Sunday, March 3, 2024

Looking forward and back

I'm off to Dallas in a week to see this darling little girl and her parents. She's nine months old already! Her mama texted me this morning and said, "Want to come to a Harper party when we're back from PR?" to which I responded yes with several exclamation points. My daughter and three of her cousins and her sister in law are all headed to PR next week for her bachelorette getaway on a beach, in a place with a pool and karaoke, and two of their number, my daughter and my niece Leah, will be traveling back to Dallas with Harper's mama afterward to spend a few days with that precious little one. Her dad, who works from home, will be traveling, so it will be good company and help for Harper's mama, who will probably need to be back at work in her dental practice. Harper will be in good and loving hands with her aunties and me. Plus, I'll get to hear all about the bach party on the beach while it's still fresh for the revelers. My girl has come up with a reality TV theme for the trip, including a Survivor challenge day, as all the young women on the trip are big Survivor fans (as I am). So! Dallas to see magical little Harper! I'm excited!


Last night, as part of our church's 200th anniversary celebration, I attended the showing of a film, The Philadelphia Eleven, about the first eleven women to be ordained as Episcopal priests, against the wishes of the male bishops of the church, the majority of whom had voted down the idea of women in the pulpit at their 1973 convention. A year later, three bishops went against the church brethren and ordained eleven women deacons as priests anyway, holding the service at a Black church in Philadelphia. The Black minister at the Church of the Advocate queried his congregation as to whether they would support the act of ecclesiastical disobedience and they overwhelmingly were in favor of ordaining the women. Black people understood the value of civil disobedience in moving society forward.

This was in 1974, fifty years ago now, yet it seems so recent. I have vivid memories of my life in that decade yet I have no real time recollection of the fight to recognize women priests in the Episcopal Church. In fact, it never occurred to me back then that women could not be priests, at least in the church denomination in which I was raised. How oblivious I was. The women who were ordained were threatened, harassed, and vilified; the men, supposedly of God, who opposed them said the most hateful, misogynistic things in their desperate quest to uphold patriarchal power. The film was affecting, such that if I had seen it in my youth, I might well had climbed aboard that train, or at least covered the story when I became a journalist. Male priests who invited the women to conduct services from their houses of worship were actually put on trial by the conclave of Episcopal bishops and admonished, and even drummed out of the ministry. 

Here's the trailer for the film, and the first eleven women.

It wasn't until 1977 that the Rev. Pauli Murray (right) became the first Black person perceived as a woman (she was nonbinary) to be ordained to the Episcopal ministry, which made it somehow more meaningful that the first eleven woman, all of them White, had been ordained in a Black church. One of those eleven women, Merrill Bittner (third from right in the second row of photos above), moved me unaccountably. She had been a shy, reclusive girl who somehow fell in love with the Episcopal church and dreamed of the priesthood. As a young woman, despite her core nature, she stepped into that bright, hostile spotlight for a cause she believed in. She later left the ministry, disillusioned by the men as much as by the need to be constantly on stage. As something of an introvert myself, one who dislikes being on stage, I felt such admiration for the fact that she understood the historical moment and didn't shrink from meeting it. 

The little church in Harlem of which I am a member sponsored two of those eleven women deacons fifty years ago, and was at the forefront of the fight to have their ministry legitimized. I may not be in the pews on Sunday very much, but I do love that little church where my husband is a pillar of the community. The ministry is his path not taken, though he is no proselytizer. Rather he is a man of deeds. As head of the 200th anniversary committee, he hired a catering company run by ex-offenders to feed the audience at last night's showing. The food was good, too, and beautifully presented. 


And now I am off to binge watch Slow Horses, which a few friends have recommended to me. I hope I like it as I have absolutely nothing else planned for this Sunday. I may take a walk around the gardens later, sit in the sun, and maybe read a bit more of the brilliant, searing, and often hilarious Black AF History: The Un-Whitewashed Story of America by Michael Harriot. I'm otherwise unfettered, and trying to lean in to the possibilities of that. What movies or series have you streamed lately that you might recommend?


  1. the 70s was all about women fighting for inclusion and rights held previously only by men and the men did not like it one bit. we're still feeling the repercussions of men refusing to give up their position of sole power and move on and their current attempt to put the genie back in the bottle, take us back to the 50s.

  2. Oliver Sacks said it so well: "The difficulty lies, not in the new ideas, but in escaping from the old ones, which ramify, for those brought up as most of us have been, into every corner of our minds."
    Imagine what Harper will accomplish in her life. I think about my grandkids too.

  3. What a surprise that men didn't want to give up their power and control, even if they were men of god (supposedly). I thought god was supposed to be the one in charge. Nor am I surprised that one of the women left, disillusioned with men and the church. As I get older, I am becoming more and more disillusioned with men, patriarchy and the world in general. All of the young women feel the same way and I wonder what the future will hold for men and women.

    That baby girl is so sweet looking. Have a wonderful time visiting with her and family.

  4. Love the way Harper looks forward at those she loves. Babies have amazing little backs. They can sit up straight and steady with no apparent effort. What a joy knowing you will be able to spend time with her again.

    Heartening to know that your church in Harlem sponsored two of the eleven women.

    Alla Bozarth-Campbell was one of the eleven. Her book about grief helped me tremendously after the unexpected death of my mother in 1994. After reading her book on grief, I read more of her books and learned about the Philadelphia Eleven. I was hoping our public library would have a copy of that video. Maybe I'll be able to obtain it through interlibrary loan.

  5. I swear to you- Harper looks like a grown woman in a baby's body. Look at that face, those eyes. Her understanding is vast.
    What a wonderful time all those girls will have in Puerto Rico, celebrating your daughter as she is about to enter this next phase of her life. I think it's wonderful that they take the time and effort to do this.
    Look at those eleven brave women! And the men who supported them had to be brave too. We look back on those days and shake our heads in wonder but there are many churches, religions, whose acceptance of women in the priesthood is as far away as from here to the sun. Their patriarchal practices are still completely and solidly engrained. My question at this point is- why would the women of those churches put up with it? For their daughters if not for themselves? I guess that indoctrination which starts at birth has a lot to do with it.
    We're really enjoying watching "Northern Exposure" on Prime. It has held up tremendously well.

  6. Harper is such a sweetie, looking at us with those big eyes!
    I grew up Catholic but no longer have any religion. Catholics are still so far behind in allowing women to participate. It's no wonder that they have lost many followers.
    I loved Black AF History and was amazed, saddened and angered by all of the history that I was never taught.

  7. How much fun that you get to spend time with Harper. She's adorable. Pictures, please! Love the story of the Philadelphia Eleven -- even if I have a hard time relating to religious politics. I went to services at our local UU for a couple of years, and two of the three ministers were women -- and lesbian at that. UU is radically different from other groups. I, too, have had Slow Horses recommended to me, but would have to sign up for Apple+ and I've promised not to sign up for any more streaming services! Maybe someday it will come to Hulu. So great to see your comment on my mostly discarded blog. Thank you for coming by.

  8. That beautiful baby! Enjoy ... and I know you will. The fight here in Canada's 'Anglican" church was not so much women - the United Church led the way there and I worked with a wonderful woman minister in the 1990's = but about the blessing of marriage of same sex couples. And we got it. A fine victory.
    JG and I are rewatching Downton Abby. Great acting and a lot of fun.