strong words lightly. I have been sympathetic and patient, seeking by persuasion and support of the cause to avoid this situation. However, the service of October 27th demands a response.

This action is contrary to a clear directive of the bishop, has upset the majority of clergy and laity of the diocese, has set back the mission of the Church in this place, and has jeopardized some delicate ecumenical relations.

I offer my heartfelt sympathy to those who are confused by these events. You need to be confused no longer. Neither this nor any similar acts are an acceptable part of the life of this diocese.

Even though I am sure this action was done in conscience, it is ironic that its consequences probably will set back the very cause for which these women have worked and for which I have worked over the past few years, namely the full acceptance of women as priests and bishops of the Church. It is also ironic that our mission to the desperate plight of this city and its environs may be set back by what seemed to the participants to be an act of liberation.

However, there is great spiritual power being raised up in our land and in our Church through the women’s movement. The Lord will use this power for good. He will redeem us all and, even through this conflict, bring forth a mightier Church in which men and women, priests and lay persons, will minister together in the authority and power of His love.

Paul Moore, Jr., Bishop of New York

At this time it is perhaps most important that your fellow priests who support you and the other female priests of the church make our feelings known.... I respect your courage to follow in the tradition of Luther, proclaiming “Here I stand, I can do no other,”

—Letter to me from priest,
Diocese of New York, fall, 1974.

Dear Carter:

This is to acknowledge your letter of October 28th with the enclosed check in the amount of $672. It is with deep regret that I must return this check to you but I am compelled to do so as a matter of conscience. I have come to hope that you and your sisters may reach the proper goals of your vocations. I am sorry that at this point I cannot accept the means you have chosen. With good wishes for you,

I am faithfully yours,

Thank you for removing the Ordination of Women to the Priesthood from the realms of academic exercises to that of reality. The Church’s first reaction was pure panic; in time she will settle down and bring Canon law up to date.

—Letter to me from Anglican priest,
Nova Scotia, Canada, fall, 1974.

Dear Paul:

Members of St. Mary’s Church, its clergy, and a number of us who participated in the Riverside Service have agreed that the money should be sent to you—for the same purpose. Perhaps you will be able to convince Bishop Allin that the money is not “tainted.” I have enclosed the check, now redrawn, and made payable to you in the sum of $672.

Sincerely, Carter

Paul Moore took the money and sent it himself to the Presiding Bishop’s Fund for World Relief. It was accepted.

Dear Paul:

You may have heard already that I plan to celebrate the Eucharist at Christ Church, Oberlin, on December 8. As with the Riverside service, this decision has not been made lightly. I both regret that things “have” to be this way and marvel at whatever is happening within so many people in our own church these days. There is Life! Please pray for me, and I will, and do, for you, Paul.

Sincerely, Carter

I rejoice with you at this beginning of your public priestly ministry! You have been for me and many others our priest long even before July 29.

—Letter to me from woman deacon,
Diocese of Southern Ohio, fall, 1974.

I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it.

Matthew 16:18

When Jesus charged Peter to be the rock upon which the Church would be built, what do you suppose he had in mind for Peter: A cope and mitre? or an inverted cross?

Continuation of "A Priest Forever"

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