On July 29, 1974, at the Episcopal Church of the Advocate in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, three retired bishops ordained eleven women to the priesthood. The senior warden of the parish, Barbara Harris, who later would become the first woman bishop of the Episcopal Church, led the procession into the church.
There had been a great deal of debate leading up to what was, at the time, an "irregular" action by the said bishops. There were already a very few women priests in other churches of the Anglican Communion, in Hong Kong and Canada. The Lambeth Conference, a meeting every decade or so of the bishops of the Communion, had in 1968 found no theological argument against ordaining women. In its first meeting, the Anglican Consultative Council, a representative body from each church in the Communion, had also come to the same conclusion, in response to a request from Hong Kong.
The Episcopal Church, for all its vaunted "progressive" "liberal" image, had only allowed women to serve as Deputies to its ruling synod, the General Convention, in 1970. Women regularly began sitting on parish councils, "vestries", only in the 1960s (though a few dioceses began to allow them before then). As resolutions to the 1970 and 1973 General Conventions to permit women to be ordained to the priesthood had failed, the Philadelphia ordinations meant to be a prophetic act.
In this sense, "prophetic" means not telling the future but rather declaring God's Word to the powers-that-be. The act of ordaining women priests was, like all sacraments, the action of God's Word, specifically concerning who should "offer to the faithful the bread of life from the table both of the Word of God and the Body of Christ," in Vatican II's felicitous phrase (Dei verbum, 21)
This seems to me to be the real significance of what happened that day. While the earlier ordinations of women in other churches were considered "exceptional", this was meant to show that God does indeed routinely call women to be priests. Because of much of the rhetoric of the day, some commentators seem to think, as did the great Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann, that this action was about civil rights. There is of course no right to ordination -- God calls, or does not call. As Schmemann noted, if this is about women getting their rights, then it is just part of the corruption of clericalism, the power structure based on hierarchy.
On the other hand, that women were denied virtually any office in the Episcopal Church until such a late date is a matter of rights -- the right that all the baptized enjoy to be full members of the Church of Jesus Christ, including in its governance.
God calls, or does not call. All of the acts of God take place in the pure freedom that characterizes the life of the Holy Trinity. Every baptized person has a share in the resurrected Body of Christ, and is given individual gifts for the ministry of that Body on earth (see I Corinthians 12). This ministry or service is also in the image of Jesus Christ, who came not to be served, but to serve by giving his life that we might have life (Mark 10:45, among many verses). Each of us is called to play a unique role in our time and place. A few are called to minister to the Church.
So these eleven women, already ordained deacons ("servants") regularly, like all priests, took up on that day the cross that Christ asked them to bear, to serve the rest of the Church as servants who bring God to the people and the people to God, principally at that table of both Word and Body of Christ.
Was it right?
The Presiding Bishop of the time, John Allen, called an emergency meeting of the House of Bishops, which denounced the ordinations, though stopping short of declaring them invalid. Most of the immediate reaction around the Anglican Communion was negative, as well. Pope Paul VI wrote an encyclical, Inter intersigniores, which argued that as Jesus named no women apostles, the Church could not ordain women. John Paul II made it a definitive (though not technically infallible) statement. In 1988 a Pan-Orthodox Theological Council in Rhodes discussed "The place of women in the Orthodox church and the question of women's ordination," concluding that it is not possible. Since Jesus is a man, they said, echoing Paul VI, the one standing at his Table must look like him -- an icon.
Some people, while not opposing the ordination of women per se, continue to uphold that such a momentous decision needed to be decided by en ecumenical council of the Eastern and Western Churches. Others point to the biblical passages that call for women to "keep silent" in church.
Again, was it right? When the Episcopal Church decided in 1970 that women could be ordained deacons (not "lay deaconesses" as had been the case since 1889), it implicitly approved the ordination of women to all three orders of ordained ministry. (Interestingly, several Orthodox churches have begun ordaining women to the diaconate.) Either God calls, or does not call, people to be set apart for this ministry to the rest of the Church.
My answer is, Yes. Scripture records many women who held leadership roles, including prophets, in ancient Israel and the churches of New Testament times. Jesus treated women quite differently, as valued disciples, and women bore the first witness to his Resurrection to the rest of the disciples. Paul bears repeated testimony to their ministries, which he equates with his own apostolic work. Who is "Chloe" in I Cor. 1, other than the leader of her church? And "Junia, the Apostle" of Romans 16, not to mention "Phoebe, the Deacon" in the same chapter?
And there are many more. One woman mentioned in the Bible as a leader in her church has never been given credit, to my knowledge. This is she who is labeled "Jezebel" in Revelation 2. She is a false leader, John has Christ say, not at all because she is a woman, but because she has been encouraging sexual immorality and allowing the eating of meat sacrificed to idols. Why is this "credit"? First, because her leadership is not flawed because she is a woman, but because she is wrong. There have been some poor women clergy as well as many great ones, and that is to be expected, if women are meant to be ordained. The difficulties that women still face in the church tend to weed unsuitable female candidates out more than unsuitable male candidates, perhaps explaining why there have been proportionally fewer women deposed from the ministry than men since 1974. The church, being fallible, can't always ordain people who have been genuinely called to that ministry, including women, and none of us who are ordained are ever truly worthy of the office, in any event.
Thanks to determined historians, it is clear that there were women priests and deacons in the ancient church, despite futile protestations that these could only have been in heretical sects. Most arguments against women's ordination in Christian literature have based themselves on the intrinsic inferiority of women to men, an argument that even those who today deny ordination to women would not dare to make. Some past women saints reported feeling called to be priests. How many more would have expressed that call had there been any possibility of it?
Finally, there is the proof of the ministries of women deacons, priests, and bishops since 1974. Their ministries, often meeting with opposition and discrimination, have nevertheless shown that God's Spirit works through them as well as any man. I cannot imagine my jurisdiction without the ministry of women. I could not imagine meetings of the House of Bishops without the voices of women, even before Katharine Jefferts Schori became the 26th Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church. And I rejoice that soon I shall have the privilege of meeting the first women Bishops of the Church of England.
When it comes to prophets, says the Bible, "test the spirits." (I John 4:1) The prophetic act of July 29, 1974 has been tested and found to be a genuine Word of God: the Spirit calls a few women, as well as a few men, to be servants of the rest of the women and men of the Christian Church, that God's mission may advance until the Spirit finishes transforming the Old Creation into the New.
Start your workday the right way with the news that matters most. Learn more