On a clear, crisp mid-September day in 1976, I am baking bread at the kitchen counter when the phone rings. It is our parents calling from the midst of the whirlwind of the Episcopal Church’s General Convention in Minneapolis. Our dad, Dr. Charles Lawrence, newly elected President of the House of Deputies and Chair of the Committee on the Ordination of Women to the Priesthood and Episcopate, has kept me abreast of progress on the resolution to open the historic, apostolic Episcopal priesthood and episcopacy to women, and I know it is due to come before the House for a final vote.
When the 1970 and 1973 General Conventions of the National Episcopal Church had narrowly rejected calls to ordain female priests, women who discerned a call to the priesthood (and men who supported them) grew weary of being excluded by the Church’s failure to hear God’s call to them, and the idea of an unauthorized ordination began to take root. On The Feast of Mary and Martha, July 29th, 1974, in spite of physical threats of arson, assault, and firebombs and spiritual threats of excommunication, eleven women knelt at the altar rail at The Church of the Advocate in Philadelphia. There they were ordained by three bishops who had likewise dared to challenge the church’s ban on ordaining women. Two years later, in September 1976, General Convention gathered in Minneapolis and authorized ordination to the priesthood and the episcopate for women and fully recognized the ordinations of the Philadelphia Eleven.
“Paula Jean, It’s your Pa.” says Dad when I answer the phone. “Turn on the TV news,” and the triumph and joy and tears I hear in his voice makes me know something wonderful has happened. My hands, covered with bread-dough mess, put down the phone, reach for the TV switch and struggle to adjust the broken antennae just in time to see a clip of the convention floor crowded with relieved, resigned, and jubilant deputies. There, in the midst of them is our mother, Dr. Margaret Lawrence, priest’s daughter from Mississippi, radiant, joyful, and as beautiful as I’ve ever seen her! I pick up the receiver again. Dad has given the phone to Mom on the other end. “Thanks be to God!” she says through tears of her own.
I put the phone down, turn off the television and resume my bread baking. As my hands find their way back to the familiar rhythms of this weekly ritual, I see our grandmother’s hands baking the cake from scratch with the touch of an angel. “So light it wouldn’t hurt a flea,” was the highest praise she would give her own results. I see our mother’s hands confidently “cutting” the biscuit dough. “Maggie, You have outdone yourself!” our dad never failed to say as he savored the freshly buttered golden brown fruits of her labor of love. I see in my hands seasons and years of orchestrating the little hands of kindergarten children as they mixed and kneaded, punched and pulled the dough. I see the hands of our own young sons, who learned to make the weekly bread with me, standing on stools at this kitchen counter. “Mama’s little baby loves shortnin’, shortnin’, Mama’s little baby loves shortnin’ bread” we sang as they squeezed and pushed the dough to their heart’s content. It was “challah bread” we were making, though they forever called it “Paula Bread” and insisted that we make a “love loaf” for the family to eat as soon as it came out of the oven. They knew too well my inclination to give bread away.
I am thinking about this inclination as I fold the bread over one last time before covering it and setting it aside to rise, when my thoughts return to the vote for women’s ordination. Maybe someday I will make a little love loaf to bless and give away. Maybe the inclination to give the bread away is who I am.
It is June 27th, 1998 and I am sitting at the prayer desk in the choir of the Cathedral Church of the Saviour in Philadelphia, freshly clothed in a flowing red chasuble. I have just been ordained a priest in the Episcopal Church. It is a hot day and a rainbow of ribbons adorning my new vestments flutter in the breeze of the electric fans. In spite of the air’s movement, there is a stillness, a presence I feel but don’t try to capture. I feel at peace.
My sister deacon is setting God’s table. My brother priest is, as my Grandmother would say, “seeing to things” as he always does. They have told me in the vulnerable days of preparation leading up to this day that they will take care of everything. All I need to do is “receive.” So I wait. I wait to receive.
My father’s death came long before this day. But his understanding that I was a priest came long before that. He knew before I did, and trusted me, as he did with all things, to discover it for myself. He was always willing to wait.
And now here in the waiting is the sound of the trumpet playing the offertory. “There is a Balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole.” Or is it my father’s trumpet calling me in from my wanderings, calling for the treasure that God hid inside of me before I was born and then sent me on a lifetime of seeking to find it?
It is the Feast of Mary and Martha on a sweltering, hot July day in 1999, the twenty-fifth anniversary of the ordinations of the first women priests. We have gathered at The Church of the Advocate, the site of the historic ordinations of the “Philadelphia Eleven to celebrate and give thanks for these women whose vocations called them to minister to the Church ahead of its own time. Their acts of “holy defiance” had cost them dearly. Presiding Bishop John Allin from the Diocese of Mississippi called an emergency meeting of the House of Bishops at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, of all places, to assert the ordinations invalid.
Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” He could have been talking about the defiant acts of conscience that took place at the Church of the Advocate in Philadelphia. For two hundred years earlier, the Episcopal Church itself had been born out of a defiant act of conscience when on July 4th, 1776 Bishop William White, rector of Philadelphia’s Old Christ Church, broke with the Church of England by expunging all references to the king from its liturgy. And it was Bishop White who, in 1804, defied church tradition and ordained the first African American priest, Blessed Absalom Jones.
In the moments following the 1976 General Convention’s vote that finally allowed women to be ordained to the priesthood, journalists, looking for the next story, had asked the President of the House of Deputies, “Dr. Lawrence. Now that women’s ordination has passed, what about the ordination of homosexuals? Is that coming next?” Dad’s response recalls for us everyone whose vocation has ever called the church beyond its inherent barriers and exclusions and limitations to who we must become. “That was not a vote to ordain women. Dr. Lawrence said, “That was a vote to no longer ordain categories of people.” Bishop Robert DeWitt wrote, “The ‘Philadelphia Eleven’ had joined that goodly company of women through history who have seen that in overcoming the restrictions which circumscribed their own lives they brought release to countless others. The human family is the beneficiary.”
When asked by my sister priests to be the celebrant for the 25th anniversary Eucharist, I hesitated for only a moment. In that moment I heard Dad’s voice repeating what he’d said to me twenty years before when, as President of the House, he called to invite me to serve on a commission of the National Church. “I’m not going to twist your arm,” he said, “but I’m not going to take ‘no’ for an answer.” I would later learn what Dad already knew: that God was one day going to make the same call to me.
“Send your Holy Spirit upon us and upon these gifts of bread and wine that they may be to us the Body and Blood of your Christ. Grant that we, burning with your Spirit’s power, may be a people of hope, justice, and love.” The words of blessing come through me from a place at once deep and broad and near. This moment is every moment my hands have ever held the bread, mixing in the leavening, kneading, setting it aside to rise. And then in the breaking, it is every moment I have ever had the inclination to feed hungry mouths, to give the bread away.
“The Bread of Heaven,” I say, looking into the bright, engaging eyes of a beautiful, young woman standing before me now with outstretched hands. I break off a little piece of the bread and put it into her hands. When she has eaten it, she says, “Thank you, Teacher Paula.” “Teacher,” I hear, “Rabbouni.” And then I see who she is. She is one of my kindergarten children from years ago, one whose hands had helped to mix the leavening into the bread. “You are welcome,” In this moment I know that we are the love loaf, the loaf of God’s love for the world, blessed and broken in the sacramental moments of life’s mixing, punching, pulling, kneading, and, yes, rising to life. Surely the inclination to give the bread away is who and whose we are.