The altar of Philadelphia's Episcopal Church of the Advocate was bannered with the words of the Apostle Paul: "In Christ there is neither male nor female." The crowd, some 1,500 people who had packed the church to witness the ordination of eleven new Episcopal priests, jubilantly sang and prayed. But a few in the throng were anything but joyous. When Bishop Daniel Corrigan asked if there was "any impediment" to the ordinations, five Episcopal priests took the microphone to reply.
The ceremony was "unlawful and schismatical," charged one. Shouted another: "God sees you trying to make stones into bread! You can only offer up the smell and sight and sound of perversion." The protests were just the beginnings of a gale that buffeted the U.S. Episcopal Church last week. The reason: all eleven persons ordained as priests were women.
Women still cannot legally become priests in the U.S. Episcopal Church.* Like other churches that do not ordain womenRoman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Missouri Synod Lutheranthe Episcopal Church has refused to do so basically because Jesus and all of his apostles were men. Most other U.S. Protestant bodies reject that reasoning and ordain women.
The idea of women priests is gaining force among U.S. Episcopalians. At the church's 1973 convention, the House of Bishops was known to favor it, and a majority of clergy and laity in the House of Deputies apparently voted for it, but because split delegations were counted as negative votes, the measure failed.
Episcopal women have been moving up toward priestly rank since 1970, when the church first allowed them to become full-fledged deacons: members of the lower clergy authorized to perform baptism, marriages and other liturgical acts, but not to consecrate the Eucharist or pronounce absolution of sins, which only priests can do. There are now some 120 women deacons.
The eleven women ordained are all deacons, most of them seminary graduates, whose backgrounds vary widely. The oldest, Jeannette Piccard, 79, piloted many of the stratospheric flights of her late husband, Balloonist Jean Piccard. Marie Moorefield, 30, a graduate of Vanderbilt Divinity School and a chaplain trainee at Topeka State Hospital in Kansas, grew up as a Southern Baptist and became an Episcopalian just five years ago. Nancy Hatch Wittig, 28, who is slated to take up duties at a Morristown, N.J., parish this month, is married to a Methodist pastor.
Each of the eleven now risks suspension as a deacon for participating in the ordination. Presiding Bishop John M. Allin, who just took over administration of the 3.1 million-member church in June and was not even officially informed of the ordination plans, declared that all bishops involved are bound to bar the women from exercising priestly functions. He also summoned the House of Bishops to an emergency session in Chicago next week to discuss the rebellion. The saddened Allin told TIME "The question now before us is not orders, but order."