The Rev. Harold T. Lewis led through painful period for diocese
November 26, 2012 5:00 AM
The Rev. Harold T. Lewis: "The extent of the [diocesan] problems that were soon to befall us was something I don't think any of us could have imagined."
By Ann Rodgers Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
When the Rev. Harold T. Lewis became rector of the mostly white and wealthy Calvary Episcopal Church in Shadyside in 1996, the city was reeling from racial turmoil, and Father Lewis, who is African-American, was expected to be a leader in addressing social injustice.
But circumstances have led him to retire as a renowned advocate for Episcopal canon law.
Five years before the 2008 schism in the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh, he filed a lawsuit to stop anyone from taking property out of the Episcopal Church.
"If you had asked me when I was ordained ... if I would ever sue my bishop, I would have said you were crazy," said Father Lewis, 65, who retired Sunday.
"It was painful for me to take that step, but it had to be taken for the sake of the church. There were people who said I was crazy, vindictive or jealous, out to lunch. But it turned out to be prophetic."
Father Lewis is a high church Anglican by conviction and heritage. He was raised in such a thriving black Episcopal parish that he was on the road to priesthood before he realized he was a racial outsider in his denomination. He was intellectually and musically gifted: His piano teacher at a high school for the arts urged him to pursue music professionally. But he chose to serve God.
He married Claudette, his sweetheart from junior high school in New York City, before his ordination in 1971. He earned a doctorate in theology at the University of Birmingham in England, was a research fellow at Cambridge University and did missionary work in Africa before serving for 11 years as director of the Episcopal Office for Black Ministries in New York. He arrived in Pittsburgh with contacts throughout the global Anglican Communion.
The search committee thought he had the intellectual heft to challenge Calvary's parishioners while his liturgical sensibilities were a fit for Calvary's neo-gothic glory. His theology was flexible enough and his worldview liberal enough for one of the few gay-friendly congregations in Pittsburgh. Calvary, once a flagship, had become marginalized in an increasingly conservative diocese, said Phil Parr, an education consultant from Oakland who was on the search committee.
"We saw him as someone who could bring strong leadership skills to the position," he said. "He has definitely strengthened the position of Calvary, not only in the diocese but in the national Episcopal Church and even in the Anglican Communion."
Father Lewis arrived believing he could build bridges to the diocesan leadership.
"They told me that one thing they wanted in a new rector was to articulate their theological vision. ... The extent of the [diocesan] problems that were soon to befall us was something I don't think any of us could have imagined," he said.
Even before his formal installation, he led the opposition at a diocesan convention that voted to allow parishes to withhold funds from national church programs.
"This opens a Pandora's box," he warned. "It cuts to the heart of what it means to be an Episcopalian and a catholic Christian."
Then he turned his focus to the wider community.
Two days after his installation, he preached at an interfaith service mourning the acquittal of a white policeman in the asphyxiation death of black businessman Jonny Gammage during a traffic stop. He received a standing ovation and a national prize for preaching on social justice.
Father Lewis "has the insight to help people understand where God is [in hard times]. That represents the very finest in pastoral skills for both a public theologian and a parish priest," said the Rev. Ronald Peters, then a professor at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and a close friend.
Father Lewis became a mentor to Sala Udin, then a member of the Pittsburgh City Council.
"He demands integrity on the part of those he is engaged with. No games, no lies, just deal with it as it is," Mr. Udin said. "He really cares about being a voice for people who have no voice, giving power to people who have no power, people who are marginalized or invisible."
Father Lewis used his personal contacts to bring retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, Martin Luther King III and then-Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey to Calvary's pulpit.
In an era when many churches wanted pop music, Father Lewis championed the pipe organ and chant.
His reverence for tradition makes him bristle at being called liberal. "Theological liberalism in Pittsburgh means a belief that gay people can go to heaven," he said.
He believes the Episcopal Church should have established a theological foundation for why it no longer believed that biblical condemnations of homosexuality were universal before it approved same-sex rites.
"The Episcopal Church may have done the right thing for the wrong reason or for little reason," he said.
During his tenure, Calvary's attendance rose slightly to more than 1,000 communicants, while the national church plummeted from 2.4 million to 1.9 million members. He drew those who felt alienated elsewhere, while losing a few legacy members who felt he considered their conservative politics morally suspect. In a July sermon that addressed immigration, he said that the religious right "has, in the name of religion, constructed and justified a thinly veiled theology of bigotry."
He has argued that racism is at the root of the conservative split from the Episcopal Church.
Archbishop Robert Duncan of the Anglican Church in North America and the Anglican Diocese of Pittsburgh declined comment on Father Lewis. Some of Archbishop Duncan's most ardent critics find the claim of racism a stretch.
"I don't see that in Bob Duncan,' said the Rev. George Werner, dean emeritus of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, Downtown.
But if anyone thinks Father Lewis has a chip on his shoulder, it was gouged by undisputed racism, Father Werner said. He was a highly qualified priest when Americans didn't believe a black man could be a professional football quarterback, let alone president.
"When he was ordained, he went to a lot of places where the door was closed," Father Werner said. "He might not necessarily win Mr. Congeniality, but he has battled his way through and he has grown in grace."
When Calvary's search committee asked if he could adjust to a white parish, he told them they had the question backward.
"I have been adjusting to white people all of my life," Father Lewis said.
When a white pastor was ousted from a similar church, "people said it didn't work out because it wasn't a good fit. If I had failed, people would have been quick to name race as a factor: 'See what happens when we let them in,' " he said. "I don't have the right to be incompetent."
But "in a very short time, race became a non-issue" at Calvary, he said. "People want to be ministered to, to be spiritually fed and nurtured and guided. If the pastor does those things, he can be purple or polka-dot."
He did all of that, Mr. Parr said. His unsung works include helping to found and fund Calvary's after-school arts program for students at Lincoln Elementary, where he visits the children and encourages their dreams.
In 2001, he was a finalist for bishop of the Diocese of Washington, D.C. In 2002, Mayor Tom Murphy gave him a key position on a blue-ribbon commission assigned to address problems in the Pittsburgh Public Schools. Father Lewis' work laid the foundation for reforms but was his last headline civic engagement before church politics consumed his image.
After the Episcopal Church confirmed a partnered gay bishop in New Hampshire in 2003, the diocese of Pittsburgh declared that parish buildings and assets belonged to the congregation, not to the denomination. Father Lewis saw that as groundwork for schism and sued for an injunction based on civil property law.
Two years later -- three years before the split -- both sides signed an agreement. It would later be litigated but ultimately established that centrally held diocesan assets would remain with the Episcopal Church, while parish property would be negotiated.
"I am convinced that our actions served as a deterrent to other dioceses that would have gone a similar route," Father Lewis said.
One reason the Episcopal diocese made a strong recovery from the schism is that some conservative clergy remained in it. Among them was the Rev. James Simons of St. Michael's of the Valley in Ligonier. Father Lewis invited him to preach at Calvary even before the split.
"In spite of our theological differences, which I don't think are as great as a lot of people think they are, we were able to work together very well," Father Simons said. "... He has a real desire for unity in the church."
The Lewises will remain in Point Breeze. Mrs. Lewis is deeply engaged in local philanthropy.
Father Lewis is optimistic about the future of the 85 million-member Anglican Communion, which has the same fault lines that split the diocese.
He noted that it took 100 years of effort by African bishops for the Anglican Communion to modify its ban on polygamy. In 1988, it allowed converts to keep the wives they already had so that women would not be abandoned.
"Things take time to change in the church," he said. "Other issues that plague and separate us will also take a long time."