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Bishop Phoebe, ‘A child of God like everyone else’, makes history in Memphis

Episcopal Diocese welcomes first female and African-American bishop

Most Rev. Michael Curry, the first African-American presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, was chief consecrator on Saturday, May 4, 2019, at Hope Church, for the Rt. Rev. Phoebe A. Roaf’s consecration service. Roaf is the Fourth Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of West Tennessee. (Lisa Buser/Special to The Daily Memphian)

The Rt. Rev. Phoebe A. Roaf, consecrated Saturday as the 1,116th bishop in the branch of Christianity known as the Episcopal Church, wants everyone to call her Phoebe.

“I’m just a child of God like everyone else,” she said.

Phoebe, the child of Clifton and Andree, who was sure God was an old white man above the clouds, busy with the weighty matters of the universe.

“Too busy to know anything about this little girl from Pine Bluff, Arkansas,” she said.

Phoebe, the sister of Mary, William and Andrew, who didn’t care for her first name (no one could spell it or pronounce it), who wanted to be Susan or Lisa or Stephanie.

David Waters

“I just wanted to blend in,” she said.

Phoebe, the 13-year-old girl who carried the weight of trying to be the perfect daughter, student and person, until a priest took her confession at a church camp and she felt God’s grace lift the weight from her shoulders.

“It was the first time I felt that Phoebe is known to God,” she said.

Phoebe, who didn’t see a woman wearing a clergy collar until she was in her 20s, and who didn’t wear one herself until she was 41, on Saturday became the first female and African-American to serve as bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of West Tennessee.

“My sister, the people have chosen you and have affirmed their trust in you,” Presiding Bishop Michael B. Curry said at the  historic ceremony attended by 26 bishops and hundreds of others at Hope Presbyterian Church.

“Are you persuaded that God has called you to the office of Bishop?” Curry asked.

“I am so persuaded,” Phoebe said.

It wasn’t always so.

***

Will you accept this call and fulfill this trust in obedience to Christ?

“I will obey Christ, and will serve in his name,” Phoebe replied.

***

As a teenager in Pine Bluff, Phoebe was a member of her parish’s youth group, known there and in every parish as the Episcopal Young Churchmen.

She grew up in one tradition that didn’t ordain women until 1976, and another that still doesn’t.

She loved the liturgy of the table, the order and flow and openness of her mother’s Episcopal church, and saw her mother engage God with her intellect.

She also loved the liturgy of the word, the soulful spirituals and spirit-led prayers of her father’s Baptist church, and saw her father engage God with his heart.

But she wondered why women never led worship at either church.

She read that the Apostle Paul, who told slaves to obey their masters, also told women to keep silent in the church and talk to their husbands if they have any questions.

But she also read in all four Gospels that the first followers of Jesus to witness the Resurrection were women.

And she read that Paul trusted a woman named Phoebe to deliver his letter to the Romans.

That he called her “a deacon of the church.”

That he asked them “to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of his people and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been the benefactor of many people, including me.”

That in his letter to the Romans, Paul wrote that nothing can separate us from the love of God.

That passage from Romans 8 was read at Saturday’s consecration, and referred to in the sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Judy Fentress-Williams, one of Phoebe’s seminary professors.

“That’s my foundation,” said Phoebe, named for her maternal grandmother. “That sustains me through it all. I am God’s beloved daughter, Phoebe.”

***

Will you be faithful in prayer, and in the study of Holy Scripture, that you may have the mind of Christ?

“I will, for he is my help,” Phoebe replied.            

***

The first time the Episcopal Church consecrated a woman as a bishop, the Rt. Rev. Barbara Harris in Boston in 1989, police had to guard the ceremony.

Dozens of male priests and bishops formed a separate Episcopal Synod of America in protest. “The final crisis of the Episcopal Church is now upon us,” they warned.

That was 30 years ago.

“Bishop Phoebe is already recognizing the deep hunger among many to bridge differences and form meaningful conversations,” said Rev. Laura F. Gettys, interim dean of St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral.

Bishop Harris, who retired as an assistant bishop in 2003, wasn’t able to attend Saturday’s ceremony. But her successor, Bishop Gayle Harris, the denomination’s second female African-American bishop, was there.

So was the Most Rev. Michael Curry, elected in 2015 as the first African-American presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church.

The Rt. Rev. Phoebe A. Roaf receives her crozier from Bishop Don Johnson, who served as the Third Bishop of the Diocese, as Roaf is consecrated Fourth Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of West Tennessee on Saturday, May 4, 2019, at Hope Church. (Lisa Buser/Special to The Daily Memphian)

So was the Rt. Rev. Jennifer Lynn Baskerville-Burrows, consecrated in 2017 as the first African-American woman to be elected a diocesan bishop.

Phoebe Roaf is the second, and the first in the South.

“God loves to lead us to something we never saw coming,” Rev. Fentress-Williams said in her sermon, drawn from the story in Exodus 2 about the Egyptian princess, Pharaoh’s daughter, who rescued baby Moses from her father’s wrath. “This is just the way God does business.”

Phoebe didn’t see her ordination coming for a very long time.

Phoebe, the achiever who graduated from Harvard and Princeton, became a policy analyst, went to law school, clerked for a federal judge, and became an attorney.

Phoebe, the professional who kept changing jobs and locations and career paths, searching for something that gave her meaning and purpose and hope.

Phoebe, the seeker who wondered why she never heard from God, then realized that her prayers were such monologues “God couldn’t get a word in edgewise.”

Phoebe, the faithful Episcopalian who wondered why priests and parish members kept telling her to think less about her occupations and more about her vocation.

“I was living my best life and having one of these collars wasn’t on my list of things to do,” she said. “But one way God works with me is through repetition.”

***

Will you boldly proclaim and interpret the Gospel of Christ, enlightening the minds and stirring up the conscience of your people?

“I will, in the power of the Spirit,” Phoebe replied.

***

Phoebe is the fourth bishop of West Tennessee. She succeeds Bishops Don Johnson (2001), James Coleman (1994), and Alex Dickson (1983).

“She is a natural leader who has already demonstrated her ability to inspire confidence with her gifts of insight, planning and thoughtful engagement in matters big and small,” said Rev. Gary Meade, rector, Saint Mary’s Episcopal Church in Dyersburg, Tennessee.

Her mother, an attorney, was the first African-American woman to serve on the Arkansas Supreme Court. Andree Layton Roaf died in 2009.

Her father, a dentist, served on the Pine Bluff school board and the Arkansas State Board of Higher Education. Dr. Clifton Roaf died in 2017.

Her brother, former All-Pro offensive lineman Willie Roaf, was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Saturday’s ceremony was held at Hope Church in Cordova to give the anticipated crowd more space far from the congestion of the Beale Street Music Festival.

The ceremony included the processional cross carried by Dean William Dimmick as he led clergy down Poplar Avenue to confront Mayor Henry Loeb at City Hall the day after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.

“Her call as the first woman and black woman bishop of the diocese is both a humbling and healing symbol of hope and God’s promise to make all things new,” said Rev. Ollie V. Rencher, who last year became the first black rector of Grace-St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Midtown.

The historic nature of the ceremony was marked in other symbolic ways.

The LeMoyne-Owen College Concert Choir performed four songs in the prelude, including “Steal Away,” a traditional spiritual.

The new bishop was presented symbols of her office – a mitre, a crozier and an Episcopal ring, inscribed with broken shackles.

“Father, make Phoebe a bishop of your church,” Bishop Curry said as he and other bishops laid hands on her head.

And the people said “Amen.”

***

Will you guard the faith, unity, and discipline of the Church?

“I will, for the love of God,” Phoebe replied.

***

The consecration ceremony itself is symbolic.

When a bishop is ordained, other bishops join in the laying on of hands, symbolic of the bestowal of God’s grace and authority.

The bishops who gathered around Phoebe included:

The Rt. Rev. Shannon Johnston, bishop of Virginia, where Phoebe attended seminary and spent the past eight years as rector of St. Philip’s Episcopal Church in Richmond. He showed her how to stand up to racism and bigotry after white supremacists marched on Charlottesville.

The Rt. Rev. Charles Jenkins, retired bishop, of Louisiana, where Phoebe was ordained in 2008 at age 41 and spent three years as an associate rector. He showed her how to respond to calamity and grief after Hurricane Katrina.

The Rt. Rev. Herbert Donovan Jr., retired bishop of Arkansas, where Phoebe grew up, who showed her how to be a bishop to all God’s children.

The child of Pine Bluff, Arkansas, who became a priest believes her parish wasn’t limited to the Episcopalians who came in the door but includes everyone else outside the door. She believes the same about her diocese.

“Jesus did not say, ‘Worship me.’ He pointed to God his father and said, ‘Come, follow me. Have a meal with me. Sit and talk with me. Drink some water or wine with me.’

“Jesus, at least as I understand his ministry and scripture, moved outside the walls of the temple to serve the least, lost and lonely. He crossed every single barrier that First-Century Judaism knew – race, religion, gender, culture, social class.

“He spent all his time hanging out with sinners. That’s what got him into so much trouble in the first place. When you and I are engaged in the same work, we shouldn’t be surprised that we might get into a little trouble as well.

“I am committed to spreading the good news of Jesus Christ between the Mississippi and Tennessee rivers. Yes, through my words, but hopefully and more importantly, through my actions.

“And everywhere we go, we make that journey knowing Christ is already there ahead of us, giving us the courage and confidence to follow him, to undertake this work with a spirit of humility and gratitude.”

***

Will you be merciful to all, show compassion to the poor and strangers, and defend those who have no helper?

“I will, for the sake of Christ Jesus,” she replied.

This story first appeared at www.dailymemphian.com under exclusive use agreement with The Institute. Photos reprinted with permission of The Daily Memphian.

David Waters
Written By

David Waters is Distinguished Journalist in Residence and assistant director of the Institute for Public Service Reporting at the University of Memphis.

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