Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Remembering Jane Holmes Dixon

At one of Bishop Dixon's visitations to St. George's

Jane Holmes Dixon, retired Bishop Suffragan of Washington, and the third woman ordained a bishop in the Anglican Communion (second in the Episcopal Church), died in the early hours of Christmas Day.  She was a remarkable woman and her story intersects with my story in many significant ways.  She was first my friend and colleague and then my bishop, which meant our relationship was somewhat tumultuous.  What follows is almost purely personal. I don’t have any other way to write about Jane.

In the autumn of 1990 I had just begun as Vicar of St. George’s Chapel, Glenn Dale, Maryland, in the Diocese of Washington.  I was somewhat overwhelmed and I gave a call to my neighbor to the north, the rector of St. Philip’s, Laurel, The Rev. Jane Holmes Dixon.  She graciously spent a fair amount of time with me and we became fast friends.  We also shared a deep friendship in Verna Dozier.

Less than two years later, the new Bishop of Washington, Ronald Haines, called for the election of a Bishop Suffragan.  Many of us saw this as a chance to elect a second woman to the episcopate in the Episcopal Church, and Jane became our candidate.  I will never forget the annual clergy conference in the spring of 1992, when conversation turned to the nominating process.  A couple of long-term rectors spoke at length about race being a more important factor than gender, in order to carry on the legacy of Bishop John Walker, who had died just four years previously.  I watched Jane’s heart sink and her guilt kick in.  As soon as the session was over I cornered her in the hallway and said, “Don’t you dare let them get to you.  You stay in this. We’re counting on you. The Holy Spirit will sort this out.”  She was elected.

I was privileged with my friend The Rev. Bruce Jenneker to be responsible for the liturgy of her ordination and consecration and to serve as masters of ceremony.  Dr. Verna Dozier was the preacher, and I remember well her saying from the massive pulpit at the National Cathedral, “Jane Dixon, stand on your feet.”  St. George’s was the third church Jane visited and we had a grand time, including singing her favorite hymn, “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.”

At the March for Equality--Was I ever that young?
Jane was a champion of justice.  In the spring after her consecration she walked with John and me in the March on Washington for Gay and Lesbian Equality.  We would not always agree on timing or what she as a bishop could or could not do, but she was certainly a leader in the movement for equality for women, African-Americans and gay and lesbian people.  One of our difficult moments as friends was when she backed out of blessing our new home in Greenbelt as she thought it was not the time to be seen as blessing a same-sex couple.  It was very painful for all concerned, including many of our friends, and there was a very difficult meeting with Bishop Jane and the lesbian and gay clergy of the Diocese.  The depth of our friendship saw us through, however.

            She once called me “brash” in front of my congregation. It stunned some people, but I knew she meant it as a compliment.  It was, in fact, why she stood by me even through our disagreements.  She could see a lot of herself in me.

            As Suffragan, Jane was put in charge of the mission congregations in the Diocese, of which there were nine.  My congregation was one of them.  She was determined to move these congregations forward in some fashion and through much prayer, sweat and tears we did just that.  When Jane set her mind to something it was likely to happen.  My St. George’s worked hard to meet the criteria for parish status, and Jane both consecrated our new building (in 2000) and installed me as the first rector (in 2001).

            I was proud to be with Jane on several important occasions. On the night of her election, I happened to be standing beside her when she took the call from Bishop Barbara Harris, the first bishop who was a woman in the Communion.  I was also at the Lambeth Conference of the world’s Anglican bishops in 1998, which Jane attended with ten other women from throughout the communion (eight from the US, two from Canada and one from New Zealand—yes, numbers three through eleven were elected and ordained fairly quickly). The picture of them sits at my desk to this day.

            In 2006, Jane participated in the election of Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori as Presiding Bishop.  She was flying when I saw her soon afterward.  “Did it really happen?” she said to me.

Bishop Dixon at St. Luke's, Bladensburg
            Members of my congregation—including John Clinton Bradley—went with her on her visitation to St. Luke’s Church, Bladensburg, a church that had refused her visit.  They found an empty church, with even the reserved sacrament removed, but they celebrated the Eucharist.  This “forced visitation” was criticized by some, but Jane pulled them off with graciousness, making the point that a bishop is a bishop is a bishop.

            When I moved to Rochester we lost touch. The last time I saw her was at Bishop Ronald Haines’ funeral some four years ago.  She looked great then and very much her old self.  She had ten good years of retirement and for that I am grateful, but my heart goes out to her husband of 52 years, “Dixie.”

            Jane preached these words on Easter Day 2001 in the National Cathedral, where she was presiding as the Bishop of Washington pro tempore.

And with the resurrection of Jesus the Christ proclaims God’s victory over the final enemies of sin and death. The love of God for men and women has defeated human alienation from God. On the cross, our atonement, at-one-ment, has been accomplished. And as the writer of the Song of Solomon knew so long before that, "Love is stronger than death." And as St. Paul said to the Church at Rome, "Nothing, no nothing, can separate us from the love of God, not even death."

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