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Two retired bishops die
Services planned for Bennett J. Sims and George M. Murray

By Mary Frances Schjonberg

The Rt. Rev. George M. Murray, 87, the first bishop of the Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast  

The Rt. Rev. Bennett Jones Sims, 85, the sixth bishop of the Diocese of Atlanta.   

[Episcopal News Service] 

George M. Murray, 87, the first bishop of the Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast, died July 14.

Bennett Jones Sims, 85, the sixth bishop of the Diocese of Atlanta, died July 17.

Murray was born April 12, 1919 in Baltimore, Maryland, to Gerard Archibald Murray and Emma Winston, and moved to Alabama at an early age. He graduated in 1940 from the University of Alabama with a Bachelor of Science degree in commerce and business administration. He worked for two years for the General Electric Credit Company in North Carolina and then served four years in the U.S. Naval Reserve during World War II, two years of which were spent aboard the U.S.S. Pintado submarine in the Pacific.

His first wife, Elizabeth Malcolm Murray, preceded him in death. He married Margaret MacQueen in 1983. She survives him.

Murray graduated from Virginia Theological Seminary (VTS) in 1948 with a Master of Divinity degree. He was ordained a deacon and then priest in the Diocese of Alabama in 1948 by the Rt. Rev. Charles C. J. Carpenter. Murray was Episcopal chaplain at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa for five years. Murray was bishop suffragan of Alabama from 1953 to 1959. He then served as bishop coadjutor of Alabama from 1959 to 1969 and became Alabama's bishop in 1970.

In both the diocese of Alabama and Florida, the problems of adequately caring for parishes became greater over time as congregations in Mobile, Alabama, and Pensacola, Florida, at the far edge of each diocese, had grown. Bishops Murray and Hamilton West of Florida agreed that joining the southern counties of Alabama with the western portion of the Diocese of Florida was the best solution to the problem. The 1970 General Convention agreed and created the diocese. Meeting at Christ Church, Pensacola, in December 1970, the Primary Convention of the new diocese adopted canons and elected officers with Murray becoming the diocese's first bishop. He was invested in 1971 and served until his retirement in 1981.

Murray was vice president of the House of Bishops from 1978 to 1980. In 1979 he announced his intention to retire. The Rev. Charles Farmer Duvall, from South Carolina, succeeded Murray.

The Rev. Coleman Inge told the Mobile Press-Register said that Murray was friendly and a good listener. Inge is chaplain of the Murray House, which is an assisted living home in Mobile named for Murray. Inge said he was a college student in the 1940s when he first met Murray at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa.

Inge said he admired Murray and how he handled the civil rights movement, which was under way while Murray was a bishop in Birmingham.

As the bishop of the Diocese of Alabama, Murray was criticized by both sides of the civil rights movement, the Rev. S. Albert Kennington, rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Mobile, told the Press-Register.

Some thought he was too involved and others thought he needed to do more, he said.

"Bishop Murray chose to work very quietly and very effectively behind the scenes," Kennington said.

Murray and others gathered black and white leaders so they could get to know each other better and in a more personal level, he said.

"It was a slow, hard path," Kennington said.

Murray and his first wife, Elizabeth, drew death threats from the Ku Klux Klan.

Murray was one of eight white Christian and Jewish clergymen, and one of two Episcopalians, who issued a letter, entitled "A Call to Unity" in April 12, 1963 deploring the civil-right marches being led in Birmingham by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The other Episcopal signer was Alabama Bishop C.C.J. Carpenter.

"We recognize the natural impatience of people who feel that their hopes are slow in being realized. But we are convinced that these demonstrations are unwise and untimely," they wrote.

Four days later King replied in his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail that African-Americans had waited 340 years for their constitutional and God-given rights. "I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience," he wrote in part.

"It was a very painful time for him," Margaret Murray told the Birmingham News July 17. "My husband was a very strong, quiet, wonderful man who worked quietly for integration here and helped to integrate many things in Alabama."

Bishop Murray also faced criticism in the Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast after he ordained a woman to the priesthood shortly after women's ordinations were approved by the 1976 General Convention. When the House of Bishops passed a resolution in October 1977 saying that members of the Episcopal Church who disagree with or repudiate the 1976 actions need not regard themselves as disloyal Episcopalians, Murray managed to amend the resolution so that it also applied to those who supported the decision.

In 1978 Murray joined with seven other bishops in the state of Alabama to call for the end of capital punishment.

Services for Murray are set for July 22 at 11:00 a.m. at Christ Church Cathedral, Mobile.

Sims, who was living in Hendersonville, North Carolina, at the time of his death, was born August 9, 1920 in Greenfield, Massachusetts, to Lewis Raymond Sims and Sarah Cosette. He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1943 from Baker University in Baldwin City, Kansas, and an L.H.D. in 1985. He earned his Masters in Divinity degree from VTS in 1949, and was later awarded the D.D. in 1966.  He was a Harvard Fellow from 1964-1965 and studied systematic theology at the Catholic University of America, Washington, D. C. from 1969-1971.

He was ordained a deacon on June 3, 1949 by Maryland Bishop Noble C. Powell. Powell ordained Sims to the priesthood on April 15, 1950.

Sims married Beatrice Wimberly on September 24, 1943, and they had three children: Laura Scott, Grayson Bennett, and David Lewis.  He married Mary Page Welborn on August 25, 1988.
Bennett began a curacy at the Church of the Redeemer, Baltimore, Maryland, in 1949 and two years later became its rector, serving for eleven years. In 1962 and 1969, he served as priest-in-charge of St. Alban's Church, Tokyo, Japan. For two years, he was rector of Christ Church, Corning, New York. From 1966-1972, he was director of the continuing education department at VTS. In 1972, he was elected bishop of the Diocese of Atlanta, a post he held until his retirement in 1984. While in Atlanta, Georgia, from 1980-1988, Sims held a visiting professorship at Candler Seminary, Emory University, Atlanta. 

During his episcopate, Sims struggled with the theological implications of the rising divorce rate – both among the laity and the clergy. He spoke of his own preference for the life-long integrity of the marriage vows. In 1979, he again re-affirmed his feelings in a cover article for the April issue of the diocesan newspaper. "So strong is the Church's commitment to lifelong marriage and so deep our belief in the empowering grace of God that our marriage canons require all of us, clergy and laity alike, to seek the reconciling ministry of the Church when marriage is seriously imperiled," he wrote. "No one may justly seek permission to remarry in the Church who has not done the utmost in reliance upon the Church's mystery of reconciliation."

His struggle would eventually find him entering a second marriage nine years later, and as he expressed in an open letter to the diocesan clergy, an experience of forgiveness, healing, and grace than any he had ever known before.

Sims also change his mind about same-gender unions, writing in 1999 that "We will [eventually] favour same-sex unions that protect the same Christian sexual ethics that apply to conventional marriage."

He founded the Institute for Servant Leadership, based in Hendersonville, after his retirement. In 2004 Sims told Episcopal Life that his goal in establishing the institute was to seek an alternative to the top-down, authoritarian style of leadership that he saw governing the workplace, civic institutions and the church. Sims envisioned an alternative model, a collaborative model that would hold up the leader as servant, the model provided by Jesus Christ.

"We have lived for 5,000 or 6,000 years under the aegis of power as dominance," Sims said. "Power is better understood as partnership or servanthood. It's when you feel powerless that you lie and cheat."

Sims said that during his time on the boards of two corporations he has seen changes "where leadership moves from fear to care and affiliation, from power over to power with. It takes time, but when it happens it's a wonderful thing to behold."

Sims wrote a number of books, including "Servanthood: Leadership for the Third Millennium" and his most recent in 2004, "Why Bush Must Go: A Bishop's Faith-Based Challenge."

Three services are planned for Sims, beginning with one on July 22 at 2:00 p.m. at St. James Episcopal Church in Hendersonville. Interment of ashes will follow at St. Francis Chapel at Kanuga. The Diocese of Atlanta will remember Sims on July 29 at 2:00 p.m. at the Cathedral of St. Philip in Atlanta, Georgia. A service is also planned for August 5 at 2:00 p.m. at Church of the Redeemer, Baltimore, Maryland.