The Episcopal Women’s Caucus 1971-2018

The Episcopal Women’s Caucus began life in a period of extreme conflict, passionate opposition, (over)heated rhetoric, and stubborn hope.

It was formed in 1971, initially to protest the House of Bishops’ plan to appoint yet another study committee on the ordination of women, after ignoring the 1967 recommendations of a “blue ribbon” committee on the same topic. Organizers were attending a meeting at Virginia Theological Seminary called to assess the role of professional women workers, ordained and lay. The group included women seminarians and deacons and professional women church workers, and some supportive ordained and lay men. Many of the women present felt themselves called to ordination, bringing intense personal commitment to the campaign.

The Caucus was one of a number of Episcopal organizations dedicated to opening ordination to the priesthood (and the episcopate) to women. Deaconesses had been “ordered” since 1855, but only in 1968 were they considered to be real deacons. Thereafter efforts to ordain women as priests and bishops galvanized people across the Episcopal Church, in national meetings, provincial gatherings, in dioceses and parishes.

Supporters disagreed on tactics for influencing the General Convention, expected to vote on the issue in 1973. Opponents gathered in many so-called traditionalist organizations, dedicated to preserving the apostolic ministry. Bitter, often terrible words were spoken and written by some on either side, and to this day there remain scars on the ecclesiastical body politic from that extreme conflict decades ago.

Women’s ordination was narrowly defeated in 1973, and the church geared up for an all-out effort at the 1976 Convention. Stirring the Episcopal pot was the contemporaneous effort to revise and adopt a “new” Prayer Book, while the civil rights and anti-war movements in the United States raised the stakes for everyone.

Those who lived that period remember the adrenaline-soaked highs and lows, and may feel nostalgic for the energy, clarity of purpose and powerful sense of community they experienced in the early years of the Caucus’s life. Others shudder with relief that it’s over, rejoice in the generation of women who now stand in pulpits and at altars practically everywhere, and are bemused by the youngsters blithely ignorant of the price paid. Many of those active at the beginning are gone — taken by illness or death, or so hurt and disillusioned by the struggle that they walked away from the church, or gratefully immersed in their ordained ministries, or disappeared back into their own lives.

Through the high points of the 1970s and 1980s — Philadelphia and Washington ordinations, General Convention’s approval, the first “regular” ordinations, the Conscience Clause, the episcopal election and consecration of Barbara Harris as suffragan bishop of Massachusetts, followed by the participation of eleven woman bishops in the 1998 Lambeth Conference — Caucus members studied, spoke, wrote, organized, published, donated, traveled, wept and laughed, all in celebration of God’s call to women young and old, tall and short, black and white, straight and gay, high church and low church and in between.

In the new millennium, because its work succeeded in re-forming the look and nature of the ordained ministry, the Caucus’s original focus lost much of its urgency. The energy of the next generation has been drawn to related ecclesiastical issues — inclusive language, the ordination and pastoral care of LGBTQ persons, ecology and environmental crises, gun control, refugees, re-shaping the church to conform to and empower the Jesus Movement... As the torch is passed, we celebrate the lessons, contributions and accomplishments of the Episcopal Women’s Caucus. The first issue of the newsletter Ruach claimed its intention to be: “A national group formed to actualize the full participation of women at all levels of ministry and decision-making in the church.”

Let the church say Amen!

- Pam Darling


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