From the Worldwide Faith News archives

David Perry looking for a few more surprises after retirement

Date 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."

Serious potholes

     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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