Integrity Celebrates Thirty Five Years of Ministry
of the Reverend Dr. Ellen “Sr. Bernadette” Barrett
Integrity marks the 35th anniversary of the January 10, 1977 ordination of Ellen M. Barrett to the priesthood with reflections by two prophetic women leaders: the Reverend Dr. Caro Hall (President, Integrity USA) and the Reverend Dr. Elizabeth Kaeton (President, Episcopal Women's Caucus) Rejoice with us -- and with them -- as they share the story of one of the great trailbazers in Episcopal Church history.
Standing on the Shoulders of the Saints
In 1975 Barrett had become the first women to have a leadership role in Integrity, as an assistant editor of Integrity Forum. She was described to the readers as a “former teacher, A Gay activist and a writer who has served as a co-chairwoman of DOB/NY[Daughters of Bilitis, New York], a moderator of Gay Students Liberation at NYU and as a member of Gay Liberation Front, Radicalesbians, et al. She lectures frequently on Gay liberation, on sexuality in general, and on women’s history – as she puts it, enough so as ‘to make a circuit-rider queasy’.”
It wasn’t easy for Barrett to become a priest. Although in 1972 she was turned down for ordination by both Bishop Moore and Bishop DeWitt of Philadelphia (women were ordained as deacons starting in 1970), she went to General Theological Seminary and got her MDiv anyway. This paid off, as Moore saw her commitment and deep sense of vocation and agreed to ordain her. Her diaconal ordination was a quiet affair but in January 1977 the media were all over her priesting. The story went all over the country – it even made the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle!
For many women in those early days, finding a job was harder than getting ordained. For the first-openly-gay-woman-priest-in-the-Episcopal-Church it was even harder. Even in Berkeley where she was pursuing graduate study, Barrett had difficulty finding a church that would fully accept her ministry. She received hate mail and threatening phone calls from people across the country outraged by her audacity.
But it was her audacity that opened the door which I walked through with ease and grace twenty-seven years later. For the Commission on Ministry in my diocese of El Camino Real it seemed that my gender didn’t turn a hair and my sexuality didn’t make an eyelid bat. How much had changed in the years since Barrett’s courageous actions!! Of course, we still have a ways to go before all LGBT aspirants experience true non-discrimination in the process.
Truly my ministry, both as a lesbian priest and as a leader in Integrity is on the shoulders of saints like Ellen Marie Barrett. Today I give thanks for her and her powerful legacy.
You can read more about Ellen Marie Barrett at the Religious Archives Network. Today she is a sister in the Order of St Benedict and a priest in the Diocese of Newark. You can congratulate her through her Facebook page or by email
Celebrating 35 years of the Rev’d Dr Ellen (Sr. Bernadette) Barrett by the Reverend Dr. Elizabeth Kaeton President, Episcopal Women’s Caucus
Charles de Foucauld was Trappist monk who had a “ministry of presence” among “the furthest removed, the most abandoned” in the Sahara Desert. He saw the purpose of his work not to proselytize or to believe as he did, or convert people whose faith and culture differed from his, but to “shout the gospel” with his life. He strove to live so that those around him who witnessed his life would contemplate, “If such is the servant, what must the master be like?”
Agnes de Mille once wrote: "No trumpets sound when the important decisions of our life are made. Destiny is made known silently."
Trumpets may not have sounded on the morning of January 10, 1977 when Ellen M. Barrett was ordained to the priesthood by Bishop Paul Moore in the Episcopal Diocese of New York, but the front page of the New York Times that morning blared, “Lesbian Woman to be Ordained Priest.”
That headline was, at the time, more of a scandal than V. Gene Robinson’s election and consecration as the first openly gay male bishop. That may be news to some who read this, so a little historical context may be in order.
The 1976 General Convention had passed a resolution to “regularize” the ordinations of eleven women, which had taken place at the Church of the Advocate in Philadelphia on July 29, 1974. The following year, the month of January held no less than forty-one ordinations of women to the priesthood in many Episcopal churches and cathedrals around the country with twenty-eight more ordinations by June of 1977.
A new day was dawning in The Episcopal Church and for many of “God’s frozen chosen,” it was a rude awakening. Some churches flew the Episcopal flag at half-staff or upside-down. Some rectors and their congregations left – or threatened to leave – The Episcopal Church. The “Chicken Little School of Theology” was on high alert, certain that the sky was falling and this would be THE END of The Episcopal Church many had known all their lives and loved with all their hearts.
While The Episcopal Church has certainly – thanks be to God - changed over the last thirty-five years, I believe history will reveal that what happened on January 10, 1977 to be one of the more significant and transformative events in the life of our church. I think it reveals the truth of Ms. de Mille’s statement, “Destiny is made known silently.”
One of the silent fears at the time was that opening ordination to women – besides making unification with Rome that much more difficult (strike that) impossible – was that the only women who would seek ordination to the priesthood were women who really wanted to be men. Read: lesbians.
The New York Times hardly “scooped” the story about Ellen being a lesbian. She was, from 1974-75, the co-president (with Jim Wickliff) of the then fledgling organization known as Integrity, which had been founded by Louie Crew. Her diaconal ordination in 1975 at St. Peter’s, Chelsea, had even drawn a small protest demonstration. The headline only served to feed into the worst fears of sexism and homophobia, each of which has deep roots in the other.
Nick Dowen, long time convener of Integrity/NYC, remembers it clearly. “I had come home from work and turned on the six o’clock news. There was a film clip of Bishop Moore, ducking his mitre under heavy television cables on his way into Church of the Holy Apostles (where the ordination took place). It was clear that he was not pleased with all the attention.” “I was thunderstruck,” Dowen said. “This signaled a new openness for gay men and lesbian women in the church – my church – and I couldn’t have been more proud.”
That was to be short-lived. At the next vestry meeting of the Church of the Ascension, which had been the meeting place of Integrity/NYC, the Vestry voted to ask the group to leave the church premises. Dowen was a member of the vestry at the time and only he and one other vestry member voted against the move.
“It was an unexpected and decisive vote and it really shook me,” said Dowen. “I have been part of what I like to call ‘liberal American Protestantism’ all my life, which had a long tradition of extending a warm welcome to everyone.” “This was one of the most formative and transformative experiences of my life. I had never even heard of Integrity before Ellen’s ordination, but you can bet I got involved.”
Anyone who knows Ellen – now a monastic known as Sr. Bernadette – can tell you that she is the least likely person to cause such a tempest in the baptismal waters of the teapot known as The Episcopal Church. According to the Religious Archives Network,
Barrett was born on February 10, 1946 in Lawrence, Kansas where she was baptized at Trinity Episcopal Church in September of that year.Real radical stuff, eh? Such a pity she has contributed to the downfall of the church in particular and Western Civilization in general, not to mention the destruction of family life and the corruption of the morals of our youth – and, no doubt, is the real cause of Global Warming, tsunamis, earthquakes and hurricanes.
The family later moved to Lexington, Virginia, where her father was a professor at Washington and Lee University, chairing the Department of Roman Languages, until his death in March of 1972. Her mother, Marie Hamilton McDavid Barrett, was for many years secretary of the English Department at Virginia Military Institute. Barrett was confirmed in the R.E. Lee Memorial Episcopal Church in Lexington, Virginia. She began school at the Colegio Americano de Quito at age 5, while her father was attaché to the U.S. embassy in Ecuador from 1951 to 1953.
Shortly after enrollment there, she was withdrawn from the school due to illness; she was then tutored under the Calvert System by her mother. Her secondary schooling began in Stuart Hall, an Episcopal school for girls in Staunton, Virginia. She later graduated from Lexington High School in Virginia. Her undergraduate career had two stages: she first attended Southern Seminary Jr. College in Buena Vista, Virginia, graduating in 1967; from there she went to Albertus Magnus College in New Haven, Connecticut, graduating in 1970 with a BA in English literature.
In 1975, Barrett was awarded a M.Div. with honors from the General Theological Seminary, a member of its second class to admit women. She went on to earn a Ph.D. in medieval history from New York University in 1982, writing her dissertation on the only indigenous religious order in medieval England, the Gibertines, covering the order from its foundation in 1131 to the canonization of St. Gilbert of Sempringham in 1202. Barrett’s ministry has found her serving a variety of city and suburban parishes, beginning her career in Berkeley, California and eventually settling in dioceses in the New York and New Jersey areas.
She held clerical positions ranging from non-stipendiary Assisting Priest to paid Curé. She eventually specialized in interim ministry in parishes where a long-term rector had retired or the incumbent had been removed for misconduct. In addition to the usual pastoral and liturgical responsibilities of an Episcopal priest,
Barrett ran a number of educational programs for parishioners, aimed at both adults and children. She also led numerous spiritual retreats and quiet days, and served on various diocesan councils and committees. In addition to her work within the church, Barrett taught medieval and church history at a variety of academic institutions in the Greater New York area, including Fordham University, New York University, Manhattan College, Union Theological College, New York Theological Seminary, and the Theological School of Drew University. Her scholarly work on Church history includes an essay entitled "Validity and Regularity, an Historical Perspective," published in the Anglican Theological Review in July of 1976. She also presented papers at a number of academic conferences.
Today, Sr. Bernadette lives the solitary life of a monastic, occasionally augmenting her below-the-poverty-line pension with short-term interim and supply duties. “She has paid a huge price in deployment because of her pioneering,” says Louie Crew, a long-time friend and fellow pioneer.
The thing about decisions and destiny is that many may happen quietly and even silently, but the ones that change lives rarely come without high cost. I am deeply grateful for those who came before me who stepped out in faith, never counting the cost. I believe with all my heart that I would not have been ordained almost 26 years ago without the courageous witness of Ellen Barrett.
The Rev’d Dr. Ellen “Sr. Bernadette” Barrett has gone about these past 35 years quietly doing the work God has called her to do, being an unsuspecting prophet in a not-for-prophet church. Like Foucauld, she has shouted the gospel with her life, as the destiny of the church has quietly been made known – despite the occasional blaring of headlines. “If such is the servant, what must the master be like?”