He has donned a purple cassock and joined Palestinian sympathizers protesting in front of the Israeli consulate. Gay but celibate, he has immersed himself in East African cultures to better understand the antigay sentiment. Lately, he has asked his congregants — and other faith leaders — to help eradicate gun violence.
Bishop M. Thomas Shaw of the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts, who announced his retirement last week, leaves a singular legacy as he prepares to depart Boston’s religious scene. A soft-spoken monk who leads one of the largest Episcopal dioceses in the country, the prayerful bishop has been extraordinarily vocal — and sometimes controversial — in the public square.
“I think Tom’s profound respect for other individuals, while also being very clear about what he believes and why he believes it, has made a difference,” said the Rev. Katherine Ragsdale, president of the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge.
Shaw cast his decision to retire as a natural one. He will be 68 this year, approaching the mandatory bishop retirement age of 72, and the process of selecting and installing a successor takes about two years.
By then, he will have served 20 years. The diocese, he said, is sharply focused on expanding its membership and stopping gun violence. The church has almost completed a $20 million capital campaign, $7.5 million of which will bolster youth programs, long one of Shaw’s priorities.
“We have a great staff . . . and the diocese is full of good clergy and lay leaders,” Shaw said. “So it seemed like the right time to do it.”
Shaw’s transition into office, by contrast, was painful and abrupt. His predecessor, David E. Johnson, killed himself after engaging in extramarital affairs. Shaw, who lives in a small cell at the Society of St. John the Evangelist in Cambridge, devoted his first years as bishop to helping the diocese heal.
But he soon made forays into the civic sphere. In the spring of 2000, he spent a month in Washington interning with an Episcopal Republican congressman from New York to better understand the public policy process.
His passionate concern about Israel’s treatment of Palestinians led him to join a protest outside the Israeli consulate during the second intifada a decade ago. The action shook interfaith relations in Boston; Jewish leaders, caught by surprise, saw the action as an affront.
Discussions between Shaw and leaders in the Jewish community since then have, to some extent, helped assuage some of the hurt feelings. About six years ago, Shaw initiated a series of regular meetings about the conflict in the Middle East between Episcopal leaders and a group of Jewish leaders, said Rabbi Eric Gurvis of Temple Shalom in West Newton, a past president of the Massachusetts Board of Rabbis.
“I think he felt that he had done some damage that he very much wanted to undo vis-a-vis his relationship with the Jewish community, and also he wanted to better understand the broader picture of the conflict,” Gurvis said.
Shaw has continued to speak out for Palestinian rights and for peace — recently, he has made connections in the progressive Jewish community through groups like the New Israel Fund — and says he is working on ways Christians can help end the conflict. Some Jewish leaders find it impossible to move beyond his actions in 2001, Gurvis said, but he said he found the bishop “a very sensitive, caring person” who has become more measured in his public approach to the issue.
“It takes a lot to admit, ‘I may have hurt you, and I want to understand why what I did or said hurt you,’ ” Gurvis said.
Shaw’s attention to nuance was more evident as he negotiated conflicts within the Episcopal Church on whether to consecrate gay bishops and bless gay unions. A vocal advocate for gay rights in the church, and in the larger world, Shaw nevertheless made efforts to be sensitive to conservatives in his own diocese — waiting until late 2009, more than five years after gay marriage was legalized in Massachusetts, to give priests permission to officiate at gay weddings, for example. He also let a breakaway congregation in Marlborough be overseen for a time by a conservative Anglican bishop from Canada; the church eventually left the diocese, but without a fight.
“No separation is ever easy, and there’s always great sadness in that,” said the Rev. Michael J. McKinnon of Holy Trinity Anglican Church in Marlborough. “But he really did help to make it very amicable, so we continue to be grateful to Bishop Shaw for that.”Continued...