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Bishop Herbert Thompson Jr. dies in Italy
Retired bishop of Southern Ohio collapsed after swimming

By Mary Frances Schjonberg

The Rt. Rev. Herbert Thompson, Jr.  

[ENS, Diocese of Southern Ohio, news reports]  Bishop Herbert Thompson Jr., 72, retired bishop of the Diocese of Southern Ohio, died August 16 while on vacation in Italy, a spokeswoman for the diocese said.

Thompson collapsed after swimming and could not be revived, said diocesan communications director Richelle Thompson, who is not related to the bishop.

Bishop Kenneth Price, who is serving as the diocese's leader until a new bishop is elected later this year, worked with Thompson for 12 years.

"Bishop Thompson was a man of great faith and enormous compassion," said Price. "I've never known anyone who took prayer more seriously than Bishop Thompson. We're going to miss his prayer support here on earth, but thank goodness, he'll be watching over us in heaven."

Price told the Columbus Post-Dispatch newspaper August 16 that Thompson was "a pastor par excellence."

"He never met anybody he did not immediately care about and expressed that caring in a loving way," Price said. "When you were with him, you thought you were the only person in the world."

Price also said of Thompson that he "never met anyone who was not his friend. If he would walk down the street, whether it was a newspaper vendor, or going into a restaurant it would be a waiter, or it would be Bishop (Desmond) Tutu or the Archbishop of Canterbury, everyone was equal in his eyes."

A native of New York City, raised in Harlem and Fort Green, Brooklyn, Bishop Thompson was a veteran of the U.S. Air Force, serving from 1952-1956. He graduated cum laude from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania in 1962, and went on to General Theological Seminary, graduating in 1965. He also received a doctor of ministry from United Theological School of Dayton, Ohio, in 1992, and honorary doctorate degrees from Yale University at Berkeley, Bexley Hall, General Theological Seminary, Kenyon College and Hebrew Union Theological Seminary.

He was ordained to the diaconate and the priesthood in 1962, and began his ordained ministry as vicar of St. Gabriel's Church, Brooklyn. He served there for six years, and in 1971 became rector of Christ Church, Bellport, New York, a suburban parish in Long Island. In 1977, he became rector of Grace Church, Jamaica, New York—the "Mother Church" of the Diocese of Long Island, founded in 1702—until he was elected to the episcopate.

In Long Island, he was a deputy to General Convention, president of the Standing Committee, a member of the cathedral chapter and the commission on ministry, deputy to provincial synod, and executive director of Interfaith Services of Brooklyn. He was involved in the founding of many outreach ministries while rector of the Jamaica parish, including construction of housing for elderly and handicapped persons. He also served as an honorary canon at the Cathedral of the Incarnation in Long Island.

He was chaplain to the 69th General Convention in Detroit in 1988, and served as a member of the Presiding Bishop's Commission on Black Ministries, the Coalition for Human Needs, the Joint Standing Commission on Planning and Arrangements, and the Council of Advice to the President of the House of Deputies. He also was a tutor and field education supervisor and colloquium moderator at General Seminary and an instructor and lecturer at Mercer School of Theology in Long Island.

He served as chair of the Presiding Bishop's Fund for World Relief, now Episcopal Relief and Development, and of the Church Pension Fund. He also served as co-founder of Global Episcopal Ministries and as a trustee of St. Augustine's College, Bexley Hall, General Seminary, and Kenyon College.

Thompson was elected Southern Ohio bishop coadjutor in 1988, successor to Bishop William Black, and served as bishop coadjutor until 1992. The Cincinnati-based diocese serves about 25,000 Episcopalians in 83 congregations spread over 40 southern Ohio counties. Columbus, a major city in the diocese, was the site of the 75th General Convention this past June.

He was the first African-American elected to serve as bishop of Southern Ohio, the fourth African-American diocesan bishop in the history of the Episcopal Church, and the first to be nominated for the post of Presiding Bishop, in 1997. Although he was not one of the original slate of four candidates, he was nominated from the floor by retired Alabama Bishop Furman Stough, led the voting on the first ballot, and was second-highest in the final tally, which resulted in the election of Bishop Frank Griswold of Chicago.

Thompson led his diocese for 17 years and was praised as a healing force in 2001 after three days of race riots in Cincinnati, sparked by an unarmed black man's fatal shooting by a white police officer trying to arrest him, according to an Associated Press news service story about his death.
Thompson led the construction of a state-of-the-art conference center, the Procter Camp and Conference Center in London, Ohio, 75 miles northeast of Cincinnati, and revitalized the youth ministry and summer camping programs. He also established the Anglican Academy, a unique program to offer continuing education and opportunity for spiritual growth for laity and vocational deacons. Five new churches started during his episcopate, including three in the Cincinnati area.

Thompson also worked to strengthen relationships with Anglican Christians around the world, from Lagos and Ijebu, Nigeria, to the Maori Diocese in New Zealand.

He stepped down in December 2005 after he reached the church's mandatory retirement age of 72.

In Cincinnati, Thompson served as chairman of the Mayor’s Commission on Children, and was named a Great Living Cincinnatian by the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber of Commerce in 2006.

His personal motto was "To Reconcile, To Liberate, To Heal, To Serve."

Thompson's wife, Russelle, died of pancreatic cancer in 2002. He is survived by two sons, Herbert, a lieutenant commander in the US Navy, and Owen, rector of Trinity Church in Long Island; a daughter, Kyrie; and a grandson, Christian. Price said funeral arrangements are pending. In an email to the diocese on the evening of August 16, Price said that Thompson’s two sons were en route to Italy.

"As we mourn the loss of a good friend, pastor and shepherd of the flock, we are reminded that death is the gate to eternal life," said a statement on the diocese’s website. "And we can be assured that Herbert and Russelle are dancing once more. Our faith gives us confidence that we as continue our course on earth, we will one day be reunited with those who have gone before."

The full text is available at

The diocesan convention this past November honored Thompson with a number of tributes. Nobel Prize winner Desmond Tutu, the retired Anglican archbishop of Cape Town, South Africa, attended and lauded his longtime friend.

Calling him a "consensus builder," Tutu said the chief characteristic of his friend and colleague was inclusiveness. "Being different is the reason why we need each other," Tutu said. "We ought not be scared of diversity. One of the great things about being Christian is our diversity."

At the same tribute, Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold said, "Herb has always been a wonderful colleague and a wise and willing helper in any number of ways, both within our church and across the Anglican Communion. He has also, on a number of occasions when the going has been a bit rough, exercised a ministry of encouragement, for which I will always be deeply grateful."

Tutu praised Thompson's efforts to combat racism in the city, which began long before the city exploded in the April 2001 riots.

 In 1993, as a response to the Ku Klux Klan placing a cross on Fountain Square, Thompson initiated the Summit on Racism, in which Tutu participated by teleconference and which spawned subcommittees that worked for two years to better race relations.
The summit also led to the concept and development of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, to which the diocese contributed $1.25 million in two grants.

"Perhaps what we have seen in the election of the mayor is one of the good fruits of the initiatives of the bishop," Tutu said of last year's election of Mayor Mark Mallory, who is black.

The November convention was Thompson’s last as Southern Ohio’s diocesan bishop. The diocese, anticipating his retirement, had begun the search for the diocese’s ninth bishop. However, the planned election was postponed after the House of Bishops made a covenant in March 2005 to withhold consents for bishop elections until the 75th General Convention in 2006. The diocese decided to amend its constitution to allow the bishop suffragan to have ecclesiastical authority in the absence of a diocesan bishop during the interim.

Thompson also spoke to the diocese at the November convention. "God has given us of Southern Ohio the opportunity to host the General Convention of the Episcopal Church at a challenging time," he said. "There's the Windsor Report, the moratorium and threats and rumors of schism. Red and blue statism. The rise of right-wing fundamentalism. Volatile issues, anxious people. What better place for this convention than Southern Ohio? We have the opportunity to embrace the church and to model before the whole church God's call to unity that we have obeyed and that is the hallmark of our life together: Different people of different views, maintaining the spirit of unity in the bond of peace."