Being Bridges: A Sermon by The Rev. Dr. Alison Cheek '90

On October 2 and 3, the EDS community gathered to honor the 40th anniversary of women's ordination to the priesthood at the 2014 Dewey-Heyward Lectures and EDS Women's Leadership Forum. Among the special guests for those two events were five of the Philadelphia Eleven, and The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church. The following is the text and audio of the sermon by The Rev. Dr. Alison Cheek '90 from the Community Eucharist at St. John's Memorial Chapel on Thursday, October 2, 2014. The Eucharist celebrated the 40th anniversary of women’s ordination to the priesthood and was attended by several members of the Philadelphia Eleven, and presided by Presiding Bishop Jefferts Schori. The sermon was delivered by The Rev. Merrill Bittner (pictured below), a Philadelphia Eleven member, for The Rev. Cheek, who was unable to attend the service in person. 

The Rev. Merrill BittnerBeing Bridges

In the name of our Sophia-God, our refuge and our strength. Amen.

Dear friends at EDS, I am so grateful to Merrill Bittner, one of the bravest of my Philadelphia Eleven sisters, for being willing to be my voice here this morning. I am with you in spirit. My flesh is weak, but the spirit is strong.

And I am very grateful for those at EDS who have made it possible for me to share a few random thoughts with you this morning. Thank you one and all.

Once upon a time when I was a young woman living in Canberra, Australia, I had a very beloved aunt who developed cancer. She lived a thousand miles away from me, but I threw myself into praying for her every day. We were Methodists at that time, but I found that the early morning service at the Anglican Church and its mid-week Eucharistic service were powerful places in which to pray for my aunt. And I gradually grew into the liturgy as a source of sustenance for myself. I also valued my Methodist heritage, and its worship.

My husband, Bruce, had a five-year Fellowship at the Australian National University. His tenure was drawing to a close and I knew we would be moving. In those days only a few Anglican churches invited those in good standing in other denominations to come to the communion rail. I was perfectly happy with my dual church practice, but what about the future? So I went to the rector of the Anglican Church and said, “I would like to get confirmed and stay a Methodist.”

The rector smiled and said, “I’ll speak to the bishop. He looks upon people like you as bridge people in this ecumenical age.” And so I was confirmed as a bridge!

Strangely enough, the image of a bridge has stayed with me all these years. I was most aware of it forty years ago as I tried with all my persuasive powers to explain to bishops why women were appropriate persons to represent before God the people of God.

It has been a long conversation!

Now, all of us are bridges—and each with a particular calling. In this complex, turbulent world, many different kinds of bridges are imperative.

We can rejoice today for the good bridges which have been built between lived experience and the structure of our church.

Alla Bozarth built a bridge for us between our traditional story of the fligh from Egypt, and the walking into the unknown of fifteen controversially ordained women in 1974 and 1975. Her poem “Passover Remembered,” which you heard this morning, we have recalled at many anniversaries.

In our gladness about good bridges built, we must at the same time be concerned for the many bridges still to be crossed.

For some time now, I’ve been thinking about the language barrier which keeps so many people disheartened in our worship. We live in a scientific age. Our understanding of the world and universe in which we live is very different today from that of the seventeenth century. Why hasn’t the prayer book evolved similarly?

An English theologian—whose name I’ve forgotten—wrote many years ago a little book entitled Your God Is Too Small. The image of God in our prayer books is overwhelmingly male. Some try to open it up a little by imaging God as mother and father. But have you ever seen God called “she” in the prayer book?

Now we know that God is not male or female (or do we?); that images, signs, and symbols with which we try to point the way to the nature of the Holy must not be mistaken for the Holy. So does this language thing really matter?

I think it matters very much indeed. Many women and girls still struggle to embrace their full personhood. It is counter-cultural. Misogyny lurks hidden and often overt. One of the hardest places for women to “grow up into the full stature of Christ” is in the Church.

Forty years ago I wanted to do something for women. Well, I think we did. To see women priests and bishops presiding at the Eucharist, and a woman presiding in the House of Bishops, is a liberating thing for many women, and enhances our self-esteem. But then it is eroded by the weekly repetition of the androcentric language of the liturgy. And where the priest is a woman, she is obliged to pronounce the authoritative words and to present God as male. Unconsciously, are we back to where we started?

We need a bridge which helps people recognize the power of language—what is said and what is left unsaid. To produce some authorized, alternative liturgies reflecting a broader theology will take a bridge built of “revolutionary patience” and determination, and a never lost sense of urgency.

And there are so many other bridges that carry an urgency about them, needing to be built. You will know what yours is, and how to rally others to your concern. And when your bridge is built, stay alert. Remember in the fairy story there is a troll living under the bridge and laying claim to it. Be savvy, and be led by the Spirit.

Go well, dear friends; celebrate joyfully; roll up your sleeves for the work ahead. And may our Sophia-God bless us all.