By Chip Prehn

The Suffragan Bishop of Dallas invited me to see him one morning in 1980. I had never met Robert Terwilliger (1917-1991) and did not know how to pronounce his name or what he looked like. I had read his book Christian Believing and admired it. I was told that he was the founder of the celebrated Trinity Institute, New York, and ran the program until his election to the episcopate. He had been mentored by Richard Niebuhr at Yale. The Archbishop of Canterbury appointed him to the International Commission for Anglican-Orthodox Dialogue. He preached brilliant sermons without a note.

As I anticipated our first meeting, my image of him was heroic: he would be a tall, broad-shouldered man with silver hair and a stentorian voice. When a small, pale man in black came out to greet me, I unselfconsciously asked, “Bishop Terwilliger?” He grinned and replied with humor in his eye, “Yes. Are you disappointed?” He spoke with that inimitable voice suggesting a throat problem. And so began one of the most important relationships of my life.

At the end of that first meeting with Bishop T, he gave me two books to read and told me to return when I was prepared to discuss them thoroughly. This was our pattern for the two years before I headed off to seminary. The books were Beginning to Pray by Anthony Bloom and The Gospel and the Catholic Church by Michael Ramsey. The latter was a warped, faded copy he had picked up in a field in Wichita Falls, Texas, several days after a tornado destroyed St. Stephen’s Church in 1979. “But Ramsey survived!” he said. He said of Archimandrite Anthony’s book, “You must understand that prayer and theology always go together and should never be separated.”

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Giving me Ramsey’s book was an almost sacred exchange. “I want you to get to know Bishop Michael,” he said. “He is a great soul and a great mind. A biblical theologian as good as Barth, but different.” As if I were going to see Ramsey the next day, he warned me, “Never call him Lord Ramsey. He prefers just ‘Bishop Michael.’ He votes Labor, you know, and his wife calls the Queen ‘Betty Battenberg.’”

This was the case with each book given me by Robert Terwilliger. He would first offer a short biography of the author. This introduction was usually fortified by Terwilliger’s personal acquaintance with the writer. He next would briefly outline the author’s purpose in writing the book. At last he would offer a short assessment of the argument and the author’s supporting scholarship. When he gave me the first volume of Jaroslav Pelikan’s Christian Tradition, he said prophetically that Pelikan possessed an uncanny comprehension of the Eastern Christian tradition, asking, “How does a Missouri Synod Lutheran get the Orthodox Church so well?”

When I told him one day that I had read Rudolf Bultmann’s History of Primitive Christianity, he told me, “Do read Bultmann, but of course read him with fire-proof gloves.” I told him that Alfred North Whitehead made sense to me. Terwilliger affirmed what was good in this school, said he admired a little book by Norman Pittenger on the topic, and then made sure I read Austin Farrer’s “Prior Actuality of God.” That famous essay will check anyone’s progress down Whitehead’s path of process theism. Farrer plus Aquinas can break anyone of bad habits. Trusting the instincts of the Eastern theologians, especially the Cappadocian and Alexandrian Fathers interpreted so beautifully by Georges Florovsky and Vladimir Lossky, Terwilliger urged me to balance St. Thomas Aquinas with Christian platonism. Recently I re-read Étienne Gilson’s Spirit of Medieval Philosophy (1932) and suddenly realized that Terwilliger assigned the book to me back in 1981 because Gilson understood just how much Plato there is in both Aristotle and Aquinas. And yet Terwilliger — no less than Farrer, Lossky, or Hans Urs von Balthasar — was always standing firmly on the ground of Holy Scripture. He welcomed the critical study of the Bible but did not want the sacred Book used for novel theologies or social science. If Jesus Christ is the supreme and final Revelation of God, then the Holy Scriptures are a kind of Icon of the Lord, a complex and mysterious invitation into deeper relationship and meaning. Of course, the Bible has everything to say about humankind’s situation in the world, ancient or modern, but Terwilliger did not want his students to get ahead of what is actually written in the sacred books.

Bishop Terwilliger was one of the finest preachers of his generation. He could stand before a congregation and preach for an hour without notes. While these were not previously written sermons memorized by the preacher, neither were they merely extemporaneous preaching. They were neither florid nor excitable. They were visionary and meaningful utterances moving inexorably to their main points. The words rolled off his tongue. The eloquence astonished. The unusual voice made listeners pay attention.

Terwilliger was a great example of the servant leader long before the idea became fashionable. Even as he was dignified in every way, and carried himself impressively, there was no pomp or pretension about him. When other bishops were sporting flashy, expensive automobiles, really living into the lord bishop motif, Bishop T was satisfied to get himself around in a faded red Datsun. In meetings, he came around the front of his big executive desk, sat down with you, and spoke face to face, his solicitude real and his intention manifestly kind. His purpose was not to remind you of episcopal power. I believe he wanted to remind you of the Lord.

He insisted that we must “test the spirits” and avoid swallowing the Zeitgeist hook, line, and sinker. Christians are under obedience. We are not at liberty to do anything we please. We have been “bought with a price.” While Terwilliger had a profoundly humanistic side, and he happily embraced the beauties of this world (especially the visual arts and architecture), he also assumed that the doctrine of original sin is simply true. How we can deceive ourselves!  Terwilliger reminded people that human progress and God’s will are not always the same thing.

Though Terwilliger was a favorite bishop of many conservative Anglo-Catholics in the Episcopal Church, he was not in fact a comfortable conservative. He wanted to be an orthodox Christian believer and let the faith guide him in how he would think and live. For him the sacred tradition was a dynamic cornucopia of wisdom for the present time and should not be allowed to drift into mean dogmatism or traditionalism. Unlike most Episcopalians in the diocese he served in the 1970s and early 1980s, Terwilliger was not a Republican; in fact, he thought himself a “socialist.” Permanently influenced by F.D. Maurice, and always admiring William Temple and Ramsey, Terwilliger assumed that the ideal type of public policy is certainly rooted in the charity of Christ.

Bishop T called himself “a prayer book catholic.” His liturgical piety was appropriately solemn but simple. While he was entirely comfortable and fairly expert leading the “Tridentine” Mass if that was the practice of the parish, his own liturgical preference was influenced by Vatican II. In any case, he wanted us to remember that the divine liturgy in its rite and ceremonial must always proclaim the good news that is Jesus Christ. The mass should “say” the same thing the preacher is saying in the pulpit, and vice versa.

Robert Elwin Terwilliger was born in Cortland, New York, in 1917. He would say when asked, “The name is Holland Dutch.” His New York origins were important to him but he became a true Anglophile and Mother England was his elected home. A visit to “the Abbey” was his solemn duty and always a joy. He reverently visited holy places all over the British Isles. His English friends feted him and honored him as a bishop of their own Church. He was a name in Oxford. Chaplains and dons wanted to know when he was in town.

Terwilliger grew up in a Methodist parsonage. He attended Methodist Youth Fellowship and an upstate Methodist summer camp was formative. (He never forgot the verses of the campfire song, “Follow the Gleam,” which evoked to him the grail-quest in a Wesleyan inflection.)  While Robert’s equally gifted brother Lawrence was a pioneer in animated film (Walt Disney and others found Lawrence’s innovations most useful), Robert intended to follow his father into the ministry of the Methodist Church. Personal experiences and his wide reading in college — including greater knowledge of the religion of John Wesley — moved Robert to embrace the Anglican Christian vision and he left the Methodist fold.

Bob won a nice scholarship to Syracuse, read philosophy, and was an early Phi Beta Kappa. One standard he never relaxed was that ordained persons should be very well educated. He prepared for the priesthood in Cambridge at the Episcopal Divinity School and afterward worked in parishes. In 1948, Yale University awarded him a Ph.D. in historical theology. His dissertation was on Maurice’s ecclesiology. At Yale he was mentored by H. Richard Niebuhr, who assumed he would end up in academia. But Terwilliger was a very effective parish priest and, when rector of Christ Church, Poughkeepsie, a beloved chaplain to young Episcopal women at Vassar. He earned a master’s of sacred theology at the General Theological Seminary (1949), where his thesis was a study of Richard William Church, dean of St. Paul’s and author of The Oxford Movement (1891). He knew all about the Tractarians and their disciples and admired them. He felt he could hear the preaching of H.P. Liddon. Yet Terwilliger was also enthusiastic about the post-Tractarian catholic Anglicans – for example Charles Gore, the Lux Mundi writers, Temple, and Ramsey – all known to us as “liberal” Anglo-Catholic thinkers. He taught me Aubrey Moore’s line:  A fundamental dogma “is not true because we believe it; rather, we believe it because it is true.” Moore may have been a “liberal” catholic, but that wisdom is an inflection of Newman’s dogmatical principle.

Bishop T remained my and many others’ mentor and friend until 1986. He was still our friend but in that year he suffered a diabetic seizure that nearly killed him. After several long weeks in the hospital, the physicians did save him, but one consequence of the episode was the tragic impairment of his memory. He retired to an assisted living facility near Dallas where he remained until he entered the fuller life in 1991. It was standing room only at the cathedral church, when his life was rehearsed and celebrated. Even though one of his greatest attributes was destroyed (the truly remarkable intellect), Bishop T recognized visitors and greeted them with love and good cheer, although his memory did not provide him with one’s name.

Bishop Robert Terwilliger spoke and fleshed out God’s saving Word. For eleven productive years he gave himself to the ministry of a bishop of the Church in the United States, in England, in Europe, and in many places in the Orthodox East. He taught us that the Word of Truth and the Word of Love are one Word and cannot be separated. “He was a gentle man and scholar,” said Bishop Donis Patterson. Terwilliger made the Christian faith exciting. He showed us again and again that the priestly calling is honorable. He was my own dear father in God. This good and true shepherd’s interest in and care for all of us who became his “sons” was surely a sign to us that the Good Shepherd had plans for us and was counting on us to be His disciples. May God give us to whom Bishop T gave so much the grace to be in our turn and in our time good shepherds of the flock.

Chip Prehn is Headmaster of St. John’s Parish Day School in Ellicott City, Maryland

About The Author

Chip Prehn is an Episcopal priest, an independent historian, a poet, and a Director of The Living Church Foundation.

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