ECF Fellows Spotlight: The Rev. Dr. Harold Lewis

The Episcopal Church Foundation’s Fellowship Partnership Program has provided support to emerging scholars and ministry leaders throughout the Episcopal Church since 1964. In the article below, ECF talks with the Rev. Dr. Harold Lewis about the church, its leadership, and his hope for the future.

Despite encouragement to “go the academic route,” the Rev. Dr. Harold Lewis turned down General Seminary’s offer of a full scholarship when he graduated from Berkeley Divinity School in 1971. “I didn’t want to be an ivory tower theologian,” he says. “I wanted to have some experience in the trenches before going off to academia.”

Fast forward to today, two years after retiring as rector of Calvary Episcopal Church, Pittsburgh. Lewis is serving as interim rector at St. Paul’s, in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, and about to publish his fifth book. One foot in “the trenches” where the life of church takes place and the other in the “ivory tower” that studies and seeks to make sense of experience. Through 44 years of tumult and change in the church and the world, Lewis has made a place in both camps, serving as a leader, pastor, historian, scholar, and teacher in the parish and seminaries in the U.S., Africa, and the West Indies.

Lewis as scholar
Lewis became an ECF Fellow in 1980, when he was serving as rector at St. Monica’s in Washington, D.C. Interested in liturgy, he began Ph.D. studies in Systematic Theology at Catholic University, but in 1983 he put that work on hold to accept a position in New York as Director of the Office of Black Ministries. Intending to serve in the position for five years, Lewis stayed on for eleven. “I never thought I would work at 815 (the Episcopal Church Center),” he says, “but I learned a lot.”

Among Lewis’s discoveries during that time was a growing interest in history, particularly the history of African Americans and the Episcopal Church. At the suggestion of the Rev. Dr. Kortright Davis and with the support of ECF, which renewed his Fellowship, he submitted a doctoral proposal to the University of Birmingham in England in 1992. The University accepted his proposal and his prior work at Catholic University. Over the next two years, he made quarterly visits to Birmingham and worked with a tutor from Harvard’s DuBois Institute while in New York. He received his Ph.D. in Theology in 1994.

Lewis’s thesis became Yet With a Steady Beat: The African American Struggle for Recognition in the Episcopal Church and was published in the United States in 1996. It was the first history of the blacks in the church since George Freeman Bragg, rector of St. James’, Baltimore, published his work on the subject in 1923. “In my three years in seminary, 1968-71, I never heard Absalom Jones’ name,” says Lewis, so if I, as an African American, was ignorant of a lot of black history, you can imagine how uninformed the church at large was.”

Yet With a Steady Beat was followed by Elijah's Mantle: Pilgrimage, Politics, and Proclamation in 1999, Christian Social Witness, part of Cowley’s New Church’s Teaching Series in 2001, and A Church for the Future: South Africa as the Crucible for Anglicanism in a New Century in 2007.

From seminaries to parish study groups, Christian Social Witness is used widely throughout the church. Lewis led a Lenten forum series at St. Paul’s just weeks ago, using his book as a springboard for reflection on money, race, gender, and sexuality. “People are hungry for a theological framework in which to place things,” he says. “We had 150 people in the room on Sunday mornings.”

Issues and divisions in the Church
Lewis recalls once saying that there were three divisions in the Episcopal Church — “the low and lazy, the broad and hazy, and the high and crazy.” Admitting his affiliation with the third group he says, “we thought the Morning Prayer crowd were spiritually anemic and missing out on something, and they thought we were eccentric and over the top.” At the same time, though, he remembers a certain respect for one another. “No one said you weren’t a member of the church or you weren’t faithful or you weren’t Christian or you were going to hell in a handbasket.”

Lewis believes that the divisions in the church have grown stronger and that they are not new. He thinks that some folks have been unhappy with the direction of the church since desegregation and the Civil Rights Movement. “And then along came women, and the gays were just the last straw,” he says. “But what they all had in common was that they threatened white male hegemony, and that was just against the rules. So people revolted to try to conserve what they saw as purity.”

He is critical of the Church’s inability to stay with an issue long enough to reach agreement or resolution. “It flips from one to another, so you need a scorecard,” he says. “Is it African Americans? Native Americans? Gays and lesbians?”

He sees the church’s current issue as economic at its root. “If you read between the lines of TREC (the Task Force to Reimagine the Church), what it’s basically saying is that the church has half as many people as when I was growing up and the coffers are suffering. So we have to reimagine ways to live within our means.” He likens it to the family forced to give up the second car or a vacation home after a job loss or an unfortunate incident. “The church is now faced with a reality check,” he says.

The way forward
“I think we have a new breed of leaders in the church today,” says Lewis. He sees this in leaders like the Rt. Rev. Michael Curry, bishop of North Carolina, who aren’t afraid to talk about Jesus and the gospel, clergy with a sense of humor and a kind of informality. “They’re not wed to certain things — even some I hold dear,” says Lewis recalling the practicums of his seminary days where he was taught the correct way to hear a confession, hold a baby for baptism, and sing a proper preface.

While he regrets the loss of this careful preparation, Lewis recognizes “a reverence for deeper things and the real core of the gospel message” in new leaders today. So I think we’re becoming more evangelical in the best sense,” he says.

Lewis sees the church as healthier than in the past. “I think one must remember that the Anglican Church was formed out of a sense of compromise,” he says, offering two prayerbook phrases that sum things up for him. The first is from the old service of ordination, where the ordinand is told, be thou a faithful dispenser of the word of God and of his holy sacraments. “So from the very beginning, we have held up both in tandem,” he says. “We haven’t been sacramentalists exclusively, and we haven’t been biblical Bible thumpers. We take tradition, reason, and scripture all very seriously.”

The second phrase is from what Lewis admits he still calls the new prayerbook. In the Catechism, the question is asked: Who are the ministers of the Church? And the answer is: The ministers of the Church are laypersons, bishops, priests, and deacons.

“That made a whole new statement about parity in terms of lay and ordained,” he says, “and it is germane to the ordination process. If everybody’s a minister can you have a different set of criteria for one and not for the other? Can you say, ‘it’s okay to iron the corporal, but not okay to celebrate on it?’ I don’t think so.”

Lewis is encouraged to see that the average age of seminarians going down after many years when 20-somethings were turned away in preference for more mature candidates for ordained ministry. “People who are young bring a zeal for the gospel,” he says, quoting from the old ordinal, ye will apply yourselves wholly to this one thing, and draw all your cares and studies this way. “There are people who fall into that mold again. That is one of the signs of hope to me.”

Lessons from “The Recent Unpleasantness”
Lewis served as Rector of Calvary Church in the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh from 1996 until 2012. His tenure there placed him smack in the middle of the breakaway movement in the Church. When the diocese’s bishop and other leaders made clear their intention to separate from the Episcopal Church, taking the assets of the Diocese with them, Calvary took the lead, filing a lawsuit to protect diocesan property and make sure that it would remain in the Episcopal Church.

Calvary won the suit, but to learn more about that struggle, you’ll want to read Lewis’s upcoming book, The Recent Unpleasantness. With his active role in that conflict behind him, he has put on his theologian/historian hat to help us sift through the facts and consider what that painful time can teach us about God’s love and purpose. “Apart from the intrigue of that story,” he adds, “there are theological concerns underneath the actions that were taken that could prove to be instructive to another generation.”


This article originally appeared on the Episcopal Church Foundation website. 

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