By Joyell Nevins
Diversity is the life and focus of local Episcopal Church leader
The goal of St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral in Bankers Hill is to see dignity and to “seek and serve Christ in all people.” And the church’s dean, the Very Reverend Penny Bridges, is leading that charge of inclusiveness.
At St. Paul’s, it doesn’t matter your gender identity, sexual orientation, the place where you sleep, or any other box you could check — they just want you to worship with them.
“We put aside labels and rejections and see the humanity in each person,” Bridges explained. “You are welcome whoever you are, wherever you are, on your journey of faith.”
The Very Reverend Bridges, so named for her Episcopal theological title equivalent of “dean,” has spanned many bridges of her own. She entered seminary as a mother of young children, is one of only 10 female deans in the United States — out of nearly 100 cathedrals — and part of the 7 percent of priests that are female.
She has embraced the LGBTQ community in both words and actions and worked with leaders of several different faiths, including Rabbi Laurie Coskey, to help bring together women clergy in the region. Bridges is even the appointed “spiritual advisor” for the Imperial Court de San Diego, and has partnered with the court on several projects, recently performing the blessing at coronation.
“She is a giant in heart and a powerful voice for light and right and good in all the world,” described friend Susan Jester.
Bridges, who was reportedly orphaned at age 14, grew up in Belfast, Ireland, and intended to become a musician. She attended Cambridge University for viola and voice, but said she “stumbled” into computer programming as a viable career field. She and her then-husband came to the U.S. in 1985 for what was initially meant to be a temporary sojourn, and despite living through a New Hampshire winter (which can be bitterly cold), decided they loved the states and wanted to stay.
Bridges got involved in a local church working with the choir (one of the reasons she loves St. Paul’s is its incredible organ), but it wasn’t until 1992 that “the call” came. It was during a lunch with her church’s assistant rector that the topic of ordination, and specifically ordination for women, came up.
“It felt like I was holding a shoulder against the door and something had just opened that door,” Bridges said. “Light flooded in. It was a very emotional experience.”
It was two years later, while attending Yale Divinity School in New Haven, Connecticut, where Bridges went from accepting differences to embracing them. Her seminary classmates ranged in age from 22 to 72 and they covered 45 different denominations.
“I learned everybody has their own story,” she said. “It forced me to articulate my own faith and my ideology.”
She also saw firsthand how rejection can debilitate. During training, Bridges was assigned to serve in transitional housing for those with HIV/AIDS, where almost all of their clients were addicted, mentally ill, or both.
The first funeral Bridges ever officiated was for one of those clients, a man who died of AIDS and whose family was nowhere to be found. He was gay and she said he had been “completely rejected” by his family during those final years of his life. Though handling the funeral was a tough assignment, she also felt it was a very holy one; and it cemented her path forward.
“[While officiating], I realized ‘this is why I’m here; this is why I’m doing this,’” Bridges said.
Bridges noted that the Episcopal Church itself has never been one to believe in a set doctrine — the point is that you come together. It started in the 1500s after Henry VIII had separated from the Roman Catholic Church to establish his own — the Church of England — because the Pope refused to approve his divorce. He then ruled the monarchy as the head of the new church.
The decisions of the next two rulers of England, Edward VI and his half-sister Mary, helped deepen the rift between Protestant and Catholic leanings. When Elizabeth I came to power in 1558, she wanted to bring those two sides back together. That’s when the Book of Common Prayer was established, a book that is still in use at St. Paul’s today.
“Elizabeth I said that what matters is we all worship together,” Bridges said.
Bridges said one of the latest movements of the Episcopal Church and her own life has been making sure transgender people also feel included.
“Pastorally, my heart is with the trans folks,” she said.
One of the ways they literally put their money where their mouth is was in St. Paul’s bathroom project. There are now two gender-neutral bathrooms, both with diaper changing tables and dressing space. Bridges said it had become really difficult for weddings with two brides; but now each bride will be able to have their own dressing room area.
Having inclusivity in their church is a novel and often life-changing experience for many of St. Paul’s members.
“There are a lot of people at St. Paul’s who have been rejected by other churches in the past,” Bridges said.
But they all come together at the cathedral in Bankers Hill.
“We worship well,” Bridges enthused. “This congregation is energetic, committed, kind and imaginative. They’re a wonderful group of people to do ministry with.”
That “wonderful group,” led by Bridges, is what drew Jester to St. Paul’s. Not only a member of the congregation, Jester is now also a staff member and in training to learn how to become even more involved.
“I was drawn to the community of St Paul’s because of their welcoming and acceptance of all people in all walks of life who wish to worship in an inclusive atmosphere of safety and sanctuary,” Jester said. “Penny is a loving and dynamic Christian leader who has the vision and the intellect to inspire her flock to carry out the stated Cathedral mission of loving Christ, serving others and welcoming all.”
St. Paul’s stands behind that mission — whether it’s opening their doors during the St. Patrick’s Day parade; lighting up in the colors of San Diego Pride and marching in the parade; or hosting an interfaith book study with the Ohr Shalom synagogue and the Islamic Center of San Diego — the cathedral is continually trying to move beyond any man-made barriers.
“For me, fear is the single greatest thing we are challenged with,” Bridges said. “Fear is at the bottom of every evil thing.”
The clergy here also get outside the church walls, Bridges said, so if you’re reluctant to come to church, they will bring the church to you.
On every Ash Wednesday for the last five years, Bridges and many of her leaders donned their robes, gathered the ashes and planted themselves in public places — City Hall, transit stations and even some Starbucks — where the ministers offered ashes and prayers to anyone that desired it, in a program called “Ashes to Go.”
To honor the Pulse shooting victims in Orlando, Bridges and St. Paul’s hosted a special mid-week Eucharist service at Flicks in Hillcrest last summer.
“It was making the statement that we are in community,” Bridges explained.
Now that same inclusiveness is reaching out to the homeless, respecting their dignity and acknowledging that whether they choose to live in that position or life forced it upon them, they still enrich the life of St. Paul’s congregation.
Meet Bridges and the St. Paul’s congregation for yourself or join the community by visiting the cathedral at 2728 Sixth Ave., on the corner of Fifth Avenue and Nutmeg Street, next to Balboa Park.
For more information, visit stpaulcathedral.org or call 619-298-7261.