A tribute to Bishop Mark Dyer by Bill Lewellis
During a morning in January 1986, we were standing near the aroma of coffee in Diocesan House in Bethlehem. It was my first week on staff; but I knew Bishop Mark Dyer from earlier volunteer work. He seemed down. “Everything all right?” I asked
Mark had spent the previous evening at a meeting with the onetime Committee for the Episcopate, mostly wealthy men who set the assessment expected from parishes, determined the budget for the bishop’s side of a segregated diocesan budget, and usually met at a country club. Diocesan Council set the other side, diocesan ministries funded from a purely voluntary acceptance received from parishes.
Mark was down, yet determined. “If people expect me to lead this diocese by the bottom line, I’ll go back to Boston and drive a cab.”
I knew then that I was in the right place, with the right person.
Serpents and Doves
Over perhaps the next five to eight years, Mark gently and collaboratively eliminated the Committee for the Episcopate as an arm of the diocese and encouraged diocesan conventions and councils to move toward a unified budget that would be set and overseen in a democratic way.
Diocesan Council became responsible for envisioning the mission and establishing the budget. Mark worked in relationship with others to bring about a major transformation. When the revolution finally happened, it seemed so right that few noticed.
Many who have known and loved Mark for his spiritual and prayerful side may be surprised that he knew also the biblical imperative to “be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.
A truly beautiful man
He was “a truly beautiful man,” said Canon Gwendolyn-Jane Romeril. “Honest, kind, gentle, deeply in love with God, spontaneous in his response to the Spirit’s leading, a great storyteller, a listener, a man always at prayer. The list goes on.
“The man who taught me that every tear is a prayer will now have the tears/prayers of all who knew him in gratitude for a life well lived… an illustrated life of what the gospel looks like.”
Canon Romeril wrote nearly 20 years ago when Mark was leaving the Diocese of Bethlehem to teach at Virginia Theological Seminary: “I remember when Mark told me that he always tries to imagine a veil between himself and another person, and imprinted on that veil is the face of Christ.”
Blessed by his ministry
Archdeacon Rick Cluett served Bishop Mark and the diocese for 12 years as his archdeacon “during what became the most spiritually enriching period of my life, a significant person in my personal, professional, and faith life.”
Mark’s greatest gift to the diocese as a whole, and to the clergy of the diocese, Cluett says, “was to show us ways to grow in knowing, worshiping, and serving our God, made known to us in Jesus Christ. He saw his primary ministry as bishop to be one of spiritual leadership and the ministry of the diocese was to serve the people and ministries in local congregations.”
Mark spent much of his ministry in his car traveling throughout the diocese, Cluett continued, “in a ministry of presence, preaching, teaching, listening, and offering wise counsel as clergy and parishioners came to spend time with him without having to drive hours to and from Bethlehem.
“He and Marie Elizabeth had an adoptive family that was the center of his daily life. Their family included Matthew who had very special, demanding needs and was the recipient of wondrous, tender love that they felt he returned many fold.
“Mark enjoyed a party and an occasional tot of whiskey, his favorite being Irish, of course. Another love of his life was to serve the wider church, both ecumenically and in the Anglican Communion, which he did with distinction.
“The Church has been blessed by his ministry, as have I.”
Mother Dolores Evans Smith remembers when a group of diocesan youth attended the Episcopal Youth Event in Missoula, Montana. An engine of the plane caught fire on the way home. “Bishop Mark was there to greet the youth when they returned safely to Bethlehem. His love and concern for them as well as their families was evident.”
Melody Lewis is grateful to Bishop Mark for his belief in the importance of small parishes. “For that, St. Paul’s Troy is still in existence. One of his early actions as bishop coadjutor was to visit the few of us who were still active there and encourage us with the reminder that the church started out small, and promised that if we prayed for the continued life of our parish, the diocesan staff would pray with us, and we would see what God would do. We are still a very small parish, but we are definitely alive and continuing to serve God on the northwestern fringe of the diocese.”
Wise and compassionate
Mother Sue Doohan remembers when she was talking to Bishop Mark “about how things weren’t going so well in my life and how there seemed to have been over the years an undue number of such negative occurrences, and Bishop Mark said, ‘Evil will always take potshots at good.’ That quote has been a watchword for me ever since and one I’ve used often in giving counsel to others. I took it to mean people who are sincerely seeking to follow Christ shouldn’t expect bad things won’t happen to them.”
Pam Darling spoke with Bishop Mark about her disappointment with parish worship after several years in a convent. As a novice, she had been sacristan for the full 24/7 observance of Holy Week, leading up to the Great Vigil of Easter. Parish services were simply no comparison.
“He listened to my complaints, then smiled sadly and said, ‘I know exactly what you mean. If you have spent significant time in a residential religious house, sustained daily by the Offices and Eucharist, you must not look for that experience in a parish, especially on the great feasts. It just cannot be the same.’
“Of course, he was right. I think of this as an ex-Monk to ex-Nun conversation. His compassionate and straight-to-the-point acknowledgement of the validity of my concern was extraordinarily helpful and freeing. I could grieve the loss of the convent experience, but stop trying to replicate it in a local parish.
“He was a ‘man of God’ in the best sense. I have often sent up prayers of thanksgiving for his wisdom and gentle manner.”
Ministry with the poor and marginalized
Father Scott Allen began working with Bishop Mark when he joined Mark’s staff as Social Missioner, January 1989.
“All of the committees for which I had staff responsibilities were the source of many diocesan initiatives as well as controversial Diocesan Convention resolutions.
“He was clear that our ministry with the poor and marginalized was a primary way that the Holy Spirit’s work in the Church was revealed to the world. New Bethany Ministries was begun under Mark’s episcopate. I recall that Mark framed every conversation theologically, and then moved intentionally to the pastoral and practical. Because my area of oversight was often controversial because of the work with the poor, marginalized and outcast, the topics of my work were not the easiest to talk about.
“This was the era of HIV/AIDS being a feared and terminal illness with no recourse, reproductive rights for women on the front burner, women in the episcopate, and partnered LGBT clergy being able to function in the Church (e.g. The Righter trial) to name just a few. Mark wasn’t entirely comfortable or resolved with many of the issues that my committees had me bring to the diocese on their behalf – particularly LGBT inclusion, abortion and HIV/AIDS. But I admired Mark for his openness and willingness to listen, reflect and hold off on pronouncements in favor of fostering a conversation among the community of the baptized to try to come to some consensus that was just and consistent with the Gospel and Tradition of the Church.
“Mark intentionally came into a pastoral relationship with a person living with HIV/AIDS. David Houseknecht was a flamboyant, very pubic and vocal person living with HIVAIDS. This was a courageous move on Mark’s part as this was the era when many people were afraid of contagion at the altar rail and drinking from the common cup (and yes, even exchanging the peace) with those with HIV/AIDS.
“The relationship between Mark and David flourished and grew until David died a few years later. Our first community HIV/AIDS healing service was held at the Cathedral in that era with Mark as chief celebrant and the one who laid hands on and anointed about everyone in that packed Cathedral, modeling that these folks were not ‘untouchables.’
“The area that was out of Mark’s initial comfort zone was the inclusion in all aspects of ministry of the LGBT community. When Dixie White, John Garber, Rick Bond and I formed the Bethlehem Integrity chapter, it presented a unique challenge to his Episcopate as bishop of a diocese in which the Integrity chapters was required to have a yearly pastoral visit from the Ordinary in the context of a Eucharist. Mark’s first Eucharist with us in the chapel of Trinity Bethlehem was somewhat awkward for him and the chapter, but we got through it with grace and genuine Christian regard.”
Years later, Mark functioned as the interim at St. Elizabeth’s in Allentown shortly after the death of his wife, Marie Elizabeth, who had been the rector. He was entertaining questions about the recent General Convention. “A doctor who was a member of St. Elizabeth’s stood up and read Mark the riot act for General Convention’s permitting LGBT partnered clergy to function properly in the Church as ‘contrary to scripture and tradition.’ Mark listened and proceeded to eloquently and theologically explain why the Church needed to move in this direction, witnessing from his own heart that he had ‘witnessed the fruits of the Spirit’ in LGBT people and that is what guided him in his voting. He changed, he moved. That is the true sign of a person engaged and growing into the full stature of Christ. It is one of many great things I remember Mark modeling for me.”
Speaking frankly with love and gentleness
Canon Mark Laubach loved many things about Bishop Mark, “but one thing I prized most was his gift for speaking frankly and yet with such a spirit of love and gentleness. I particularly remember one occasion when I had the chance to share a concern with him in my early years at St. Stephen’s, Wilkes-Barre, when we were just starting to sing (not speak) the Psalms at the Sunday Eucharist.
“I got a number of complaints, particularly from ‘low church’ parishioners who thought we were becoming ‘too Catholic’ by singing more of the service. Having grown up a ‘low church’ Lutheran, I found this puzzling, because we always sang everything at all our services … and we never thought of ourselves as being ‘too Catholic’ because of that.
“I eventually asked Bishop Mark what I might tell our parishioners who are upset that we’re singing the Psalms. He replied, as I remember, ‘Ask them how many times, when they’ve gone to a baseball game or some other sports event, did they stand up at the start of the game and speak the words of the National Anthem The Psalms are our oldest hymns. For us Christians and for Jews, they are as important and sacred to us as The Star-Spangled Banner is to Americans or God save the Queen is to Britons. They need to be sung.’ May flights of angels sing him to his rest.”
A heart for the poorest of the poor
In 1994, the Episcopal Church awarded the Diocese of Bethlehem the unique designation of Jubilee Diocese “in recognition of efforts made to encourage and support local congregations in their ministry to serve poor and marginalized people.”
“Your programs stand as a beacon of God’s love and compassion in the midst of human suffering,” Episcopal Church Jubilee representative Ntsiki Kabane-Langford said. A grant of $25,000 accompanied the designation. “We are forming a partnership with this diocese to provide a dynamic model for the whole church. Your bishop will always be known as the bishop who left a legacy of social outreach ministry.”
“Ntsiki touched my heart,” Bishop Mark said in response. “If all I’m ever remembered for is as one who had a heart for the poorest of the poor, you will honor me greatly, because I do know that to be the heart of Jesus Christ.”
Playing baseball with Matthew in a field of dreams
[As told by Father John Wagner] While I was serving as assistant to the rector at St. Stephen’s Whitehall, Bishop Mark was with us for his annual visitation. I was just getting to know him and Marie Elizabeth at that time. After vesting, Bishop Mark placed his son on the couch in the rector’s office and turned to join the procession. Being a concerned father, I pointed out to Mark that leaving his son on the couch might not be safe. He merely smiled, told me not to worry.
After the liturgy, Bishop Mark shared with me the story of his son having been born with only a brain-stem, so that motor activity was impossible. Should his son have been able to roll off the couch, Mark said he would have rejoiced… and then he described his vision of heaven as being a place where he and his son would play baseball together.
National and world stages
Bishop Mark served for several years as chair of the U.S. House of Bishops’ committee on theology and member of the Board of Examining Chaplains and as a member of the Lutheran-Episcopal Dialogue in the United States.
The Presiding Bishop asked Mark to address the 1994 General Convention in Indianapolis on Doing Theology Together.
“We live our lives by theological vision,” he said, “our own or someone else’s. Making up our minds about our own theology and vision is our only defense against being held hostage by someone else’s.
“To do theology as Church – as faithful people gathered at General Convention seeking an understanding of God and God’s will for us – is essentially to compose our life together with God. We are like Martha Graham or Alvin Ailey composing the beauty of a dance. We are like Duke Ellington composing a great jazz symphony. God has given each of us the genius and the command to improvise in ways that no one else can.”
Welcome to the banquet
Mark put in my head an image of death that I have used in so many ways. It was from a presentation by Japanese Christian theologian Kosuke Koyama at a House of Bishops meeting. In the late 1980s.
When we die, Jesus will meet us with a basin of water and a towel wrapped around his waist, as he was when he prepared to wash the feet of his disciples on the night before he died. “You’ve had a long journey. You must be tired. Let me wash your feet.” Then, he will wash our feet and finally say, “The banquet is ready. Welcome. Come to the banquet.”