I am a priest. They can’t strip us of the power of the Holy Spirit.”
With these words, the Rev. Carter Heyward described both her ’74 triumph and her faith in the power that made it possible.
Carter Heyward, 29, was one of 11 women ordained as Episcopal priests last summer in a controversial ceremony in Philadelphia—ordinations that were soon declared invalid by the church’s ruling body. Undaunted, she has become both a symbol and a spokeswoman for the right of women to share priestly duties with men—a condition that many people would accept quite readily, since the priestly qualities of empathy, understanding and mercy are as much feminine as masculine. But tradition and canonical law stand stoutly in the way.
The passion of the feeling against her was expressed when she participated in the consecration of the Eucharist at New York’s Riverside Church. A young male priest, stepping forward to take communion, reached for the chalice of wine which she held, dug his fingernails into her hand till it bled and whispered, “I hope you burn in hell.” Carter Heyward, who was reared in a moderately religious North Carolina family, has taken it all in stride. “I am having to realize,” she said, “that part of life is experiencing pain right smack in the middle of joy.”
Like the other members of the Philadelphia Eleven, Carter Heyward faces an ecclesiastical trial which could result in suspension. For the moment, she will continue serving as a priest and in her job at Union Theological Seminary, where she teaches “Feminism and Vocation.” She, like many others, has faith that history is on her side and that women will be officially accepted in the church “as people, as human beings,” and as priests.