The Living Church

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The Living ChurchMay 26, 1996Bishop-Elect Not an Issues Person by JAMES B. SIMPSON 212(21) p. 10, 12

Bishop-Elect Not an Issues Person
Carolyn Tanner Irish to be Consecrated in Utah on May 31

Carolyn Tanner Irish was walking in the old walled city of Jerusalem during a visit to the Holy Land a few years ago when she saw in the distance the stone tower of St. George's Anglican Cathedral and the nearby Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints - a "biographical moment'' that lingers in her mind, a symbol of the Mormonism of her childhood and the Episcopal Church of later years.

Now age 56, ordained for more than a dozen years, she is preparing for consecration on May 31 as Bishop Coadjutor of Utah, Anglicanism's eighth woman bishop, the sixth in the U.S.

"I am not an issues person," she declared in a recent interview, but acknowledges a position that contrasts sharply with Mormon culture and tradition. That she might be perceived as a headstrong proponent of women's lib came through clearly when an acquaintance of days gone by said to her after a dinner in Salt Lake City, "Carolyn, Mormon women are strong women." She was heartened by an editorial in Utah's leading newspaper that was headlined, "Welcome Home!"

Mrs. Irish, as she prefers to be called for the moment, is taking up residence in a state she left in 1948 to enter college. She differs from other women in the episcopate in coming from a recent background of individual spiritual direction rather than a parish. She also holds a secular job as chair of her late father's manufacturing firm that has 2,100 employees in Salt Lake City and Toronto.

A brown-haired woman with a cheerful smile, Mrs. Irish speaks hesitantly of differences because she says she doesn't want to offend her colleagues nor set herself apart from them.

"After all," she added, "the Suffragan Bishop of Washington, Jane Dixon, is my best friend and is one of those who nominated me for bishop. She calls me to accountability and solidarity."

Turning from herself to the church at large, Mrs. Irish is saddened in believing that "we have lost our spiritual grounding. I'm not sure when it was firm, but if that could be achieved, it would solve much else that divides us."

Mrs. Irish went on to say that, in her opinion, "Women's ordination is a huge change, more than in other fields, because it embodies a different kind of authority."

On homosexuality, she refuses to speak of gays and lesbians as problems, "because human beings are not problems; they're children of God."

On opposition to homosexuality and ordination of women, Mrs. Irish asserts that "at some deeply fundamental level, it has to do with humanity's fright of the feminine and with contempt for it."

She does not see ordaining women as "a matter of 'giving them their turn,' but as something centering on the theological and spiritual gifts of women that are more important than the political."

Mrs. Irish grew up with five siblings in Salt Lake City and Palo Alto, Calif., where her father was both a professor of philosophy and founder of the O.C. Tanner Co., manufacturers of corporate emblems and gifts. Ordained priest and elder while still in his teens, like most Mormon males, he was a missionary in Germany for two years. He baptized his daughter when she was 8. At 14, she felt she could not accept Mormon doctrine. She said little for fear she would lose friends, but did not attend the Mormon seminary classes for high schoolers and was glad that, at home, her parents did not abstain from tea, coffee, or soda, nor wear temple garments under their clothes.

"I was a captive of that situation as a young woman," she recalled, "especially after the deaths of three of my brothers." A respite came when she spent one of her high school years with a family in New Zealand. It was there that she picked up the nickname "Cally" that friends still call her.

As a sophomore at Stanford, she met her future husband, Leon Eugene Irish, at a party for students interested in the Ba'hai faith - a part of a spiritual quest that has compelled her, throughout her life, to enter and pray in any church that was unlocked.

Married at 20, she transferred to the University of Michigan, where her husband entered law school. Moving on to Washington, Mr. Irish worked for the Department of Commerce and as clerk to Supreme Court Justice Byron R. White. In the early '70s, Mr. Irish qualified for a doctorate at Oxford while his wife received a master's in literature.

Having returned to Washington in 1968 with their four children, the Irishes became involved with one of the top prep schools, Quaker-related Sidwell Friends. They encountered considerable comfort among the Quakers during the Vietnam War and also began attending Grace Episcopal Church in Georgetown because "we had a family that needed a family."

Mrs. Irish found Grace to be a welcoming place "for bored Christians and interested pagans." Parents were required to attend Sunday school with their children and to take turns teaching. "I worked hard on the lessons," she said. "I loved it!"

Mrs. Irish's Mormon baptism was considered valid; her children were baptized on a Sunday marked by the singing of the beloved Mormon hymn, "Come, Come Ye Saints" (so decidedly Mormon, she regrets, that it will not be included in the consecration Eucharist). She was confirmed by the Rt. Rev. John T. Walker, Bishop of Washington, who commended her to Virginia Seminary and ordained her in 1983. She became an assistant at Church of the Epiphany in downtown Washington, then followed Jane Dixon on the staff of Good Shepherd, Burke, Va.

In 1985, the family was again in Ann Arbor when Mr. Irish returned to the law faculty at the University of Michigan and his wife became rector of Holy Cross Church in nearby Saline.

"We had married when we were very young, had lots of fun, and divorced by mutual agreement in 1988," Mrs. Irish said. It was then that she returned to Washington to divide her time among three jobs - at Washington National Cathedral, the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation, and the College of Preachers.

She has not heard from her ex-husband since her election in Utah, but her children say, "Right on, Mom!" Stephen, 28, may join the Tanner Company later in the year. Jessica, 26, is completing an MFA at the University of California at Irvine. Thomas, 20, is a junior at Columbia, and Emily, 19, is finishing her first year at Vassar.

Mrs. Irish was on a trip west last December that coincided with her election on the fifth ballot to be Utah's coadjutor. In the following weeks, she vacated her office at Washington Cathedral, put the family apartment on the market, and joined in plans for her consecration ceremony in Salt Lake's 2,800-seat Abravanel Hall. She will succeed the diocesan, the Rt. Rev. George Bates, on June 28, when he retires to the less arid climate of Medford, Ore.

"I never expected to be an evangelist," Mrs. Irish said, "but I am now!" She has been hard at work on diocesan fund-raising and other matters in Arizona and Utah since late March. "Everyone wants decisions and wants them quickly," she reported, "but I am trying to postpone them until I get the real feel of the course."

Among books that have influenced her, Mrs. Irish mentions The Roots of a Radical by Bishop John A. T. Robinson, the late Bishop of Woolwich, who became famous for his 1967 bestseller, Is God Dead? For lighter reading, she tries to go back once a year to her favorite author, Charles Dickens. The paperback chosen for her flight west from Washington had an unusually prophetic title - Great Expectations.

James B. Simpson is TLC's correspondent for the Diocese of Washington.