Interviewee: Reverend Betty Bone Schiess
Interviewer: Sister Marie Heyda
Date: November 18-21, 1977
Betty Bone Schiess was an American Episcopal priest and she was one of the first female priests in the United States. She served as the chaplain at Syracuse University. Schiess helped to found her local Syracuse chapter of NOW. Interview includes discussion of: Schiess’ legal case against her bishop for sex discrimination; Schiess’ perspectives of how men and male clergy members react to women priests; questions about the future of women’s ordination in the Anglican Church; and her views on the contributions of religious feminists to the women’s movement. Schiess supported the Equal Rights Amendment and believed it is amoral to oppose it.
Betty Bone Schiess: It’s exciting.
Marie Heyda: Yes, it is. I’ve been looking around Houston and I thought I’d go over to the convention center now. And…
BS: Okay, well do want me to tell you who I am and all that?
MH: Yes, would you tell me who you are, where you’re from, and what particular interest brought you here?
BS: Okay, anytime?
MH: Anytime. It picks up right there in the mic.
BS: I’m the Reverend Betty Bone Schiess and I was one of the Episcopal women priests first ordained in July 1974 to the priesthood. In fact, I was the woman who started the whole business in the Episcopal Church in that my bishop recommended me to go to seminary with the intention of becoming a priest before any other woman ever had done that. Then the momentum picked up and we were, as everybody knows, ordained in 1974. I am now presently a chaplain at Syracuse University, but it was after a long hard fight for recognition, and even now the Episcopal Church is not so (unintelligible at 1:17).
MH: Yes, I’m a little up on that.
BS: Are you? Good. I guess my reason then for coming here is I became a feminist, I guess, and was a founder of our local chapter of NOW. About the same time I was aware of the fact that in my church, which I’ve been very devoted to over the years, there really was no place for women to speak out or to be taken seriously.
MH: Did you tell me, what particular city and state you were in at that time?
BS: I was in Syracuse, New York.
MH: You found that to be true there, too.
BS: Oh, everywhere.
MH: Although you got into the University, I take it.
BS: Oh, but I wasn’t made a chaplain, you see, until I had challenged the whole church and fought that battle both on the legal front , which was a very difficult thing to establish because the church-state separation, and personally. There were a few bishops who were willing to understand the depth of that and everything. At any rate, no, I’ve just recently become a chaplain at Syracuse University. But much pain was necessary to get that far.
MH: I gather then that for President Carter’s request that women tell, at the conferences and congresses that have taken place this year, what barriers they see to their progress and equality, you would see one in religion?
BS: Oh definitely. And the thing that makes it a heart break to me is that we do have this precious separation of church and state, so the state can’t enforce and impose either good things or bad things on the Church.
MH: Affirmative action, you mean.
BS: Right. By the same token, my understanding of religious values has altogether to do with freedom and justice. I’m glad President Carter is a religious man because I think he understands that very keenly. And if the Church itself can’t demonstrate some fairness and –
MH: The Christian Church itself doesn’t see equality of the two sexes –
BS: That is a powerful deterrent, I think. Government – and I love government, I’m a great admirer of government – I think it’s an amoral thing that women have not yet had passed the Equal Rights Amendment. But from a religious point of view, to suggest that not only the state hasn’t made it possible for women to be equal but also that maybe that’s in God’s plan is just a dreadful burden to carry.
MH: Yes, I think it’s a terrific one. I think if we could overcome that, the other things would fall. Therefore, it’s very important for me to interview you. I think Caroline Bird will be very anxious to have it. You’re going to give me your card, did you say –
BS: I love Caroline Bird. I’ve read all her writings all along. May I just for the record, I don’t know whether she or anyone else is particularly interested, but one key author in the religious – much of religion is dismissed as unimportant by many feminists, of course. But one of the key books, a book by Gregory Baum, Religion and Alienation, demonstrates how no social change can really take place until the religious part of ourselves somehow comes round or is dealt with adequately. I think that’s very important.
MH: I would go along with that too.
BS: But I think that the contribution that the ordination to the priesthood in the Episcopal Church made to the whole feminist movement had to do with the fact that people, many women during the ordination service and afterward made it very clear – well, one woman came up to me at the alter and she was in tears. She said this is the first time that I thought this meant me too.
MH: Good. Now, do you agree to have this magnetic tape record of your voice during the interview with my name, Dr. Marie Heyda, in a transcript and maybe catalogued and deposited in Washington, D.C. with the library record?
BS: Indeed I do.
MH: All right. Do you want to put your name here?
BS: I surely do. Let me ask you something else, too. When I initiated my case against my bishop for sex discrimination – this is after I was ordained – it’s very hard to establish – the Honorable Constance Cook, now vice president of Cornell University and my dear friend was my lawyer. We have many documents that are the original documents of all of that correspondence, the briefs, the background material, and so on, and I’m not sure what to do with those. If you could find out from Caroline Bird or the National Archives, the Schlesinger Library has made some overtures about some of this documentation.
MH: But you’d rather have it perhaps with a feminist group.
BS: Well, I’d rather have it be with the archives, with the National Archives.
MH: All right, now that would be with the Cook –
BS: Constance Cook. She’ll know who Constance Cook is I’m sure, who is now vice president of Cornell University.
MH: And these are your papers.
BS: These are the documents that had to do with my legal case against the Episcopal Church, which became moot because they finally recognized us.
MH: Oh yes. Could I ask you a couple questions?
MH: Do you find women or men more discriminatory against you as a minister of the word of God?
BS: Well, I think it depends at what stage folks are. Men for the most part I think have trivialized the Church anyway so they don’t really care, until such time as we get to the point where we really challenge men for jobs. And I find that my brother clergy are the ones who are really being very naughty at this point.
MH: They feel threatened.
BS: They feel threatened, yes, in terms of their job opportunity. The Diocese of Rochester now has initiated on its own behalf an affirmative action program. The bishop has implored his vestries, for instance, to look out, seek out women first. And where women are encouraged to be at least in good proportions on all the – ten years ago that’s the reason why I became a feminist, because there were no women on any –
MH: Now, Caroline Bartlett Crane, who was born in Michigan in the 1840s, became an ordained minister and long handled the church in Kalamazoo. She called it – it came to be known as the People’s Church, but, so you’ve got that precedent. I think it’s just another instance of where if you don’t go forward you go backward.
BS: Oh absolutely. Syracuse, New York, for instance, is very close to Seneca Falls. May I give you a name of someone that you might want to get in touch with?
MH: Yes, I’m sure Caroline would be very glad to get it, or Constance Myers. We work under her. The corps is kind of unified by Constance Myers, Dr. Myers.
BS: There is a woman who must be in her eighties now who does reporting for the Herald-Journal in Syracuse, and she is the niece of Matilda Joslyn Gage who wrote many of the speeches for Susan B. Anthony. And the Gage home in fact is in Syracuse. But she has wonderful stories to tell about the original suffragette movement in central New York that are not – they’re little side stories – but she should be tapped for our oral history now because she is aging.
MH: Yes, and you know, I think I’m so fortunate that I bumped into you. I started exploring the city and wondering and thought, well, now I’ll go to the convention center and see what I can do. But I think it’s most providential that I bumped into you.
BS: I’m delighted because I think it is important. May I just say one more thing for the record, for the tape? I think the importance of oral history or remembering quickly what went on is this. What happened when we were ordained, irregularly but not invalidly, it seemed to elicit from vast numbers of people both, men and women, a kind of a hope about the future. And the people who stood up – these things will be lost, there were 4,000 people at the ordination – were courageous beautiful people. I think what history needs to remember is that those moments come and they go but we need to remember the spirit and the courage, really, that takes place there.
MH: So that’s what brought you here today then.
BS: Oh yes.
MH: Are there any other of your group that were ordained there?
BS: No, not here today, but I think all of the original women who have been ordained can be called strong feminists. I think the group that comes along second, they didn’t want to jeopardize a different sort of arena for themselves so I’m not too sure, although there are some singular. Oh, one other person in Washington, D.C. who’s a great feminist and one of the second group to be ordained is the Reverend Alison Palmer, and she works for the State Department.
MH: But then she’s not really practicing her ministry, she’s not preaching.
BS: That’s true, except in the Episcopal Church, and in the Roman Catholic Church, if you’re ordained you’re ordained, you stand at the ready no matter what.
BS: Anyway, I’m awfully glad to have seen you too.
MH: Do you think this will cause a split in the Episcopal Church? Isn’t it too bad – isn’t Archbishop Canterbury – and isn’t there a likelihood of a stalemate between the Roman Catholic Church and the Episcopal Church on this score?
BS: Actually what has happened, and I’m not privy to all of this, but what seemed to have happened is that the Anglican Church, with the Archbishop of Canterbury being the chief protagonist, and the Pope had been getting together for informal and formal dialogue – which we weren’t terribly aware of – of the ordination of women in the Anglican Church, reinforced by some theological reflection worldwide, has made it so that those dialogues can’t be consummated without Rome taking full acknowledgement of our ordination. I think it was a very important timing that was not calculated, but I think it was fortuitous.
The Episcopal Church itself in the United States was very sad because the United States has been – the Episcopal Church is an anomaly anyway because we fought the Revolution and we weren’t terribly congenial to the Anglican position. Now what seems to have happened in a split that is there – and I don’t think the Church itself, that there would be a schism so that we’ll have two churches – I think many disgruntled Anglicans will go elsewhere, but the sad thing is that the reactionary Anglicans who stand against the ordination of women –
MH: Is there any likelihood that another core of women would be trained and ordained?
BS: Oh yes, they are now. There are ninety now.
MH: They’ll probably meet more opposition than you did. Don’t you think so, because the opposition has so solidified?
BS: Well, I think what’s happened, and this is a great tragedy, and I must go home and think about what to do, yes, the way that the Church avoided out-and-out schism was by saying that each diocese and bishop could do whatever he wanted. So as in Rochester and somewhat in my own diocese in central New York you have bishops who are congenial to having women priests. Evidently, any bishop anywhere can say no, he doesn’t want to have a woman priest and to that extent, yes, it has solidified and there will be difficulty for the other women coming.
End of Interview