The Living Church

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The Living ChurchJune 15, 1997Out of the Shadow of St. James' by James B. Simpson214(24) p. 15-17

Out of the Shadow of St. James'
The Rev. Brenda Husson takes charge of a prominent church on New York's upper east side.
by James B. Simpson

Portraits of sturdy, sometimes bewhiskered former rectors line the parish hall of St. James' Church on New York's upper east side and appear to look with slightly suppressed surprise at the newcomer to their ranks - the Rev. Brenda Gail Husson, 42, a slight, short woman of first-generation Lebanese descent who favors big glasses, a minuscule, size-13 clerical collar, and a Hillary Clinton velvet band to cover her long brown hair.

Her formal institution as rector was greeted "with long applause and a few un-Episcopalian whoops," reported the New York Daily News, "the biggest thing since 1951 when the parish stopped renting pews."

The service was attended by four bishops and a goodly representation of St. James' 1,200 families (plus 2,000 individuals) who pledge more than $1 million annually to augment another $2 million from endowment. Gifts to the new rector included a soup ladle as a symbol of St. James' large outreach program.

The distinguished men who preceded Brenda Husson include Arthur Lee Kinsolving of the Episcopal Church's most prodigious clergy clan, as well as three bishops - the legendary Horace Donegan, who headed the Diocese of New York for 22 years, John Coburn of Massachusetts, and Missouri's diocesan since 1993, Hays Rockwell. The most recent, the Rev. Mark Anschutz, left in 1995 to become rector of St. Michael and All Angels' in Dallas.

"I pray for her,'' said a rector who came to the Diocese of New York nearly four years ago. "There are a lot of personalities over there and she's a very nice girl."

St. James' new rector is unmoved by the anonymously quoted words. Her face registers no change of expression.

"'Personalities'?" she asks dryly. "There are always personalities. I am quite comfortable with authority. Let people draw their own conclusions about my height and age."

In an afternoon interview in her office high up in St. James' five-story parish house, Ms. Husson wears a cherry-colored jacket, black shirt, tweed skirt and black stockings. She settles comfortably into a green damask sofa near the stone fireplace.

"My father was one of 13 children, some born in Lebanon, some here, reared in Eastern Orthodoxy," she begins. "He was a pediatric cardiologist and my mother and brother are also pediatricians."

Of growing up in Trinity Church, Fayetteville, N.Y., she recalls that "the priest knew who I was and was interested in what I thought. On his departure when I was 15, I became the youth representative on the search committee."

Allowed to draw up her own interdisciplinary major at Beloit College in Wisconsin, she focused on research in international relations, economics and theology, spent a semester studying in France, two semesters organizing a pre-school in the Windward Islands, and graduated Phi Beta Kappa. A senior thesis on the ethics of Third World development led to a job in New York for the next four years with a citizens' lobbying group known as Bread for the World.

"At one time," she says with a smile, "I knew quite a lot about wheat reserves."

At age 28, aware of a need for theological underpinnings in her work, she began taking part-time courses at Union Theological Seminary, adjoining the Columbia University campus.

The decision to seek ordination "was a long process in discovering a pattern of the church being the place that was truly 'home' for me. Also, through the ministry of several professors, I 'found' the Bible, which at least allowed me to see that the matter of call was often complicated and ... surprising."

Union seemed ideal for preparing for the priesthood because "exposure to other denominations helped to sort out what was central to my Christian identity and what was not - as well as what I really value in the Episcopal Church. Union's distinguishing characteristic was its faculty in biblical studies - Ray Brown, Phyllis Trible, George Landes, Lou Martyn - and some unusual people in every field - James Cone, Richard Norris, Robert Handy, Robert Seaver, James Forbes, Ann Ulanov."

Picking up on the seminary's "deep commitment to social issues," Ms. Husson's thesis on the parables of St. Luke's gospel was accepted with distinction. In contrast, she nurtures a deep interest in the Old Testament figures of Jacob and Abraham.

The shadow of St. James' Church fell prophetically across her path almost at once when its first woman priest, the Rev. Carol Anderson, hired Husson as assistant at the Church of All Angels, a Manhattan parish that Husson describes as "wide spectrum charismatic."

Inviting People In

In retrospect, she perceives "a real understanding of the necessity to invite people in and begin from where they are (we taught a very successful basic Christianity class), trusting that if people have come in, they are seeking God and that is enough to start. I also gained an ability to talk about spiritual subjects in ways that freed people to ask the questions they needed to ask and that invited them into faith. My time there saw the profound work of the Spirit in transforming lives."

When Carol Anderson was elected rector of All Saints', Beverly Hills, Calif., Ms. Husson stayed on as priest-in-charge, later took up a residential chaplaincy at Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital, and then came her first real contact with St. James' - first as an assistant, then interim in the years 1988 to 1992.

It was while she was at Grace Church, White Plains, N.Y., that her marriage of nearly a decade to the Rev. John Harnett ended in divorce. On July 29, 1995, she married the Rev. Thomas Faulkner, an interim priest and also a professional sculptor.

Ms. Husson was interim at St. John's, New City, 34 miles north of Manhattan, when a search committee from St. James' showed up. Already acquainted with nine members of the committee, she met with the group in her parish and thrice in Manhattan before senior warden Nancy Farrell telephoned to say that Ms. Husson had been elected rector. She took up her new duties on All Saints' Day 1996.

Now settled in a new apartment near St. James', she and her husband reserve Thursday nights for staying at home and save Fridays for sleeping late, playing with their two dogs, visiting theaters and museums, skiing or hiking.

"My preferred routine," she says, "involves quiet time alone early in the morning, usually around 6, followed by lap-swimming and getting to the office by 8:30. I try to take a half hour at my desk each day to pray, mostly intercessory, and in Lent, 1996, Tom and I began a discipline of praying together at the end of each day - a real gift to both of us."

On sermon preparation, Ms. Husson does "a read through of lessons as a season begins." She seeks to "open up the texts so that people can see the ways in which they address their lives and their faith and then apply it. I look for problems in the text since that's what the congregation notices. I ask 'So what?' or 'What difference would it make to me to know this?' These questions keep me honest and focused."

Mondays are usually a time for research and in-depth study and then letting the material sift internally during a week of monitoring parish life. Writing on Saturdays, she finds that the pressure of time is stimulating.

In her numerous sermons for children, given from the chancel steps, she uses "props if they help, and to find ways to involve the kids. We've been having a very good time together."

Believing that New York "is not a drop-in city," she values parish events and times of crises as opportunities to better know parishioners. And, she adds, "even with a large congregation (600 to 800 on Sundays) you know who's there, and if someone is out for a while, I pick up the phone.

"Also, there's 'no cultural norm' on church-going in the city so I know that the congregation really wants to be there."

On the four floors beneath her office, there swirls an extremely active parish program with more than 200 volunteers. The parish life committee numbers 50, the worship committee, eight to 10. More than a dozen boys and girls in the eighth-grade confirmation class serve as junior ushers. The Sunday school uses the Episcopal Teaching Series from Virginia Theological Seminary and has been co-chaired for nearly a decade by George Wade, an attorney who is also chancellor of the diocese.

"Brenda is just the kind of person the church is looking for to be a bishop in a few years," says St. James' most recent interim, the Rev. James Annand, but Ms. Husson confides that she's promised the search committee that she'll stay "quite a while."

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

'I gained an ability to talk about spiritual subjects in ways that freed people to ask the questions they needed to ask and that invited them into faith.' Brenda Husson