40th Anniversary of the Ordination of Women Priests
The recent decision of the Church of England to finally open the doors for women bishops has brought great rejoicing. It’s also brought reflections about – what else – what these new bishops should wear. A NYT editorial titled “Give us a Bishop in High Heels” actually offers the liberating perspective that while these women may still appear in dog collars they don’t have to look like male bishops. I hope you wore your dangly earrings today.
The gospel singer Yolanda Adams offered a prescient take on this on her morning radio show two months ago.  She invited her friend Bishop Secular to talk about his plan for the women of the church. Bishop Secular noted that the women in his church were tottering around on their high heels last Sunday and could use some lessons. He wants to bring in some ladies of the night to work with the ladies of the light, and notes that it should be mutually beneficial. Particularly in a church context that kind of meeting can result in real solidarity, if not solid walking – and solidarity is what Jesus is all about.
A week ago, a long investigative report on campus rape told the painful story of a woman at Hobart and William Smith Colleges whose charges of violation and violence were quickly dismissed by campus investigators, and later by the civil authorities. The most hopeful part of the report showed the colleges’ beginning attempts to change the culture and educate men about rape and sexual assault. It showed men and a few women walking around campus in high heels, as part of an awareness-raising campaign called “Walk a Mile in Her Shoes.” That just might build some solidarity along with the blisters.
One of the forebears we’re celebrating today, Pauli Murray, used to talk about her “proud shoes.” The first high-heeled shoes were worn by Persians for horseback riding in the 9th century, to keep their feet from sliding out of the stirrups. Men and women have worn them as fashion statements in the centuries since then. If you heard about what went on at Johns Hopkins for some years, you might begin to believe that wearing high heels in stirrups today might be a good defense against inappropriate picture taking.
I am told that today REALLY high heels are understood as jewelry, rather than footwear. For some women, high heels are a sign of leisure and freedom, and not having to run anywhere – not for fear of pursuers, or to escape violence, or to the kitchen sink, or to feed a crying child. Moses took his shoes off when he stood on holy ground; I think Miriam probably put on her high heeled sandals when she danced and sang her song of liberation.
Women in all orders of ministry – baptized, deacons, priests, and bishops – can walk proudly today, in whatever kind of shoes they want to wear, because of what happened here 40 years ago. We can walk proudly, even if not yet in full equality, knowing that the ranks of those who walk in solidarity are expanding. Wisdom is afoot everywhere, freeing her people from oppressors, and she enters all sorts and conditions of human beings bound for the glory of justice and peace. Together, we’re marching upward to Zion.
Wisdom continues to give voice to the liberated and newborn. She has helped them say “she” and “her” in the same sentence as leader, priest, bishop, deputy – and president of each of those houses. She is a prophet, she is a healer and a chaplain, she is a leader of her people, and we don’t just mean Deborah the judge, but Sandra, Ruth, Sonia, Elena – and Emily Hewitt. She is the image of God, which may be the most liberating part of the work started here 40 years ago – the balancing of centuries of narrow assertions and faulty theology about the divine and its holy and creative work.
As always, Peter sounds naively optimistic when he says, “the end of everything has come.” Well, it is at least well begun. The end of categorical exclusion has begun, and once the gates open, the flood begins to burst through. That flood of birthwaters washes away fences of division, judgments that grieve and cleave – and becomes a flume delivering new life into the world. It has its origin in Wisdom, God’s creative co-worker, in Shekinah overshadowing Mary, in her delivery of a holy child for the healing of this world. That child is born in a flood of blood and water, blessed and emboldened in his cousin’s baptismal waters, and brought to die in thirst and abandonment. Yet at the last, a flood gushes forth once more – living water and life blood poured out for all. Jesus gives birth to a new people of solidarity with outcast, oppressed, enslaved, imprisoned, and deprived. The gates of hell haven’t just been destroyed – they’ve been rusted open – as living water floods up from the depths and showers the world with grace. The green blade riseth, all around.
Peter gets the response to this ending and beginning right – radical hospitality to self and other. Be confident and clear in your prayers, in your vision of the Zion toward which we are all bound. Discover and claim the love God has for you, and love yourself in the same way – as treasured possession and infinitely precious. Likewise love one another, as equal friends of God, and discover heaven in your midst. Welcome and serve one another, using the gifts the spirit has planted within you. Speak with the strength of Wisdom herself. Do you suppose Peter learned all this from his mother-in-law? When Jesus healed her fever she got up and began to serve. As our fevered oppression is healed, pray that we are doing the same – serving Jesus in the least around us, in the forgotten children on our borders and the panicked ones in Gaza, and the imprisoned ones wasting away in our jails. Speak out in truth at the injustice of this world, use the memory of that fever to call down rolling rivers of justice and upspringing streams of righteousness!
That is losing your life and gaining the whole and healed and holy world created at the beginning.
Remember to take your shoes – boots made for walking, shoes for marching and slippers for dancing. Whatever they are, wear them proudly! Try walking in the shoes of abused and trafficked women. Walk on to Zion carrying the children who are born and suffer in the midst of war. Gather up the suffering girls married before they are grown, gather the schoolgirls still missing in Nigeria, and gather all those lives wasted in war and prison. March boldly, proclaiming good news to all who have been pushed aside, and call them to the table of God, to Wisdom’s feast. Dance upward in glory, listening for Miriam’s song and Sarah’s laughter, calling to us from the hillside. A banquet awaits. Go.
Put on your shoes and take up those crosses. We’re marching upward to Zion.
Come, we that love the Lord, And let our joys be known;
Join in a song with sweet accord, Join in a song with sweet accord
And thus surround the throne, And thus surround the throne.
We’re marching to Zion, Beautiful, beautiful Zion;
We’re marching upward to Zion, The beautiful city of God.
 Gospel singer and radio host, WBLS, New York.
 The Rev. Dr. Pauli Murray, Proud Shoes.
 One of the Philadelphia 11, who retired as a federal court judge.
 “These Boots Were Made for Walking” written by Lee Hazlewood, first recorded by Nancy Sinatra, 1966. An image of standing up to, and walking out on, all sorts of oppression.
 “We’re Marching to Zion,” Lift Every Voice and Sing, Church Pension Fund, 1993.