Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Tending the Sheep: Pittsburgh’s Episcopal Bishops

This is the second of three articles that will appear in TRINITY, the diocesan publication of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh. They represent an overview of a manuscript history, which will be published by Wipf and Stock in 2009.

“We had a very weary ride over, or rather through, very bad roads to Waynesburg,” wrote John Kerfoot (1865-1881), “where at long intervals some ministers of ours held services years ago. We held service and I preached in the Court House, where we had a large and reverent congregation. We were guests of a family once ours, in which . . . the Prayer Book, and the memories of the early Church home, hallowed and taught by it, still kept their hold. Time has been sadly lost in that south-western part of the Diocese.” The office of bishop of Pittsburgh has never been a sinecure. The primitive transport networks of the nineteenth century imposed a particular physical strain and prior to the division of the Diocese of Pennsylvania in 1865 the western portion of the state received few episcopal visitations. Bishops can, however, be equally vulnerable to the distractions of external commitments. “It is painfully apparent to me,” Alden Hathaway (1980-1995) ruefully admitted in 1988, “that over the past few years I have lost control of my calendar and my appointments. It is driven by the needs and desires for my time of a great variety of good and worthy projects, but the result is that they control me rather than I having any intentional order and design to the stewardship of my time.”

Six of Pittsburgh’s seven bishops came to the office as outsiders, a pattern that owed much to a lay preference for a bishop without ties to local clergy. “Only two men in the Diocese, I was told,” Cortlandt Whitehead (1882-1922) sardonically commented years after his election, “had ever seen me – one a clergyman and one a layman – neither of whom voted for me – men of sense and fine discernment.” Perhaps the most brutal election – requiring no less than sixteen ballots – was that of 1922, which finally chose Alexander Mann (1923-1943), rector of Trinity Church, Boston. In 1980 another stormy convention witnessed a closed session in which Dean John Rodgers of Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry (who had been nominated from the floor) was interrogated by convention delegates angry that they lacked adequate background information. Thankfully the convention then took only five ballots to elect Alden Hathaway, a decision that would mark the beginning of a singular change in outlook for the Diocese of Pittsburgh. Fifteen years later, Canon Robert Duncan would be elected as Hathaway’s successor only after his initial rejection by the nominations committee and nomination from the floor with the backing of a wide cross-section of members of the diocese, many of whom did not share his theological convictions.

In the course of 250 years, Pittsburgh’s Episcopal bishops have represented a wide cross-section of the various schools of churchmanship, from the stately Anglo-Catholicism of John Kerfoot to the Broad Church pragmatism of Alexander Mann and the Evangelical fervor of Alden Hathaway. Not all were cradle Anglicans. While Robert Duncan (1996- ) waxes lyrical about his Anglo-Catholic upbringing (“If it hadn’t been for that parish church,” he says today, “I think I would not only have emotionally died but I would have physically died”), John Kerfoot was baptized a Presbyterian, a fact that concerned him enough to request a conditional baptism before his ordination in 1840. By contrast, Robert Appleyard (1968-1979) was an ordained Methodist minister before joining the Episcopal Church during the Second World War, distinguished by being the only English-speaker in his sixty-member Confirmation class on the island of New Guinea.

Several of Pittsburgh’s bishops have enjoyed prominent national roles. John Kerfoot , who helped broker an agreement to readmit southern Episcopalians to the General Convention a year before his election, was active in the debates that consolidated the ascendancy of the high church party within the Episcopal Church, while Austin Pardue (1944-1967) served as chairman of the national church commission on industrial work during the 1950s. Many bishops have also understood their responsibility to preach to the wider world, prompting Cortlandt Whitehead to denounce the 1892 Geary Act limiting Chinese immigration, Austin Pardue to become the first Episcopal bishop to address a national convention of the United Steel Workers, Robert Appleyard to promote Project Equality as a part of the national campaign for civil rights and Alden Hathaway to protest abortion outside the Pittsburgh offices of Planned Parenthood.

Such episcopal activism has nevertheless always been grounded in a coherent worldview, something that many postwar bishops have been obliged to emphasize. Austin Pardue, a writer of popular theological treatises during the 1950s, was one of the first to warn of the dangers of an entirely personal faith. “The debunking of faith, the Bible, the Prayer Book, the Creeds, theology, the Sacraments, and the Church,” he wrote in 1948, “have all made us more and more disrespectful toward the eternal verities and therefore we have created inadequate little philosophical codes of transitory values which we claim to be ‘a religion of my own.’” Twenty years later, Robert Appleyard would be more concerned with a theology that united discipleship and action. “We can identify with those movements that have to do with good government, fair housing to all everywhere, equal rights and the highest standards of education for everyone,’ he explained in 1968, “We can pray for those whose lives have become so bitter, so empty, so disconsolate, that they are not able to get down on their knees and pray.” By the 1980s and 1990s, however, the concern of the bishops of Pittsburgh was with the need to defend catholic tradition and biblical authority. “I have often been in the thick of conflicts within the Episcopal Church,” Robert Duncan reflected in 2002. “I make no apologies for this. Guarding the Faith is central to a bishop’s ordination vows. But others understand the meaning of the same vows and the same Faith differently.”

The shifting character of ecumenical dialogue – a central concern of many church leaders, tells its own tale. Episcopalians need to understand “what the true Catholic position is,” Bishop Whitehead warned in 1897, “as opposed to Romanism and Papalism, and understanding also what true Protestantism is, against what we protest and for what reasons.” Over thirty years later, his successor was more optimistic. “[Our] influence is out of all proportion to our numbers,” Alexander Mann insisted in 1933, “and when the Episcopal Church speaks in her corporate capacity, no Christian Communion in the country commands more truly the attention of thoughtful men . . . We are told that our position is illogical, but after all what is it but the position of the family, where one son is an extreme radical and one is an ultra conservative, but where all the children are held together by the bond of a common loyalty, a common love and trust.”

The postwar world would witness further development of ecumenical principles. Austin Pardue promoted connections with the Orthodox and Polish National Catholic Churches and in 1963 issued a pastoral letter responding to Pope John XXIII’s invitation to worldwide unity that was invoked by no less a figure than the Catholic ecumenist Cardinal Augustin Bea. Robert Appleyard led his diocese into Christian Associates, an ecumenical grouping formed in the 1960s to bring together many of southwestern Pennsylvania’s Christians, while Alden Hathaway established a deeper relationship with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh. In 1988, Hathaway and Catholic Bishop Donald Wuerl pioneered the Christian Leaders Fellowship. The following year Hathaway signed a concordat with the Southwestern Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. “By rooting [our discussions] in the context of the local working experience,” Hathaway explained, “the understanding and respect of the church’s beliefs would be increased and thereby the appreciation for the theological strengths of the various communions.”

Ultimately, however, it is as bishops in the Anglican Communion that Pittsburgh’s leaders have been judged and will continue to be judged. “These rapidly growing and multiplying Anglican Churches of ours, are too much one to live and work apart comfortably;” declared John Kerfoot in 1879, “and are too strong and spreading to work apart safely; and too brave and independent to fear each other in a blessed co-partnership under Christ, in their holy task of winning souls and building up the kingdom . . . [The Lambeth Conferences] keep the one Faith written out brightly in the old lines of catholic Truth; these old lines traced afresh in living colors, which the truthful and obedient shall hereafter see with thankful memories of our counsels, when we shall have gone where the Truth and its sunlight shall never grow dim.” Almost a century later, Austin Pardue predicted that the Anglican Congress of 1963 might be the beginning of a process by which the Anglican Communion might “begin to act as one Church and not as 18 separate and individual churches.” Today, as the world waits for the outcome of Lambeth 2008, it may be expedient to remember the purpose for which the episcopate was consecrated and to pray that the price of leadership for all affected may not be too severe.


Anonymous said...


Thank you for this fascinating overview. It helps me appreciate the Diocese of Pittsburgh even more than I did when I first came here. I look forward to your book.

Jeremy Bonner said...


Delighted you enjoyed it.

The book is, I fear, some distance away since publishers are somewhat twitchy about the profitability of diocesan histories.

However, there will be an article of mine appearing in the Fall issue of ANGLICAN AND EPISCOPAL HISTORY and copies will be available for purchase on October 17 when I deliver the 2008 St. Andrew's Lecture at St. Andrew's Church in Highland Park.

Anonymous said...

Jeremy, I mentioned our dilemma to one of my colleagues who had recently had a diocesan history published. They did their's through a local printer who happened to be a member of one of the diocesan congregations. Perhaps in one of our 70+ churches we have someone connected to the printing world who could arrange such a print run for us.