The Living Church

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The Living ChurchAugust 24, 1997 Actress Director Bishop by JAMES B. SIMPSON215(8) p. 10-11

Actress Director Bishop
The Rt. Rev. Catherine Roskam and New York's experiment in episcopal oversight

'I work side by side every day with people who don't believe in the ordination of women, but I think that together we can strive for the good of the gospel and the mission of the church.' -The Rt. Rev. Catherine Roskam

"The response from the 66 congregations has been enormous," she says of her first 16 months in office. "It is as if they were just waiting for someone to talk to, for some place to take their problems and ideas. In a very real sense, many of them are experiencing a reshaping of their ministry."

A former actress and one-time case-worker, age 54, married for 31 years, an Episcopalian for 22, ordained for 12, Cathy Roskam, as she signs herself in call-back messages, has put 20,000 miles on her station wagon and reviews her activities at diocesan headquarters twice a month.

A visitation to the only Anglo-Catholic parish in her area - Trinity Church, Ossining - was not challenged, and she is working closely on an AIDS project with the Eastern Province of the Community of St. Mary, the 132-year-old religious order for women at Peekskill, N.Y., which accepts all aspects of her ministry except the sacramental.

"I work side by side every day with people who don't believe in the ordination of women," she points out, "but I think that together we can strive for the good of the gospel and the mission of the church."

The bishop grew up on Long Island with two older brothers. Their father was a corporate lawyer, their mother a budding operatic singer who gave up her career for marriage.

Although Bishop Roskam did not attend parochial schools, she had years of catechism and Catholic Youth that left her with a love of liturgy and a distaste for what she saw as "a system of authority - the hierarchy, the bishops and the pope, it seemed wrong. I was an Anglican and didn't know it!"

In the Episcopal Church, she goes on, she found "a wonderful polity that is a real acknowledgment of the Holy Spirit speaking through all of us. I loved the notion of being governed by convention. I liked the principle that we all have a voice - that is the splendor of our polity despite all the dissension, or maybe is the cause of dissension. An opportunity for discussion of ambiguities was what I longed for."

On graduating from Middlebury College in Vermont, she plunged into off-Broadway theater, playing a variety of roles, mainly Shakespearian, and for a year was a municipal case worker responsible for 60 families, mainly in Harlem. Among other case workers was her husband-to-be, Philip Roskam, a young man of Dutch descent who had come East from Portland, Ore., to study for a doctorate in psychology.

As an actress and director, Cathy Roskam formed her own theatrical group, the Joseph Jefferson Company. It centered at Manhattan's Church of the Transfiguration that, volunteering years ago to bury an unchurched actor friend of Jefferson's, became known as "the Little Church Around the Corner that does that sort of thing."

For a decade, from age 21 to 31, Bishop Roskam says readily that she was "a non-practicing Christian." She was married at Transfiguration in 1966 but not received into the church until 1974 and then became a regular worshiper. The Roskams' only daughter, Gemma, was baptized at Transfiguration's Easter Vigil in 1977.

As the 1980s dawned, experiencing a restlessness about the focus and future of her vocational life as well as a deep spiritual and intellectual hunger, Bishop Roskam enrolled in a General Seminary class in systematic theology taught by the Rev. Richard Norris.

"He was one of the best lecturers I ever had, a lucid and brilliant thinker," she declares, "and it was exactly the right course to get me hooked."

In a subsequent semester, Bishop Roskam asked about a speech class listed in the catalogue but was told there was no one to teach it. She applied for the job and was hired. Although designed as a remedial, it quickly became a workshop and then a required course with imaginative use of videotape.

"Pre-homiletic," she recalls, "everything you had to do to get ready to preach the word. It didn't deal with sermon content although then and now I kept before me the belief that sermons are like bread - they should be nourishing."

On becoming a candidate for holy orders, she did her clinical training at St. John's Hospital in Queens and also worked at St. Vincent's Hospital in Greenwich Village. As a seminarian, she had spent Sundays at the Church of the Holy Apostles, a steepled landmark a few blocks up the street from General, and went there as a newly ordained deacon. Later she combined the ministry with lecturing at General and serving as seminary chaplain.

A venerable old parish rich in diversity, Holy Apostles had pioneered in church soup kitchens. Bishop Roskam established a counseling service and also became a member of Integrity to ally herself with the large number of gays and lesbians. She was well acquainted with the homosexual community by the time AIDS swept the city in 1984.

"I believe that the fruits of the Spirit are visible," she says of those years. "I have seen deeply faithful relationships that have sustained partners through the depths of really terrible illnesses and I believe that God causes us to pay attention to that and not be rigid about a set of rules. I have no idea of how homosexuality originates, but I do think it is a 'given' and not a matter of choice. There needs to be long-range studies because anecdotal evidence shows that efforts to change the unchangeable results in a higher suicide rate."

It was with that background that the Roskams went to San Francisco, where AIDS was raging. Dr. Roskam had taken a job with the California Counseling Institute and his wife signed on for similar work. She soon became interim rector of Our Saviour, Mill Valley, and also worked as coordinator of clergy training. In 1991, she had been priest-in-charge for nine months at a small mission, Holy Innocents, San Francisco, when the Rt. Rev. William Swing asked her to be diocesan missioner for 24 congregations in five counties all within 75 minutes of Grace Cathedral.

"We had six languages and a wide-ranging group, struggling, thriving, large ones on the verge of becoming parishes, four or five just opening up," she remembers. "We didn't close any but just keeping them open isn't enough. Support is important and helping to develop leadership is everything. There is no lack of people but we are in an age that is increasingly secular. We've got plenty to do."

The Roskams settled into an apartment in the Richmond district of San Francisco and their daughter began classes at the University of Puget Sound. On a day they'd been listening to Giacomo Puccini's "Turandot," they found a tiny, mahogany-colored Pomeranian wandering in the street and named him Puccini - or Pucci for short.

Meanwhile, 3,000 miles away, the Diocese of New York was studying the feasibility of a suffragan bishop for areas that would be enhanced with closer episcopal oversight. As New York considered a slate of two men and three women, it was increasingly clear that Cathy Roskam's current ministry was a close match to the job description of the proposed suffragan. Present with other nominees at a diocesan convention on June 10, 1995, she was chosen on the third ballot.

When the voting was over, up rose the Rev. Edgar F. Wells, for 19 years the rector of the famous high-church, traditionally conservative Church of St. Mary the Virgin, to endorse the Roskam election. He shortly afterwards invited her to become the first woman to celebrate the Eucharist at St. Mary's. It drew more than 400 supporters. On Jan. 27, 1996, a congregation of 3,500 joined 19 bishops in a festive consecration that began with gongs, drums and juggling at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.

"There really are a lot of perks to the office of Presiding Bishop," declared the Most Rev. Edmond Browning. "This affirms women priests in the Diocese of New York," added the Rt. Rev. Richard Grein. "We now have a hundred in this diocese."

Following Britain and Canada's success with regional suffragans, the New York experiment appears to be working well, and, quite often, working around the clock.

Bishop Roskam's day begins before 7 a.m. in an apartment at Christ Church, Bronxville. She walks Pucci, then brews a pot of strong tea for a leisurely breakfast, a valued quiet time for the Roskams before the episcopal schedule beckons.

Arriving by 9:30 at her office at Zion Church, Dobbs Ferry, overlooking the Hudson River, Bishop Roskam reads Morning Prayer with Zion's vicar, the Rev. Richard McKeon, two secretaries, and one or two volunteers. Mail and telephone consumes the morning with every sort of business except the canonical, such as ordinations or a dissolution of the pastoral relationship, which fall to the diocesan. Lunch is often with clergy, especially the priest of the congregation that she is next scheduled to visit. Afternoons are for regional meetings and pastoral duties, including calls on hospitalized clergy. She frequently confirms outside her area and responds to invitations, lecturing a few months ago, for instance, at St. Bartholomew's on Park Avenue on "The Bible and Women: Conflicts of Interest?"

Bishop Roskam's upbeat, metaphorical style suggests comprehensive insights shared with her husband as a professional psychologist. He enjoys going with her on visitations and in May both of them addressed the national meeting of 75 executive secretaries to bishops. Last year they attended an Episcopal-Asian conference in Hawaii and went on to Maui to celebrate their wedding anniversary. Any extra moments are likely to go to the renovation of a 1923 Tudor house recently purchased in Yonkers. When it is completed and the move accomplished, a larger space will be improvised for Dr. Roskam's practice.

"I cooked for our first 30 years and now my husband has volunteered to cook for the next 30," Mrs. Roskam says with a laugh. "After that, we'll negotiate!"

Lastly, says Bishop Roskam, "I look back on a statement before my election in which I said that 'institutional structures are human and subject to change, but what is changeless is the joy and abundance of a life lived in Christ, both as individuals and in community. We have nothing to fear.' After more than a year as a bishop, I believe those words even more strongly."

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