Forty years of spiritual leadership: Cincinnati celebrates women as priests in the Episcopal Church

CINCINNATI - On a cool summer evening, Christ Church Cathedral in downtown Cincinnati was the ideal setting to celebrate the 40th anniversary of women in the Episcopal Church. More than 100 people gathered to participate in the hour-long program accented by soft light, candles and flowers at the altar.

Led by the Very Rev. Gail E. Greenwell, the service featured the Rev. Susan Lehman as celebrant. Lehman was the first woman priest ordained in Cincinnati, at the now-closed Church of the Holy Spirit in Forest Park in 1977.

In a festive atmosphere, the service on July 29 attracted women ministers dressed in white stoles--worn on special occasions--from the Dioceses of Southern Ohio and Lexington to mark the women's ordination anniversary in 1974.

The Tuesday evening service followed the traditional Rite II Holy Eucharist with the addition of a renewal of baptismal vows and a litany of Thanksgiving for the ministry of all women. A full choir sang anthems often related to women, the selection chosen for the occasion by Stephan Casurella, director of music.

Two reasons to celebrate

Not only is the year 2014 significant, but the date of July 29 represents the Feast of Mary and Martha of Bethany, reflected in the Gospel of Luke 10:38-42, in which Jesus chided Martha for spending too much time working, while Mary sat and listened at his feet and then went on her way.

“Now I am grateful that the ordination of women did happen,” said Lehman. Although she started her career by teaching school and conducting educational programs in churches, Lehman decided to go through the canonical process to become a priest.

In addition to serving as vicar of Holy Spirit, she worked at Christ Church Glendale. Interested in continuing her education, Lehman attended the University of Chicago in 1982 to pursue a master’s degree in religion. After that, she became the chaplain of Sweet Briar College in Virginia from 1985 to 2001, when she retired.

Not content to sit at home, Lehman returned to Cincinnati with her husband, John Dalzell, an artist, and found a place to live downtown. She found she missed the ministry and became a supply priest in the Diocese of Southern Ohio, going wherever the call was--even as far as Chilicothe and Troy.

"It gives me an opportunity to pray, preach and celebrate – all things I love doing,” she said. At age 73, she has no plans of stopping.

“Women have provided leadership within the church long before 40 years ago,” said Greenwell. “We ultimately value the ministry of all members, but the women’s ordination furthered our abilities to use all of our gifts wholly. Equality and inclusiveness look to help eradicate divisiveness based on gender, sexual orientation or belief systems.”

A rocky road to equality

The history of women ordained in the Episcopal Church is rocky.  On July 29, 1974, three bishops presided over the ordination of eleven women at the Church of the Advocate in Philadelphia. At that time, the church’s General Convention had not authorized the ordination of women. In an emergency meeting on August 15, 1974, the House of Bishops invalidated the ordinations and sanctioned the bishops who had presided over them.

However, one of the newly-ordained women known as the “Philadelphia Eleven,” disregarded the bishops. Rev. Alison Cheek celebrated the Eucharist at St. Stephen and the Incarnation Church in Washington, D.C., becoming the first woman to do so. In 1975, four more women were ordained in Washington, D.C.

By 1976, the General Convention of the Episcopal Church held in Minneapolis formally approved women’s entry into the priesthood. The following year, 69 women were ordained--bringing the total to 84. Currently in the Diocese of Southern Ohio, there are 101 woman priests out of a total 286.

The Episcopal Church’s 26th Presiding Bishop and Primate (top elected position), is The Most Rev. Dr. Katharine Jefferts Schor i, chosen in 2006 for a nine-year term. It was a controversial election in the worldwide Anglican Communion because she is a woman. Jefferts Schori is the only female national leader of a church in the Anglican Communion. Eight American dioceses have rejected her authority as bishop.

In July 2014, the Church of England voted in favor of women bishops.

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