Two of Philadelphia 11 say it’s still a struggle for women in the church

By Pam Strickland
Posted Apr 16, 2015
The Rev. Michelle Warriner Bolt, the Rev Alison Cheek, the Rev. Carter Heyward, Dr. Darlene O’Dell and the Rev. Anne Bonnyman at Diocese of East Tennessee’s April 11 Symposium and Celebration of the 40th Anniversary of the Ordination of Women in the Episcopal Church, at Church of the Ascension, Knoxville, Tenn. The event was sponsored by East Tennessee Episcopal Church Women. Photo: the Rev. Paige Buchholz

The Rev. Michelle Warriner Bolt, the Rev Alison Cheek, the Rev. Carter Heyward, Darlene O’Dell and the Rev. Anne Bonnyman at Diocese of East Tennessee’s April 11 Symposium and Celebration of the 40th Anniversary of the Ordination of Women in the Episcopal Church, at Church of the Ascension, Knoxville. The event was sponsored by East Tennessee Episcopal Church Women. Photo: the Rev. Paige Buchholz

[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.


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Comments (13)

  1. Liz Gober says:

    I never hear or see anything about the late Bishop Robert L. DeWitt in discussions like this. Why is that?

    1. Hi, Liz. You are right to ask about Bob DeWitt. I trace his work in The Story of the Philadelphia Eleven, and his good friend Carter Heyward also often refers to him in these discussions and in her own written work. He was an important influence on her. I wish we could talk more about him and the Washington Four and the other ordaining bishops and Charles Willie, William Wendt, and Peter Beebe, never mind all the laywomen and men supporters. Many brave souls have contributed to this story! Thanks for raising the issue.

  2. Ann Fontaine says:

    “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.” I think you mean — they could not be ordained without a job — as you have to have a “cure” to be ordained according to the canons

  3. Elizabeth Masterson says:

    I think you have made Carter a bit old than she really is. I was a student at Randolph-Macon Woman’s College when Carter was there. She was impressive even then. However, I will turn 69 this year, which means Carter, a year ahead of me in college, will turn 70. Thank you for reporting on this symposium.

  4. Martha Blacklock says:

    Not so fast! Carter will be 70, not 80. this year.

  5. Alan Neale says:

    Closed minds will always find an excuse to exclude… it’s pathetic and wicked

  6. Lisa Fox says:

    I became an Episcopalian because of long conversations with the Rev. Nancy Wittig and Pamela Darling. God bless ’em!

  7. In relating Carter’s experiences leading up to her decision to be part of the Philadelphia Eleven, it is important to note that she was in college during the ferment of the 1960s and will turn 70, not 80, years old. Also, she attended Randolph-Macon WOMAN’S College, in Lynchburg, VA, not Randolph-Macon College in Ashland. VA. As a sister alumna of R-MWC and an Episcopalian, I am extremely proud of her!

  8. Michael Grear says:

    So many of our conservative brothers and sisters point to the Episcopal Church’s decline in membership to the “errors” of our ways starting in the 1970’s with the ordination of women. Well, if that is the case, I hope we decline more as narrow minded hypocrites exit the denomination so the rest of us can respond to God’s call…to EVERYONE…when we hear it in our souls. The Episcopal Church should be proud of these women and all who continue to pry open the gates of heaven blocked by those still living in the 19th century.

    1. Doug Desper says:

      I’m conservative – but speak just for me. I’m in favor of ordination of the called, able, and qualified regardless of gender. I do, however, see a huge hypocrisy in how progressives reach for their goals. The evidence in hand on this and other issues shows that many progressives want to claim some new revelation from God, disregard and flaunt the canons obviously and repeatedly in some type of civil disobedience, and pressure others until there is a crisis. Then, upon a victory to change the canons, to dare their theological/philosophical opposites to disobey the canons, even larding them down with punitive clauses to help others “get their minds right”. Women’s ordination (at first) had a conscience clause wherein “all may – but none must”. That didn’t last. The activists weren’t happy with “being allowed”. They moved to demand total affirmation regardless of the consciences of others under the vaunted Via Media “Big Tent” that they had pleaded for themselves when necessary.
      Fast forward now to the upcoming revision of the marriage canons. Again we are hearing “all may – none must”. No one with a rear-view mirror memory in this Church believes that it will remain at that. The activists will not be content with “being allowed”. Right now, there is a plea for all to live under the Big Tent of Via Media. Then, surely and predictably, the canons will become punitive until “all must – others exit”.

  9. Louis Stanley Schoen says:

    I’m delighted to read of Rev. Carter and Rev. Alison before a fresh audience 41 years after ordination. It was nearly 42 years ago, after General Convention rejected a women’s ordination resolution, that I decided to leave the church, but the late Rev. Mackey Goodman asked me, “Why don’t you get involved rather than getting out?” That led me into WON and to co-facilitate the Minnesota Committee for Women’s Ordination Now, which hosted the movement at the ’76 G.C. I recall special inspiration there from Rev. Carter as well as Rev. Sue Hiatt and Rev. Jeannette Piccard (both native Minnesotans). It was Dr. Piccard who first taught me how the role of women in the church had declined from the first century and, especially, after Constantine inspired it to become a male-dominated institution rather than the community Jesus had in mind.

  10. Sandy Hampton says:

    Congratulations to all of those who celebrated this grand occasion in the life of the church. I was sitting next to Jeanette Piccard in the gallery at General Convention in 1976 when the vote to approve was announced. We were both sensing a holy moment and our eyes locked. No words were necessary.

    Incidentally, it was short of 13 years later that I was the first Bishop Ordained by a woman. Barbara Harris laid hands on me as Bishop Suffragan of Minnesota on April 5, 1989. She received a standing ovation by those assembled.

  11. Wilmer L. Kerns says:

    Alison Cheek spoke to our Methodist Church in Arlington, VA in 1962 or 1963. At that time she was affiliated with Truro Episcopal Church in Fairfax. Many speakers come and go but we have never forgotten Alison because she spoke with much conviction and enthusiasm. We were excited when we heard that she was one of the first female ordinands. I wish that I could talk with her again, because I was the one who invited her to speak in the Methodist Church.

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