Means, Jacqueline (1936—)

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Means, Jacqueline (1936—)

First woman to be officially recognized as an ordained priest by the Episcopal Church in the United States . Name variations: Jacqueline Allene Means-Bratsch. Born Jacqueline Allene Ehringer in Peoria,Illinois, on August 26, 1936; daughter of Theodore R. Ehringer and Minnett M. Ehringer; married Delton Means (divorced 1979); married David H. Bratsch; children: (first marriage) Deborah Means ; David Means; Delton Means; Patrick Means.

Although women have been excluded in modern times from serving as priests in the Episcopal (or Anglican) Church, the tide began to change in the middle of the 20th century. In 1944 in war-torn China, Right Reverend R.O. Hall, the bishop of Hong Kong, ordained a Chinese woman deacon, Reverend Li Tim Oi (1907–1992). Li ministered in parts of mainland China and in the Portuguese colony of Macao while chaos, revolution, and war ravaged Asia. After the Second World War ended (1945), Bishop Hall brought the matter of ordaining women as priests before the meeting of Anglican bishops held at the Lambeth Conference (1948). His proposal—that women continue to be ordained on an experimental basis for 20 years—was denied by the assembled ecclesiastics, and the bishops petitioned Hall to ask Li Tim Oi to renounce her orders. She never did, however, and in fact continued her ministerial duties. In 1970, in Hong Kong, she was finally vindicated when the Anglican province of that British Crown Colony officially recognized that her ordination had always been valid. Seven years later, Jacqueline Means became the first woman to be "regularly" or "legally" ordained an Episcopal priest.

Born Jacqueline Ehringer in 1936 in the heartland city of Peoria, Illinois, during the Great Depression, she grew up under less than ideal circumstances. Both her father, a traveling salesman, and her mother became alcoholics. The family was often on the move, but her parents saw to it that she attended a Roman Catholic school in each town in which they settled. At age 16, Jacqueline dropped out of high school and married Delton Means. The couple settled in Indianapolis, where Delton found work as a truck driver. For some years, Jacqueline concentrated on raising their four children, and the Means family attended an Episcopal church.

Looking back on her early years, Jacqueline Means would recall in 1977: "I was the resident bitch, very dissatisfied with my life and a very unhappy person who channeled my energy in a negative direction." Life began to look brighter when she passed a high-school equivalency test and became a licensed practical nurse. Restless as ever, she sought other areas in which to direct her energies and in time turned to the field of religion, enrolling in courses at both Roman Catholic and Disciples of Christ seminaries in Indianapolis. Her new direction upset her husband, resulting in violent arguments between the couple. In 1974, Jacqueline Means was ordained a deacon in the Episcopal Church and was assigned to All Saints', an inner-city parish in a racially mixed neighborhood of Indianapolis.

By the late 1960s, when her religious odyssey was beginning, the issue of women's ordination in the Anglican-Episcopal Church was once again a contested subject within that religious community. In 1965, the controversial Bishop James Pike declared Phyliss Edwards , an Episcopal deaconess, to be a deacon. This changed Edwards' status, allowing her to be placed into Holy Orders. As the Reverend Phyliss Edwards, she was now a priest and Bishop Pike put her in charge of a parish. Soon the entire church took up the matter. In 1967, a study commission that had been appointed by the Episcopal House of Bishops reported that it could find no reason why women could not be ordained to all orders of ministry. The issue, however, was by no means resolved because of considerable opposition posed by both clergy and laity. At the 1973 General Convention, a resolution to ordain women was defeated by a narrow margin.

Frustrated after an inconclusive meeting with supportive bishops in November 1973, and with the public refusal of the bishop of New York to ordain five women bishops who presented themselves for ordination in December, some Episcopal women now decided that legalistic stalling could go on for many years. These women felt that the clear call to ordination need not, indeed could not, be delayed. On July 29, 1974, at the Church of the Advocate, a predominantly African-American parish in the heart of a black community in North Philadelphia, a decisive step was taken. On this day—the feast of Saints Mary and Martha of Bethany —three retired white bishops ordained eleven women deacons to the priesthood. Serving as master of ceremonies was the parish's African-American rector, the Reverend Paul Washington; the preacher was Dr. Charles V. Willie, the Episcopal Church's highest-ranking lay leader, and an African-American as well. Senior warden, and leading the procession carrying the cross, was the Church of the Advocate's lay leader, Barbara Harris , who would go on to become the first woman bishop in the Anglican Communion. (At the 1989 ceremony that elevated Harris, the elderly Li Tim Oi celebrated the Eucharist.) Although the 1974 ordinations were ruled to be invalid several weeks later by an emergency meeting of bishops, the women so ordained began to function as priests. After much soul-searching and agitation within the Episcopal world, that church's General Convention of 1976 voted that women could be ordained to all orders of ministry, including the episcopate.

The first "regular" or "legal" ordinations of Episcopal women priests began in January 1977. Among this group, Jacqueline Means was the first. At her ordination at All Saints' Church in Indianapolis, Bishop Donald Davis asked the congregation, "If any of you know of any impediment or crime because of which we should not proceed, come forward now and make it known." Traditionally no more than a formality, on this occasion the question was responded to by a man who rose to condemn the proceedings as "heresy" and "sacrilege," at which point a dozen people, many of them in tears, marched out of the church (10 out of a parish membership of 150 would officially resign in protest). But 45 male priests, who joined in the service, clothed Jacqueline Means in a white chasuble, the outer vestment of her new office. A neighbor provided homemade wine for the service, and one of the parish's older women, Sarah Mallory , expressed her delight, noting: "Now I've seen God's man put together as he should be—male and female. Remember where it says in Genesis: 'He gave them dominion.'"

In the years after her ordination, Means was often an object of controversy within her church. Some felt she was "too aggressive," or even profane, as she was known to say "Oh Jesus" on occasion. On her first day as a priest, working as the institutional chaplain of her diocese, she cleaned her own house, then went out to call on the sick at a psychiatric hospital. She ended that day with a visit to a local women's prison, where she was greeted with hugs and kisses and a comment by one inmate, "Maybe I can make it too."

In 1979, Means raised some eyebrows when she divorced her truck-driver husband of 26 years and married David H. Bratsch, a Moravian minister, less than a year later. Although she received the support of her church's officials on this occasion, Jacqueline Means conceded, "I don't imagine they would have chosen to write that scenario for the first woman priest." By 1982, she had advanced to the position of associate pastor of St. John's Episcopal Church in Indianapolis. While pleased with her own situation, in which she was no longer treated merely as a novelty, she went on to assess both the present and future for women within the Episcopal Church from a realist's point of view: "The battle has not really been won, because so few women have their own churches."


Constable, Anne. "'Father, Make Her a Priest,'" in Time. Vol. 109, no. 3. January 17, 1977, p. 41.

Donovan, Mary Sudman. A Different Call: Women's Ministries in the Episcopal Church, 1850–1920. Wilton, CT: Morehouse Barlow, 1986.

Heyward, Carter. A Priest Forever. NY: Harper and Row, 1976.

Hiatt, Suzanne Radley. "Women's Ordination in the Anglican Communion: Can This Church Be Saved?," in Catherine Wessinger, ed., Religious Institutions and Women's Leadership: New Roles Inside the Mainstream. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1996, pp. 211–227.

Morgan, John H. Women Priests: An Emerging Ministry in the Episcopal Church (1975–1985). Bristol, IN: Wyndham Hall Press, 1985.

Schneider, Carl J. and Dorothy Schneider. In Their Own Right: The History of American Clergywomen. NY: Crossroad Publishing, 1997.

Seligmann, Jean, Lea Donosky and Kim Foltz. "Women Pioneers Find Their Pulpits," in Newsweek. Vol. 99, no. 13. March 29, 1982, p. 16.

John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia