The bishop of my church’s diocese, the Rev. Frank Juhan, had a deep, rich voice and a shock of white hair. He wasn’t God, but I believed he was on a first-name basis with most things holy.
When I was 12, Bishop Juhan paid a visit to my small town parish for a confirmation service. As one being confirmed, my head shook when he placed his hands on it to pray, “Defend this child….”
The next summer, I went to church camp. My first day there, Bishop Juhan took a turn as catcher in a staff/work crew baseball game. He wore no vestments, but crouched behind the batter, his baseball hat on backwards, his khaki shorts worn at the knees.
He was sporting high-topped black tennis shoes and the first words out of his mouth were not a prayer. “O.K., Bud,” he yelled at the pitcher. “Stop fooling around. Burn that ball in here.”
The humanizing of an authority figure in life shakes his image. For me, a bishop was an old man whose voice raised the roof and from whom I kept a respectful distance. I did not know he had a life outside the church and playing baseball could be part and parcel of who he was.
As I’ve grown older, bishops have gotten younger. Experience has proved a bishop’s responsibilities cry out for energy and resilience. Wearing the purple shirt means being on the road nearly every week, visiting parishes, shepherding clergy, meeting with committees, drinking gallons of strong church coffee and shaking hands with the faithful.
A bishop is also expected to be a visionary, not as witness to angel sightings, but as author of long-range plans for the church, as one divining accounting miracles for parishes, feeling the pinch of hard times.
Long years of pastoral roles take their toll on bishops. Today, they retire before “burn-out” is a risk, moving on to other priestly work if they choose, teaching or writing.
Last weekend, the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta, an area including 96 churches and 52,000 members, (among them parishes in Cobb County), elected a new bishop.
He is the Rev. Rob Wright, 48, a former Navy search-and-rescue diver, a graduate of Howard University and the Virginia Theological Seminary. He is the husband of Dr. Beth-Sarah Wright, a striking woman with an island lilt in her voice, a teacher and writer. The father of five children, Rob Wright has been rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in southwest Atlanta for the last 10 years.
In October, he will be consecrated bishop of the Diocese of Atlanta as a man whose miter and symbolic staff will not displace his true self. He is warm, funny and whip smart. Bishop-elect Wright has described his election as “an incredible opportunity, drawing the circle wider for the church family, black and white together.”
After more than 100 years, moving on from schisms rent asunder after prayer book re-writes, past heated discussions over the ordination of women, and in a church recovering from parishes split over the blessing of same-sex unions, the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta has elected an African-American bishop.
The Episcopal Church has learned leadership and spirituality are not defined by race or gender. It was a painful lesson. Life-long Episcopalians left parishes when women began preaching and segregation was confronted.
Wright would agree his election as bishop could not have happened 10 years ago when “the frozen chosen,” as we Episcopalians have been dubbed, were tethered to centuries of tradition.
But this is a new day. The Diocese of Atlanta, recognizing Rob Wright’s considerable gifts, embraced diversity, electing a bishop, rich in spirit, steadfast in a changing world. “Hallelujah” is an under-statement!
Judy Elliott is an award-winning columnist from Marietta.