How Utah Changed My Faith

By Dan Webster

What a rich, colorful, and long history the Episcopal Church has in Utah. I had no idea about that when I first moved there in 1989 to be the news director of a local TV station. But why would I? I was Roman Catholic. However, a restless heart (and soul) took me into the Cathedral Church of St. Mark in Salt Lake City for a service to dedicate its remodeled undercroft. (That was a new word for me. In the Catholic Church we called it the basement).

What drew me to that service was a news story. The AIDS quilt was visiting Salt Lake City and the dean of the Episcopal cathedral, Bill Maxwell, offered to host the start of the march through downtown. Organizers had been turned away by another faith community.

Later I learned of a long tradition of gospel witness by Episcopalians against the death penalty, especially when Gary Gilmore’s sentence was death by firing squad. The Utah Peace and Freedom Party was born in the undercroft of St. Mark’s during the Vietnam War. And much of the action against the proposed MX missile defense system in the late 1980s was led by Episcopalians.

The fourth bishop of Utah, the Rt. Rev. Paul Jones, was a staunch pacifist in the run-up to World War I. It cost him his job as missionary bishop in 1918 but he went on to pioneering ecumenical work at the Fellowship of Reconciliation, was chaplain at Antioch College in Ohio, and helped found Episcopal Peace Fellowship. His feast day is September 4 on our church calendar.

The first missionary bishop, the Rt. Rev. Daniel Sylvester Tuttle, was extremely effective in launching new ministries. He arrived in the Salt Lake Valley in 1867. He started the first hospital between Denver and Sacramento, the first Boy Scout troop west of the Mississippi, and the first nursing school in the territory.

Bishop Tuttle went to the silver miners in Park City and offered unlimited health care to them and their families for a dollar a month at St. Mark’s Hospital. He also founded the first non-Mormon schools in the territory. In an address about those schools came his most famous remark: “We have a faith not afraid to reason and reason not ashamed to adore.”

This rich history is beautifully recorded in Building the “Goodly Fellowship of Faith, A History of the Episcopal Church in Utah, 1867-1996 by the Rev. Frederick Quinn. He worked on this volume when I was communications director at the diocese. We met regularly. What a treasure it was to learn even more.

It was that history, the ordination of women, the commitment to the gay community, and the centrality of the Eucharist that drew me into the Episcopal Church in Utah and eventually to ordained ministry. I served for two years as a curate at All Saints, Salt Lake City, interim vicar at St. John’s, Logan, and later director of communications for five years.

I was blessed to work with congregations across the state on communications ministries, vestry retreats, and often filling in on Sundays. I learned firsthand and from many Episcopalians what it was like to be a minority.

The Episcopal Church has never been large numerically in Utah. It has always had disproportionate influence. In the late 1970s a diocesan convention even passed a resolution adopting the slogan, “One half of One Percent. We Make A Difference.” Its size has always motivated it to partner with other faiths so different religious voices would be heard.

Ministry to the poor, underprivileged, and those on the margins has long been a priority. From Bishop Tuttle’s health care efforts, to partnering in homeless shelters or feeding programs, Utah Episcopalians have been living by Matthew 25 for more than a century. A youth ministry in Ogden started by the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd grew into Youth Impact, now its own nonprofit organization that offers at-risk urban teens an alternative to gangs.

One of my duties when I returned to Utah in 2001 on diocesan staff was to take my turn presiding at the Thursday celebration of Holy Eucharist in the chapel at the cathedral. Many members of the Episcopal Church there are former Mormons. They grew up in the culture that emphasized the way to get into heaven was to live a “worthy” life, earning your way into heaven. I most often chose Eucharistic Prayer B for the simple reason of these words: “Thank you for counting us worthy to stand before you and serve you.”

When former Mormons, or others who grew up with a similar belief, hear those words, it can open the heart just a little bit more to the unconditional love of God. It did for me.

I’m grateful to have Utah Episcopalians as forebears in faith. It has helped me understand how to be a Christian in an unfriendly environment. It has taught me how to work ecumenically and with non-Christians on common goals. It has allowed me to see glimpses of the Beloved Community of God that I doubt I would have otherwise seen.

The Rev. Canon Dan Webster is canon for evangelism and ministry development in the Diocese of Maryland.

Image: “Salt Lake City, Winter2009” by Skyguy414, via Wikimedia Commons •

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