From the Worldwide Faith News archives www.wfn.org
David Perry looking for a few more surprises after retirement
20 Feb 2001 13:23:40
David Perry looking for a few more surprises after retirement
by James Solheim
(ENS) On February 8, the Rev. David Perry picked up his briefcase, hugged
staff and friends, and left the Episcopal Church Center in New York City and his
position as deputy for ecumenical relations.
His collection of over 200 statues of the Infant of Prague had been packed
earlier and, in the weeks before his retirement, he was feted by friends and
colleagues for his humor and wit--but especially his patience and stubborn
determination in efforts to establish full communion between the Episcopal Church
and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA).
In a glorious Epiphany Day Service on January 6 at Washington National
Cathedral Perry got his wish. But the road leading up to that celebration of full
communion was sometimes a bumpy one. He describes his efforts, beginning in 1995
when he assumed the position, as a "roller coaster." Lutherans turned down the
original proposal in 1997 after the Episcopal Church's General Convention had
passed it by an overwhelming majority. "It was back to the drawing boards," he
One of life's surprises
What may be even more amazing is that Perry is not a professional ecumenist
and was not a participant in any of the official dialogues over 30 years that
produced the Concordat of Agreement in 1991. He is an educator and headed the
education unit of the national church until former presiding bishop, Edmond
Browning, approached him to see if he would be interested in the ecumenical
"I was most surprised of all," he said in an interview, "and at first said
that I was not interested." But he admits that he was restless at the time and
looking for a new challenge. Also, the national staff at the Church Center was in
the middle of a reorganization in the mid-90s that would eliminate a separate
office of education.
"It was clear that the ecumenical office would be concentrating primarily on
our relationship with the ELCA, trying to get both churches to ratify the
Concordat. And it was also clear that my background in education might be
helpful, drawing on some consulting skills that I had developed over the years,"
he said in an interview during his last week at the Church Center.
A strong team
Perry concluded that he was a student himself on ecumenical issues and may
have had an advantage--he would ask the real questions about this relationship,
the kind of questions people in the parishes might ask. And it didn't hurt that
he had a Scandinavian Lutheran mother-in-law who would help him see the issues
from that vantage point. Her eagerness and impatience would sustain him more than
once when things got rough.
What finally convinced him he should seriously consider the position is that
he would be able to draw on the experience of ecumenical veterans like Bill
Norgren, who had been the church's deputy for ecumenical relations, and Prof.
Robert Wright of the General Theological Seminary. Both had been deeply involved
in the official dialogues and helped write the proposals for full communion.
"They would be able to handle the technical aspects," Perry concluded. "The team
was just so strong."
Yet he soon discovered that the road to full communion had some serious
potholes, created by intense rancor and mistrust among some Lutherans who saw
nothing but threat in the new relationship, especially centered in the adoption
of the historic episcopate in the ELCA. In a meeting with the ELCA Church
Council, Perry told them how much he "appreciated the ethnic, cultural realities
and the richness of our traditions." And he reminded them how important it was to
use the "web of relationships to build trust among partners so that we can listen
openly and be open to the possibilities of change."
While he was impressed with the "thoroughness and seriousness" of the debate
at the 1997 Churchwide Assembly of the ELCA, he admits that the vote against the
Concordat by a razor-thin margin of only six votes was "really devastating." Yet
the Lutherans turned around and passed resolutions by a huge majority expressing
a determination to move forward and try again.
"But I knew it would require a whole new infusion of energy to move forward.
We had to start over, in many ways. But it was not really a joint project this
time," Perry said, "because the ELCA had to write a new proposal in an effort to
meet the objections in their church while being careful to maintain the integrity
of both churches."
Perry and others who were working for full communion entered a difficult era
marked by vicious distortions of the Episcopal Church, its theology and its
policies, by a highly organized opposition within the ELCA. For two years they
battled those stereotypes, trying to present a realistic view of how much the two
churches already shared. And he used his Lutheran mother-in-law on a number of
occasions as a symbol of an eagerness to move ahead to cooperate in common
'Strange but wonderful journey'
The effort called on all his patience, determination, tact and spiritual
resilience. It was complicated by the fact that Perry is a naturally "fretful"
person, even called a "worrywart" by some of his friends. And yet those personal
qualities all paid off in the end.
At the Churchwide Assembly in 1999, the debate on Called to Common Mission
was long and powerful. Both sides were better prepared. Perry, and a small group
of representatives from the Episcopal Church, made presentations and attended
open hearings but they had no idea which way the vote would go. When CCM received
the required two-thirds majority, by a slim margin, those who had worked so long
and hard for its approval were seized by a mixture of absolute elation and deep
relief, according to Perry.
The Rev. John Thomas, former ecumenical officer and now president of the United
Church of Christ, shared his own reflections on the "strange but wonderful journey" to
full communion at a dinner in Perry's honor. The ELCA did approve full communion with
three Reformed churches, including the UCC, in 1997. Thomas noted Perry's sense of
humor and playfulness but made it clear that "CCM is a tribute to your faithful ministry."
In a letter read at the dinner, Bishop Chris Epting of Iowa, who will succeed Perry in
April, pointed to his qualities as "evangelist, pastor and educator" that sustained him in his
work as deputy, "and your ability to listen and learn and build the kind of personal and
ecclesial relationships which have brought us so far toward unity in these last years."
Former presiding bishop, Edmond Browning, and his wife Patti also sent a letter.
"You never at one moment lost hope," they said.
But there is life after 24 years on the national staff. "There are other ministry
possibilities," Perry said, "and retirement frees me." While he and his wife Ricki look
for a retirement home in their home state of Oregon, he is ready to move beyond the
tyranny of his appointment book. He is ready for "more surprises in the future--and
especially to reconnecting with family."
Of course he knows that he will be best remembered for his work on the full
communion agreement but he is a grateful man for all the "twists and turns" in his life.
And he knows there will be others in the future.
--James Solheim is director of the Office of News and Information for the Episcopal
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