By Kirk Petersen
The Rt. Rev. Charles Lovett Keyser, the retired fourth Bishop Suffragan for the Armed Forces, passed away peacefully on July 31, the Diocese of Florida announced. He was 92 and had served as an assisting bishop in Florida since 2007.
After serving 26 years as a chaplain in the United States Navy, retiring at the rank of captain, Keyser was elected by the House of Bishops in 1989 and served in the armed forces role from 1990 to 2000. In retirement, he served as interim Bishop of Montana before joining the Diocese of Florida.
Keyser has the distinction of being the last armed forces bishop to have objections raised at his consecration by the Episcopal Peace Fellowship (EPF). It was nothing personal — EPF didn’t think the job should exist, and had raised similar objections in the past, a practice that was subsequently dropped. EPF Chair Ann McElroy rose at the appointed time during the service of consecration and said the role places “this church in the position of being aligned with the military system,” thereby compromising the church’s mission. Presiding Bishop Edmond L. Browning, who had been a friend of Keyser since they attended Sewanee together, thanked her and continued with the service.
Keyser told Episcopal News Service he understood the discomfort, but said “the government has no church, so it looks to the churches to provide ministry to people in the uniformed services.”
Growing up in Pensacola, Florida, a military town, “instilled in me very early in life a sense of patriotism and obligation of service to country,” Keyser told ENS. While in parish ministry after attending seminary at Sewanee, he applied to be an inactive reserve chaplain in the Navy, and subsequently entered the Navy full-time. “It slowly dawns on you just how unique a ministry this is,” he said. “When they take in all lines and the ship slowly backs away from the pier, you know that your parish is everyone on board. Your altar follows the congregation, from the fantail to the messdeck to the library, wherever they may be. You work together, pray together, and endure common hardships of serving together.”
He served as chaplain to a land regiment near Da Nang during the Vietnam War — where his duties included comforting dying men and writing letters to their parents. “It is wrenching to be in combat, to see how cruel war is and what people will do to each other,” he said with obvious emotion. “And yet it was a unique opportunity to meet people in extreme need.”
Funeral arrangements at St. John’s Cathedral in Jacksonville, Florida, will be announced. Keyser was predeceased by his wife and a daughter, and is survived by three children.