Special Post: Deacon Leilani Nelson on the Philadelphia 11, Ordained 39 Years Ago Today

The Philadelphia 11, June 29, 1974

The Philadelphia 11, July 29, 1974

Beloveds,

I can tell you where I was 39 years ago today, when 11 women were ordained as Episcopal priests in Philadelphia. It was that kind of historic, cataclysmic event. I’d just turned 23 and was attending the National Institute for Lay Training at the General Theological Seminary in New York.

Our faculty – Capt. Howard Galley, Sr. Brooke Bushong and Capt. Tom Tull, all of the Church Army – canceled classes the next day to deal with women’s ordination and the history that had just been made at Church of the Advocate in Philly.

By the time we were done I was a supporter of women’s ordination, and of course I still am. I believe it’s God’s will. I believe God called those 11 women, and those male bishops who ordained them, and the women who have followed them.

TODAY, Deacon Leilani Nelson of the Diocese of California (and our volunteer staff) read an article by the Rev. Alla Renée Bozarth and made this comment on Facebook:

I was not of this group of uppity women. I was ordained in 1989 – and then to the order of Deacons. I did not consider myself of the first wave of ordained women. But reading this article called up so many memories and plucked so many heartstrings! The group of large pledgers who protested my hiring by lowering their pledges to $52.00 a year and called themselves “The 52 club”. The lies told about my theology and education. The folks who came up to the altar rail to stare into my eyes as they refused to take communion from me. Death threats, too. AND – The women who came up to me with shining eyes to tell me thank you for being a symbol of possibility and inclusion for their daughters. The families who asked me to baptize their babies. The fellowship of women clergy. The Bishop dropping in unexpectedly to check in and offer support. So much pain and so much grace.

I mean, that’s just shocking. And Lani was far from the only woman this happened to; it was common.

The Episcopal Church split over women’s ordination. So did worldwide Anglicanism – though in fact these 11 weren’t the first women priests. The Rev. Florence Li Tim-Oi was ordained in Hong Kong during World War II because the bishop there didn’t have enough priests to go around. (Does that remind you of any Churches today?)

My message to you on this holy Feast of Saints Mary, Martha and Lazarus is this: click that link above to Mother Alla Renée Bozarth’s article.

It’s very long, but it’s chock-full of historic photographs. So if you don’t have time to read the whole thing, do what Christians have always done – just look at the stained-glass windows. That’s why they’re there.

The article, the photos – the 11 themselves, and those who’ve come after, and women clergy of other denominations – all are gifts to God and to the Church; they’re gifts of God for the People of God.

Go! I’m done. Read the article, see those wonderful pictures.

And thank the women clergy as you go in peace to love and serve the Lord.

Josh Thomas
Lay Vicar

The first "regularly" ordained woman, once General Convention approved them after Philadelphia, was the Rev. Jacqueline Means of the Diocese of Indianapolis - my diocese, our diocese - on the first day it became legal, January 1, 1977. Bishop John Pares Craine was the man responsible, though he was too sick that day to lay his hands on her and had arranged for another bishop to be on standby. She was escorted by a bodyguard past protesters in front of the church, and only 75 people showed up the next day for her first Eucharist. Footnote: later that same year, Bishop Craine laid hands on me and made me an Evangelist.

The first “regularly” ordained woman, once General Convention approved them after Philadelphia, was the Rev. Jacqueline Means of the Diocese of Indianapolis – my diocese – on the first day it became legal, January 1, 1977. Bishop John Pares Craine was the man responsible, though he was too sick that day to lay his hands on her and had arranged for another bishop to be on standby. She was escorted by a bodyguard past protesters in front of the church, and only 75 people showed up the next day for her first Eucharist. Footnote: later that same year, Bishop Craine laid hands on me and Sr. Ruth Wraight, and made us Evangelists.

About Josh

This site offers daily Morning and Evening Prayer in the Anglican tradition according to the Book of Common Prayer of The Episcopal Church, based in the USA. Each service includes psalms, Bible lessons, and prayers. This site is timed for the Eastern Hemisphere. We also have a site (dailyoffice.org, or see the Blogroll) timed for the West. These two sites offer the same prayers, but a few features differ. We serve all the nations of the world. We're glad you came and we invite your comments. May God bless you richly in our Savior Jesus Christ.
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2 Responses to Special Post: Deacon Leilani Nelson on the Philadelphia 11, Ordained 39 Years Ago Today

  1. Leilani Nelson says:

    And remember that the pain is only part of the story!!! There is such a blessing in following the Call of the One who loves you more than anyone here on earth can that it is just blessing beyond words. Don’t cry for me – share my joy and always remember.

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    • Josh says:

      You’ve made that clear, Lani, let’s take it to heart.

      Still, your experience, and that of so many other women clergy (even seminarians were boycotted!), reminds me of another recent shock: when President Obama talked about being racially profiled. Click! went the car doors, just because he walked across the street.

      Allow us our shock; it’s full of grace too.

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