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Unorthodox priest stays true to her calling

Activism tests Episcopal canons

CAMBRIDGE -- The Rev. I. Carter Heyward is ending her career just as it began, with a loud burst of disobedience.

Thirty years ago, in 1974, Heyward was a member of the so-called Philadelphia Eleven -- 11 women who were ''irregularly" ordained as Episcopal priests even though the Episcopal Church at the time did not ordain women.

Now, as she prepares to retire, she is taking on her church again, this time by officiating at the marriage of a lesbian couple in violation of Bishop M. Thomas Shaw's ruling that the canons and constitution of the Episcopal Church preclude Episcopal priests from officiating at same-sex marriages.

To her critics, she is a troublemaker. To her fans, she is a prophet.

But to Heyward, a 58-year-old lesbian feminist theologian, author, and activist, she is just living out her faith.

''For the last 30 years, it has been very clear to me that my work as a professional priest had been defined by the way I was ordained, and in a sense, my vocation as a priest has been to be something of an irregular priest all along," she said in an interview at Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, where she is a professor of theology. ''That's what they said we were in those days, and it was a negative label . . . but now it feels like a badge of honor."

So on Memorial Day weekend, Heyward, another member of the Philadelphia Eleven, the Rev. Alison M. Cheek, and a United Church of Christ minister gathered at a private home in the Boston area and officiated at the weddings of two lesbian couples. Heyward signed the license of one of the couples, and it was that act of signing, the so-called solemnization of the marriage, that had been explicitly forbidden by Shaw.

''No one will be surprised that Carter took a stand of conscience -- she's done that her whole life, and that is exactly what makes her who she is," said Bishop Steven Charleston, the president and dean of Episcopal Divinity School.

Shaw has declined to say how he will respond to Heyward's action, or even whether he considers it to be an act of disobedience, saying only that he will consult with his chancellor, other bishops, and the diocesan standing committee before deciding what to do. Meanwhile, a Boston priest, the Rev. William Blaine-Wallace, says he was inspired by Heyward to go public with his own decision to marry same-sex couples, and other Episcopal priests say they are considering following suit.

The bishop has several options: he could take away the priests' licenses to officiate at marriages, issue them a ''godly admonition" instructing them to stop marrying same-sex couples, or initiate proceedings that could lead to their removal from the priesthood.

But Heyward has been here before -- she got a ''godly admonition" from a bishop in 1974, instructing her not to present herself for ordination -- and she said the risk to her priesthood is a risk worth taking.

''I feel very bad that we appear to be at cross-purposes right now, because I genuinely not only respect but like Tom [Shaw], and he's somebody that I really do regard as a friend and a brother in the spirit," she said. ''But I think he's wrong about this . . . The notion that we have to change our prayer book first and then begin gay marriages is quite backwards, and that's not the way social change, or change in the church, happens."

Heyward compared Shaw to liberal bishops of the 1970s who resisted the ordination of women.

''They were saying to act precipitously for women to be ordained is going to destroy the unity of the church universal and it will be an act of bad faith in relationship to other bishops," she said. ''And the Tom Shaws of that generation were the ones who were saying it."

Shaw, an outspoken supporter of gay rights, would not talk specifically about Heyward, but said of priests who marry same-sex couples, ''It's important to get across the point that these are my colleagues, and I have long-term relationships with them, and they're people I have enormous respect for," he said, ''and, if marriages are solemnized, I want to talk with them about it."

But Shaw, although saying protest ''is often an effective way of moving forward justice issues," said that, on the gay marriage issue, ''protest is not the most effective way to move things forward," in part because of the need to work with Episcopalians who oppose same-sex marriage.

For Heyward, protest has defined her relationship with a church she loves and criticizes in the same breath. Often described as a radical, she speaks and writes frequently about women's issues and gay issues, and was an outspoken supporter of the controversial ordination of a gay priest as bishop in New Hampshire.

Born in Charlotte, N.C., to a Methodist mother and a Presbyterian father, Heyward became an Episcopalian at age 2, when her family moved to Hendersonville, N.C., and joined an Episcopal church. The church was always a big part of her imagination -- her parents once told her that at age 4 or 5, Heyward declared that she wanted to be a priest, even though there was no such thing as a female priest at the time.

In high school, Heyward and two friends decided to become nuns -- a vocation only one wound up pursuing. Heyward went to Randolph Macon College in Virginia, and from there, in 1967, entered Union Theological Seminary in New York, where she first began seriously to consider becoming a priest.

''In the meantime, I fell in love with a man who was a priest, which happens a lot -- where the doors seem to be closed, you gravitate toward somebody who can help you feel like you're inside, and that's a spouse who is what you want to be," she says. ''But it turned out that he wound up being gay, and so did I."

In 1970 and 1973, the general convention of the Episcopal Church voted against ordaining women, so in 1974 a small group of bishops and women decided to hold an unauthorized ordination ceremony in Philadelphia. They asked Heyward to join, and she did.

The women were not punished, but the participating bishops were reprimanded, and two priests who allowed the women to preach were tried for allowing the women to celebrate the Eucharist.

In 1976, the Episcopal Church approved the ordination of women; a year earlier, at age 28, Heyward was hired at Episcopal Divinity School after the dean threatened to resign if an ordained woman was not hired to the faculty.

Heyward has been teaching theology -- with a particular interest in feminist liberation theology and queer theology -- ever since.

Her decision to marry same-sex couples has inspired others to consider their own moves. Blaine-Wallace told his congregation, Emmanuel Church in Boston's Back Bay, that he decided to go public about his willingness to marry same-sex couples after reading about Heyward's plans. He said he wanted to make it clear that the support for same-sex marriage comes not only from gay academics, but also from heterosexual parish priests.

''Carter is considered radical . . . [and] I want the wider community to know that there are those considered more mainstream who are solemnizing same-sex marriages as well," he said. ''I want the wider community to know that a straight priest and mainstream parish are participating in constructive disobedience."

For her part, Heyward said her impending retirement and her status as an academic make it easier for her to consider taking on the church establishment than it might be for a parish priest whose job is at stake.

She has always kept one foot in North Carolina -- serving as liturgical director of a mission church, for example -- and is preparing to retire next year and to move back to the state to run a therapeutic horse center for children and adults with physical, mental, or emotional disabilities.

''It's an entire new adventure that I had never imagined, but to me it's a dimension of my ministry," said Heyward, who rode horses as a child but not as an adult because ''I didn't have any money to be riding horses and whatever."

Heyward said she helped found the horse center when a horse farm came up for sale next to land she and a community of women friends own in Brevard. ''Some people understand exactly how this is an extension of what I've been doing, and others think, 'Horses? What are you doing?' "

Michael Paulson can be reached at mpaulson@globe.com.

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