A Woman's Life in the Priesthood
The more than 500 women ordained as Episcopal priests are redefining the church's mission -and their own.
September 5, 1982
By Marion Knox Barthelme

The Rev. Martha Blacklock of St. Clement’s, New York.

The more than 500 women ordained as Episcopal priests are redefining the church's mission -and their own.

By Marion Knox Barthelme

Ten years ago, Martha Blacklock went to England for a contemplative vacation. She was trying to decide whether or not to become an Episcopal nun. "I made long lists of reasons why I should or should not. The 'Yes' side was plenteous, yet the answer kept coming out 'No,' " she says. "It sounds hokey, but literally in the middle of a worship service, I had this thought it was very clear -that I should go to a seminary and seek ordination as a priest. So I came back to this country and the following year started seminary."

It was an act of great faith. At the time, the Protestant Episcopal Church of the United States did not permit the ordination of women. Although a sometimes angry debate had been going on for years, it was not until 1976 that the church agreed to allow women into the priesthood, and then the decision was a consequence of the illegal priesting two years earlier in Philadelphia of 11 women by four defiant bishops. When the church moved to regularize the bishops' actions, the step was seen by many, including New York's Bishop Paul A. Moore Jr., as "one of the most important things we've done in this century." This despite fears that the step would divide the church's membership and jeopardize a possible union with the staunchly patriarchal Roman Catholic Church. Most of all, there was the uncertainty of not knowing whether God had, in fact, meant women to be ministers of His Holy Spirit.

Today there are more than 500 female Episcopal priests in the United States, and the Diocese of New York has 52 of them. Most of the women serve as curates, social workers, hospital chaplains, psychoanalysts and cathedral staff. Very few have parishes of their own. Those who do tend to have small ones, or those with a specialized ministry of some sort.

In New York City, only three women head their own congregations. Two of them minister in more or less traditional fashion. The third, 42-year-old Martha Blacklock, is at St. Clement's, an experimental church-theater on Manhattan's West 46th Street, where for the last two years she has been pursuing new methods of spreading the message of the Gospel in a way that will make it more relevant to those who have ceased responding to conventional forms of worship.

The Rev. Martha Blacklock meditates in a small chapel at St. Clement's in New York City. As vicar, she pursues an unorthodox ministry, using both liturgy and theater to provide people with “a taste of what is traditionally knows as the communion of God.”

As she does, she must also deal with dissensions deriving from the conflicting goals of the church and the theater within its walls. The arts people at St. Clement's have recently become quite open in expressing their fears of impending incursions on their bailiwick, contending that church input into the content or conduct of their work would violate their artistic integrity; some have even invoked a variation of the concept of the separation of church and state. But Martha Blacklock, who has an as yet unused veto power over what is performed at St. Clement's, believes that if the theater is merely secular, it should not be a program of the church. As she grapples with this problem, which touches at the heart of her very special ministry, Miss Blacklock is not unaware that "St. Clement's has outraged some people in the past, because of the kinds of things we've done, particularly the adventures with the liturgy."I don't mind doing something which permits people to come into the church out of curiosity," ' she says. "There's a hunger for the experience of God which just gets hungrier as it's nourished."

Clinton, the neighborhood around St. Clement's, was once Irish and Italian Roman Catholic working class, and widely known as Hell's Kitchen, after the gunmen and thieves who operated there earlier in the century. Today it is chiefly Hispanic and slowly undergoing gentrification, with a mix of semi-chic theater-restaurants, bodegas, trash-filled streets and sweat-equity restoration projects. On a warm summer's afternoon, I walked west between Ninth and 10th Avenues, past four or five good-natured beer-drinkers loudly kidding a friend who was having his hair cut on the sidewalk. When I reached No. 423, I climbed the steep steps that led to the small red arched door that serves as the church's entrance and pressed the buzzer.

The woman who answered the door was wearing faded jeans, leather sandals and a long-sleeved black shirt with a priest's white collar. Pinned to her shirt was the insignia of the Episcopal Peace Fellowship, a combined cross and peace symbol. The Rev. Martha Blacklock is tall and athletic-looking, with fair skin, blue eyes and shaggy reddish hair. An all-but faded scar, from an adolescent car accident, runs from her left cheekbone to under her chin. After an exchange of greetings and a detour to an ice cream truck for refreshment, she lead me inside the building, where we were joined by Stephen Berwind, the 30-year-old managing director of the church's theater component. The three of us set off on a tour of the physical plant during which Miss Blacklock assessed repair needs in response to the church's latest crisis -20 citations from the New York City Fire Department.

"The Fire Department is irritated because they think we are a theater pretending to be a church," Miss Blacklock explained. "Normal churches don't look like this." (In fact, St. Clement's is housed in a former Presbyterian edifice, chiefly distinguished by two sets of arched stained-glass windows, matching arched entrances and a rather unambitious tower.)

"I don't mind them telling us we have to do certain things because St. Clement's is also used as a theater," she continued. "But don't tell me it's not a church. Actually, it's a piece of cheese - but you don't see the trap until you're caught.

"The Fire Department aside, our neighbors don't quite consider us a church, either," she said. "We're a noisy place where people are building sets, running Skilsaws at 2 o'clock in the morning."

As we walked about, Miss Blacklock noted peeling plaster, a hole in the boiler-room wall, broken toilets, a stove that needed a vent and theater lights in want of rewiring. The sprinkler system required by the Fire Department will, she said; cost more than $17,000, a sizable sum for the financially strapped church.

The building's spacious first level contains dressing rooms and a small theater. The sanctuary, on the second floor, has tiers of black plastic seats facing what is alternately space for worship and the theater's main stage.

The third floor, once the vicarage (Miss Blacklock makes her home in an apartment nearby), is now office space, and when she finished her inspection, she led me to her own office, crowded with files, books, a desk and typewriter, hammers and wrenches, and, off in a corner, a small stone, headless statue of St. Clement, the church's patron saint, who was an early Bishop of Rome.

St. Clement's is, technically, not a parish but a mission (though the hope is that it may someday again become a self-supporting parish, as it was when it moved to its present location 62 years ago), and Martha Blacklock is a vicar, not a rector. The only religious constant at St. Clement's nowadays is that the Eucharist is celebrated every Sunday. A prayer book is not always used, and members of the congregation, taking turns, frequently work out their own liturgies for the weekly services. Miss Blacklock, who tends to be informal, sometimes wears an alb, a loose white robe, while administering the Eucharist, sometimes ordinary clothing, but always the stole, emblem of her priesthood.

"One of the reasons I'm here," Miss Blacklock said, "is because I think the symbols which the church uses are, by and large, often inadequate or irrelevant. We need to find new ones.”

"Church services don't call on the critical faculties," she continued; "in fact, they put them to sleep. The gospels are very clear about what God has in mind, but when it's all sung magnificently in beautiful settings, the message blurs. The New Testament, and a great deal of the Old Testament, is the most revolutionary stuff you can hear, if you can hear it."

Steve Berwind rejoined us to report a problem involving the church's poetry workshop. The poet and feminist Robin Morgan was scheduled to read and there was a rehearsal conflict. When that had been resolved, Miss Blacklock leaned forward and said: "I'm interested in something that enables a person to get a taste of what is traditionally called the communion of God, that conveys the fact that reality is something upon which you can base hope. I'm trying to suggest the existence of the possibility of redemption. This is what liturgy is about, and could be what theater's about. The word 'gospel' means good news and it's the church's job to go out and spread the news. We don't have to be God's Spirit , we just have to be the body that makes sure the church is here. Through it, God will act or reveal Himself.”

Martha Blacklock's first associations with the Episcopal Church were in Concordville, Penn., 20 miles outside Philadelphia, where she grew up. Her father, Carl Gobdel, was, she said, "what's called a perpetual deacon, someone who's ordained but goes on with secular employment" - in his case, buying and selling steel. (The father-daughter surname difference dates back to the early 1970's, when Martha Gobdel took the name of a great-grandmother, "the most interesting member of that generation.")

"We lived in a 16-room pre-Revolutionary house which my parents, who now live in Arizona, were constantly restoring," Miss Blacklock related. "My mother didn't go to church. On Sundays she would say, 'I don't know why you go. It doesn't improve your behavior or disposition one bit.'"

Loud laughter from the street interrupted her recollections. She got up to look out the window. "The haircutters," she explained before resuming.

"When I was 14, I went to St. John Baptist School, a boarding school in Mendham, N.J., run by a bunch of Anglican nuns who belonged to an order founded in 1852, and who still wear habits down to their ankles and live under a rule written by a Victorian clergyman.

"The school was good for me, though, in contradictory ways. I was an only child," she explained, "and I rebelled with the usual adolescent vigor because of what seemed to me to be a lot of hypocrisy in the church. After I graduated, I stayed away from the church for 13 years.

"When I was in my early 20's, I wrote to Robert DeWitt, the Bishop of Pennsylvania, requesting excommunication. He wrote a marvelous letter back saying that my questions were real but that he couldn't excommunicate me. He suggested that I visit a priest near my home. I ended up doggedly appearing at a Quaker meeting every Sunday for a year."

Her early job experiences were more than a little varied. After leaving Baldwin-Wallace College, she worked as a medical librarian assistant in Philadelphia. A graduate degree in creative writing; acquired at the University of Montana, lead to a job with a firm in Seattle, where, she says, "I wrote advertising copy and played little games, such as saying, 'I'm not going to write anything for Boeing because they're making airplanes that are bombing Vietnamese people."' A job as a general laborer followed. "Then I got a scholarship as a potter, which I really loved. The only problem was that it seemed kind of precious in the 20th century. On the other hand, I was creating beautiful things. Almost enough, but not quite."

Thinking she "was going to do good," Miss Blacklock went to work for the Washington state welfare department. "It was an ugly time," she says. "A theory of psychology called 'reality therapy' had been adopted by the state's welfare system. It went: 'You poor? Don't have enough money? Can't earn enough? Well, it's all your own decision. ' "

She quit and went back East, intending to spend some time at a Quaker study center near Philadelphia. "I was 32 and thought I'd better get serious about my life. Instead of the study center, I wound up at my old school," which is also a retreat center. "There I discovered that it really was possible to believe the stuff the convent had been teaching."

A telephone call at that point ended with her laughingly chiding the caller: "Oh, so your plan is to move mountains."

When she resumed, she said that she liked the focus and the clarity of St. John's. "There's a whole community of people who say, 'This is what we're about, and we structure our lives in such a way that we can do it best.'

"The conversion? It was like well, you know how you can go into a room and forget why, yet the moment you see the thing you were after, you recognize it instantly."

The Protestant Episcopal Church, which evolved from the Church of England, incorporates Protestant and Roman Catholic, ancient and reformed, liberal and conservative traditions. Inherent in its theology are a belief in the Scriptures, the Nicene and Apostles' Creeds, baptism and communion, with the church's authority resting with a General Convention, a bicameral legislative body of bishops and clergy and laity, which meets every three years.

Despite a firmly established tradition of a totally male priesthood, nothing in Episcopal church law has actually ever prohibited the ordination of women. The question was first raised in modern times by James A. Pike, Bishop of California, who in 1965 ordained a woman in a manner then canonically illegal into the deaconate, a necessary preliminary to priesthood. Five years later the General Convention voted to follow his lead, but said nothing about raising women to the priesthood, whose members are the only ones empowered to celebrate the Eucharist, pronounce God's blessing and give absolution.

Martha Blacklock began her studies for the priesthood by entering the General Theological Seminary on Ninth Avenue in New York in 1973. "Some of the male students made you feel that you were there on sufferance," she recalls, "but I was very close to others." In her senior year, when she was president of the student body, she did a crafts ministry in what was then the Church of the Holy Communion, setting up her pottery wheel in the transept. "It was," she said, "like a guild church in the old English sense."

In January 1977, Martha Blacklock was ordained a priest, at her old school, St. John's. "Some of the nuns there would probably prefer never to receive communion from a woman, but in some ways they were family and they filed in. They had, however, already celebrated communion and, even if they wanted to, couldn't take it again that day from me. John Spong, now Bishop of the Diocese of Newark, ordained me. With only a bit of malice on my part, we divided the Eucharist prayer so that each of us spoke separately, and I stuck him with all the 'Fathers.'"

When the Diocese of Newark offered work, Miss Blacklock felt she ought to accept because it had sponsored her as a candidate for ordination. She was in Newark for about four years, at first, editing the diocesan monthly; next, as an archdeacon on the Bishop's staff, and then, as rector of St. Barnabas, a black parish. "I'm sure they would have liked a black rector," she says when asked about her relations with the congregation, "but there aren't many. Still, we cared for each other very deeply. At some point, you realize that caring and fundamental agreement about how you do things are not identical."

When the possibility of going to St. Clement's arose, she said she had some conflict about it. "I was in the middle of a city that desperately needs political and social action - God cares very much whether people eat or not. But I'm also drawn to a more abstract, theoretical, arts-oriented kind of ministry. It seemed to me that my own strengths would be more useful at St. Clement's."

In the early 1960's, when Wynn Handmann, a cofounder of the American Place Theater, was beginning to talk about a theater that would produce new works by American writers, Sidney Lanier, an assistant rector at St. Thomas's on New York's Fifth Avenue, asked to be given a church-theater ministry at St. Clement's. Mr. Lanier wanted to explore a theatrically oriented liturgy as a means of refreshing the standard form of worship. The two concepts combined, a stage was set up in the sanctuary of St. Clement's and Sunday church services were held on a moveable altar in the middle of sets for various plays. When American Place moved to its own building in 1971, the church carried on as Theater at St. Clement's.

In time, the church became a home for several dance groups and a poetry workshop and a temporary shelter for the Bread and Puppet Theater and the Open Eye Company, as well as a showcase for both established and unknown playwrights.

The small congregation, which seldom has numbered more than 25, was actively involved in the theatrical projects. A strong communal social consciousness developed, along with organized opposition to the Vietnam War. Some services became political happenings. "If the congregation didn't like something that was being said, they told people, right in the middle of the service," says one communicant of the time.

But in the years just before Martha Blacklock's arrival, the organizational structure had become so weak, she says, "that there was no clear sense that the theater was a function of the church. There was crisis after crisis. The theater administrator would go to the St. Clement's board - whose members included nonchurchgoers - and say: 'Help! To keep going we've got to have $10,000, or $40,000.' And the church board would say, 'Here it is,' until it started wondering why it was pouring its last dime into the theater."

When asked about conflicting goals shortly before his recent resignation as artistic director, Michael Hadge said: "I think good art and theater are religious. We do realistic plays that get into human values and relationships. I didn't come here to go to church. I came to do theater, to which the church has made a commitment. But," he went on, "guidelines are being laid down that could present problems for theater people. The real aim of the church should be to build a congregation. I don't know why it isn't growing. I've been told that the services are boring."

Others feel that Martha Blacklock has slowly begun to attract a congregation which, though still small, is constant, faithful and interested in one day becoming a full-fledged parish with control of the uses to which its building is put at any particular time. Rising to her defense, Brooke Bushong, a teacher and church treasurer, says: "If Martha hadn't had to spend so much time getting the building up to code, she might have been more creative, and got around more in the community. Her focus is people's spiritual development." Marjorie Christie, a lay woman on the executive council of the national Episcopal Church, says that "Martha's strongest point is her preaching. It's thoughtful, theologically sensitive, to the point."

Support comes also from New York's Bishop Moore. "Martha's a very steady, tough person, in the best sense of the word tough," he says. "She is a fine priest, very liberal," who has showed skill in handling a multiplicity of problems. "She put up a nice fight with the Fire Department," for example. (When the department closed the church for multiple violations in January 1981, Miss Blacklock held services on the street. The resulting publicity rallied the local community behind a clean-up effort that had the congregation back inside in nine days.)

Although the church board is the dominant operating structure, Miss Blacklock says that she is not interested in church control of the theater, but she does believe that the arts should be a means to spiritual development. "If we're partners and the partnership is the church, then I think everybody has a responsibility to say we're looking for God, to make what we have found available to other people, to put it in their way, so that they might be led to want it."

For Susan Harriss, a 30-year-old Episcopal priest who serves as chaplain to Bishop Moore, the cutting edge for women priests is the parish. "That's where you get in touch with people's attitudes. The Western Christian religious tradition manifests a tremendous desire to rise out of the body in order to worship God. On the other hand, women more or less symbolize the body. When you bring it in and dress it up like a priest, people get confused."

In addition to Martha Blacklock, two other women Episcopal priests have their own congregations in New York City: 44-year-old Columba Gilliss, rector of St. Ann's Church for the Deaf on East 16th Street, and 37-year-old Carol Anderson, of the traditional All Angels' Church on West 80th Street. Miss Gilliss, who was one of the first women to be ordained as a priest, thinks that "if people grow up seeing both men and women perform a range of roles in the church, their associations will be different from people who have seen only men perform those roles."

She explains: "A burial service offered by a very pregnant woman would present the whole death-birth cycle. Baptism is another such rite. What the man does is so clean, so different from the real birth process, with pure water in place of blood, perhaps rose petals instead of water, because water looks too much like amniotic fluid. The first time I saw a woman baptize her own baby I realized there was a real claiming of power."

When asked if she has had difficulty in asserting her priestly authority, Miss Gilliss - whose deaf parishioners sign her as "Rev Gilliss," but who prefers the title "Mother Gilliss" - said she never has any problems with her congregation. "But on the outside world, I certainly do. It takes people a while to understand that I am the boss and not the secretary."

Her colleague, Carol Andersen, since coming to All Angels' Church in 1979, has concentrated on teaching her growing congregation basic orthodox Christianity.

"Now we have a lot of Ivy League grads who work on Wall Street," she said between sips of lunchtime coffee. "People around here have tried everything and are now turning to religion."

She stopped and considered for a moment before saying: "The Episcopal Church has a larger percentage of wealthy people and people in leadership positions than any other Christian denomination. If you put together the memberships of two or three of the East Side parishes in New York, you have something like the Fortune 500. Part of the church's mission should be to mobilize its membership toward making changes - in the city, in the world. A lot of people think that the church has no business meddling in politics, and they become very secular when it comes to something like nuclear disarmament. But if I understand the Bible, one is a Christian first and an American second. The dependence upon arms, upon military power, is an idolatry of vast proportions. It suggests, as well, that God is not capable of ruling the universe."

When asked to give her concept of the deity, Martha Blacklock admits that she gets into "real trouble" in trying to visualize God. "It's not a goddess or some androgynous entity," she says. "The traditional ingrained one is a male, so I attempt not to embody God."

A demasculinization of the image of God through the wording of the liturgy is one of the side effects women as priests have had in the church in general, where a conscious effort is now made to find alternatives to male pronouns.

Some parish clergy and liturgy committees in the United States have adapted language changes that reflect this growing sensitivity to gender inclusiveness. Others, in some rough fashion, change the words as they go along. The Roman Catholic Church has recently decided to omit the generic use of "man" in its liturgy, and a revision of the Episcopal hymnal, along similar lines, is in progress.

Martha Blacklock says that it did not bother her when she was growing up to hear "Lord" and "He," but "I was aware that I couldn't do certain things - be an acolyte, for instance." She feels that "the women who were irregularly ordained went through a lot of grief because the Episcopal Church is one in which order is almost holier than God."

Women wanting to enter the priesthood now still encounter difficulties. "In the Episcopal Church, where the diocese is the primary unit of structure," Miss Blacklock says, "if the bishop doesn't want women priests, then there aren't going to be any in his diocese. A bishop has almost absolute power."

There are, however, ways to circumvent unfriendly dioceses. "The standing committee in Newark, for Blacklock explains, "has made a policy decision that it will serve as a stop on what we call 'the underground railroad,' accepting transfers from another diocese without insisting on residency requirements. In one case, a Chicago woman applied for ordination in Newark, then she transferred back to Chicago as a priest and was employed there. Byzantine.

"A lot of people still do not believe that women are really priests, or even proper material for ordination," Miss Blacklock continues. "This kind of position is held by some of the most important bishops in the Episcopal Church in this country, including the Presiding Bishop, John M. Allin."

Despite continuing resistance, attitudes within the church are changing, or at least being rethought. "It used to be that the laity were seen as consumers," Miss Blacklock says. "What I feel now, based on the Scripture, is that anyone's vocation is as much a ministry as mine is; mine just happens to be more liturgical. The church is here to help people understand more deeply how their particular vocations relate to God, and to everything else."

Some women, blacks and third-world people mostly, are interested in a kind of religious rethinking, or "liberation theology," that, for example, suggests a liberating God as a suffering one rather than a bombastic, demanding deity.

"We can't add to the scripture" says Miss Harriss, who to her amusement is sometimes addressed as "Father Susan," but "we can maneuver it with women's experience so that our understanding of God widens to include us. Perhaps it's just a new way of thinking, of turning from the traditional Aristotelian rational theology to a more receptive, embracing God that we're still talking to. A woman might look at the story of Lot's wife and say that it wasn't just, and that she doesn't want to live in a society that works like that. It's a recognition that the Bible was deeply influenced by the time in which it was written, rather than being a direct inspiration from God."

To Martha Blacklock, her faith is a constant source of wonder and discovery. "When I begin to think I understand God and creation, it's so much more than I had ever imagined or expected, so much more wonderful, that I'm astonished. God is supposed to be like this, and then you turn around and He amazes you all over again. As in the Gospel where the last workers were paid as much as the first: You say to yourself, 'What if God's mercy absolutely swamps our understanding of how God's justice works?'"

Opportunities for revelation abound. On a recent Sunday, a 5-year-old was among those waiting to receive communion at St. Clement's. As Miss Blacklock blessed the wine and bread, consecrating them as the body and blood of Christ, the boy whispered to his mother, "Whose blood is it?" When she was told about this after the service, Martha Blacklock was dismayed. "Whose blood? Oh, Lord, if I'd heard that, I would have stopped everything," she said. "Oh, Lord. What do you do?"

The incident recalled for her "a book by Monica Furlong, in which she says that writers and priests are always failures. They're almost supposed to be: 'They are justified only by their powers of being and of seeing.' And how good are we at seeing?"

Miss Blacklock does not, however, doubt that she has found the right calling. "I've felt that it's absolutely right," she says, 'demanding of me everything I could ever do. Nothing essential is missing. I think God really wants me to do this."

Several months ago, an actor new to the St. Clement's group arrived early one day for a rehearsal. He wandered into a small chapel, which, like so much about the church, has a faint air of abandonment. At the side altar, he idly opened the tabernacle and was amazed to find a chalice inside, and, inside the chalice, a host. Moved by what one might assume were ancient impulses, he tasted the bread and wine, and then, horrified, realized that he had blundered into what must be a working church. He sought out Martha Blacklock to tell her of what he supposed was a sacrilege. She was delighted. Discovery. Mystery. St. Clement's as cheese.

Marion Knox Barthelme is a freelance writer based in New York City.