House of Deputies of The Episcopal Church

The 50th Anniversary of Women in the House of Deputies: Executive Council Opening Remarks

President Jennings gave these opening remarks to an online meeting of Executive Council on October 9:

Hello, and welcome to this online meeting of Executive Council. I continue to be grateful to all of you, and to everyone across the church, who is learning new technology and embracing new ways of gathering so we can keep each other safe.

I’m particularly pleased that during this meeting, we will welcome the Rev. Chris Rankin-Williams, chair of the House of Deputies Committee on the State of the Church. He will present the committee’s innovative proposal on the 2020 parochial report and how we can use it to gather data about the state of the church during COVID-19.

Earlier this week, which seems like a decade ago, I saw a tweet that speaks to the dizzying and disorienting pace of our world right now:

The year 2072: “What did you study in college?” “I majored in October 1–8, 2020.” “That seems really broad. Did you focus on anything within that?”

While I don’t know if our great-grandchildren will really major in this week, it truly is very difficult right now to know what is actually happening and what deserves our attention. It’s even increasingly hard to know what is true, especially in the wild world of social media.

You may remember that in February of this year—a time that seemed COVID-free, even though we now know that it was not—Executive Council passed Resolution MB016, titled “Misinformation and Elections.” Friends, it’s time to put that resolution into action. Misinformation about the upcoming election is rampant on social media and is being promulgated by some of the highest officials in the land.

Maybe, like me, you are spending more time on social media during the pandemic as a way to stay connected to friends, family and colleagues. Maybe you’re also online just trying to make sense of what’s happening. If so, please know that church leaders are in an excellent position to help counter election misinformation in some simple and effective ways. Please read and share the Office of Government Relations’ toolkit titled “Misinformation, Disinformation, Fake News: Why Do We Care?” And be sure to vote and encourage other people to vote. The welfare of God’s people depends on it.

You’ll be glad to know that I haven’t just spent the last week scrolling Twitter. I’ve also been researching the history of another momentous vote—one that happened at General Convention. On October 12, 1970—50 years ago this Monday—twenty-nine women were seated in the House of Deputies after the second reading of an amendment to the Constitution of The Episcopal Church to allow them was approved by both houses of General Convention. Do you know the story?

The Episcopal Church began discussing whether to seat women in the House of Deputies in 1913, and until recently, I thought we didn’t get the job done until 1970. But I was wrong. For one convention, in 1946, a woman named Elizabeth Huntington Dyer from the Diocese of Missouri was seated in the House of Deputies.

Her bishop, Bishop William Scarlett, put her up to it. She was the sister of a priest and the niece of a bishop, and the people who wanted to see women take their place in the councils of the church thought she’d be hard to turn away.

Mrs. Dyer served at that convention, but by 1949, the opposition had organized. Four duly elected women—one each from the Dioceses of Nebraska, Olympia, Missouri and Puerto Rico—were denied seats in the House of Deputies, and the convention decided to handle the problem in that most Anglican of ways—appointing a commission. Its formal name was the “Joint Commission to Consider the Problem of Giving the Women of the Church a Voice in the Legislation of the General Convention.” Its report is in the Journal of the 1952 General Convention, and I can assure you that it makes excellent stay-at-home reading.

Alas, the Joint Commission to Consider the Problem of Giving the Women of the Church a Voice in the Legislation of the General Convention did not solve the problem it was convened to address. In fact, every General Convention between 1943 and 1964 rejected resolutions to seat women.

Some of you know the rest of the story. It was money that finally got the job done. You can read about it in Pamela Darling’s book New Wine, but in short, the women of the Triennial controlled the money raised by the United Thank Offering, and the budget of the church needed it. In 1964, “Bishop Lichtenberger spoke in firm tones to a joint session of the 1964 General Convention, pointing out to the assembled men the contradiction inherent in their refusal to seat women in spite of their willingness to accept nearly $5 million from the United Thank Offering.” But the men didn’t like the Presiding Bishop’s attempt to influence the House of Deputies, and they refused to budge. It’s amazing what you find by reading General Convention journals!

At the next General Convention, in 1967, the deputies finally gave way. At that convention, Mrs. Lueta Bailey of the Diocese of Atlanta was presiding officer of the Triennial meeting. Some of you may have known Mrs. Bailey, of blessed memory. She had to lock the doors of the Triennial meeting hall to keep out the men of the church who wanted to tell the women what to do. On September 19, 1967, she became the first woman to address the House of Deputies after the required constitutional amendment was adopted on first reading. While she was speaking, word arrived that the House of Bishops had concurred with passage of the constitutional amendment.

Three years later, on October 12, 1970 at the 1970 General Convention in Houston, 29 women, including Mrs. Bailey, were seated as deputies following a second affirmative vote in both houses. It was unanimous in the House of Bishops, and only one deputy, from the Diocese of Rhode Island, voted no. President John Coburn invited Mrs. Bailey to speak to the house again that day, after addressing the House, for the first time, with the words, ‘Ladies and gentlemen.”

Inspired by the New York Times’ Overlooked series of obituaries, I began looking into how we remember the women who broke the barrier and gave women the vote in the Episcopal Church. The House of Deputies Rules of Order call for a necrology, now referred to as a Memorial Roll, to be read and entered into the Journal at each General Convention to honor members of the House who have died. It appears that most of the women seated in 1946 and 1970 have not been included.

As the first ordained woman to serve as president of the House of Deputies, it will be my honor to rectify this omission when the Memorial Roll is read at the 80th General Convention, whenever it may be.

Friends, these are sobering times in which to live and witness to the gospel, as the Presiding Bishop has so eloquently stated. Truth matters. Voting matters. History matters. May God grant us wisdom and courage for the facing of this hour.

photo from the Archives of the Episcopal Church: Twenty-eight new female delegates are formally welcomed to the House of Deputies by President of the House, Rev. John Coburn, at the start of the 1970 General Convention.