Tuesday, June 21, 2016

A Women's Story

During the 2015 General Convention of the Episcopal  Church, my husband and I premiered a documentary film about the life Bishop John Eldridge Hines, the 22nd Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church.  The film has been a work spanning almost 20 years, and features an extensive live video interview of Bishop Hines, by the ABC news anchor, Hugh Downs.  Bishop Hines tells his own story, in his own elegant words, with honesty, humor, and occasionally sadness.  A significant part of the film deals with the Bishop's beliefs and respect for the place of women in the Episcopal church, and included is a rare video of the Bishop's last address to the church at the General Convention of 1973, where he states unequivocally there is absolutely no biblical reason why women cannot be ordained.  In the background, voices shouting NO WAY! can be heard—the only time a Presiding Bishop has been treated thus.

The film was shown in a large ballroom, on a theatre size screen, and about 40 people attended.  Among those present was a young woman, who told those assembled that she was a second generation ordained woman, following in the steps of her own mother.  

In the film, are many interviews and memories called forth from those who were alive at the time, and who were faithful followers of the human rights positions that Hines believed the church must embrace, if the church were to be faithful to the Gospel.  The film is titled, JUSTICE IS THE CORPORATE FACE OF LOVE, a quote from Bishop Hines.

A very moving story is told by General Convention Deputy Philip Masquelette, a lawyer from the Diocese of Texas.  He talks about his experience of voting to seat women delegates at the General Convention of 1970; of the women waiting in the hallway hoping their time had come. Most of the delegates to be seated were already leaders in the church as Presidents of the Episcopal Church Women's organizations in their dioceses. The joy of the Convention when the cadre of almost thirty women walked onto the floor of the House of Deputies to take their seats was palpable.   Masquelette becomes very emotional telling the story; with a tembling voice, and with tears rolling down his cheeks, he says that moment was wonderful, as the entire House of Deputies rose to cheer in this moment that changed the church.

The young woman, the second generation priest, watching the film also became very emotional, rising from her seat at the end of the film, and saying in tears, "I didn't know.  I didn't know."  

Vice President of the House of Deputies, the Honorable Byron Rushing, stood up and asked her what she meant.  Her answer was remarkable.

"I know all the dates that things happened.  I know the dates that women were seated; I know the year that women's ordination was approved.  But the dates are just that dates, aren't they.  I didn't know the stories.  Why don't we know the stories?  Mr. Masquelette was weeping as he told of the events.  Why don't we know the stories?  I am moved so deeply by the story.  I wish I had always known the story.  It would have meant so much to know what really happened."

Byron Rushing said, "You don't know the stories because the church doesn't want you to know.  The church doesn't want anything like the Philadelphia Eleven, for example, to ever happen again.   So you need to go back and tell the story, and pass the story on."  Mr. Rushing went on to talk about the stories that need to be told, so that we all remember the hard, hard work that must to be done when the world must change.  

The fight within the church for human rights is still a challenge.  Remembering the trials and tribulations of those who were courageous in their determination; telling their stories; these are the ways we inspire the careful nurturing of those who would risk greatly.   Philip Masquelette's wife, Betty, was the first woman ordained in the Diocese of Texas.  She has recently retired.  Betty's story needs to be told.  

The stories of the Philadelphia Eleven need to be told, as do the stories of the brave Bishops who ordained them.  These men were, at the time, some of the most respected men in the Episcopal Church, and they dared greatly.  The event took place on July 29, 1974.

The ordinations were done at the Church of the Advocate in Philadelphia, Pa., before a congregation of some 2,000 worshipers.   The Bishops assembled were Bishop Daniel Corrigan, Denver, Colo., former suffragan bishop of Colorado, retired; Bishop Robert L. DeWitt, resigned bishop of Pennsylvania; and Bishop Edward R. Welles II, Manset, Me., retired bishop of West Missouri. They were joined by a fourth bishop, the Rt. Rev. Antonio Ramos, Bishop of Costa Rica, the only one of the four exercising jurisdiction in the church at the time.  A young woman, a faithful volunteer in the civil rights movement, who had weathered many of the storms raging through the Episcopal Church and the country, carried the processional cross for the service; she became a priest.  Her name was Barbara Harris—ultimately, the first woman elected Bishop.

Bishop Ramos, who did not participate in the actual ordination, but joined in the laying on of hands, issued a statement in which he said that the ordination event "stands as a prophetic witness on behalf of and for the oppressed. " He added that the ordination of the 11 women can "be characterized as an act of disobedience, ecclesiastical disobedience on our part, willfully done to abolish a system of canon law which is discriminatory, and which can no longer stand the judgment of the liberating Christ."

Dr. Charles V. Willie, professor of education and urban studies at Harvard, and vice president of the church's House of Deputies, preached a sermon in which he said that he participated in the service "not because I wanted to speak out but because I could not remain silent. "  When the Church in the next General Convention, refused to acknowledge the ordinations in Philadelphia, Dr. Willie resigned from his position in the House of Deputies.  This act received national news coverage, and again spotlighted the battle for women's rights.   Dr. Willie was present for the screening of the John Hines film in Salt Lake City.

The first official ordination of an Episcopal woman took place three years lateron January 1, 1977, Jacqueline Means became the first woman ordained to the priesthood in the Episcopal Church. The vote to allow women’s ordination which finally passed in 1976 was undoubtedly largely influenced by the presence of women delegates whose seating in 1970 had so moved Philip Masquelette.

The saga of the ability of women to step forward and answer the call to the priesthood they hear is a story of love and commitment.  Each story is an anniversary.  In this 40th year of women being ordained, there are many anniversaries.  All of these stories must all be told, because the love of those who have dared greatly can change lives.

This film was a recipient of  the Polly Bond award from Episcopal Communicators. Robin Sumners was the Director of Development for a small Christian publishing company called Mission City Press, she left that company in 2008 to  free lance. Robin is a graphic designer and writer, and recently won an award for one of her short stories. She is currently working on a novel and a collection of short stories.  She has started a writer's group in Cuero at Grace Church called Writer's of Grace.

She has served the larger church as President of The Episcopal Church Women of the Diocese of Colorado, Province VI representative for the Episcopal Church Women and a member of the national board of the United Thank Offering. She currently is a board member of The Episcopal Women's History Project.

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