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Toward Columbus: Ohio Episcopalians share 200-year history

By Ariel Miller
[Episcopal News Service]  Born in the aftermath of the war that tore English and American Anglicans apart, the Diocese of Ohio was the first to be organized beyond the original 13 colonies.

Within a century, a new diocese, Southern Ohio, would vividly express the yearning more formally expressed in 1886 by the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral: "to heal the wounds in the body of Christ."

Episcopalians in Ohio have increasingly expressed that call by seeking inclusion, social justice and common ground with Christians in profoundly different cultures.

When St. John's, Worthington, was founded in 1804, just north of the site of this year's General Convention, it was a wilderness outpost of what would one day be called the Anglican Communion. The Episcopal missionaries who followed the first settlers into Ohio were greatly hampered by the consequences of the violent separation of the colonies from England.

"The Episcopal Church along the Atlantic seaboard was itself then flat on its back after the Revolutionary War," recalled Bishop Boyd Vincent in his 'Recollections of the Diocese of Southern Ohio.' "Half its clergy and people had, as 'Royalists' or 'Tories,' fled or been driven out of the country."

It took years of fruitless petitions before the persistence of the missionaries was rewarded in 1817 by General Convention's decision to authorize the formation of a diocese for the new state. Ohio's first bishop, Philander Chase, had converted as a young adult after discovering The Book of Common Prayer during his sophomore year at Dartmouth College. Raised in the heritage of Puritans who had renounced the Church of England, he brought the book home and electrified his family.

"The more they examined it and compared it with the Scriptures, the more were they impressed with its excellences," writes George Smythe in his book "History of the Diocese of Ohio."

So impressed were they that "instead of repairing the meeting-house, where both his grandfather and his father had officiated as Congregational deacons," they demolished their old meeting house and rebuilt it as an Episcopal church, according to Chase's "Recollections."

Riding on horseback through the Ohio forests, Chase and fellow missionaries planted new congregations at a fast clip, raising an urgent need for more clergy. In 1823, the pioneer bishop sailed to England to beg for money to start a college to educate men for ordination in the new diocese.

Chase's vision captivated some wealthy men, which would be a foretaste of one of the pillars of this diocese's future strength. Chase returned with $22,000. He named the new college after one benefactor, Lord Kenyon, and the town around it after another -- Lord Gambier.

English influence soon played another role in the Ohio diocese, but this time for conflict, not harmony. Aroused by what were felt to be Roman Catholic-inspired aspects of the Oxford Movement, Ohio's evangelical bishop Charles McIlwain wrote a thundering rebuttal in 1841, "Oxford Divinity Compared," which polarized the Episcopal Church and launched decades of power struggles between the bishop and some of his parishes.

McIlwain refused to consecrate new churches like St. Paul's, Columbus, which attempted the then-dangerous innovation of installing an altar instead of a communion table with four visible legs. He saw the altar as a sign of a Roman Catholic theology of communion as sacrifice.

In the thick of this battle, Cincinnati hosted the 1850 General Convention. The booming river city was the first west of the Atlantic seaboard to be chosen for this honor. Chase returned to Ohio to officiate as Presiding Bishop, a title conferred in that era not by election but by seniority.

As the population of Ohio grew, so too did the number of congregations in the Diocese of Ohio. In 1875, it was partitioned into a northern and southern half -- the Diocese of Ohio and the Diocese of Southern Ohio.

The range of liturgical expression broadened until, by the end of the century, Eva Matthews was able to found a women's religious order in Glendale, the Convent of the Transfiguration. Bishop Boyd Vincent warmly supported their ministry to Cincinnati's disadvantaged children though he repeatedly (though gently) declined their request to have the reserved sacrament in their chapel for purposes of veneration.

By 1910, when Cincinnati hosted General Convention for the second time, the clergy and laity of Southern Ohio were making news for Christian goals in other ways. Inspired by the Social Gospel movement, the churches shifted their activity from an inward focus to outreach. Churches built parish houses designed to host urban-uplift programs like industrial schools. Episcopal churches' gymnasiums and summer camps promoted the health of children and youth living in city slums.

Theodore Irving Reese, rector of Trinity, Columbus, was appointed by the governor of Ohio to the state arbitration board and proved brilliant in finding just solutions to bitter labor disputes. Reese, who served as Southern Ohio's third bishop, always carried his membership card as a master machinist in the American Federation of Labor.

The campaign to reform Cincinnati's notoriously corrupt political system was spearheaded at Christ Church by the Rev. Frank Nelson and Episcopal civic leaders like Charles P. Taft II. The city's new charter was drafted at Christ Church. The charter inaugurated the first professional city-manager form of government in a major United States city.

During the same time the Diocese of Southern Ohio took a leadership role in worldwide Christian reunification. The electrifying moment of the 1910 General Convention came when missionary bishop Charles Henry Brent called on the Episcopal Church to spearhead international dialogue among all Christian churches.

"The time had come," writes Vincent in his 'Recollections,' "when, instead of trying to ignore such differences among Christians, we all ought to face them again frankly together, in a brotherly spirit and in the hope of a better mutual understanding."

The aging Vincent, as chair of the House of Bishops, served on the resulting Joint Commission and made a grueling trip throughout Europe and the Middle East to open dialogue with other Christian leaders. This work ultimately led to the organizing conference of the World Council of Churches in 1948, with Charlie Taft of Christ Church, Cincinnati, as a lay delegate.

Vincent also began to open the possibility for greater recognition and inclusion of women. They had long played a decisive role in the philanthropic work of the churches of the diocese -- including founding Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center. Still, women had been shut out of the decision-making bodies of the church for generations.

"As now equally educated and intellectually trained, she is now often proving herself [man's] equal in the learned professions," Vincent wrote in the 1920s. "As an equal with man in spiritual things, she is claiming her share, too, in the active life of the church ... The question of women ministering at the altar is not at present a pressing one, but even that may soon press to the front."

Women were first admitted as delegates to diocesan convention in 1928, more than 40 years before they could vote in General Convention.

Dynamic vision and generous giving to the wider church became Southern Ohio's hallmarks under the leadership of its fourth bishop, Henry Wise Hobson. Elected in 1930 at the age of 39, Hobson arrived in a diocese demoralized by the depression and the declining health of Bishop Reese.

Hobson spearheaded the Forward Movement, which was adopted by the Episcopal Church as its banner for spiritual renewal in the depths of the Depression. Forward Movement Publications, still based in Cincinnati, is an outgrowth of these days.

Cincinnati hosted General Convention again in 1937, just months after the record-breaking January floods that devastated communities and churches throughout Ohio. That same year, Hobson asked convention to let him demolish the diocese's first cathedral, the decrepit St. Paul's Cathedral in Cincinnati's West End and used the proceeds to equip an Airstream trailer as St. Paul's Wayside Cathedral to bring the Episcopal Church to southeastern Ohio.

Hobson's successor, Bishop Roger Blanchard, was elected in 1959 and continued to speak out against an array of injustices. He is remembered with great love by people of many faiths and walks of life for his vision and great personal courage in seeking redress for the poverty and oppression of black Americans.

When riots erupted in Cincinnati after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., Blanchard gave up his sabbatical plans to attend the Lambeth Conference. Instead, he took an office in Cincinnati City Hall and led the city's effort to improve race relations and economic justice.

In 1970, the bishop and diocesan convention launched the Institutional Racism Project, a 20-year effort involving a rigorous audit of the practices of the church. For two decades, this work engaged Episcopalians at the congregational and regional level in analyzing and seeking to redress the economic, political and spiritual dimensions of racism in their own congregations and communities. The project documented the almost-total segregation of the diocese's parishes and clergy deployment, and the miniscule representation of black Episcopalians on diocesan staff, leadership bodies and commissions.

In relations with the worldwide Anglican Communion, Blanchard sought to replace the paternalism of 19th century missionary work with a new model of companion dioceses, grounded in the desire to learn from each other's experience. In his 1961 convention address, he invited the diocese to start a companion relationship with the Diocese of Brazil.

Thanks to the leadership of Bishop John Krumm, Southern Ohio's sixth bishop, ordained women were welcomed in the diocese in the late 1970s and early 80s when many other dioceses were bitterly divided or refused to admit women priests. Krumm and his successor, William Grant Black, continued the work of fighting against racism and discrimination. Black and Archdeacon Morry Hollenbaugh delighted the Appalachian region by their crusade for an end to second-hand status for Appalachian people and culture in this state.

The bishop appointed several black clergy to senior staff positions in the diocese, starting with Archdeacon Lorentho Wooden. Far from being pigeonholed on anti-racism work, the black clergy directed major ongoing diocesan functions like deployment. By 1978, nearly a third of the members of diocesan committees were black.

"When I walk into a meeting now and sit down, there is not the surprise that there was 10 years ago," wrote George Cooper, co-chair of the project, in 1979. "Not the amazement that here comes a black person ... but that this person probably does have something to offer to the process -- as a person, not just as a black."

In 1988, the diocese elected its ninth bishop from a slate of four nominees -- two white and two black. Herbert Thompson, an African-American priest from the Diocese of Long Island, was elected on the first ballot.

Throughout the 1990s, Ohio Episcopalians enjoyed the spiritual leadership of two African-American bishops, Thompson in Southern Ohio and Arthur Williams as suffragan of the Diocese of Ohio. Williams and Irma Tillery of St. Andrew's, Cincinnati, served as editors of the second edition of the African-American hymnal "Lift Every Voice and Sing."

Thompson played critical roles in the community and the national church, leading a summit on racism in Cincinnati and serving as chair of the board of the Church Pension Fund. In 1997, he was nominated for presiding bishop and led on the first ballot. Thompson continued the work of early bishops in strengthening ties to the Anglican Communion by establishing relationships with the Anglican Church in Nigeria, New Zealand and the Windward Islands.

The witness of this diocese for inclusion, social justice and reaching out in fellowship to the world-wide Anglican Communion continues. Many Southern Ohio congregations generously support ministry and social development in other countries, including the Dominican Republic, Honduras, Russia, Liberia, Sierra Leone and East Africa.

Current Bishop Kenneth L. Price, secretary of the House of Bishops, was the only representative of the Episcopal Church appointed by the Archbishop of Canterbury to the international committee charged with receiving the Windsor Report. A son of West Virginia, Price continues the strong witness of the diocese on Appalachian issues and takes a leadership role in speaking out with other church leaders on pressing Ohio issues such as the death penalty and the need for a living wage.

The support of women in ordained ministry is a priority in the Diocese of Southern Ohio. Three women from the diocese have been nominated in elections for bishop, and a quarter of Southern Ohio's congregations are led by female priests.

Two Southern Ohio congregations, Christ Church Cathedral and Christ Church, Dayton, are centers for the Cross of Nails Ministry of Reconciliation. Both play leadership roles in convening stakeholders to improve racial and economic justice in their cities, with the cathedral serving as the hub in developing a Collaborative Agreement to improve police-community relations after the riots of 2001.