By Mark Michael
The Rt. Rev. Carolyn Tanner Irish, the scion of one of Mormonism’s most influential families who went on to serve as the X Bishop of Utah, died June 29 at her home in Salt Lake City, at 81. Irish emerged as a rare advocate for progressive causes in the conservative state, and, as a philanthropist and civic leader, played an outsized role in the life of her native city.
“Bishop Irish will be missed by many, many people within the Episcopal Church and the wider community,” said her successor, Bishop Scott Hayashi. “She was one of the most generous and giving persons I have ever had the privilege to know… Though she could have chosen to live anywhere she desired, she chose Utah because this was her home.”
Her family traced its origins to Mormonism’s beginnings, and her father, Obert Tanner, who was born into a rural polygamous family, amassed a fortune through the employee recognition awards company he founded, and gave lavishly to community projects in Salt Lake City. Tanner also taught philosophy at the University of Utah, wrote nearly a dozen books, and, unusually, encouraged his children to question the beliefs of their ancestral faith.
Carolyn Irish became a prolific reader as a child and trained as a modern dancer with Kathy Hinckley, the daughter of Gordon Hinckley, who would later become the Mormon church’s president. She studied at Stanford and the University of Michigan, and earned a master of letters in moral philosophy at Oxford’s Linacre College.
She stopped attending Mormon services when she left home for college, and met her first husband at a University of Michigan meeting for inquirers into the universalistic Bahai faith. But at the age of 35, while living in Washington, Irish decided to try the Episcopal Church, initially hoping only for some religious grounding for her four children. Two years later, she began sensing a call to ministry, and entered Virginia Theological Seminary in 1979.
Following her ordination in 1983, Irish assisted at parishes in Washington and Northern Virginia, where she was mentored by Jane Holmes Dixon, who would go on to become the Episcopal Church’s second female bishop. She moved to Michigan to lead a church in Saline, a small town near Ann Arbor, and went on to a canonry at Washington National Cathedral, where she taught spiritual direction through the College of Preachers and the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation.
Irish was elected in December 1995 to succeed George Bates as Bishop of Utah, becoming the third woman to serve as a diocesan bishop in the Episcopal Church. The Salt Lake Tribune, Utah’s major newspaper, greeted the announcement with the headline, “Welcome Home.”
“I didn’t know the church in the West very well,” she later told a reporter. “It’s been a combination of invention and discovery. (Members of the Episcopal Church) are very conscious of Mormons. They live as a minority here. And I’ve heard it said that they saw me as a bridge person. Every bishop they had had was an Eastern white male.”
As bishop, Irish established Project Jubilee, an initiative that used finds secured by the sale of a Salt Lake City hospital to finance construction projects for the diocese’s 22 parishes. She had strong working relationships with Mormon and Catholic leaders, and promoted evangelism in the face of significant membership decline. Irish also served as a mentor to other female leaders in the church, nominating future presiding bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori to serve as Bishop of Nevada, and serving as one of her chief consecrators.
Three years into her episcopate, Irish announced at diocesan convention that she was an alcoholic, a dramatic disclosure in a state famous for its teetotaling ways. She left immediately to enter a treatment program, returning to her duties after a leave of several months. “There were people who were sympathetic, and there were those who weren’t,” she remembered later. “The LDS Church leaders were magnificent. They wrote me letters. I will never forget that.”
Though Irish claimed “I am not an issues person,” in an interview at the beginning of her episcopate, she became a vocal advocate for a number of progressive causes. She spoke out against an English-only bill before the state legislature and in support of environmental causes and gay and lesbian rights.
In 2004, when the Utah legislature passed a law stating that churches that wished to ban guns from their premises needed to post signs to that effect, Irish ordered that the diocese’s parishes post four-foot tall signs on their front doors. Alongside an image of a crossed out pistol, the signs bore the slogan, “The Episcopal Church welcomes you — but not your guns.”
She also continued her parents’ legacy of philanthropic work and civic involvement in Salt Lake City, especially at the University of Utah, where she sponsored an annual lectureship in human values. The university’s Carolyn Tanner Irish humanities building is named in her honor and conferred an honorary doctorate on her in 1997. Upon her retirement as diocesan in 2010, she was named “Giant in our City: by Salt Lake City, the first woman ever to receive the recognition for “her lifetime of service and giving back to the community.”
Irish is survived by her second husband, the Rev. Frederick Quinn, and by four children. Funeral arrangements have not yet been announced.