The Rev. Jim Lewis, an activist against the Iraq war and longtime leader of other public causes, has been stripped of his license by the state's Episcopal bishop on grounds that he performed too many rites for his former parishioners at St. John's Church in Charleston. However, he says, nearly nine years have elapsed since he returned to Charleston in retirement, and his involvement with long-ago church members never caused a problem until now.

Lewis has a high profile in West Virginia. During the stormy 1974 fundamentalist uprising against "godless textbooks," he led a defense of the school system and the disputed books. He also created Manna Meal, a humanitarian soup kitchen at St. John's for homeless or impoverished people. And he helped establish Covenant House, a shelter for the down-and-out, originally in a small house behind St. John's. He blessed unions between gay couples and opposed the death penalty. He pushed for what became the Women's Health Center. In 1982, Lewis moved to Michigan, but returned in 1985 to head Charleston's Coalition for the Homeless. Then he went into religious social work in North Carolina and Delaware. He championed impoverished poultry workers in the Delmarva Peninsula.

Lewis and his wife, Judy, retired and returned to Charleston on Sept. 11, 2001. Soon after the suicide terrorist attack of that date, he organized West Virginia's Patriots for Peace to oppose President Bush's invasion of Iraq. Three years ago, he led a sit-in at the Charleston office of Rep. Shelley Moore Capito to protest her support for the Iraq war. He was sentenced to a day of public service and chose to work on a Charleston trash truck. In 2008, Lewis recruited an interdenominational group of West Virginia ministers to support Barack Obama for president.

Since his retirement, Lewis has served as part-time priest of various West Virginia Episcopal congregations. He was interim minister of St. James Church in North Charleston for a year. Then he filled the same role for nearly two years at St. Luke's Church in Edgewood, helping to merge St. Luke's, St. James, All Saints in South Charleston and Good Shepherd in Kanawha City into a consolidated St. Christopher Church.

His Episcopal work halted abruptly on Feb. 22 when Bishop Michie Klusmeyer issued a letter revoking Lewis's license under a church policy that says: "Clergy who have formerly had a pastoral relationship with a parish will not continue to minister in the former parish in any way."

The bishop told Lewis that some "parishioners have requested that you visit them, and some have even asked that you preside at their funerals." He concluded: "I find that you have been unable or unwilling to maintain appropriate boundaries with former parishioners."

Lewis informed the St. John's vestry that his involvements with past members posed no problem for about eight years, while the Rev. Karl Ruttan was rector of the congregation.

The state Episcopal diocese office reported that Bishop Klusmeyer is out of town and unavailable to answer questions about this topic.

Calls to St. John's Church failed to reach the minister, the Rev. Susan Latimer.

COMMENT: I'm not 100% certain but I don't think we have this particular law in the Church of England. I think we tend to rely on etiquette and good manners. I just assume that members of my congregation will have priests from their past who they are particularly close to and that they will go to them for spiritual advice. That they would want that priest to conduct their funeral is just human nature and rather beautiful, if you ask me.

However, in England, good manners dictate that if a priest is approached to conduct a funeral, or other rite, in a parish in the care of another priest, the permission of the incumbent should be sought first. Good manners also dictates that the incumbent will agree to the request.

I know many incumbents have problems accepting another priest being popular within their parish, but personally, being a lazy sod, I always jump at the chance of extra help and try and build up good relationships with retired clergy and non-parish priests in my parish. The only situations in which I would get extremely cross is if such a priest started consistently and deliberately contradicting my teaching, if they organised hate campaigns against me or tried to set up an alternative congregation.

To be honest, I think it is inhumane and unchristian to dictate where a retired priest can live and minister. A retired minister, who used to work at your church, living in your parish may be problematic. But it is the sort of problem that should be sorted out through discussion, hopefully to the benefit of all concerned. If, after such discussions, the retired priest refuses to be good mannered or works against the parish priest then his or her license should be revoked for not respecting the bishop's authority, not for the fact that they are living in their former parish.

I expect there is more to this story than is being reported in the above article. If anyone has any more details please let us know.


A FALL FROM GRACE — 10 Comments

  1. Your observations are correct. It is “good practice” not to retire into your former parish, as this might impede the new incumbent in his pastoral relationships. However, there is nothing to prevent you from so doing. (Personally I think it right to set a distance between yourself and your former work, if only for your own well-being).

    As far as baptisms, marriages and funerals go, the parish priest has the right to officiate at such ceremonies in his/her parish church, and it is only by the incumbent’s permission that another priest can take them. As you say, “good manners” nearly always dictates that such permission is given, and, like you, I jump at the chance of someone else taking them on when there is an identifiable connection between the people concerned and that minister.

  2. I too believe there is more to this story, and Jim is keeping it to himself. He made it clear on Facebook that there are bigger fish to fry.

    Jim is a good friend; he was a supply priest for St. Paul’s when we were between priests. He and Dad got on famously. Regardless of what one may think of Jim’s politics, I admire him because he walks the talk. In this sense I think he may have been a long-standing thorn in the bishop’s side, and the opportunity presented itself for the bishop to remove his thorn.

    I imagine that for Jim, this is only a minor inconvenience. It won’t stop him from doing what he does best, doing the Lord’s work. 🙂

  3. In this sense I think he may have been a long-standing thorn in the bishop’s side, and the opportunity presented itself for the bishop to remove his thorn.

    Does that really happen? 🙂

  4. When I came into my present parish, I was warned by the archdeacon that the former rector (forced by the bishop into retirement after 28 years here) could not let go and would attempt to muscle in on funerals etc. There was only one such incident before the progression of his cancer made it irrelevant. Had there been a polite request, I would have graciously accommodated, as I did on occasion in my previous parish.

    But I have known parishes blown apart by the presence of the former incumbent (in one case returning after retirement as the parish treasurer) undermining the authority of the rector and fomenting factions.

    I don’t know the players or the full story here. But I do feel confident, as Juanuchis says, that Fr. Lewis’ real ministry will continue unabated.

  5. It is generally true that when a priest retires here the church wants a complete severing. I frankly think it is the equivalent of killing a mosquito with a bazooka. Yes, some clergy and some parishes may have an inability to separate cleanly, but forcing every priest and every parish to cut all ties is over-reaction.


  6. My church has coped with year-long interregnum largely because of the ministry of a previous incumbent. He still lives here because he lives in the house of the woman he married while he was our Rector, and she didn’t want to move. I’ve always thought it completely absurd that people have to be uprooted at a time when the rest of us know fine that it’s a difficult time to re-settle – why on earth should we impose that on clergy? Are they the only people who can’t let go of their former job?

  7. We are told there is an 18-month period in which the former priest should not be in touch in a pastoral fashion with the previous congregation and vice versa… called boundaries. There is a reason for this… I am in a place where the previous clergy kept coming back and there are issues as a result of that — not that I am threatened but it has been confusing for parishioners to have the past keep cropping up with people who do not have clear boundaries. It can make a mess for all parties.