By Mark Michael
“Bill Frey drove around town in his ancient silver Honda Accord, with a bold black and white sticker attached to the black bumper: The glory of God is man fully alive. — Irenaeus,” said his friend, the Rev. Pat Gahan. “The man behind the wheel proved the point of the sticker!”
The Rt. Rev. William Carl “Bill” Frey spent most of his early ministry as a missionary in Latin America, until Guatemala’s militarist government ejected him for protesting repression. He was filled with the Holy Spirit in the early days of charismatic renewal and crossed ideological divides as Bishop of Colorado and dean of Trinity School for ministry, combining advocacy for social justice with a robust defense of traditional doctrine. One of the Episcopal Church’s most influential evangelicals, Frey died at his home in San Antonio on October 11, aged 90.
Frey grew up as an Episcopalian in Waco, Texas, and studied Spanish and French at the University of Colorado. He was working as a disc jockey in Houston and serving as an acolyte at Christ Church Cathedral when he felt God calling him to ministry. He retained the booming voice and talent for clever one-liners he gained in his radio days, which often made him one of the most quotable Episcopalians.
Frey prepared for the priesthood at Philadelphia Divinity School, and said his personal faith came to life through an encounter with a homeless man at a skid row mission. The man’s single leg had become gangrenous, and the man asked Frey to pray for him. He came back the next week, healed.
“I didn’t know much about healing,” Frey recalled. “We weren’t talking about healing in the Episcopal Church 50 years ago. I knew faith had something to do with it from Bible stories. I asked, ‘Cleveland, do you have faith?’ And he smiled and said, ‘Yes sir! I got my money on Jesus!’ I suddenly discovered this isn’t about religion, but about God.”
After early ministry in rural mission churches in Colorado and as a rector in Los Alamos, New Mexico, Frey went to Costa Rica as an Episcopal Church missionary in 1962. There he operated the Spanish Publications Center in San Jose, serving as editor of a Spanish-language church newspaper for the scattered missions of the Diocese of Central America, which gathered Episcopalians from six Latin American countries.
He went to a meeting of the House of Bishops in 1967 to report on a plan being developed to divide Central America into several small dioceses. He left behind copy and photographs of the candidates he thought most likely to be chosen as the new bishops with his secretary. He was shocked when the bishops called him forward to accept a call to serve as the first Bishop of Guatemala, with additional responsibility for the churches in El Salvador. “What will I tell my wife?” he blurted out to the bishops. “I told her I would stay out of trouble here.”
He was consecrated on November 27, 1967, on a vacant lot that the diocese owned in Guatemala City, as none of the three tiny Episcopal congregations had a space large enough to accommodate the crowds. The local clergy had arranged to use a local Roman Catholic church for the service, Frey recalled, “but the local archbishop got wind of that and we had to cancel that, and the rainy season began the next day.”
When Frey moved to Guatemala the government of President Julio Mendez was engaged in an undeclared civil war against peasant Marxist guerilla groups. U.S.-supported paramilitary groups affiliated with the governments of Mendez and his successor, General Carlos Arana, were engaged in abduction, kidnapping, and extra-judicial killings across the country. Amnesty International estimates that 15,000 Guatemalans were killed by government-associated paramilitary groups between 1971-1973, in a campaign called “The White Terror.”
Frey first spoke out against the violence in 1969, after being approached by a group of university students who had been refused a hearing by other church leaders. In response to a press conference Frey held, the Guatemalan national legislature set up a committee to investigate the violence. Later, after Arana took power and declared martial law, Frey joined with Roman Catholic and evangelical leaders to publish a declaration calling for a restoration of the national constitution. Two weeks after the declaration was published in September 1971, his visa was revoked, and Frey was forced to leave the country.
His friend Bishop Christoph Keller of Arkansas secured him a post as a chaplain to the University of Arkansas, and he also began assisting at the local parish, St. Paul’s in Fayetteville. He became involved with a prayer group at the parish who were praying to receive the ministry of the Holy Spirit. When they prayed for Frey, he began speaking in tongues, describing it later as “an incredible awakening and experience of God’s love.”
A year later, he was elected bishop coadjutor of Colorado, and became the diocesan bishop in 1972. Frey encouraged charismatic renewal across the diocese and established a foundation to plant new congregations. He also expanded ministry to those in need. Colorado Episcopalians filled the basement of the new Diocesan Center he constructed on Cathedral Square in Denver with mounds of donated coats. The space was later used to launch the Episcopal Pastoral Center, a resource hub for those in distress. The St. Francis Center, a diocesan ministry to Denver’s homeless population, followed several years later.
In a time when Colorado Springs was becoming the center of a politically consolidated evangelical subculture, Frey was an ideological maverick. He used his public voice to oppose abortion, changes in church teaching about homosexuality, and skepticism about core doctrine among fellow Episcopal bishops like John Shelby Spong, who was then the Bishop of Newark. But he also opposed capital punishment, backed gun control, and welcomed an undocumented Mexican family into his own household. He firmly supported women’s ordination and insisted that all his parishes use the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, effectively seizing control of St. Mark’s, Denver in 1984, when its rector, Rev. Louis Tarsitano, threatened secession from the diocese over the issue.
He and his wife Barbara purchased a rambling old house in Denver and welcomed others to join them by living as an intentional religious community. Up to 18 people lived together at a time in the household, and some stayed for decades. Members of the household included Hollywood actress Ann B. Davis (Alice on The Brady Bunch), who lived with the Freys from 1976 until her death in 2014.
Frey surprised many by resigning as Colorado’s bishop in 1990 to become the third dean and president of Trinity School for Ministry, founded in 1975 and based in Ambridge, Pennsylvania. Trinity, which he then called “the Cinderella of American seminaries,” was in financial trouble. Frey told a reporter it was “poor, new, in an abandoned steel town and has offices in a converted Safeway building with no air-conditioning and classes in a former Presbyterian church.”
Trinity’s current dean, the Rev. Dr. Laurie Thompson described Frey’s deep impact on Trinity’s life: “He fought any shrinking of the gospel to any one singular issue or definition of orthodoxy, calling people to know and embrace the power of God and the wisdom of God. … In this sense he helped strengthen the identity of the seminary in a way that was unapologetically evangelical in faith, passionately missional in facing social issues of poverty and oppression, and exuberant in charismatic worship and ministry. To this day the memory of his stentorian voice booming forth in prophetic conviction during chapel services remains.”
Frey retired to the San Antonio area in 1996 but used his gifts for reconciliation and healing to serve as assisting bishop for the Diocese of the Rio Grande after its bishop, Jeffrey Steenson, resigned to become a Roman Catholic. He later became interim rector of Christ Church in San Antonio, the largest congregation in the neighboring Diocese of West Texas, at a time of crisis after a large faction left to form an independent Anglican church.
In a sermon preached shortly after his arrival at Christ Church, Frey made his dual commitment to orthodoxy and church unity clear. “I’ve often felt that the (national) church had been taken over by pirates,” he said. “And years ago, when I was praying about the future, God said something like, ‘Don’t let the pirates tempt you to jump overboard. If they make you walk the plank, OK. But don’t do it voluntarily. It’s my ship.’”
Patrick Gahan, who followed Frey as Christ Church’s rector, said that after losing 100 families, who accounted for “$600,000 in annual giving and most all the children in the church,” Frey’s transformative work was astounding. “New people streamed in, the budget balanced, missionary giving and city outreach increased, and children are now everywhere on the campus. Bill did not offer a cutting-edge strategy, bring in guitars and drums, or begin a nifty marketing campaign. He and Barbara just loved the Lord Jesus Christ, and it showed.”
The impact of his ministry, he added, will be deep and lasting. “I met a Texas judge who carried a copy of one of Bill Frey’s sermons in his briefcase everywhere he went,” Gahan remembered. “When I think the challenges of my life are too much,” the judge said, “I just take out that sermon and read it again.”
Frey’s beloved wife and partner in ministry, Barbara, preceded him in death in 2014. He is survived by their five children, Paul, Mark, Matthew, Peter, and Suzanna, as well as numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Two of his children, Paul and Matthew, followed him into the Episcopal priesthood, and continue in active ministry in Texas and Colorado.
“Bill and Barbara were the best edition of our Episcopal selves,” Gahan said, “unquestionably animated by the Good News of Jesus Christ and, therefore, undaunted in their personal commitment to God’s people.”