God in, through, and with the Eleven

This is my sermon from July 30, 2023. It is not based on the lectionary we heard because July 29th was the 49th anniversary of the Ordination of the Philadelphia Eleven, newly observed in The Episcopal Church.  July 29, 1974 changed the Church in ways we are still discerning and should be talking about. For our service, ee added the Collect of the Day and amended the Prayers of the People using the resources from the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music.

I think we probably all have had the experience of remembering exactly where we were when something momentous happened.  As I was growing up, and I think most of you will remember this reference, the question always was, “Where were you when JFK was assassinated?”  Younger generations now have the memory of where they were on September 11th.  We also sometimes have these memories of where we were when something beautiful happened.  For Ron and me, I think we will always remember the weekend of May 19, 2023, when Kevin had us open a box and in it were Grandma Bear and Grandpa Bear mugs, which was when we found out we are expecting our first grandchild.   

I have another of those days that I know I share with more people than I can count, probably more women than men, but certainly some men.  And that was July 30, 1974.  That was the day I learned that the Philadelphia Eleven were ordained at the Church of the Advocate in Philadelphia on July 29th.  I remember because I was with my two best friends.  Mischelle and I were literally doing cartwheels on the lawn at church, and there was Jamie, just standing back saying, “there’s my best friend and she’s nuts.”  That was the day I remember hearing that some really brave men, bishops in the Church, chose to do something that was extra-canonical, was deemed to be “irregular,” and to ordain eleven women, all of whom were fully trained and fully educated, meeting all of the requirements for ordination in the Episcopal Church except for one: they were women, not men.  

I can’t even describe what that felt like.  I am going to do my best now because I think when we have those experiences of the grace of God, part of what we’re to do is to share them with each other. So that day, when we overhead some guys (They were on the Vestry and at that point there were no women on vestries in the Episcopal Church.) talking about this thing that had happened the day before.  While listening to them talk, I felt -it occurred to me in that way that is a fiery feeling head-to-toe – that finally the Church that I had loved my whole life, that Church that I chose over the Roman Catholic Church that I also attended until I was twelve, that Church had finally taken a step toward recognizing something that I had known about myself from the time I was six years old was possible.  

I know some of you have heard my story, it’s a big part of my faith story.  I was sitting in St. Bernard’s Roman Catholic Church on Lincoln Street in Worcester, Massachusetts on Good Friday, when I was six, and we were sitting in the side chapel looking at the Reserve Sacrament, which you did for three hours, even when you were six.  We were sitting there and off to my left, facing the altar wall not the people, a male priest was doing whatever priests did, in Latin.  I had no idea understanding of what it meant other than that’s what happened when you came to church.  And I remember hearing this and looking at the Reserve and at a beautiful statue of the Blessed Mother, and I heard, again in that way that feels like a whole-body experience – I heard God say, “You’re going to do that someday.”  

Now, I didn’t know what “that” was.  What I did know was that it made no sense because I was a girl.  It wouldn’t be possible.  And I went on to wonder do I become a nun, is that what is was?  But I knew I never felt drawn to the nunnery, as we would say back then. I never felt drawn, called to the religious life in that way.  I just trusted in God enough to know that eventually it would make some sense.  

Well, the eventually became July 29th, 1974, where at 13 ½ years old, this calling I had known for more than half of my young life, had been affirmed in eleven other women.  And when I think about what that says about the God that we worship, the God that we trust and have faith in, it is more than just the somewhat distant, “With God all things are possible.” It is about recognizing that when we are faithful and true to the call of God on our lives, our lives become for us what God intended that they be.  They don’t happen perfectly, we don’t become perfect people, we don’t necessarily become different people, but we have the blessing to live into who it is that God already ordained us to be, whether that’s ordained as a priest or as a preschool teacher.  Whoever we are at our core, we have the possibility of becoming.  

We work alongside God in that.  I was thinking, and Bruce had no way of knowing, but we had a little chat before church about something completely unrelated, and I said, “I have confidence in God.”  And Bruce said, “Yes.  And we need to show that God can have confidence in us.”  It is something that we do with God, but it is by God, and in God, and through God that we are given the opportunity to be who we are, and then for some of us – though I dare say everyone of you could join me in this – we share our story because people expect us to witness to God in that way.  

I had the huge blessing to meet a number of the Philadelphia Eleven around the time and through seminary.  Two of them: one I did not get to meet, Suzanne Hiatt, who died in 2006, and Carter Heyward were part of the EDS community, where we had the Hiatt Heyward lecture series.  They accepted their ordination as not an end in a process, but as an inflection point in the middle – no doubt a mountain top, pinnacle experience – from which they went on to share their wisdom and experience about how we include people in the Body of Christ in ways that are not bound by our very limited experience of who can do what when, but are based in our trust that God’s grace in the gifts that we have received needs to be fully lived in the world.   

Another one of these amazing women, Alison Cheek, was on the faculty of EDS as well, and had retired by the time I arrived and was auditing classes.  I had two courses with Allison, who must have been at least in her 80’s at that time.  She sat next to me in these classes and this expression of unity, this expression of possibility, of God’s possibility was palpable.  It’s like she vibrated with God’s Spirit.  

I share this with you because I think it is so important for all of us to share the ways God has worked in and through us in our lives, and also to say that the ordination of the Eleven was truly church-shattering.  We continue to struggle in some places, in the Anglican Communion for sure, and also in the Episcopal Church, with what are the roles that certain people can play in the Church.  In the Diocese of Newark we’re a little insulated from it because it tends to be one of the more progressives dioceses in the Episcopal Church.  Women have had rectorates in cardinal parishes, cardinal parishes being the big parishes with endowments and large staffs.  We have women as rectors in some of those parishes but there are still parts of the country where that doesn’t happen.

In addition to women, the ordination of the Philadelphia Eleven, which was then deemed okay by General Convention in 1976, though it continued to be more okay in theory than in practice for a couple decades, opened up possibilities for more people.  We had The Rt. Rev. Barbara Clementine Harris from the Diocese of Massachusetts who was the first female bishop in the Anglican Communion.  Bishop Barbara broke the gender barrier and, as a Black woman, she opened things even a little bit further.   

And that, my friends, is how God works.  When we open hearts to the movement of the Spirit, when we gather with others who are brave and bold in their faith, as were the bishops who ordained and consecrated the Eleven forty-nine years ago yesterday, we understand God more fully.  When we are not constrained by the way we’ve always done it, we become a part of creating the truly radically welcoming, inviting community of God’s beloved.  When we allow ourselves to take those steps, even when it means risking a lot – because make no mistake, the women risked a lot, the bishops who ordained and consecrated them, risked a lot – but when we’re willing to take those chances, we become a part of something bigger and better, something more inclusively loving, than the Church as we know it in any given point in time.  

That witness is, perhaps, one of the most awesome ways we get to thank God for being God, to thank God for being who God is in our lives in the mountain-top experiences, like ordinations, and in the day-to-day experiences, like mopping the floors.  We get to acknowledge that who we are directly relates to, it flows from who God is, and our experience of God’s love becomes more unconditional (if you can have something become more unconditional), more expansive, more grace-filled, than if we play by our own rules.  These eleven women broke ground in God’s kingdom to create more space for other women, more space for people of color, more space for our LGBTQ+ siblings, more space for all of us to discern how it is that by God’s grace that we get to live as authentically and with as much integrity as God would have us live.

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