By Kirk Petersen
The Very Rev. George L.W. Werner, who led the House of Deputies through a turbulent time with what many remember as humor and grace, died on February 6, 2023. He turned 85 on February 3.
Episcopal News Service reported that he had suffered since last year from a progressive dementia. His death was announced by his son, Bill Werner, in a Facebook post.
Werner served two terms as the 31st president of the House of Deputies, from 2000-2006, and his successors were among those offering accolades upon his passing. Julia Ayala Harris, who was elected PHoD in 2022, wrote by email: “George and I began corresponding several months ago after I announced my candidacy for president of the House of Deputies. George was always gracious, kind, and affirming in our conversations. After my election, George started sharing more about his experiences and I will always treasure the advice that he gave me.”
The Rev. Gay Clark Jennings, who preceded Ayala Harris, also hailed Werner as a mentor. “George led the House of Deputies with wisdom, patience, courtesy, and a fine sense of humor, and I was honored to follow in his footsteps. When I was fortunate enough to be elected president, George shared his wisdom generously with me and gave me some of the best advice I ever received about how to navigate the job,” she wrote.
“He was a really remarkable teacher,” Bonnie Anderson, Werner’s immediate successor as PHoD, told TLC by telephone. “He always made something enjoyable, even if he was giving me information that could have not been enjoyable. He would have a way to look on the positive side of things.”
Presiding Bishop Michael B. Curry said: “While we will surely miss his humor and good spirit, we can give thanks that he passed along our way. President Werner provided leadership in our church that that was both deeply faithful and open to new insights — truly just and genuinely kind.”
Before his initial election as PHoD in 2000, Werner served for 20 years as dean of Trinity Cathedral in Pittsburgh, and was active in local civic affairs. In a profile reporting his election, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote:
“In the Pittsburgh diocese, regarded as one of the most conservative in the Episcopal Church, Werner is considered a liberal. Yet within the church as a whole, he is more of a moderate. As is his nature, he deflects such political tags with self-deprecating humor, a tool he uses often in negotiating church politics.”
His sense of humor must surely have been strained in 2004, when the Diocese of Pittsburgh passed him over for reelection as a deputy to the 2006 General Convention. It was a remarkable snub, given that he had represented the diocese in eight consecutive General Conventions, and was at the time the second-ranking officer of the Episcopal Church. But he issued a gracious statement giving thanks for the privilege of having served. “Not serving as a deputy means that I will not have to make a choice as to whether I should seek a third and final term as Presiding Officer,” he noted wryly.
In an interview in the April 30, 2006 issue of TLC, Werner said “There is a time to be called away from a place. Too often people in positions of leadership try to hang on too long. I will rest content.” His tenure continued until the closing day of the 2006 General Convention, when he handed the gavel to Anderson.
At the time of Werner’s ouster, Bishop of Pittsburgh Robert Duncan was the leader of a conservative movement that was on a path toward leaving the Episcopal Church. Duncan and a majority of the parishes of the diocese voted to disassociate in 2008, and Duncan later became the first archbishop of the Anglican Church in North America.
In a rare flash of bitterness in a 2009 guest post on an Episcopal blog, Werner described a debate on the developing schism at the 2006 Pittsburgh diocesan convention: “In November of 2006, in the two minutes I was allotted (and then only if you were near enough to the front of the line to be called on before debate was ended) I decried the fact that as someone who had served the mother parish of the Diocese for more than twenty years; as someone who had an unusual, if not unique, view of the entire Episcopal Church, that I was allowed only 120 seconds to speak to the most difficult and complex question the Diocese of Pittsburgh had faced since its founding following the war between the states.”
During his time as PHoD, Werner was known among other things for bringing more young Episcopalians into the governance of the church. “George invested in young people,” said the Rev. Devon Anderson, the daughter of Bonnie Anderson. The younger Anderson ran for PHoD in 2022 and currently is a member of Executive Council. “He gave me my start in the wider church, appointing me to [the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music] in 2003. Changed my life and started my career,” she said by text message.
While he was quick with a joke, Werner was no pushover, and was a champion of the role of the House of Deputies in the governance of the church. Upon his initial election in 2000, Werner put a stake in the ground in an Episcopal News Service article. “The House of Bishops will never understand the House of Deputies. We need to keep those two things very, very clear. There are reasons for this. When the House of Bishops issues a ‘mind of the house’ and they are talking theology, that is totally appropriate. When they start saying how they feel on some of the social issues, we are a bicameral legislature. I will remind them of that. They can’t do it as if they are the final word.”
Werner served as a trustee of the Church Pension Group from 1976 to 1988, and again from 2006 to 2015. In a 2020 tribute video on the CPG YouTube channel, Werner introduced himself: “Hi, I’m George Werner, also known as ‘the very reverend’ — very retired.” Mary Kate Wold, CEO and president of CPG, said: “George Werner will be remembered for his unwavering commitment and service to the Episcopal Church, his stewardship as a trustee of the Church Pension Fund, and his lasting legacy as one of the primary architects of the Denominational Health Plan, which today helps ensure comprehensive healthcare for thousands of clergy and lay employees who serve our church.”