Today is All Saints’ Day, one of the major feast days of the Church, and one of my favorite days of the year. This first Sunday in November is the day that we remember the saints of the church – all of them, those who are important and have their own day on the church calendar, and those who may only be remembered by God.
It’s the day we remember our own saints, those whom we have loved who are now part of what St. Paul calls “that great cloud of witnesses.”
On All Saints’ Sunday I like to tell the story of a saint who has died in the past year, someone whose life was a witness to the work of God, and who worked to help bring about God’s kingdom here on earth.
Today I have stories about two women whose faith called them to push the boundaries of the Church, calling the body of Christ to become more reflective of God’s inclusive love of all people.
The first is Allison Cheek, who died on September 1 at age 92.
Cheek was one of the Philadelphia 11, the first women to be ordained to the priesthood in the Episcopal Church at the Church of the Advocate in Philadelphia on July 29, 1974 – two years before the ordination of women was officially authorized by the church.
Cheek earned a seminary degree in 1969, and was ordained a deacon – a role permitted women – in 1972.
But she soon realized that being a deacon was not what she was ultimately called to do.
“It was very hard, Sunday after Sunday, to do my work at the altar as a deacon in the church which oppressed me,’ she said.
During a retreat, she experienced a powerful spiritual calling to do something that had never been done before. She heard the voice of God telling her, “’I want you to be my priest.’
“It was a powerful experience,” Cheek said. “It’s why I never thought of giving up.
“When the opportunity to be part of the Philadelphia ordination came, I thought, ‘Well, if they toss me out, at least I’ll go witnessing to what I believe about the Gospel and about women’s appropriateness for being priests, and being true to what I believed.’”
At the ordinations, the liturgy allowed time for objections. One male priest stood and said, “These women can offer up nothing but the sight and smell of perversion.”
“That makes me see how very thin is the veneer of civilization over this fear of women’s sexuality,” Cheek said.
Cheek then became the first woman to celebrate the Eucharist in a public service. She was invited to preach and celebrate at St. Stephen and the Incarnation Church in Washington DC a week after her ordination.
But after she finished preaching, the rector read a letter from the bishop saying Cheek was prohibited from celebrating because the status of her ordination was in question.
“You could have heard a pin drop,” she said.
Two months later she returned to the church and celebrated. The rector of the church, William Wendt, was tried by an ecclesiastical court for disobeying the bishop’s orders. He was censured, but allowed to continue as rector.
In an act of defiance he then hired Cheek to be his assistant.
Two years later the Church’s General Convention voted to allow women’s ordination. The first “regular” ordinations of women happened on January 1, 1977.
Women now make up almost half of the church’s clergy.
“Every woman in a leadership position in the Episcopal Church owes our vocation and freedom to these very strong woman,” Mariann Budde, the bishop of Washington DC, said after Cheek’s death.
“It’s almost impossible for us to imagine the costs and their scars. This was hard. We stand on their shoulders, every one of us, men and women.”
On the 40th anniversary of her ordination, Cheek said that she “sort of risked everything” to become a priest. “I would do it again,” she added.
The second saint I remember today is Rachel Held Evans, who died on May 4 at age 37, leaving a husband, a three-year-old son and year-old daughter.
Evans wrote four books challenging the conservative Christianity in which she was raised and as The New York Times said “gave voice to a generation of wandering evangelicals wrestling with their faith.”
In 2014, Evans left the evangelical, fundamentalist church that had been her home because, she said, she wanted to focus on building a new community among the church’s “refugees” – women who wanted to become ministers, gay Christians and “those who refuse to choose between their intellectual integrity and their faith.”
She later found a home in the Episcopal Church, but her true congregation was online, with her Twitter feed as her church, a gathering place for thousands to question, find safety in their doubts, and learn to believe in new ways.
Although she was harassed and criticized by many in the fundamentalist faith she left behind, she was embraced by thousands who said she helped them recognize there were ways of being a faithful Christian that did not include exclusivity, hate, and anti-intellectualism.
“I’m still a Christian thanks to you,” one former evangelical posted on Evans’ twitter feed. “Your legacy includes the thousands of young girls who know God doesn’t hate them.”
“I am Julie Rogers,” another of her followers said after her death. “I live in Washington DC with my wife and our two cats. When I first encountered Rachel and her work, I had just gone through a divorce. I was still in conversion therapy trying to become straight.
“Rachel gave me permission to trust that the spirit inside of me that was leading me to come out as gay was the same spirit inside of me that was trying to understand God as I understood God at that point.
“Rachel became meaningful to so many because at some point she began to realize, wait, what I’ve been told, what I’ve been told to believe, what I’ve been told to think isn’t all there is, And in fact, sometimes what we’ve been told to think, told to believe, has been hurting people.”
Evans was a natural questioner of authority, a trait that made her a good journalist, but caused her trouble growing up in an authoritarian, dogmatic church in Dayton, Tennessee, the home of the infamous Scopes Monkey Trial.
Her first book was entitled “Evolving in Monkey Town.” It traced her own evolution from religious certainty to a faith that left room for doubt.
“I still doubt,” she wrote. “I still wake up some mornings unconvinced that the God I worshipped in church on Sunday even exists. And I don’t want to glorify that experience because sometimes it sucks. Sometimes it’s really lonely and really hard and really scary. But I know for a fact that it’s better than the alternative.”
Evans found a faith that allowed for those doubts in the Episcopal Church. But she also had critiques for the more liberal mainline churches that sometimes seemed preoccupied with worries about how to be relevant to younger generations, and think that replacing hymnals with screens, and traditional music with rock bands might be the answer.
“When I left church at age 29 full of doubt and disillusionment I wasn’t looking for a better-produced Christianity,” she said. “I was looking for a truer Christianity, a more authentic Christianity.”
Her last blog post appeared online on Ash Wednesday, almost exactly two months before her unexpected death.
“It strikes me today that the liturgy of Ash Wednesday teaches something that nearly everyone can agree on,” she wrote. “Whether you are a part of church or not, whether you believe today or you doubt, whether you are a Christian or an atheist or an agnostic, you know this truth deep in your bones – remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.
“Death is a part of life. My prayer for you this season is that you make time to celebrate that reality, and to grieve that reality, and that you will know you are not alone.”
My guess is that neither Rachel Held Evans or Allison Cheek would describe themselves as saints. But they certainly fit the description of sainthood put forth by theologian William Stringfellow.
“Being a saint does not mean being godly, but being truly human,” Stringfellow says. “It does not mean being other worldly, but being deeply implicated in the practical existence of this world without succumbing to this world.
“Being holy, being a saint, is not about the exceptional or the extraordinary. Instead, it is about the normal, the typical, the ordinary, the generic.
“It is not about being somehow transported out of this world, but about being plunged more fully into the practical existence of this world.”
The communion of saints is not a gathering of superheroes, but of people like us, ordinary men, women, and children, who –like Allison Cheek and Rachel Held Evans – did what they could when it was laid before them, following God’s call to help move the Church and the world closer to God’s kingdom.