August 12, 1974

The Right Reverend Edward R. Welles, former bishop of West Missouri, leads the eleven women to the altar for ordination.

The Episcopal Church, usually as proper as a vestryman on Sunday morning, is in an uproar. Not only has one of its central canons ‑the male priesthood‑ been challenged, but it has been challenged elevenfold. During a tumultuous service in Philadelphia, four rebellious bishops ‑without official sanction‑ ordained 11 women as priests. The women became the first in the Western world to be ordained by the "laying on of hands," the chain of authority passed on by bishops since the time of the apostles.

The most dramatic moment of the service came when Bishop Welles administered the apostolic "laying on of hands."

Episcopalians have debated the issue of female priesthood for years, and as recently as last October it was approved by a majority of the church's bishops. But when the reform was blocked by a parliamentary rule, the four dissident bishops ‑three of them retired‑ decided literally to take the matter into their own hands, despite disapproval and hints of defrocking and suspension from church authorities.

After her ordination, Merrill Blittner, 27, one of the two youngest new priests, gives sacramental wine to a worshiper.

The ordination itself seemed more like a media spectacular than a holy rite of the church. More than 1,500 worshipers, spectators, feminists, reporters, photographers, and counterprotesting priests (wearing "No" buttons) jammed into the cavernous Church of the Advocate in Philadelphia's black ghetto. As Bishop Daniel Corrigan of Denver intoned, "If there be any of you knowing of any impediment or crime in any of them, let him come forward," one man cried out, "Right Reverend Sir!" A protesting priest later declared, "God here now as Father and judge sees you trying to make stone into bread," and was answered by a chorus of guffaws and boos.


The Revs. Katrina Swanson of Loawood, Kansas (left), and Nancy Wittig of Newark, N.J.(above) celebrate Communion without the church's official blessing.

Almost lost in the hubbub were the 11 new female priests, all of them already Episcopal deacons, the first order of the ministry. Though male deacons can rise to the priesthood after a six‑months' wait, the Church's 150 female deacons have so far seen little hope for a traditional ordination before 1976.

Breaking barriers is nothing new for the oldest of the new priests: 79‑year‑old Jeanette Piccard, widow of the aerospace scientist Jean Piccard. In 1934 she became the first woman in space when she piloted a balloon 57,559 feet into the stratosphere.

Whether or not any of the new priests will be able to serve a parish will be up to the presiding bishops of their dioceses, most of whom say they cannot recognize the noncanonical ordinations. That ban seems unlikely to deter the new priests or their supporters. As Charles Willie, a black layman and Harvard professor who delivered the sermon put it: "We believe it is a Christian duty to disobey unjust law."