Alison Cheek, one of the first women priests in the Episcopal Church and a pioneer in Christian feminist Biblical studies, died peacefully on September 1, 2019.
Born on April 11, 1927 in Adelaide, Australia, Alison Mary Western graduated from Adelaide University. She married her economics tutor, Bruce Cheek. The Cheeks came to the United States in the 1950’s, where Bruce worked for the World Bank until his death in 1977. They had four children, Malcolm, Jonathan, Timothy and Bronwen.
As her children entered school, Alison enrolled in the Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria where she became a tutor in Greek and Hebrew and was one of the first women to receive the Bachelor of Divinity degree in 1963.
The movement for the ordination of Episcopal women priests began in the early 1970’s. This led Alison and ten other women to be ordained in Philadelphia on July 29, 1974, a controversial event because the Episcopal Church had not authorized the ordination of women. The three bishops who ordained the women were censured and the eleven women were banned from practicing any priestly ministry. Alison and her sister priests ignored this ban.
On two occasions, the male priests who invited Alison and others of the “Philadelphia Eleven” to work in their parishes were brought to Ecclesiastical Court in the Episcopal Church and the men were suspended from ministry. The women received “godly admonition” from their bishop but no other actions were taken against them other than their continuing to be banned from jobs and any formal recognition as priests.
In 1976, the Episcopal Church authorized the ordination of women priests and retroactively accepted the ministries of the Philadelphia Eleven. From then on, the Episcopal Church officially considered these women “irregular, but valid” priests. The Rev. Alison Cheek always wore her “irregular” status as a badge of honor. Almost fifty years later, she would continue to call her ordination “a proud passage into an ongoing prophetic ministry.”
After working for more than a decade as a pastoral psychotherapist in Washington, D.C., Alison Cheek enrolled in the Doctor of Ministry program at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, MA, where she received her degree in Feminist Biblical Studies. In 1986, she became the director of the divinity school’s new program in Feminist Liberation Theologies, a position she held until the mid-1990’s when she left to join Greenfire, a feminist spiritual community and resource center in Tenant’s Harbor, Maine.
In 2014, Alison moved to Brevard to join a number of old friends, several colleagues from the Episcopal Divinity School, and a number of women priests, including Carter Haywood, another of the Philadelphia Eleven.
Those who survive Alison Cheek include not only her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, whom she adored, but also countless friends, colleagues, sister and brother priests and ministers, academics and activists from all over the world. Alison also leaves behind the caring staff of the Cedar Mountain House and Care Partners Hospice, and especially Kendra Bryson, her devoted friends and caregiver for the last two years.
Alison will be celebrated and remembered for her smile, the twinkle in her eye, her gentleness of spirit, her generosity and integrity, her tenacity in pursuing gender, sexual, racial and economic justice in the church and world; her commitment to academic excellence and her persistent devotion to God’s liberating spirit.
A memorial service will be held at 2:00 p.m. on Saturday, November 2, 2019, in St. Philip’s Episcopal Church in Brevard. Memorial gifts may be made in Alison’s name to El Centro, Free Rein or any charity of choice.
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