ECF Fellows Spotlight: Ellen Aitken
April 28, 2015
Last June, the Church and the world lost a gifted and imaginative scholar, teacher, priest, and friend with the death of the Rev. Dr. Ellen Bradshaw Aitken at the age of 53. The article below is offered in tribute and memory of Dr. Aitken, a 1989 Episcopal Church Foundation Fellow.
“Why do we tell the stories we do?” wrote Ellen Aitken on her ECF Fellowship application in 1989. “And why do we tell them the way we do, in our families, in our churches, in pastoral counseling, in our liturgy? What meaning for our lives do our stories contain?”
That fascination with stories and their deeper meaning runs through all of Aitken’s work as a biblical scholar, teacher, and priest. Her undergraduate degree from Harvard was in folklore and mythology, with a concentration in oral traditional narrative. After graduation in 1982, she took her first steps toward ordination, studying theology at St. Andrew’s in Scotland for a year.
In what Aitken later realized was a form of a rule of life, she began saying the daily office while in Scotland, engaged in regular conversations on faith with a friend, and took time for retreat and solitude. Her experience and practice of faith deepened. The following fall, she entered the University of the South at Sewanee. She received her D.Min. in 1986 and was ordained later that year.
Aitken served as assistant clergy at St. Paul’s in Holyoke, Massachusetts before returning to Harvard Divinity School in 1989 to pursue doctoral studies as an ECF Fellow. She was interested in bringing the insights and techniques of oral traditional narrative to New Testament and early Christianity studies, an interest that marked her subsequent scholarly work.
Aitken received her Th.D. from Harvard in 1997 and served on the faculty until 2004 when she began teaching Early Christian History and Literature at McGill University in Montreal. She was named Dean of Faculty of Religious Studies there in 2007, a position she held until her death.
Collaboration and community
Aitken fully embraced the communal aspects of a scholar’s life — collaborating on papers and presentations, attending and planning conferences, serving on panels, building networks where knowledge and expertise could be shared. Honored at both Harvard and McGill for excellence in teaching, she was also a great mentor and helped her students develop professionally. She was a founder of the Anglican Association of Biblical Scholars (AABS), formed to encourage greater involvement of biblical scholars in the life of their churches and to promote the development of resources for biblical studies. The Conversations with Scripture series, available from Church Publishing, is an AABS project designed to create accessible resources to encourage Bible study at the parish level.
Aitken cared deeply about religious scholars’ service in the world as well as the Church. She was a member of McGill’s Center for Research on Religion (CREOR), an interdisciplinary and interfaculty effort to coordinate and support research on the main religions of the world. And she brought McGill into the Tony Blair Faith Foundation’s Faith and Globalisation Initiative in 2010. McGill was the fourth institution to join this network, created to help current and future leaders understand the impact of religion on the world.
In a tribute to Aitken last June, the Faith Foundation’s chief executive, Charlotte Keenan, wrote, “She helped us create and define our work in Religion and Globalisation, which is now present in over thirty universities world-wide, and constantly challenged us to take it further. I will miss her sense of mischief and love of life.”
In the same piece Tony Blair wrote, “Ellen was an outstanding academic but also a lovely, warm, and generous spirited person with a huge heart as well as an exceptional mind. We enjoyed immensely our collaboration together.”
Connected with God and others
Throughout her demanding career as a teacher and scholar, Aitken found time to participate in the life of the church. An associate of the Society of St. John the Evangelist (SSJE), she assisted at the parishes of St. John the Evangelist in Boston and St. John the Evangelist in Montreal.
Aitken’s foray into a rule of life as a young student in Scotland was not her last. Her association with SSJE’s Fellowship of St. John encouraged her to see and welcome Christ’s presence in the multiple threads that made up her life and work. In “Reflections on a Rule of Life,” posted on SSJE’s website in April of 2011, she wrote:
A rule, in my experience, turns what I desire for my way of life into practice, practices that are flexible and transformable, but practices nonetheless. A few examples: At home, our breakfasts and our dinners are eaten unrushed, with candles lit, attention to the food and drink however simple, and a spaciousness for conversation. These are moments when we gather the thoughts of a busy day and whether there are guests or not it, recollects me toward a life lived hospitably toward God.
In early May a year ago, Aitken was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of cancer. Hospitalized in the weeks leading to her death, she stayed in touch — in communion, really — with friends and family, writing a diary through the Caring Bridge website. In her entries, she shared her experience with those she loved, encouraging and commending them to each other even as she prepared to leave them. She died on June 14, 2014, surrounded by her husband, William Porter, and friends.
The Rev. Cynthia Briggs Kittredge, Dean of the Seminary of the Southwest, was among Aitken’s circle of close friends. Both ECF Fellows, they had met as doctoral students at Harvard. Preaching at the Eucharist in Aitken’s memory at the AABS Meeting last November, Kittredge said:
I remember that her manner of dying, of getting sick and having tests and being diagnosed and enduring pain was so one with the way she lived. She noticed every concrete detail and every one was sacramental. She was so perspicacious. She observed so keenly, so theologically reflective, so faithful, so connected with others and with God. She did not try to escape from the reality, but moved more deeply into it.
At the close of her ECF application 25 years ago, Aitken wrote, “It is my clear sense that I am called by God and the Church to offer myself, my gifts, and capabilities, to be a teacher in and for the Church.” She fulfilled that call and more, pursuing the sources and cultural influences for the stories that shape our lives as Christians, joining in efforts to better understand the many religions that make up our world today, appreciating the ordinary pleasures of life, remembering Christ in all things. Aitken’s life among us may be ended, but her work and her bright spirit carry on in the lives and hearts of those who knew her, worked with her, loved her.
These words from the burial service express what is in our hearts, but we know Aitken would see so much more in them. She would remember their ancient form and historical connotations. She would know the story of their long journey over the centuries to our practice today. And she would delight in a hyperlink that echoes their ancient roots.
Give rest, O Lord, to your servant with your saints, where sorrow and pain are no more, neither sighing, but life everlasting.