Friday, March 04, 2011

Requiem for a Very Human Bishop

News came to me this week that Bishop Richard Shimpfky had died. It is ironic that this news arrives in this month after the retirement of John Howe here in Central Florida. Shimpfky, then bishop of El Camino Real of the central California coast, often squared off against Howe in the Episcopal House of Bishops particularly over issues involving LBGQT people. Indeed, I am clear that I owe my priesthood in part to that antagonism; Shimpfky was willing to accept me, an out of diocese seminarian, for the process to the priesthood based in part upon my inability to pursue the same in my home diocese of Central Florida. And, truth be told, upon my ordination, Bishop Shimpfky quickly let Howe know he had ordained me. No doubt that gigged the good bishop of Central Florida.

But their conflict proved to be a gift to me. In August 1991, I left Orlando in my 1990 blue Mazda (Imogene, the mean blue lovin’ machine) loaded to the ceiling with my clothes, books, computer and aquarium. I headed out across America toward a promised land called Berkeley. But I had no promise of anything. Indeed, anything but. And that message was hardly lost on me as I headed north through the grey Mississippi Delta, turning west across the Dakotas, crossing the Rockies, the Bonneville Salt Flats and eventually over the Sierra into California.

While my seminary, the Church Divinity School of the Pacific, had accepted me for its masters of divinity program, I had not been sent to seminary by any diocese and was not in a process of ordination anywhere. At 40 years of age, I had walked away from my law career, my home, the vast majority of my friends, my partner of then 17 years and the state in which my family and had lived for five generations with nothing more than the conviction that G-d had called me to ordained ministry and the hope that before this was all through, I would be an Episcopal priest with a Ph.D. in hand.

Upon arriving in Berkeley, I began to visit churches. I knew that my best chances of being able to enter into an ordination process were either in the Diocese of California, essentially San Francisco Bay, or in El Camino Real, which began in the South Bay at Palo Alto and San Jose and extended south to San Luis Obispo. The process in California sounded intimidating and not terribly promising. The process in El Camino included a number of gay seminarians and my friends from the Integrity organization indicated that it was a healthy place to be.

When I first encountered St. Philips Church in San Jose, I felt I had come home to a place I’d never been before, in the words of John Denver. St. Philips was an intentionally multicultural parish. The liturgies were conducted in the languages of the congregation – at least eight different languages including English. The seating was arranged in a circular fashion around a simple wooden altar, its stone tile top from Jerusalem, and a giant hollow geode used for a baptismal font. On the walls of the parish were the symbols of its many peoples – a Lao altar included a reclining Buddha, a Latin American altar featured a tapestry of the Guadalupano, a Native America altar contained sacred rocks laid out in the four directions, an African-America altar featured broken chains and African weaving and in the background of the parish, a giant San Damiano cross reflecting its European heritage loomed over the entire room. It was a magical place. And it looked a lot like what I understood Jesus’ Kingdom of G-d to be.

St. Philips was an hour from Berkeley and I commuted each Sunday my first year there. When Andy finally had sold our house in Orlando and followed me across the country, we settled in Fremont, a half hour north of San Jose, a 45 minute BART ride from Berkeley and an hour drive (if one got there before rush hour) to Andy’s job over in Silicon Valley. St. Philips welcomed us with open arms. We quickly became members of the parish family. The parishioners supported my vocation to ministry. And so very soon it became time to go and talk with the bishop.

That was a very long day for me. I had left Berkeley with plenty of time, dressed in my best lawyer drag complete with the blue blazer, maroon power and tie and my shined up penny loafers. Not wanting to show up too early, I drove across the Loma Prieta range into Santa Cruz, listening to the UCSC radio station and its Out of the Closet Hour which began with an abrasive number entitled “I’m a Screaming Dyke from Hell,” the lyrics of which consisted of the title repeated over and over to a screeching punk rock setting. What might this portend?

As I drove down the Pacific Highway into Seaside, a suburb of Monterey, through what was left of Fort Ord, now a UC campus, I was struck by the incredible beauty of the Pacific coast and the cool salty air and mist which blew in from the ocean. Was this to be my new home?

Almost visibly trembling, I sat in the waiting room at the diocesan offices awaiting my turn with the bishop. The door opened and a friend of mine who was the national treasurer for Integrity, the Episcopal Church’s organization for LBGQT people, emerged with the bishop. She saw me and smiled, turning to the bishop and saying, “Be nice to this guy. We need him.” I smiled a grateful smile at her and entered the bishop’s office.

Having requested the meeting by letter which included my resume and a bit of my life history, the bishop already had a starting place for doing a background check on me. He had done his homework and seemed to know much about my life, my partner and the conflict with Bishop Howe in Central Florida that had prevented me from seeking ordination there. My heart fell into my penny loafers when he began “I hate it you had to drive all the way down here….” fearing the worst, only to hear him finish, “for me to tell you it’s time for you to begin the process for ordination.”

Had I heard correctly? Was this a dream? But the bishop continued, telling me who I needed to see to get into the process, what steps were next, when my ember letters reporting my progress to him were due. And within 15 minutes, he was escorting me out the door, patting me on the back and I was off to become an Episcopal priest. And that, in the words of Robert Frost, “has made all the difference.”

What always struck me about Bishop Shimpfky was his kindness. He cared about the difficulties we seminarians were having, occasionally coming to Berkeley to take us to dinner. He advocated for LBGQT people at General Convention even in the face of the virulent homophobia confused with religion still infesting many quarters of the Episcopal Church. His efforts prompted speculation about the bishop’s sexual orientation and led many of his foes to call El Camino Real “the gay diocese.” Clearly these were folks who had never been to the diocese. I think Shimpfky saw himself as a warrior for justice in some ways. But even noble warriors have their blind spots.

One of the most anguished moments of my life came at a parish meeting at St. Philips where the bishop was visiting. Within the six months previous, a major altercation had occurred between the clergy of our parish and the bishop. The assistant at St. Philips – later to be consecrated archbishop of the Anglican Church in his native Belize - was a wonderful man whose heritage of African, Spanish and indigenous ancestry made him a perfect coordinator for the diocese’s multicultural ministries. He had received a stellar assessment from the bishop the previous year. But for some reason, the bishop had called him into his office a year later and fired him for unspecified concerns about his competency. To make matters worse, the priest’s son was meeting with the bishop the same day to begin the process for ordination and saw his father leaving the office in tears on his way in to talk with the bishop.

The reaction in the parish was immediate and angry. When the bishop came to the parish for his annual visitation, he was confronted with parishioners wanting to know why he had fired their beloved priest from his diocesan ministry. One of the most painful memories I have of that day was my fellow parishioners whom I trusted and loved, standing in back of the parish screaming “You just don’t get it!” at the bishop who had shown me so much kindness. It was an incredibly bad place to be as a seminarian from that parish.

The bishop called me later that week to reassure me that nothing had changed regarding my ordination process. He repeatedly said that whatever conflict he had with the parish was not with me and not to worry. It would not be the last time he demonstrated that pastoral skill.

On the winter solstice in 1994, the Feast of St. Thomas (the doubting apostle), I was ordained deacon. Bishop Shimpfky came to St. Philips to ordain me. The Gospel was read in five languages. The reclining Buddha was processed into the parish by the Lao congregation complete with incense. The Lady of Guadalupe banner came up the aisle borne by Latin American congregants. And the American Indian congregation offered me an honor song sung by Crazy Horse’s grandson. The Buddhist nun who operated the sangha whose meditations and lessons we had attended for the past two years was present. My Jewish friend who argued with me via internet and had occasionally attended classes with me at the seminary was there. It was a magical evening, as one would expect from St. Philips.

But what I will never forget from that evening came from a most unexpected moment. Just before the Peace, the bishop asked people to be seated and began, “No one gets through this process alone. And I know that one of the main reasons Harry is here today is because of his partner, Andy. So I’d like to call him to stand here with Harry and let us offer him our thanks for his role in the process.” Andy came to stand by me and the entire parish rose to give us a standing ovation. The tears brimmed in both our eyes as we looked out into that crowd of people affirming a gay couple, one of whom had just been ordained a transitional deacon enroute to priesthood in the Episcopal Church, the other whose role in that process had proven vital to its success. As long as I live, I will always be grateful for that moment.

As my graduation from seminary approached, I had applied to the General Theological Union/Cal Berkeley program for a Ph.D. in religion and society/ethics. I was one of 43 applicants in a process which told its applicants up front it gave some preference to women applicants. The program took four applicants (three of them women). I was not among them. Later I was told by a committee member that my bid had not been helped by the presence on the committee of a Jesuit professor opposed to the liberation theology that had been the focus of much of my M.Div. coursework.

Knowing that my chances were not good for admission given that context, I applied at Florida State University’s brand new Ph.D. program not thinking I had much of a prayer but figuring it would be OK to be back in Florida and near my family should I be admitted. On March 13, 2005, I was awakened at 5 AM with a call from Tallahassee (it was 8 AM Eastern time) notifying me that I’d been admitted to FSU’s program. At this point, my partner, Andy, dissolved into tears and left for work without even saying goodbye. Andy did not want to leave California. And he did not want me to once again be separated from him.

Later that morning I headed out to Berkeley for classes, both exhilarated with my admission as well as depressed by the prospect of once again leaving my grieving, beloved partner behind. I returned to an empty house, my partner attending a computer science class for his certificate program at UC that night. And so I headed out to a bar in nearby Hayward to find someone – anyone - to celebrate with me.

It was a terrible failure of judgment on my part. I had had little to eat that day. I had had only five hours of sleep, having been awakened at 5 AM by the Tallahassee news. Upon announcing to the folks sitting around the bar my admission to the Ph.D. program, they began buying me rounds of drinks. At the point I realized I was in trouble, it was too late. I was nearly home when the combination of the fatigue and alcohol overcame me. I woke up with my car plowed up under a semi-truck parked on the side of Mission Drive. It was a miracle I had not harmed anyone and escaped with only minor scratches and bruises myself. Poor Imogene was a total loss.

Among the calls I received that first day home from the hospital was a call from Bishop Shimpfky. His first concern was that I was OK. His second was that I not worry but that I did need to come see him and explain this event. Because I was already a deacon and so close to being ordained , he wanted me to speak with him and the Standing Committee who would make the final decision on my priestly ordination. It was a very pastoral handling of a situation in which I was already convinced that everything I had worked for was down the drain in a single night of indiscretion.

By the time I met with the Committee and bishop, I had already been to court, completed my public service and the court ordered DUI class. I had a record of attendance at the SMART Recovery (alternative to AA) program and a letter from my psychiatrist certifying that I had dealt with this event appropriately and was suitable for ordination. And, to be honest, there was no doubt in my mind that while I had a problem I needed to deal with directly, I had taken it very seriously.

The bishop had explained the situation to the Standing Committee and they treated me with compassion even as they sought my assurance that their institution would not be endangered by my presence. By the meeting’s end, my priestly ordination was back on track. And two months later, I would be ordained priest. Sometimes there actually is forgiveness in the institutional church.

Overall, I think Bishop Shimpfky would have to be seen as a good bishop. His commitment to inclusivity bore fruit in a diocese that, while its overall numbers shrank like many dioceses across the country, often looked like the United Nations at prayer. And that same commitment was instrumental in changes in the Episcopal Church nationally that ultimately said to the misogynist dioceses that their time was up on ordaining women and paved the way for gay bishops who now serve in the House of Bishops and same sex marriage rites which are currently being created by the liturgy and music commission of the church.

Within his own diocese, he had many opponents by the time he left office, a departure that ultimately had to be legally negotiated between the bishop and his clergy. It was not a friendly passing of the guard. Frankly, I would not be a bishop for even one day given the headaches implicit in that job. But even with his failures, I think Shimpfky’s bishopric must be seen as a success in the larger picture.

Bishop Shimpfky was not a perfect man. None of us are. He made mistakes, some of them deeply injurious to people I loved and respected. He was a very human bishop. But, on the whole, I believe he was a good bishop. And I believe he was a good man. His generosity of spirit and willingness to take a chance on me changed me life.

My ordination opened the door to the many unforeseen experiences and changes in my life that have led to a life of service of G-d’s people that continues to this day. I could never have imagined that a mere four years previously as I sat trembling in that diocesan waiting room. And so I am greatly in his debt. And his passing grieves me all the more in that I never had the opportunity to fully tell him how much I appreciated all he did for me.

So, join me in a prayer of gratitude this day for the life of a decent man and for the soul of an imperfect but ultimately good bishop. May Richard Shimpfky and souls of all the departed rest in peace. May he be greeted in heaven with the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.
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