Bishop William Murdoch, a former Episcopal rector who now runs the Anglican Diocese in New England, a group of conservative Anglican congregations, did not respond to requests to comment for this story.
Shaw did not speak publicly about his own sexuality until last year, when he discussed being gay in a documentary film, “Love Free or Die,” about New Hampshire Bishop V. Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church. The revelation was low key, and it came well after the church settled major debates about gay issues in favor of inclusion. People hardly noticed.
In an interview last week, Shaw said that because he is a celibate monk, publicly discussing his sexuality posed unusual difficulties. He said he did not want to send the message that, as some conservatives argue, gay people should be celibate.
“My hope has always been . . . that we can move along this discussion about human sexuality in the best possible way, and I thought for myself the best possible way I could move it along as a celibate bishop was not by hiding it, but by not making myself the center of the discussion,” he said.
Shaw said he has raised it in private conversation now and then over the years, when it seemed like doing so could be helpful.
“It’s been one of those wonderful challenges that I think God has offered to me in the life of the church to really go deeper into my own spirituality, my own relationship with God, and to experience my own freedom as a human being,” Shaw said.
After hearing “aggressive” antigay statements from African bishops at the 1998 Lambeth Conference, the Anglican Communion’s once-a-decade worldwide gathering of bishops, Shaw decided he needed to learn more about the source of those sentiments. He immersed himself in the church’s health and education projects in Uganda and Tanzania, he said.
Almost a decade and a half later, he maintains a long-held optimism that sexuality will become less divisive in the Anglican Communion over time.
“I think there is a deeper respect that is growing in terms of responding to one another’s cultures,” he said. “And I think that it’s a two-way street.”
At a time when mainline congregations are struggling to bring young families into the fold, Shaw has been particularly attuned to creating better programs for youth. One of his proudest accomplishments was the 2003 construction of a diocesan camp and retreat center in Greenfield, N.H. And St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in the South End has built a summer program serving hundreds of inner city youth called the Bishop’s Summer Academic and Fun Enrichment program, or B-SAFE, which draws volunteers from churches across the diocese.
A star graduate of that program was Jorge Fuentes, who became a beloved counselor and mentor. In September, the 19-year-old aspiring US Marine was fatally shot across the street from his home in Dorchester.
“When Bishop Tom heard the news, I think he was shocked, devastated, brokenhearted,” said the Rev. Liz Steinhauser, director of youth programs for St. Stephen’s.
He presided at the funeral and helped lead a candlelight vigil for peace after the wake, which drew about 1,000 people. At the diocesan convention in November, Shaw implored delegates to endorse strategies to help learn about gun violence and eliminate it.
“You know, I can’t get the kid who murdered Jorge Fuentes out of my mind,” he told those gathered.
Shaw has invited about 30 religious leaders to a breakfast next month to discuss strategies to end gun violence. He has asked parishioners throughout the diocese to educate themselves about poverty, a root cause of violence, by reading Tavis Smiley and Cornel West’s book, “The Rich and the Rest of Us.” The bishop said he also hopes to support legislative gun control efforts.
In retirement, Shaw said he hopes to continue his work on health and education projects in Africa. He will spend more time with his monastic community. And he will work on his pottery, a favorite hobby.
Asked about his impetus for political activism, Shaw cited the life of Jesus.
“He was very out there in terms of critiquing a society that didn’t recognize the dignity of human beings,” Shaw said in an interview. “And so I think because I’m a follower of Jesus, that’s my responsibility as well — I’m supposed to speak up on issues that diminish people’s dignity.”
Bishop A. Robert Hirschfeld, a former Massachusetts priest who recently succeeded Robinson as bishop of New Hampshire, lamented that his time working with Shaw as fellow bishops would be abbreviated.
“Tom was always and is always a man of study and prayer and relationship,” Hirschfeld said. “He has never forgotten that.”
Lisa Wangsness can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.