Patriarchy, Mary Magdalene, & the Philadelphia 11
A sermon preached for the the Feast of St. Mary Magdalene; 7/23/17, Year A.
Patriarchy is not ended. The silencing of the voices of women is not ended. Our entire world still exists entrenched in patriarchal structures and systems of oppression. Systems that privilege men over women. This past week I was in North Carolina and I was told by someone that a local Methodist church had called a woman to be their new pastor, and that many people would be leaving the congregation because of it.
“A woman is not to usurp the authority of a man!” this man yelled at me, paraphrasing a line from 1st Timothy in the New Testament. He went on to tell me how horrible he thinks our current president is, but that he would nevertheless rather have an unqualified man in office than a qualified woman.
This Friday, when I got back to New York, I was listening to a local radio station in the car, and they were broadcasting a Christian preacher who was railing against women in positions of authority. “God intended men to be the head of the household,” the preacher said, and “we must not bow down to modern culture!”
The full equality and equal worth of women alongside men is not a concession to modern culture, it is part of the proclamation of the Gospel, of the abundant life that Jesus came to bring for all. In Christ, there is no male or female, St. Paul says.
Patriarchy, anti-Gospel patriarchy, is not ended. It is deeply entrenched all around us. Whatever your politics might be, and whatever you may personally think of Hilary Clinton, a major reason she is not president today is that she is a woman. It is utterly unthinkable to many men and women in this country that a woman should claim authority or leadership—in the church, in politics, at all. Don’t forget this just because you live in Woodstock!
Yesterday, on the Christian calendar, was the Feast of St. Mary Magdalene, and it has become a tradition here at St. Gregory’s to transfer her feast day to the nearest Sunday. Now typically a feast day is only transferred if it is a principal feast—a feast celebrating an event from the life of Jesus—or if it is a parish’s patronal feast—for us, that would be the Feast of St. Gregory. But the patriarchy is not ended, and until it is, it seems fitting to me that St. Mary Magdalene’s feast day should trump all else.
But before we come to Mary Magdalene, I want to point out that we actually stand this morning between three significant commemorations of women in the calendar of the Episcopal Church. Mary Magdalene, honored today, and next Saturday, the Feast of Sts. Mary and Martha of Bethany, as well as the commemoration of the ordination of the Philadelphia 11, the first group of women to ever be ordained to the priesthood in the Episcopal Church.
And their story is a piece of history worth recounting. And it’s part of our story as Episcopalians that we need to know and tell—because the patriarchy is not ended. Seven provinces in our own Anglican Communion still do not ordain women to any holy orders; there are other that ordain women only as deacons; and some, as deacons and priests, but not as bishops. And so even though many of you have heard it, we tell and tell again the story of the Philadelphia 11.
At the 1970 General Convention of the Episcopal Church, a resolution was put forward to approve women’s ordination to the priesthood and episcopate. It failed to pass. The same resolution come forward again in 1973, and again failed to pass. And so, in 1974, three retired bishops—Daniel Corrigan, Robert DeWitt, and Edward Welles—and eleven women who were already ordained as deacons (which was allowed at that time)—and it’s important that we name each of them, as women so often go unnamed in scripture—Merrill Bittner, Alla Bozarth-Campbell, Alison Cheek, Emily Hewitt, Carter Heyward, Suzanne Hiatt, Marie Moorefield, Jeannette Piccard, Betty Schiess, Katrina Swanson, and Nancy Wittig—these eleven women and three men decided that justice, that the Gospel, could wait no longer.
An ordination service was planned for July 29, 1974 at the Church of the Advocate in Philadelphia. The church was packed—almost 2,000 supporters, as well as a few protestors, were present. In the middle of the service, when Bishop Corrigan read the words from the ordination liturgy, “If there be any of you who knoweth any impediment or notable crime in any of them… let him [him!] come forth in the name of God...” and a number of priests did come forward to read statements opposing the ordination.
The bishops patiently waited and then stated their belief that they were acting in obedience to God, and that “hearing God’s command, we can heed no other. The time for our obedience is now.” And they went forward with the laying-on-of-hands—a chain linking back 2,000 years. And the fact of the matter was, they were breaking no existing church canon that said women could not be ordained. The patriarchy had taken itself so for granted that it let this little loophole slip right through.
An emergency meeting of the House of Bishops was called the next month. The ordinations were initially declared invalid, but after convincing arguments from the Bishop of West Missouri that this would flaunt hundreds of years of orthodox criteria for valid ordinations—these were bishops in good standing with apostolic succession, after all—the ordinations were declared not invalid, but “irregular.” The wider church was admonished to not recognize the priesthood of these women until the next convention could formally make a decision on their status.
But the tipping point had been reached. Priests from among the 11 were invited to celebrate the Eucharist against the orders of bishops, and in September of 1975 four more women were “irregularly” ordained by Bishop George Barrett. It became clear that there was no turning back, and at the 1976 General Convention, women’s ordination was formally, finally, approved, and the ordinations of the now 15 women were declared “regularized.” The Church had changed. The Church had been transformed—by a group of women and men who refused to wait for justice, who refused to bow down to the patriarchy.
Now, you may be wondering about our second reading from… The Gospel of Mary Magdalene?! It certainly is an irregular reading. It’s not found in our collection of New Testament scripture, but it is an early, probably second-century text that describes the powerful apostolic teaching authority accorded to Mary Magdalene in the early church.
And the truth is, we don’t need outside texts to see what a major role she played in the life of Jesus. She’s named in all four Gospels, along with other women who followed Jesus, and she is significantly present at the foot of the cross during the crucifixion; she is there to claim and anoint Jesus’ body for burial; and, of course, she is named the first witness to the Resurrection. When almost all of the male disciples fled or denied or betrayed Jesus, again and again Mary Magdalene is named as the one constant presence throughout his final days. That alone gives her serious street cred as both disciple and apostle.
And like the other apostles, Mary Magdalene was remembered in early Christian texts that were not included in the biblical canon. And whether or not these texts are historically accurate, and leaving aside the question of why they were excluded, they do tell us something very important—they tell us that there were Christians in the early Church who preserved a tradition in which Mary Magdalene was remembered as a major teaching figure following Jesus’ death and resurrection, and even remembered as the disciple who best understood Jesus’ message.
Another early text describes her as one “whose heart is more directed to the Kingdom of Heaven than all her brothers.” And as late as the 6th century, St. Maximus the Confessor would state that the male disciples were not equal to Mary Magdalene “in boldness or fearlessness, nor in excellence.” It does appear, however, that the men felt challenged, threatened, by her, because she, like Jesus, spoke as one with authority.
In the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, which we heard read from, after Mary has offered a teaching that she received from Jesus, Peter asks, “Would the Savior speak these things to a woman in private without openly sharing them so that we too might hear? Should we listen to her at all?” And Levi speaks up for Mary and says “You have always been quick to anger, Peter, and now you are questioning her in exactly that same manner, treating this woman as if she was an enemy. If the Savior considered her worthy, who are you to reject her?”
Well, a man, that’s who. That’s how the patriarchy works. While it may be clear from the Gospel accounts, when read without our blinders, that Mary Magdalene was the disciple who really “got it”—who understood Jesus’ message, who stood beside him, and who first received and was commissioned to share the good news of his resurrection—nevertheless, she was a woman. And so rapidly her voice went into decline.
The Church, ultimately, linked itself with the forces of Empire and pulled back to the old ways of the patriarchy. And women were slowly removed from roles of leadership, authority, and teaching. Mary Magdalene’s apostolic authority was forgotten, and she was dismissed as little more than repentant prostitute—something nowhere recorded in scripture. Our master narrative became one of twelve men, followed by an all-male succession of priests and bishops. That is, until 1974. All of that changed when three bishops and eleven women stood up for the Gospel and spoke with the voice and authority of Mary Magdalene.
Alla Renée Bozarth, one of the Philadelphia 11, wrote in a poem:
Incomplete, they call us
Because we are eleven
and not the Magic Twelve
of your chosen few?
Because we are female
and not important enough
to mention in Matthew,
Mark, Luke or John,
our Hebrew sisters present
at your First Feast?
We are the flesh
of your mother and sister,
we are the life of the world.
We are new wine bursting
Not twelve, but Eleven—
Judas is gone, and we wait your Coming,
prophets of your resurrection.
I imagine St. Mary Magdalene, Apostle to the Apostles, stepping in that day to round out their number, to complete the Twelve, to lead the charge of these prophets of the Resurrection. And she steps in here this morning, no longer forgotten. No, the patriarchy is not ended, but every time we tell these women’s stories, we deal it a blow. Every time we speak their names. And so tell the stories, speak the names, and don’t give up the fight. And St. Mary Magdalene—disciple, Apostle, and prophet—pray for us.