Martha and I went down to Springfield on Monday for the funeral of our friend Andrew Wissemann. I had not talked to him recently and so his death caught me very much by surprise. The Service of Thanksgiving at Christ Church Cathedral was quite lovely and would please him.
Before he became bishop he was my colleague next door at St Stephen’s Church in Pittsfield, where he was rector. I came to be the pastor of First Church of Christ, Congregational, in Pittsfield on December 1, 1982. I was taking books out of boxes and putting them on shelves in my new study when a lively bearded gentleman in clericals appeared at my door. He introduced himself and welcomed me and before he left the room we were friends.
We started an ecumenical study group at St Stephen’s that met in the late afternoon on Tuesdays and then we would all go to the chapel for Evening Prayer. We would read the assigned texts from the lectionary and talk about them to prepare for our sermons. I felt such joyful collegiality from that group. There was Fr. Fran the Roman priest, Julie the Methodist, Ed the Lutheran, and Andrew, David and Tom the Episcopalians. We had frank and spirited discussions and then we would pray together. I don’t know how many other churches anywhere had a ecumenical rota of ministers leading Evening Prayer in an Episcopal church but we did over 30 years ago.
Andrew had gravitas, but he also loved to laugh and as he aged the smile lines in his face grew more profound. He was not a big man, more thin and spry, but he had a great big laugh that took over his body.
And he loved to make others laugh. One day we followed him into the chapel and he was standing straight with his back against the wall and his hands folded at his chest as if he were a statue of a saint or an apostle. He had put an offering plate behind his head like a halo. He cracked us up.
In 1983 he was elected bishop, and in 1984 he was consecrated. He called me and asked if I would do him a favor. Would I come forward with the bishops and ask an ecumenical question in addition to the several canonical questions the bishops would be asking? He had secured permission from the Presiding Bishop to have this done. Andrew said the consecration would be in a Roman Catholic Church and it was an important ecumenical sign for there also to be someone there from the Reformed side of the family.
I was honored. And so it came to pass that I lined up with the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church and (was it 5?) other bishops. I, in my black Geneva gown, and they splendidly arrayed in copes and mitres. I felt a crow among peacocks. My wife Martha took communion from Andrew’s hand. She was nine months pregnant, my daughter Rebecca arriving a few days later. It was just thirty years ago in April and Rebecca herself is now an ordained minister.
Andrew was my model of a faithful parish minister, hardworking, diligent, prayerful, and loving. He brought those habits and qualities to his episcopacy. For years we would meet to have lunch in Springfield (at the Student Prince) or in Lee (at the Morgan House.) We talked theology and ministry and shared personal joys and challenges. Since we weren’t in the same franchise he could be more priest and confessor to me than my own leaders.
He was one of the first people to tell me about P.T. Forsyth, for which I am most grateful. He claimed he wasn’t a scholar, just a good reader and he loved to read (and buy) books. He once joked, “of the buying of books there is no end.”
When I had to leave my pastorate for health reasons ten years ago he came to my goodbye service and spoke at the dinner.
Last week my friend and colleague Jane Dunning sent me the news that Andrew had died, and I called her and asked if it was OK for me to vest and process. She said, “Of course.”
So I did. I vested on Monday and processed with the clergy, and I am especially glad I did, because I think I may have been the only one in the procession who wasn’t an Episcopalian. That sense of what Forsyth called the “Great Church” was so important to Andrew, and an essential part of his belief in the life we share in Jesus Christ.
Before we entered the cathedral Bishop Fisher had a prayer with us. He prefaced it by asking us all to speak one word that came to mind about Andrew. Mine was “kind.”
I could have added many others. One is “humble.” He and I once drove to Hartford to hear N.T. Wright, with whom I studied briefly at Oxford years before. After the seminar I wanted to introduce him to Tom Wright, but he demurred.
Another time we were together at an ecumenical banquet for the judicatory heads from Massachusetts, an annual event for the Massachusetts Commission on Christian Unity (MCCU.) I was the United Church of Christ’s representative. We wanted to sit together and he led me to the far end of the table. He looked around at all the clerical dignitaries and said, sotto voce, “When you are invited to a feast, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, ‘Friend, move up to a better place.” (from Luke 12) He smiled that twinkly smile.
Andrew always wrote these encouraging notes in his fine handwriting. I have a bunch of them which I treasure. Rebecca got one last year at her ordination. His fine hand was still the same.
I am blessed to have many dear friends, but Andrew’s death leaves a certain hole in my life, for he was such an extraordinary person and so good at being a friend. He had such a steady faith that I would dishonor him by only grieving, for he believed, as I do, that “we do not sorrow as those who have no hope.”
So I give thanks to God that he was my friend. I give thanks for him. May he rest in peace, and rise in glory.