Reflections on the Episcopalian Rector who ordained the first female priests

I am little older than the ordination of women to the priesthood in the Episcopal Church. As a priest myself, I know how difficult it is to lead a faithful community through change. This past year has drawn my attention to the fact that changing social practices is hard work. Often, theology develops around social practices, rooting them even more deeply in our common life.

In preparation for All Saints’ Day (November 1), I took a few minutes to get to know people from the history of the Episcopal Church whose names were unfamiliar to me. All Saints’ Day consists of remembering the faithful who have gone before us. We remember them because they remind us of the greatness of God; they have demonstrated through their lives what it means to love God with all your being and to love your neighbor as yourself.

Although the Episcopal Church has a Calendar of Saints, the calendar is hardly exhaustive. In addition, our definition and requirements for holiness are different from those of Roman Catholics. For example, we do not require a certain number of miracles. So when I speak of saints, I recognize the little liberties I take in determining a person’s holiness.

Reverend Paul Washington (1921-2002) is someone I want everyone to know because his life has directly affected mine. He was a priest and civil rights activist in Philadelphia. He was rector (chief pastor) at the Advocate’s Church from 1962 to 1987. For 25 years he devoted himself to ministry among the marginalized in Philadelphia, working for transformative justice.

It was remarkable because Washington had grown up in an educated middle class family in South Carolina. The privileges he was born with, along with his hard work, set him on the path to stability and comfort. But Washington had experienced the radical love of Jesus, revealed in the power of Jesus’ resurrection, and felt called to be a peacemaker by being an advocate for righteousness. The Advocate’s Church turned out to be a perfect location for this service.

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“I decided to give myself – my soul, my time, my resources – to everyone who came to see me. Each person was Christ: “Since you did it to one of the least of them,” said Jesus, “you did it to me. So I asked my family, “When someone rings the doorbell and asks to see me, don’t come tell me and describe it – clean or dirty, drunk or sober, white or black. Just tell me, “Someone is at the door to see you.” “

This spiritual conviction and grounding is what fueled her drive to get into difficult places, creating a space for people to try to make the world a better place. A student organizer working with gangs asked Washington if The Advocate could be a place to raise awareness with the community. Washington, after some hesitation, agreed. Doing the radical work of the gospel of Jesus Christ meant that the authorities might be upset because it was relating to the “least of them.” But what else does the gospel call Christians to do?

Washington continued to grow in its ability to make space for the grace of God to be known. On July 29, 1976, the feast of Saint Mary and Martha, Washington and The Advocate welcomed the first ordination of women to the priesthood. It was considered an “irregular” ordination since the ordination of women had not yet been approved by the larger church. The women who were ordained priests, among supporters, protesters and threats, were known as the Philadelphia Eleven.

Reverend Paul Washington’s willingness to enter troubled areas and find the presence of God there continued to make things possible that people thought were impossible. “The impossible made possible by the grace of God” sounds like a miracle to me. I thank God for saints like Paul Washington, whose intimate experience of God’s grace paved the way for my ministry, allowing the Episcopal Church to see the grace of God in me, commanding me to share grace of God with others.

Reverend Whitney Altopp is the Rector of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church. She can be contacted at [email protected], 203-438-3789 or St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, 353 Main St. Ridgefield, CT 06877.

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