William Sanders, Longest-Serving Bishop, Dies at 101

William Evan Sanders kneels at his consecration as bishop in 1962. Standing from left are Bishops Albert Stuart, Georgia; Arthur Licthenberger, presiding bishop; John Vander Horst, Tennessee; James Duncan, South Florida; and Girault Jones, Louisiana | Nadia Strid, Wikimedia Commons
William Evan Sanders kneels at his consecration as bishop coadjutor in 1962. Standing from left are Bishops Albert Stuart, Georgia; Arthur Licthenberger, presiding bishop; John Vander Horst, Tennessee; James Duncan, South Florida; and Girault Jones, Louisiana | Photo: Nadia Strid, Wikimedia Commons

By Kirk Petersen

The Rt. Rev. William Evan Sanders, the VIII Bishop of Tennessee and the I Bishop of East Tennessee, passed away at home in Nashville in the presence of his family on November 18, at the age of 101. He would have turned 102 on Christmas Day. At the time of his death he was the senior bishop of the church, in terms of length of service.

Shortly before his 98th birthday, Sanders attended, vested, and processed at the consecration of the fifth and current Bishop of East Tennessee, the Rt. Rev. Brian Cole. Cole told TLC that “one of the great gifts” and great memories of that day, December 2, 2017, was seeing the reaction of the many people in attendance whom Sanders had baptized, confirmed, or ordained.

“He was not a tall man, but he loomed large in the story of the Episcopal witness in this state and in this region,” Cole said. “I think in ways he didn’t realize, he has blessed this generation simply by his presence that day.”

Sanders’s death came four days after the passing of the first Bishop of West Tennessee, the Rt. Rev. Alex Dickson, 95. “The state of Tennessee lost two significant bishops this week,” Cole said, both of whom were the first bishops of new dioceses.

Until the 1980s, the Diocese of Tennessee encompassed the entire state. The see city was Memphis, at the southwest tip of the horizontal state — fully 500 miles away from St. Columba’s Episcopal Church in Bristol, in the northeast corner. As Bishop of Tennessee from 1977 to 1985, Sanders oversaw the partition into three dioceses in a two-step process, after approval by the 1982 General Convention.

West Tennessee was created in 1983, based in Memphis, leaving Nashville as the see city in the center of the state. When East Tennessee bloomed in 1985, Sanders chose to become the first bishop in the new Knoxville-based diocese, and resigned as bishop of the continuing Diocese of Tennessee. He continued as Bishop of East Tennessee until retiring in 1992 — the year Cole received his master’s of divinity degree.

Bishop Sanders, 97, at the consecration of Bishop Cole, his successor’s successor’s successor’s successor.

A biography on the East Tennessee website says that Sanders established two major programs during his episcopacy:

The first was Venture in Mission, in which the statewide Diocese of Tennessee gave particular support to church growth, urban ministries and companionship funding for the [Anglican and Episcopal churches] in Costa Rica, Haiti and Central Africa. The other was the Opportunity Fund program of the Diocese of East Tennessee, which provided funds for a new diocesan center, congregational development and social ministry.

Sanders was born December 25, 1919, in Natchez, Mississippi. He grew up in Nashville, and his entire ordained ministry was in Tennessee. After studying at Vanderbilt and obtaining his master’s of divinity at Sewanee: The University of the South, he was ordained as a deacon in 1945 and as priest in 1946. He served as a deacon at St. Paul’s in Chattanooga, and from 1946 to 1962 he was assistant, and later dean, at the Cathedral of St. Mary in Memphis. Sanders also earned a master’s of sacred theology from Union Seminary.

He was consecrated bishop coadjutor on April 4, 1962, meaning he would automatically become bishop diocesan when the incumbent left office. These days it’s a role that often lasts for a year or two, but Sanders served as coadjutor for 15 years, before becoming Bishop of Tennessee upon the retirement of Bishop John Vander Horst in 1977.

Todd Ousley, the bishop for pastoral development on the presiding bishop’s staff, said that with the passing of Sanders, the Rt. Rev. David Benson Reed is now the senior bishop of the Episcopal Church. Reed, 94, was consecrated as Bishop of Colombia on April 25, 1964, and later served as Bishop of Kentucky from 1974 to 1994.

Sanders married Kathryn Cowan Schaffer in 1951, and they had four children. She predeceased him in 1999, and in 2005 Sanders married Marlin Jones Phythyon, who has three daughters. Funeral arrangements have not been announced.


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