[Episcopal Diocese of East Tennessee] They were compared to witches and called names by male priests that you would least expect to hear coming from the mouths of men of the cloth. Nearly 41 years after becoming two of the first women priests in The Episcopal Church, they don’t regret their decision and recognize that despite much progress, there is still a need to fight for women’s proper role in the church.
The Rev. Alison Cheek, the first woman to publicly preside over an Episcopal Church Eucharist in the United States, and the Rev. Carter Heyward, a prolific author on feminist theology and retired professor at Episcopal Divinity School, were part of an April 11 symposium at the Episcopal Church of the Ascension in Knoxville, Tennessee, sponsored by East Tennessee Episcopal Church Women.
Cheek and Heyward were two of the Philadelphia 11 who were ordained in Philadelphia by three retired bishops in July 1974 causing uproar in the national church. Although women’s ordination was not specifically prohibited, by practice it had never been allowed. Darlene O’Dell, author of The Story of the Philadelphia Eleven, who also participated in the symposium, said study of the issue had gone on “for over 50 years and promised to go on into oblivion” if action hadn’t been taken.
Cheek, who turned 88 the day of the symposium, said she had entered Virginia Theological Seminary at the urging of her parish priest because she had asked him so many questions. While in seminary Cheek felt the call to priesthood, but let it pass because she knew it wasn’t a possibility. With four young children at home, the Australia native took six years to complete her degree, and then returned to her parish as a pastoral counselor. Her rector then encouraged her to enter the deacon ordination process. She became the first female deacon in the South in 1972.
When Nancy Wittig, another eventual member of the Philadelphia 11 invited her to participate in the Philadelphia ordination, Cheek told her bishop she would participate. He said as an individual he would support her, but as bishop “I may have to depose you.”
Her response: “Anyone who fights my ordination, I’ll fight.”
The symposium audience of about 100 broke into applause.
Heyward, who will turn 80 later this year, fell into the business of religion quite by accident. When she entered Randolph-Macon College in 1963 the religion professors were the ones who were doing exciting work – participating in lunch counter sit-ins, taking text books to activists in jail so they could study and then giving them their oral comprehensive exams in jail. “That’s why I majored in religion,” Heyward said.
And, she said, along the way she learned how religion and the scripture had been misused and misinterpreted and sanitized. She learned how German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer fought the Nazis from prison. It was while she was at Randolph-Macon that she first read the work of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who was still in the midst of his activism.
She said the Philadelphia 11 didn’t necessarily all like one another, but they worked alongside one another to accomplish a mutual goal. Heyward described Cheek as her fellow “bad girl” among the movement “so we had to like one another” and said that the two had become like sisters.
Their critics in those early years would label them either as “too masculine” or “too feminine,” depending on which argument suited the moment. “We couldn’t be easily categorized,” which frustrated the establishment, she said. Yet they made it through by their constant support of one another. Support frequently came by simply picking up the phone and saying, “Let me tell you what happened to me.”
The Rev. Anne Berry Bonnyman, one of the first women ordained in the Diocese of Tennessee, said she owed her ordination to Cheek, Heyward and the other Philadelphia 11 as well as to the Tennessee Episcopal Churchwomen who passed a motion in 1977 encouraging the diocese to offer jobs to women in parishes. At that point, there had been a stalemate, with bishops saying they could not ordain a woman coming out of seminary if she had a job and parishes saying they couldn’t hire a woman until she was ordained.
“It was lay women in large part” who helped shift things, Bonnyman said.
Bonnyman grew up Catholic in Knoxville, and became Episcopalian as an adult when she realized that lay work was not fulfilling her call to ministry. After serving several parishes in East Tennessee, Bonnyman was rector at large parishes in Delaware and Massachusetts before retirement in western North Carolina – which is also where Check and Heyward now live.
Moving forward, Heyward said, women in the church should follow four principles put forth by another member of Philadelphia 11, the late Suzanne Hiatt, who is widely credited with engineering the 1974 ordinations. Heyward co-edited a book of Hiatt’s writings, The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me.
The four principles are women should seek the primary role in bringing change about, learn how institutions work that they wish to change, be united in struggling together and avoid horizontal violence, and remember that the church needs them more than they need the church.
Pam Strickland is a freelance writer and editor, and a parishioner of St. James Episcopal Church in Knoxville.