In March of 1976 (my senior year at Episcopal Divinity School) I preached a sermon in the chapel declaring my intention to delay my own ordination to the priesthood until the ordination of women was approved by the General Convention. I called on my fellow graduating men to do the same. Although the local response was disappointing (none of my fellow male seniors joined my movement), the pushback from my own diocese was swift and cranky. I was immediately fired from the curacy I hadn’t even begun yet. My bishop (not entirely understanding his own irony) told me I had a “moral obligation” to be ordained to the priesthood. Would he could have said that to my seminarian sisters.
Luckily, I did not have to face many consequences for my moment of conscience. My bishop relented and gave me a staff job to live out my diaconate. I was ordained to the priesthood in January 1977 along with Victoria Hatch, the first woman priest in Los Angeles. I was, of course, branded as a troublemaker, a reputation I have worked hard over the years to maintain.
I bring my story up because, in many of the recent celebrations of the ordination of women, the narrative has lacked much of a sense of the danger women and their allies experienced at the time. Women priests and bishops were not welcomed with open arms. People participating in the Philadelphia and Washington ordinations did so under the threat of ecclesiastical discipline. Disgruntled opponents of the ordination of women directed a lot of invective and worse in the direction of women clergy and ordinands. The public debate and the reprisals often turned ugly and vindictive in the extreme.
As we celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the General Convention’s action, I hope that all of us will pause to remember that the ordination of women did not just happen. It was the product of a decades-long movement that required vision, persistence, and courage. Many people—mostly women, but many allies—struggled and suffered to bring the ordination of women about. All of us who are the beneficiaries of the priestly, diaconal, and episcopal ministries of women should strive to remember that they come to us with a cost. I will always be grateful to the pioneering women and the legislative leaders who brought this change about.
Gary Hall was the tenth dean of Washington National Cathedral and is chair of the board of trustees of Episcopal Divinity School.