Celebration of the 20th Anniversary of Barbara Harris' Episcopate

Trinity Church Boston
February 28, 2009

We’ve come a long way in 20 years, and we have a long way yet to go. We have seen doors unlocked, and hills climbed, and the blind healed. But there are still plenty of locks and blindness and rocky roads.

The psalmist says, “I will lift up my eyes to the hills, from where is my help to come.” Human beings have always looked to the heights, sometimes for the cavalry or a prince on a white horse to come and rescue them. Even we church folk are never quite sure whether to translate that as a question or a statement: “Where will I find help?” or “I know it’s up there!” The faithful lift up their eyes and see Jesus, hanging on a cross. He reminds us that salvation is to be found in solidarity with the lowliest and most rejected. In much of the world, those are women and children.

We still live in a world where schools that try to teach girls are attacked, their students scarred with acid, and their teachers murdered. Children in this country are still sometimes confined against their will in so-called “religious re-education camps” to force compliance with what male and mostly white leaders teach as divinely-inspired truth. The Canadian church has apologized for that kind of behavior in residential schools – I don’t believe this church has yet done so. Until we live in a world where the God-given gifts of each can be offered for the well-being of all, we will continue to lift up our eyes to the hills.

I love hills – more specifically, mountains. I’ve spent my life wanting to climb up there and see what was going on in the larger world. Barbara has spent her life trusting in the God who makes those hills, certain that a level road will eventually appear, a road that is accessible to all. She’s been climbing up and down hills her whole life – beginning with her travels through the Jim Crow south, where I expect the journeys were almost always uphill. And her journeying has done a great deal to bulldoze the human-built hills.

I got my first taste of what that those human hills are like when my family moved to New Jersey. I started at a new school in the middle of 8th grade, and when my mother took me to the office to sign me up for classes, I heard about the electives that cycled through the year – wood shop, metal shop, cooking, sewing, and art. I wanted to take wood shop, but I was told that girls couldn’t do that. I was furious! I knew how to use a hammer, saw boards and pound nails, but I wanted to learn how to use a lathe. I’d spent the first part of my childhood in a girls’ school in Seattle where there weren’t any overt limits on what girls could study or try.

A month or so later, as I was getting my books out of my locker to go home at the end of the day, a group of black girls came down the hall with their arms linked, sweeping everyone else out of the way. They were clearly very angry, but I had no idea why. I must have said something in English class, because the teacher suggested I write a paper on the Ku Klux Klan. I had no idea what she was talking about, and I discovered a world of evil and violence that revolted and horrified me. I was only 11 or 12, but I was getting a powerful sense of the forces that work to keep the world off balance. I knew that at the very least the scales of justice weren’t supposed to operate like that, and that God had a different dream for how human beings were meant to live.

The kind of fear behind the KKK and Jim Crow and men-only clubs doesn’t just lock doors and kill people, it takes away basic human dignity – from everyone. It denies the image of God, both in those who are feared and in those who bar the doors. Those first disciples locked their own door after Jesus’ execution. They were afraid that the authorities would come and do the same to them – they’d forgotten everything he’d taught them about healing and feeding and loving the enemy. We cannot do the same, as hard as some will try to chain those doors shut. The doors of the House of Deputies were barred to women for almost half a century after one had the audacity to ask for a chair. When I was growing up, the doors of the sacristy were locked to all but the altar guild – and even then they had to put doilies on their heads (Oh, my – they might be unclean!). God forbid that a woman should try to unbolt the vestment closet – what might she find in there?

The doors of countless hotels and restaurants were barred to Barbara as she traveled around the south, and I expect a fair number were politely but conveniently closed on this side of the Mason-Dixon line as well. But the doors of the Church of the Advocate were flung open the day she carried the cross down the aisle in 1974. And try as some might to prevent it, the people of this church unlocked the doors when she was elected in 1988 and consecrated in 1989. The canonical doors only opened 10 days before her consecration, but open they did. Collectively we looked to the hills and discovered that our fears were sitting in the pew with us, and our help was to be found in the midst of us, wherever two or three or 11 or 8500 were gathered.

In too many places the doors are still locked. The Church of England is wrestling mightily to open the episcopal door. They’re not wont to simply take the door off the hinges, like we restless colonials tend to do. They’re trying to pick 1000 tiny locks one at a time, forgetting that a woman has gotten through the door by another way, to sit at the head of the church – twice! She may wear a different kind of hat, but it is the hat of respected and authorized leadership. A man in the Diocese of Salisbury said to me this summer just before the Lambeth conference that he thought the difficulty was that men didn’t want to be under the authority of women. Well, in England they have been for more than 50 years.

The doors aren’t fully open here, either. When silence or ruse or “passing” is the only way through for some, those doors are still effectively closed. Jesus walks through anyway, and bids us follow. “Peace be with you,” he says, and we’re supposed to remember what the godly messenger always adds, “fear not.”

That peace comes at a price – he shows us his wounds – but it is a price that leads to life. Barbara’s been paying that price for nearly 80 years. Barbara, your grace and wit and humor have buoyed up this church – and as someone who lives on the other end of the vertical spectrum, I have to imagine that your stature has let you walk through doors that are barred to others of us. And you’ve led others through that door once you found the chinks. For the openings have most to do with confronting and engaging the fear that locks them. Peace be with you, our savior says, not “be scared – even if you never know what she might do!”

Humor will often pry those doors apart, and blunt words can be a wedge to keep them open. The skunk at the garden party has bid some others come through, and the whole place smells a good deal better. The international airport Barbara spoke of at the 1998 Lambeth conference may be peopled with dolts, but there are others who keep trying to pry the doors open wider.

But your persistence, Barbara, your unflagging and prophetic insistence, is an encouraging witness to all of us, in and beyond this church. The women in Uruguay who cannot be ordained priests or bishops look to your example. So do the women in African nations who eat in the kitchen because it’s expected, after they serve their guests in the formal room. When they visit their visitors and see the women eating with the men, they get uppity ideas – the kind of ideas that begin to open doors for themselves, their sisters and daughters – and ultimately bring the peaceful society Jesus claimed.

In a sermon Barbara preached almost 10 years ago, she said, “I couldn’t change that old-boys club by myself. It was important that other women be elected so those changes could take place. It’s like eating an elephant, one bite at a time. The job isn’t done yet. The elephant is yet to be consumed.”

That elephant needs to be on more menus. The kind of menus that start with bread and wine and tears and solidarity and rejoicing, for one more door pried open.

“How beautiful are the feet of the one on the mountains who announces peace, who brings good news.” Peace be with you. Our help is coming.