Betty Bone Schiess (born 1923) helped spark a national controversy when she emerged as one of the "Philadelphia Eleven, " a group of Episcopalian women who were ordained as priests in a Philadelphia church ceremony. It was an act of defiance since the church hierarchy was still debating whether or not to allow women to enter the priest-hood.
Schiess was born in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1923, the daughter of Evan and Leah Bone. In 1945 she received her undergraduate degree from the University of Cincinnati, and then journeyed to New York's Syracuse University for a master's degree, which she earned in 1947. That same year she married William Schiess, and like most American women of her generation, settled down to a role as homemaker and, in time, mother to their two children. Yet during the 1960s, Schiess-like other educated, primarily middle-class women of her day-found a new direction with the burgeoning feminist movement. Launched in part by their participation in the civil-rights struggle, the publication of a myth-shattering book (Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique), and the formation of the National Organization for Women (NOW), thousands of women like Schiess began rejecting the limitations placed upon them by institutions, the workplace, and social customs. They began agitating for the repeal of discriminatory laws, or called for legislation that would placed them on equal ground with American men.
Schiess became head of the Syracuse chapter of the National Organization for Women by the late 1960s. She also became an important force in a movement within the Episcopal Church of America to eradicate discriminatory practices. With over three million members at the time, American Episcopalians were certainly not the largest sect of the Protestant faith, but perhaps the most influential. The creed represented the American version of England's Anglican Church, and its origins as a separate entity from the Church of England dated back to 1784. It was also the religion of the East Coast elite-America's venerable, old-money families were usually Episcopalian; so were a disproportionate number of American presidents.
The Episcopalian Church was organized into geographic dioceses, who in turn sent representatives to a General Convention every three years. Lay people served in the House of Deputies, lesser in status to the House of Bishops. The issue of allowing women to become Episcopal priests had first been raised in the 1940s, when dioceses began sending women representatives to General Conventions as deputies. Though the first of these was allowed to take her seat on the convention floor, subsequent women deputies at later conventions were not. Nearly 20 years later, the Convention finally resolved the controversy and voted to allow women into the House of Deputies in 1967. By then, devout Episcopalian women had pushed for and been granted admission to Episcopalian seminaries. Other changes had occurred as well: in 1965, the General Convention abolished the celibacy rule for deaconesses. These were Episcopalian women who trained at special church schools, then undertook charity, social, or educational work under the auspices of the Church; over time, they were allowed to read in church and assist in ceremonies. The 1965 General Convention bestowed on them a more equal status to men and abolished the rule of celibacy. Five years later, they were allowed as full members of the diaconate with an investiture ceremony that recognized their clerical status.
At that same General Convention of 1970, a vote was held for the first time about ordaining women into the priesthood, and did not pass. It did serve to launch an organized movement within the Episcopal Church, however: the Episcopal Women's Caucus was formed in late 1971 as a feminist-action group. Many of its members were women who had earned degrees from Episcopal divinity schools. Schiess had earned a master's in divinity in 1972 from the Rochester Center for Theological Studies. They were buoyed by the fact that many other Protestant faiths-Methodist, Lutheran, and Presbyterian, among others-had allowed women to become priests.
On July 29, 1974, Schiess and ten other women became the first to be ordained in a formal ceremony at an inner-city Episcopal church in Philadelphia. It was a renegade act, however. They had been ordained by three retired bishops, who possessed the ecclesiastical authority to ordain priests, but had not followed Church procedure and allowed the names of the potential candidates for priest-hood to be approved by a diocese committee.
The other women ordained with Schiess were similarly accomplished women in their respective congregations and dioceses. They were Merrill Bittner, Alla Bozarth-Campbell, Allison Cheek, Emily Hewitt, Carter Heyward, Suzanne Hiatt, Marie Moorefield, Jeanette Piccard, Katrina Swanson, and Nancy Wittig. Swanson's father was one of the ordaining bishops, the Right Reverend Edward R. Wells. The other two sympathetic elders were the Right Reverend Daniel Corrigan and the Right Reverend Robert DeWitt. As retired bishops, they faced less censure from Church authorities for the act.
According to David E. Sumner in The Episcopal Church's History: 1945-1985, Schiess and her ten colleagues issued a statement of their aims, and expressed gratitude toward the bishops who conducted the ceremony: "We rejoice in their courage and feel privileged to join them in this action of Christian obedience. We are certain God needs women in the priesthood to be true to the Gospel understanding of human unity in Christ. Our primary motivation is to begin to free priesthood from the bondage it suffers as long as it is characterized by the categorical exclusion of persons on the basis of sex."
The next day, on July 30, Schiess and Bittner were suspended by respective dioceses. Schiess's bishop, the Right Reverend Ned Cole, sent a letter to the clergy of the diocese of central New York that declared the ordination had been "a mutinous use of episcopal power, " according to the New York Times, and that Schiess's involvement in the renegade act "shall always hamper the ministry which would be hers." In response, Schiess refused to put her signature to a statement accepting the suspension, asserting she would wait for the judgment of an ecclesiastical trial.
The controversy divided the church and achieved national attention. Those opposed to the ordination of women as priests pointed out that the Philadelphia ordination had not taken place via the proper avenues, with the women first being approved by a diocese committee. A few weeks later, a special meeting of the House of Bishops condemned the ordination by a vote of 128 to 9 for the same reasons. Conversely, other Episcopalians asserted that those same bishops may not have even possessed the authority to declare the ordination of Schiess and the others invalid.
Another supporter of Schiess's cause was Dr. Charles Willie, a prominent African-American academic and vice president of the House of Deputies. He had delivered the sermon at the Philadelphia ordination and, after the August vote by the House of Bishops, resigned his post in protest. At a sermon in Schiess's hometown of Syracuse at Grace Episcopal Church, Willie found fault with his colleagues for toeing the line too narrowly on the issue. "In the Christian religion, concern for personhood always takes precedence over concern for procedures, " Willie explained. "A state of social pathology exists whenever individuals are sacrificed by others for the benefit of an institution."
In January of 1975, that same congregation asked Schiess to become its associate priest. At the time, she was the director of a senior citizens' center. Her superior, the Right Reverend Cole, refused to grant her an officiating license. He was of the opinion that the matter should be decided at the next General Convention. In response, Schiess filed suits with both the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and the New York State Division of Human Rights charging employment discrimination on the basis of gender, a violation of Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964. This was a somewhat radical move, since tenets and laws of religious creeds enjoyed fairly sacrosanct protection under the First Amendment.
Time in a story headlined "Sue Thy Bishop, " expressed the opinion that "Schiess's decision to accuse her bishop of sex discrimination through secular channels is likely to do the women's cause little good within the church, and it could well create a backlash. The article even cited a New Testament passage that condemned any Christian who brought suit against his "brother." In her complaint, Schiess pointed out that the Episcopal Church had ordained women as priests in Hong Kong, and that no specific law in the Church prohibited women from becoming priests. Furthermore, her complaint cited one particular prior court case as providing a legal basis for her charge of discrimination, in effect giving the government jurisdiction over the matter: a court had ruled that if a church body holds a vote on the matter, it is technically not part of its religious belief and thus cannot be protected by the First Amendment.
On September 16, 1976, the General Convention voted to allow women to join the priesthood, and it became Section 1 of Title III, Canon 9. This decision came about, in part, because the Episcopal Church was so bitterly divided over the issue. Some bishops and deputies felt that to deny the women once more would bring about a permanent rift. In early 1977, after the withdrawal of her EEOC complaint, Schiess was ordained by Cole according to Episcopal guidelines. She went on to an accomplished career within the church, serving as chaplain of Syracuse University from 1976 to 1978, and holding the same post at Cornell University from 1978 to 1979. For five years she served as rector of Grace Episcopal Church in Mexico, New York, and was also a member of the New York Task Force on Life and Law from 1985 onward.
Schiess's story is told in the 1996 work A Still Small Voice: Women, Ordination, and the Church. She is the author of Take Back the Church, Indeed the Witness, (1982), Creativity and Procreativity: Some Thoughts on Eve and the Opposition and How Episcopalians Make Ethical Decisions (1988). Schiess belongs to the Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights, the Council on Adolescent Pregnancy, and is a trustee of the Elizabeth Cady Stanton Foundation. She has received a Governor's Award as Women of Merit in Religion, served as president of the International Association of Women Ministers from 1984 to 1987, and was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame in 1994.
Sumner, David E. The Episcopal Church's History: 1945-1985, Morehouse-Barlow, 1987.
New York Times, July 31, 1974; August 19, 1974; March 8, 1976, p. 28; November 14, 1976, p. 51.
Time, August 16, 1975, p. 36.