st. stephen's role in the ordination of women in the episcopal church
For present-day church-goers in Protestant churches, it may be hard to believe that women serving as priests was once a controversial idea. Yet at one time this idea was debated, the issue pushed, and the rules broken, including in our very own building.
St. Stephen’s played a prominent part in the controversial and radical act of ordaining some of the first women as priests in The Episcopal Church in the mid-1970s. The story centers around the “Philadelphia Eleven,” the first set of women who were ordained in 1974. A few months after those “irregular” ordinations, part of the drama moved to D.C. and our own sanctuary.
Until the mid-1970s, the denomination did not permit women to enter the priesthood. On July 29, 1974, at the Church of the Advocate in Philadelphia, 11 women were “irregularly” ordained—Revs. Merrill Bittner, Alla Bozarth-Campbell, Alison Cheek, Emily Hewitt, Carter Heyward, Suzanne Hiatt, Marie Moorefield, Jeannette Piccard, Betty Schiess, Katrina Swanson, and Nancy Wittig.
A few months later, on November 10, 1974, Rev. Cheek presided at communion at the altar at St. Stephen’s and became the first woman in the denomination to publicly celebrate the Eucharist. For facilitating this, our rector at the time, Rev. Bill Wendt, was found guilty of violating Episcopal Church doctrine and formally reprimanded, but in defiance, he hired Cheek as St. Stephen’s assistant priest. On September 7, 1975, St. Stephen’s hosted a second “irregular” ordination for four more women, including parishioner Lee McGee. Women’s ordination was ultimately approved by the national church in 1976.
The media took notice of these events, especially the Washington Post. It reported that the November 1974 service at which Cheek presided “ranged from solemn prayer to joyous hugs and bursts of spontaneous applause.”
“I think the visual image of a woman behind the altar is important,” Cheek told the Houston Chronicle in 2006. “I don’t like to generalize, but I think we bring a more human touch, and that can create a different atmosphere.”
In 2023, in preparation for the 50th anniversary of the first women's ordinations in 2024, a feature-length documentary was produced. Watch the trailer below (our sanctuary makes a cameo appearance)