Thursday, August 7, 2014

Taking Their Authority: Marie Alford-Harkey Reflects on the Philadelphia 11

Sermon Proper 13A
August 3, 2014
Trinity Episcopal Church, Hartford, CT
Marie Alford-Harkey, M.Div.
Matthew 14:13-21

Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. 

When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, "This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves." Jesus said to them, "They need not go away; you give them something to eat." They replied, "We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” And he said, "Bring them here to me." 

Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.

In the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand there’s an inside story between Jesus and his disciples, and that’s where I want to focus today.

Jesus is training the disciples to take up their own ministries. It starts when he refuses to allow them to send the people away to find food, but instead tells them "You give them something to eat." When they protest, he says, "Bring me what you have." And so they bring him the five loaves and two fish that they have.

After he said the blessing, Jesus didn’t hand the disciples baskets and baskets of bread and fish. He handed back to them exactly what they had given him. He sent them out into that crowd of 5,000 men and countless women and children with five loaves of bread and two fish.

That’s what ministry looks like. Bring me what you have, says Jesus, and I’ll bless you and send you back into the world. But I’m going to make you do the work. You feed the people.

It’s an appropriate message on this weekend after the celebration of the anniversary of women’s ordination in the Episcopal Church. On July 29, 1974, eleven women were "irregularly" ordained to the Episcopal priesthood at the Church of the Advocate in Philadelphia. They came to be known as the
Philadelphia 11.

The Rev. Suzanne Hiatt, one of the Philadelphia 11, said in a speech some 9 years after the fact, "In the prayerbook ordination service according to which I was ordained a priest in July 1974 (remember, this was before the 'new' 1979 prayerbook), the bishop in laying hands on the head of the ordinand recites this formula: 'Take thou authority to execute the office of a Priest in the Church of God, now committed to thee by the imposition of our hands.' ... The bishop does not confer priestly authority but simply tells the ordinand to assume it. The story of the ordination of women priests in the Episcopal Church is a case study of women 'taking' authority..."

Those women got tired of waiting for the church to act, and so they took what they had, it was blessed, and they went about doing the work they had been called to do.

Perhaps you are like me. By the time I showed up at an Episcopal Church, the ordination of women was a given. Or perhaps you’ve been an Episcopalian for a long time, and you remember the ordination of the Philadelphia 11. Perhaps you are young enough that women have been priests in the Episcopal
Church all your life. Perhaps you’re still a little uncomfortable with the idea of a soprano-pitched chanting voice, or painted fingernails around a chalice, or a curvy female body under a cassock or alb.

But all of us, no matter where we are situated in respect to the events July 29, 1974, all of us have been affected by the ordination of women in this church. Thank God.

Earlier this year, when I was at my parents’ house down in Georgia, I came across an essay I wrote when I was a 9th  grader. The date on this yellowing sheet of paper is 9-9-80. The title is "What I Want to Do With My Life."

In it, I wrote, "I want to find new ways to reach people for Christ and develop my own teaching ministry." My 14 year old self went on to say that "I want to study Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic," and that I "want to get into theology a little later on, after my beliefs and convictions become stronger." (I wonder who had warned me already about the crisis of faith that is a nearly universal experience for those who study theology.) Finally, I concluded that, "I want to be a really good teacher in some sort of outreach ministry teaching conferences and seminars."

Do you notice what I notice in that old paper? At 14, as a part of a conservative Christian tradition, it did not even cross my mind that I could study theology and become a minister. But I knew that I was called. And I went on to fulfill the call to teach. And by the time that I eventually heeded the call to study theology, because of the Philadelphia 11, I knew that it was possible for a woman, even a lesbian woman, to be a priest in my chosen faith tradition.

Last weekend, April and I went to the celebration that marked this historic anniversary at the Church of the Advocate. While April and I both love a good church party, I am usually the one who wants to go to diocesan convention, or General Convention, or a mission conference, or a listening session. But this was April’s idea. She was the one who reminded me that we stand on the shoulders of the Philadelphia 11, who took their authority as priests 40 years ago.

Marie Alford-Harkey with the Rev. Carter Heyward
PHOTO CREDIT April Alford-Harkey
It was a joyous weekend, filled with the fun of greeting friends old and new, honoring how far women have come in the church, and recognizing how far we have to go in reaching the goal of equality for all people in the institutional structures of the Episcopal Church.

I got to meet and talk to one of my sheroes, the Rev. Carter Heyward, Ph.D., who was one of the Philadelphia 11 and a professor at Episcopal Divinity School (where April and I both went to seminary) from 1975 until her retirement in 2006. My smile (and Carter’s) in the picture that April took of us testifies to my excitement, and I’m sure, to my place as a true church nerd.

Dr. Fredrica Harris Thompsett, another EDS professor and a noted Anglican church historian and theologian gave the keynote address at the symposium. She challenged us to live truly into the "embodied nature of Anglican theology" that emphasizes the goodness of all creation and the dwelling of the incarnate Christ in us and us in him. All people, she said, must claim their bodies "as sacred vehicles of spiritual authority."

And this is one reason why I say that all of us here have been affected by the ordination of women in the Episcopal Church. Every Sunday, we gather as diverse people who make up the whole body of Christ, and celebrate the Eucharist together. Just here in this community, we are old and young and in
between, we have light brown, dark brown, or rosy pink skin, we are lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender, we are born in this country and not born in this country. Our bodies vary by size, shape, and ability. The fact that those who preside at our celebration of the Eucharist, our priests, can also represent that beautiful diversity is of great theological significance, and it would not be true had not those 11 women "taken their authority."

The women who took their priestly authority, like Carter Heyward and Suzanne Hiatt, were unabashed feminists. They made no apologies for their hope that rather than the institution changing women to serve its ends, women could help the institution continue to renew itself by becoming less clergy-centered and less hierarchical. Our "new" prayer book of 1979 was meant to further this aim by reminding us that baptism is our first ordination.

Our catechism, which is much older, teaches us that "The ministers of the Church are lay persons, bishops, priests, and deacons." All Christians are ordained by God in Christ through baptism to carry out God’s mission in the world. We are all called to take what we have to Jesus, have it blessed, and
then go out into the world to do our ministry.

So today, I invite you to reflect on your own ordination as a minister of the gospel of Christ. What do you have that you can bring to Jesus to be blessed? How will you claim your authority as an ordained person?

Marie Alford-Harkey earned her M. Div from the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass., and is a aspirant for Holy Orders in the Diocese of Connecticut.  When not busy at her "day job" as Deputy Director of the Religious Institute, she serves Integrity as Province I Coordinator and on the board of Integrity Connecticut.

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