Homily for the Festive Eucharist at the closing of the Episcopal Women's Caucus
The readings that we chose for the service tonight were all picked specifically for this service because they lift up the role of women in scripture, named women. But there is another reading that has been floating around in my head. It’s there reading from the fourth chapter of the Gospel of Luke where Jesus enters that temple:
Luke 4.14-23 (referencing Isaiah 61:1)
14 Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. 15He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.
16 When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
18 ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’
20And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.
This reading framed the theology of Sue Hiatt and informed her work and ministry. Sue Hiatt is the mother of the movement of women’s ordination in the Episcopal Church, known affectionately as the Bishop of women, although she was never consecrated a bishop. She was ordained a priest on July 29, 1974 along with ten other women at church of the Advocate in Philadelphia, the first eleven women to be ordained in the Episcopal Church, albeit irregularly. Ordained because enough retired Bishops had overcome the outdated theology that ordination belonged to men only, came to know the truth that Justice is orthodox theology and were willing to ordain these women.
Here we are, gathered and surrounded by the communion of saints, both living and those who have gone before us, to celebrate the work of the Holy Spirit as she has moved through the women and men who created, supported, and sustained the Episcopal Women’s Caucus for 47 years. We’ve done this work because Justice is Orthodox Theology.
The Communion of Saints was a phrase used by Mollie Williams, an Episcopal priest and seminary friend with Sue Hiatt, just a few days before Sue died in 2002. Mollie, bereft at the pending death of her good friend, rejoiced with the reality that they would meet again in the communion of saints.
Mollie married me and my husband Dan 33 years ago. She is the person I credit with pointing me to the Episcopal Church and the person I tried to blame when I heard a call to ordination. Mollie refused to take credit, she said it was all the Holy Spirit.
The process toward women's ordination began in 1855 when the order of deaconess was establish, a lay order of women designated to serve the poor. It picked up momentum at a gathering of women at Graymore in April 1970. The Episcopal Peace Fellowship invited people from their members list to come to the conference at Graymore, to explore the real possibility of women’s ordination. The conference had grown out of the secular women’s movement, which was growing out of the civil rights, anti-racism, and peace movements of the 1960’s. It grew out of the 1967 General Convention that finally approved women to be deputies at General Convention, after a 25 year struggle. It grew out of the work of Lueta Baily who was one of 25 female deputies seated during the 1970 convention. The president of the house of deputies said, This is an act of the Gospel, which always comes with a judgment on our past and grace for our present and our future. The newly seated women come as bearers of the gospel, making us whole, holy, as the people of God.
From that conference in Graymore, and the failure of a resolution to specifically allow the ordination of women to all orders, at General Convention in 1970, another gathering organized in October of 1971 at Virginia Theological Seminary, a group of women and some men who came to call themselves the Episcopal Women’s Caucus. Sue Hiatt was there, so was Nancy Wittig, and Barbara Schalacter, Who else is a member of the communion of saints, past or present, of the Episcopal Women’s Caucus? I’ll start us off with a few, lift up those who were influential in your life:
Elenor Lee McGee
Bishop Coleman McGehee
Bishop Bob DeWitt
When the resolution to ordain women failed to pass again in the 1973 General Convention people were mad. Women were mad. Sue Hiatt helped to orchestrate the ordination service that took place in July of 1974 because she had come to realize that the church was rejecting women’s ordination because it was easier not to ordain women than deal with the challenges that would come with ordaining women. There would only be change, she determined, when women took control of their future and made it so that it became easier to ordain women than deal with the bad press and the political challenges of not ordaining women. Hiatt wrote: "By the way, the Spirit of God often works in the world when the church won’t admit Her. Time and again in the history of our God and His people forces break in from outside to call us back to what we should be doing….
My friend remarked that she finally realized why the Canadians were so timid in confronting their bishops. They had accepted ordination as a gift, whereas we had claimed it as a right.
We stopped being grateful in 1970, and that made all the difference in terms of our self-imaging.
As predicted all hell broke loose when the eleven women were ordained in Philadelphia. Or actually its probably more accurate to say that the Holy Spirit finally had her way and because she is forceful when it comes to justice and doing God’s will, human beings rebelled and tried to stifle the Spirit. Like humans did with Jesus, like humans always do when the Spirit is calling us to do the radical work of justice that God seeks. But the Holy Spirit always has her way in the end.
Finally, thanks to the strategic work of the Episcopal Women’s Caucus grounded in the expertise of Sue Hiatt and her years of community organizing as a social worker and the expertise of Pat Merchant, Bill Coates, and George Rigas, who lobbied delegations at the 1976 General Convention who had split votes, the resolution granting ordination to women in all orders passed in 1976.
But that was not the end of the women’s caucus. In some ways the work had just begun. Encouraging dioceses to ordain women and congregations to call women as deacons, priests, and rectors, and even bishop, became the focus, still is the focus of many in the church today. The call to ordination and hiring women embraced the slogan, Justice is Orthodox Theology.
Over the years the Episcopal Women’s Caucus took on more causes for justice in the church from efforts to dismantle racism, encouraging people to think about the ways racism resided in us, in our words through the WordsMatter Project, supporting the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, working with the LGBTQ community, engaging with our sisters and brothers under the umbrella of The Consultation, the organizing body that unifies all of the justice groups in the Episcopal Church and moves our work forward during General Convention and in the years in between. Always our work focused on women supporting women.
The early years of the women’s caucus, guided again by the insights of Sue Hiatt, worked to dismantle sexism and misogyny, especially women’s distrust of each other. Known as horizontal violence, violence against each other, rather than the oppressor is characteristic of any oppressed group
All along we’ve been cautioned that like women pioneering in any field that has been male-dominated we need to be especially vigilant about the dangers of becoming part of rather than merely the object of the councils of the church. Systems of racism, sexism, even misogyny reside deep within us, and because we do not know what we do not know that we do not know, we have to be intentional about looking at our selves and how these systemic prejudices manifest in our thoughts, words, and actions.
These days we have a rising tide of people who are publicly supporting their own oppression and the oppression of others: from women’s rights to quality healthy care, to asylum seeking women and children at our borders, to equal opportunities for education and employment, there is an intentional, systemic dismantling of every human right granted to people in this country since the 1960’s in a last ditch effort to restore the so-called supremacy of the rich white male. I firmly believe that this effort will fail, because I believe that Justice is Orthodox theology, and I am convicted by the power of the Holy Spirit. She is a force to be reckoned with and she always gets her way.
But because our God is incarnational, because the Holy Spirit works in and through human beings, she only gets her way when she finds people like Sue Hiat and her colleagues to lead the way, to take responsibility for our own lives, and assume authority for and insist upon the conditions in which we will live. If you don’t like it, do something about it, was her mantra. Don’t ask permission, just do it.
Sue was always saying to her allies, “You know, things are bad, but we’ve got each other, and so on we go. Don’t worry, it’ll be all right—if not good.”
The women’s caucus has come to an end. But our work in, through, and for the church and the world is not over. We need to find new ways to carry on. The challenges then and now:
Weight of inertia - the daily onslaught of violence from the leaders of this country is exhausting, and we run the real risk of getting stuck. But staying stuck is only for the privileged among us, the rest of us must align ourselves with the oppressed, because the spirit is upon us, we are called for such a time as this to gain release for the captives and set the oppressed free. Because Justice is orthodox theology.
Feeling inferior - no more. As women, no matter one’s skin color, no matter one’s social class, no matter one’s education, no one is inferior in the eyes of God. It only takes one person to rise up, filled with the Holy Spirit, convicted of God’s justice, to change the world. Mary did it when she agreed to birth God into the world. She changed everything with her willingness to rise up.
Scattered Efforts - this is our greatest risk today and the primary reason the Caucus has ended. There are lots of efforts out there working to change the world, change the church, work for justice. But our willingness to come together in larger groups and work with a body, an organization, has passed. We, the board of the Caucus, tried for 6 years to rebuild this body, the Episcopal Women’s Caucus, to refocus, reorganize, reinvent, recharge. And there was lots of enthusiasm for it, but very few people willing to step up into leadership. So we made the sad decision to close down this body, but with the hope that it will provoke an opening, that in void something new will rise up, that in the space afforded by this opening, the Holy Spirit will move in and something, someone, will pick up the mantle, organize the people, unify our efforts, and inspire a new generation to live by the creed, Justice is Orthodox Theology, and thereby change the world.
Let us gather at the river with the communion of saints, with those past, present, and yet to come. Let us give thanks for what has been and then gather up the fortitude to labor on.