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Sunday, July 30, 2023

Pearls of Great Price: The Philadelphia Eleven

The Ordination of the Philadelphia Eleven - July 29, 1974
Church of the Advocate, Philadelphia, PA
A Sermon Preached for Pentecost IX
St. Philip's Episcopal Church, Laurel, DE
July 30, 2023

“Wow!,” he said, this friend of mine, also an Episcopal priest. “You know, sometimes, you can come on really strong.”

He’s known me for about two or three years. He said this like it was a newsflash. I mean, most people who’ve known me for 10 minutes know that, especially when it comes to the Gospel – preaching it or living it – I’m pretty passionate.

And, that’s what we were talking about. Preaching the gospel. And, that’s exactly what I said to him, in response.

“We’re talking about the gospel,” said I. “You do understand, of course, the risks some have taken for that gospel? For living it and preaching it? Right?”

Yesterday, the 29th of July being the Feast of Mary and Martha of Bethany, was the 49th Anniversary of the Ordination of the Philadelphia Eleven ,who were eleven women who had been ordained deacons, were ordained priests in God’s one, holy, catholic and apostolic church in the Church of the Advocate in Philadelphia, PA.

Talk about taking a risk for the Gospel!

It was a monumental occasion in the life of the church. The House of Bishops had, in 1972, voted 74-61 in favor of the principle of the ordination of women as priests, but in 1973 General Convention rejected the change. So, it was, “illegal”.

The Roman Catholic and Episcopal churches in my home town, like many churches around the country, flew the flag at half-mast; others flew them upside down –
a universal signal of “dire distress in instances of extreme danger to life or property”.

The event was covered on the nightly news on all three major television networks and the BBC, made the front page of The New York Times, and the cover stories of Time and Ms. Magazines which made it difficult, if not impossible, for the institutional church to ignore.


Despite the rhetoric to the contrary, the Ordination of Women to the priesthood was not an event that sprang fully formed from the head of Zeus.

The movement had been building in the Anglican Communion since the ordination of deaconesses in the Anglican Church in London in 1862 and in The Episcopal Church in 1885, but it wasn’t until 1968  - almost 100 years later – that the House of Bishops asked the next Lambeth Conference of Primates and Bishops to consider the matter of women priests.

It is worth noting that it wasn’t until 1967 that a constitutional amendment passed that allowed women elected as deputies to General Convention to be seated with voice and vote. That amendment was ratified in 1970. So, it’s been just 53 years since women have had the right to vote in The Episcopal Church.

A Special General Convention in 1968 allowed women to be lay readers and allowed to minister the chalice – only 55 years ago.

Let that sink in for just a minute.  There are women serving as lay readers and ministers of the chalice today who grew up in the church thinking they would never be allowed to function in these capacities.

We ought not to be surprised by this. In the 70s, women were trivialized. Look, a woman in a hard hat! A woman in a police uniform! Bless their hearts, aren’t they special?

In 1975, I – a married woman with two children, gainfully employed as a public health professional – applied for a credit card and was told I needed the signature of either my husband, father or brother.

It's not anything that women had never experienced. In the first scripture lesson, we hear the story of Rachel and Leah, but we hear it from the perspective of Jacob, who, poor dear, was tricked by Laban, his second cousin, to work 14 years for the woman he loved.

However, Jacob had left home and was with Laban because he had tricked his brother Esau out of his birthright. Some might be inclined to say that being tricked by Laban served him right.

But, I'm asking to look at this from another perspective. Imagine Rachel!

Scripture tells us that when Jacob met Rachel he kissed her and “lifted up his voice, and wept” (Genesis 29:11). This was a rare event in ancient scripture. Men “took” women for their wives – indeed, they “took” many women. David lusted after and took Bathsheba, a woman married to one of his generals.

But when Jacob met Rachel, he loved her so much it brought tears to his eyes.

Imagine what it must have been like for Rachel to have to wait fourteen years, to be obedient to the very tribal custom that gave to the eldest, the first born male the birthright but to the first born girl, the right to be first to be married.

Imagine what it was like for Leah, who got what was her birthright but not only got a husband who stole his brother’s birthright, the truth was that he didn’t love her; instead, he really loved and wanted her sister! Enough to work seven more years for her! Imagine what those first seven years of marriage were like for Leah!

St. Paul reminds us that “all things work together for good for those who love God.”  (
Romans 8:26-39)

Eventually, Jacob’s sons would be the fulfillment of God’s covenant with him. The six sons of Leah, the four sons of Jacob’s concubines, Bilhah and Zilpah, Rachel’s son Joseph, who was Jacob’s favorite, and Joseph’s two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim, would become the leaders of the 12 Tribes of Israel. God’s covenant with Jacob would not have been possible without the women in his life.

I have hung onto those words of St. Paul’s – that promise that “all things work together for good for those who love God” – when I knew I certainly loved God but things did not seem to be working together for anything good.

I’ve known I wanted to be a priest since I was six years old. My mother says, long before that, I used to set up the playroom with my dolls and my table and chairs and while other kids were having tea parties, I was having communion with vanilla cookies as wafers and purple Kool-Aid as wine.

I remember one of those times in my Roman Catholic youth when the nun who was leading our class asked us all what we wanted to be when we grew up. It was first grade and the boys all said they wanted to be doctors and lawyers and police and fire men. All the girls said they wanted to be wives and mommies – some said they wanted to be secretaries or teachers first and then get married and have babies.


Not me. When asked, I said, right out loud, “I want to be a priest.” I mean, I went to mass every morning with my grandmother. I loved it. I knew that’s exactly what God wanted me to do. So, I wasn’t prepared for the laughter that ensued. The kids laughed at me but so did the nun.

“No,” she said, “girls can’t be priests. Girls become nuns.”


“No,” I said, “I want to be a priest, not a nun.”  She laughed again, but this time, it wasn’t so funny.

“No,” she said, her voice tinged with anger, “boys are priests, girls are nuns.”


I considered it. I did. And then, I shook my head and said softly, to my shoes, perhaps sensing the danger, “I want to be a priest.”

And then, she slapped me. Hard. Right across my face.

And then she hissed, “Boys are priests. Girls are nuns.”


It would be years until I was able to give voice to my true sense of vocation.

I was in my late 20s. I had been an Episcopalian for two years. I was vaguely aware that there were women priests in The Episcopal Church but it was 1981 – seven years after Philadelphia and only five years after The Episcopal Church had changed its canons to allow women to be ordained – four since it had actually started ordaining women.

I had not yet seen a woman priest.


Until one Sunday morning, after church, we came home, fed the kids lunch and I settled in to read the NY Times. You may remember The Times was like a mini library. The NY Times Sunday Magazine slipped out from the various sections and advertisements and there, on the front cover, was a picture of the Rev Martha Blacklock, sitting on the steps of St. Clements’ Church in the Theater District of NY City, in her jeans and sandals and – a black clergy shirt and collar.

Suddenly, it all came back to me as sharp as that nun’s slap across my face. I felt my eyes fill up with tears, felt them fall down my cheeks, heard myself say in that same hoarse, fearful whisper of my six-year old voice, looking down at my shoes, “I want to be a priest.”


The next five years were an amazingly incredible journey. Turns out, that nun’s slap prepared me for the many challenges I would face in the journey to priesthood, but it turns out St. Paul was right.

Not only is it true that “all things work together for good for those who love God,” it was never more true that “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

That is the Good News of Christ Jesus as proclaimed by Paul that is worth the risk. It’s like a teeny-tiny mustard seed that grows into one of the most magnificent trees in God’s realm.

It’s like measure of leaven that takes the dreams of a young, six year old girl who was told she couldn’t be what she knew God was calling her to be and expanded them beyond anything she could have asked for or imagined.


The Good News of Christ Jesus is like a treasure, hidden in a field and forgotten and then found. Just as Leah and Rachel, Bilhah and Zilpah discovered that, that despite the rules of patriarchy that made some legitimate, some more valuable than others, the covenant of God could not have been completed without them.


The Good News of Christ Jesus is like a pearl, precious, precious, that formed as an irritant which the ocean pushed through a crack in the shell. Once inside, a pearl grows from a particle of sand into a beautiful internal luminescence that the shell can no longer contain, so it must be pushed out for the whole world to see and treasure.


The Good News of Christ Jesus is “like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind;”. One person who objected to the ordination of women said to me, “If we start to ordain women, everything will change. Everyone will think they can become Episcopalian.”

Son of a gun if she wasn’t right! 

Those of us who have been excluded are especially passionate about making certain that absolutely everyone feels welcome to be a member of this old church of ours – warts and all.

We are passionate about casting the net wide and catching fish of every kind into the kind of baptismal water that helps each one become the best of who God created them to be. Different. Unique. Called to seek and serve Jesus in the spark of divinity we see in ourselves and each other.


And, when we are allowed to grow and change, so does the church. Because we are – you and I are – the church, The Body of Christ, part of the baptismal water where we are challenged to be the living, growing, being and becoming the unique creature God intends us to be.

And that, my friends, is something to come on strong about, to be passionate about. And, even if it makes some people nervous or uncomfortable, living it is a risk worth taking.

I can’t imagine a pearl of any greater price.

And, I am so very deeply, humbled by and grateful for the gift of the women who are the Philadelphia Eleven who made it possible for me to be the unapologetically feisty, impatient, passionate priest I am today – warts and all.


Sermon begins at 22:50

Saturday, July 01, 2023

Barden & Johnson: A Tribute


It wasn’t until I got to the graveside that I finally cried.

Lois has been gone for almost 3 years but I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye because of COVID. Sheri has been gone for a little more than a month but none of it seemed real because I hadn’t seen her since before COVID.

Oh, we had talked on the phone. Exchanged a few jokes on email. But, I hadn’t seen her in 3 years. I think I was pretty clear that she was now gone “home” as she often cried to me on the phone (“I just want to go home, Elizabeth, but Jesus is making me wait.”) but something in my heart and my mind and my soul hadn’t quite registered the reality enough for me to cry.

I clearly remember our first meeting. It was the winter of 1977. Ms. Conroy and I had “run away from home” in December of 1976, carefully mapping out an 8-hour ride from where we lived to anywhere, in either of the four directions. We figured an 8-hour ride would be one that would not only prevent family from “just dropping by” but also allow us time to (ahem) “straighten up the house”.

We decided on Bar Harbor, Maine – the end of the world – near the ocean we loved and the mountains that offered us inspiration. In February, my then-husband came up to have a weekend visit with the children. He picked them up in the morning and, just around the time we were starting to get worried about their return, called from the home of my parents to say that he had the children, was moving in with my parents, and they would work together to make certain that I would never see them again.

I can’t even begin to describe that moment or the next few days. Panic is a good place to begin. Devastation is also a good word. Crippling, immobilizing pain and despair born of a sense of isolation and a nagging sense of carefully-taught Catholic guilt that we somehow deserved this.

When I was able to gather my wits about me, I happened to have a copy of Ms. Magazine and, in the back ‘classified’ section, saw a small advert for an organization called DOB ("Daughters of Bilitis") and a PO Box. I immediately handwrote a letter and, by the end of the week, got a phone call from Sheri who said, “Come to Boston. You’ll stay with us. We’ll find you a lawyer. Hang in there. Help is on the way.”

We made plans to travel the next weekend, flying into Logan from Hancock County Bar Harbor Airport. We picked up some fresh Maine lobster on the way as a gift of gratitude. I still remember Sheri saying loudly (she only had 3 volume settings for her voice and loud meant 11) in her T H I C K Bawston accent, “Oh for Gawd’s sake! You can’t be spending your money on lobstah! What are you, Rockafellahs? You’re going to need it for your lawyer.”

Lois was away on assignment – in those days she worked as a Producer for the WGBH Public TV station program for children called “Zoom” – so it would be a weekend with this short, fierce, unapologetically Irish dyke, the first lesbian we ever met face to face and shook hands with, in her home in the South End of Boston which was about 10 years away from gentrification.

One of the last conversations I had with Lois was her laughing at Sheri’s description of us to her on the phone that night. “Oh, Loey,” she reportedly said, “these two kids are so scared I just want to feed them and hug them for a while until they calm down enough to make sense to the lawyer they are going to need. They have no idea how hard this is going to be.”

And, it was. Hard. Very hard. We were one of the first open lesbian custody cases in Bristol County Massachusetts. Not that we sought that distinction. It just was what it was. Our lawyer, Rick Rubino, had represented other lesbian women in custody court cases but not in Bristol County and not with the results anyone hoped for.

Lois and Sheri were there, every step of the way. They called every other day. They helped us budget money for the expenses. They gave us lodging every time we came to Boston. They introduced us to other lesbian women who shared their stories and their courage and their hope and their wisdom.

And, they provided the healing gift of laughter. Oh, my goodness! Did we laugh!?! And, laugh! There, in their South End home which had the phone wires tapped by the FBI for “subversive, deviant activity” (thank you Herbert Hoover).

That’s when I learned the Sheri Barden Philosophy On Life: When faced with the unthinkably illogical, unbearable, and evil absurdities of prejudice and oppression, laugh right in its face.

We. Would. Not. Have. Made. It. Through. Without. Them.

I told much of this story as part of my reflections at their Memorial Service, which began with a clip of the 10-year reunion of the documentary “Gen Silent” in which they are one of the “senior couples” interviewed. The documentary chronicles this first generation to come out of the closet publicly, those whose work of activism laid the foundation for the freedoms we enjoy today who were now anxious and, often, flat-out afraid about how they would be treated in a Senior Living Center or Extended Care Facility.

I’ve included that clip in the first comment. It’s classic Barden and Johnson, in their 80s and still sharp as a tack in intellect and wit and, especially with Sheri, sarcasm – which is a frequently-employed survival technique of early LGBTQ activists. Drag queens have a particularly biting, sharp-tongued version of sarcasm. I wish it weren’t necessary but for some of us, it is. It does seem to help ease the sting of prejudice for daring to be who you are.

I did find myself choking up a bit when I finished my reflection by thanking them for being “family” for Barden & Johnson in their final years. Barden always called that facility, “Gawd’s waiting room.” Many of them nodded in understanding. Not a bad place to hang out for your final years, really.

One quick note that I told them. They knew Sheri as Claire. And, that was her birth name. Sheri was her “gay name” – a custom many people used in the 50s as a form of protection for their jobs and homes and, for some, their marriage. Many of their contemporaries knew that some called her Sheri and others called her Claire but even they had no idea of the kind of prejudice they lived through. They were shocked.

I can hear the Millennials sighing, “Okay, Boomer.” Sure, okay. Just you wait till you try to explain tablets and electric cars and SCOTUS Judges Alito, Scalia, Thomas, Barrett, Kavanaugh, and Gorsuch to the generations that come after you. You can roll your eyes now. It’s okay. I did the same with my parents and aunts and uncles and their friends. Just you wait.

No, it wasn’t until I got to the graveside and saw their names engraved on the gravestone that I finally began to cry.

I felt the earth shift under my feet just ever so slightly. Then, an odd sensation found its way up my spine, rested a bit on my shoulders, and then up my neck. Suddenly, my eyes began to burn and sting, my mouth dropped open, and I heard a sound something like a wail and a moan, and realized that it was coming from me.

I gave into it and found myself stooping over their gravesite in great paroxysms of grief and tears. Our friend, Penelope, who had driven me there, gave me space, waiting nearby on a bench overlooking the Mary Baker Eddy Mausoleum and Pond.

I pressed my face to the cold granite marker as tears fell freely and kissed their names, saying the only word that would come to my lips. I said it over and over. I said it as reality. I said it as a prayer. I chanted it as an antiphon to an ancient psalm. I said it from my heart and the deepest parts of my soul. I said it with every cell in my body that ever was, is now, or will ever be.

Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

I am so grateful. Deeply. Richly. Blessed.

I am filled, even as I write this, awash with gratitude and in awe that God saw fit – found us worthy – to send them to us when we needed them most.

Sheri and Lois were together 57 years. Now they are together forever.

I am looking forward to seeing them again “in that great by and by”. I can’t wait to introduce my parents to Barden and Johnson – if they haven’t already sought each other out. I am who I am today, in great part, because of them.

I want to chant my antiphons of gratitude. I want to shout my Alleluia’s to the Love that is at the start and center of all creation.

That will have to wait because I’m not quite ready yet. I think I’ve got a few more things to do, a few more amazing places to make pilgrimage to and marvel at, and even a few more sermons in this heart of mine.

I’ll grieve and rejoice until then as a form of thanksgiving for all that was, all that is, and all that is yet to be. And, laugh. And, find the goodness in things. And search for the light I know will always be there, no matter how dark it gets.

Indeed, there might yet be a young LGBTQ who needs some advice and direction and perhaps God will deem me worthy to be of some help to them.

Until then, I will make my song from my broken heart, “Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!”