St. Luke’s Episcopal Church has a permanent rector again, . Tim Rich took the job over in June after serving for nine years as assistant to New Hampshire Bishop Gene Robinson.
Rich, 50, said he was ready to return to parish ministry, to have a closer connection with a congregation.
“It was really clear I wanted to be back in a parish,” he said.
Coming to St. Luke’s, however, meant uprooting his family. He and his wife, Diane (both were previously divorced) have four children between them – two boys and two girls.
“At the risk of sounding overbearingly evangelical, this really tested the idea that God would not call us to a place and then abandon us,” Rich said about the decision to move. “Particular credit goes to Diane for being willing to really take a leap of faith.”
Once the decision was made, however, things fell into place. “Diane goes on just one job interview and she gets the job,” he said. She’s the new head of the English Department at Portsmouth High School.
Rich grew up in Charlotte, N.C., and Richmond, Va., in a family that was not at all religious. He first heard about a loving God, he said, from a custodian at his school. Up until that time, said Rich, all he knew about God was from televangelists – “I was terrified of God.” This man, on the other hand, “talked to me about a loving God who wanted to be an intimate part of our lives.”
It wasn’t until college, though, that he actually went to church. One of his Roman Catholic friends in college at Georgetown invited him to Mass.
“I fell in love with the Eucharist,” he said. He wasn’t baptized, however, until his senior year, when he found an Episcopal church. The sermon of that first service hit home.
“He said, ‘We ask our questions together, we search for answers together, we make our journey together.’” That fit for Rich. Three months later he was baptized. He said he felt a call to ministry even then but he didn’t respond because he was on the path to getting a Ph.D in psychology.
Then, he said, God dropped the subtle approach. His fiance died unexpectedly.
“Suddenly I was like a widower and hanging out at the cemetery,” he recalled. “After a year, I realized I had two choices – to be a miserable son of a bitch or I can say to God, ‘What do you want to do with me?’ I chose the latter.”
He studied to be a priest at the now-closed seminary at Northwestern University outside of Chicago and served at churches in Pittsburgh and Portsmouth, N.H., before Gene Robinson asked him to serve as Canon to the Ordinary, or bishop’s assistant. Robinson was the first openly gay priest to be made a bishop in the Episcopal Church, a hugely controversial step both inside and outside the Church.
“He was a great friend,” said Rich of his decision to serve with Robinson. “Of course I’m going to work with this guy.”
In some ways, he said, “it just seemed like it was no big deal.” Except that Robinson received so many death threats after being named bishop, he wore a bulletproof vest under his vestments for his consecration. And there was a police officer dressed as a priest at the service who was armed under his vestments.
“Occasionally, I would step back and say, ‘Wow, this is some crazy you-know-what.’”
He continued, “It was a wild time. The hatefulness was staggering – letters, death threats, vile, violent language.”
Throughout, Rich said, “it was a privilege to be with a guy who carried himself with such tremendous grace.”
What drew Rich to St. Luke’s, he said, was its sense of being open to the wider community.
“I want to be at a parish that has wide open doors,” he said. He liked, too, that St. Luke’s – situated as it is just up from Main Street, can serve the diverse community that is East Greenwich.
He recognizes that for many mainline Protestant churches, numbers are declining. “Younger people say they are spiritual but not interested in organized religion, are not being fed by organized religion. We need to find a way to tell the Jesus story in a manner that feeds the people who are spiritually hungry.”
How that happens at St. Luke’s will be determined in the coming months.
“My hope and prayer is that St. Luke’s Church will make a difference in the East Greenwich community,” said Rich. “Feeding people, providing space, or serving as advocates for public policy – I want us to make a difference in that way.”
On a more basic level, he said, he wants St. Luke’s to be “a sanctuary for individuals to come in and be cared for and less alone.”
To learn more about Fr. Tim and St. Luke’s, you can click here for the church’s website.
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