The priesthood isn’t like the Girl Scouts, who ‘fly up’ from being Brownies. It’s a state of being—being whatever you were called to be.”
Having heard that call, the Reverend Nancy Hatch Wittig, 29, finds herself in the middle of a mess. She is one of 11 women ordained as Episcopal priests by four strong-minded bishops in a recent, and highly controversial, ceremony in Philadelphia. Only a few days later the ordinations were declared invalid by the House of Bishops’ ceremony in Philadelphia.
Nancy, understandably, believes that the invalidation was “the action of a frightened ecclesiastical body which cannot undo that which Christ has truly done.” Her husband Richard, 27, who happens to be a Methodist minister, is even more outspoken. He charges the House of Bishops with acting “in fear of human sexuality.” He also says: “I cannot and will not accept the sexist judgment of that body.” There remains, of course, doubt over the amount of influence a Methodist minister can exert on the Episcopal House of Bishops.
Meanwhile, Nancy clings to her position as curate at St. Peter’s Church in Morristown, N.J. But she is acting as a deacon, not as a priest. She is, as a prime example, not allowed to perform the three priestly functions she refers to as the ABCs: to Absolve, Bless and Consecrate the Eucharist.
There is an almost ethereal quality about Nancy Wittig. Her long, straight, sandy blond hair falls over the clerical collar she wears to work every day, usually along with Levis or gaily-colored pants. She wears no makeup, and the only sign of her inner tension is her ceaseless cigarette-smoking.
Nancy was born in Maryland, the daughter of a navy career officer. She spent much of her childhood in Japan, Italy, Germany and England. Her parents were devoted Episcopalians, and the church became the one constant in her peripatetic life—”the thing I could always pick up again. I got a taste of the church universal.”
Even then she sensed that her future would somehow be involved with the church. “But I didn’t dare think about being a priest—it wasn’t supposed to be.” After graduating from the University of North Carolina and completing a year at Virginia Theological Seminary, her role in the church—and in its history—became clearer. It was the priesthood. “I don’t claim to have had a St. Paul experience with a bolt of lightning out of the sky,” she says. “But I did feel that I had something to offer the church and the church had something to offer me.”
Nancy Wittig met her husband while they were both in seminary, he at Howard University in Washington, D.C. They have now been married for three years. Since Nancy’s disputed ordination the Wittigs have been living in considerable turmoil. There have been hate telephone calls and letters from persons outraged by Nancy’s defiance of the rules of the church. She speaks of “discomfort.” Richard calls it “pain.”
In spite of the circumstances, the Wittigs try to relax. They live in a little white parsonage next to Richard’s church in Warren. It is isolated, surrounded by cornfields, and they have a thriving vegetable garden. Nancy says, “I’m a terror in the kitchen. I clean and Richard cooks.” Whenever they can the Wittigs like to slip away with a jug of wine for a solitary picnic. “I’m happy to be at home where I can slop around in old clothes and use expletives when I feel like it,” Nancy admits.
Still, their outrage at the treatment she has received from the church has not diminished. Says Nancy: “My understanding of the creation is that God made both male and female—He created them. Now the church denies the very thing it is supposed to be about.
“There are times when I cry a lot. But I have had to tell myself that I can no longer be worried about what people think of me. I must only say that I am really alive and that’s good. No one ever said it was going to be easy.”