Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Remembering Rowan: Crusty Gets Nostalgic

Some sad news from Crustyland last week.  The Rev Dr Rowan Greer, Walter Gray Professor Emertius of Anglican Studies at Yale Divinity School/Berkeley Divinity School at Yale, passed away at age 79.  Crusty always called him Father Greer, never Dr Greer or Professor Greer or, God forbid, Rowan -- and, to be honest, COD thinks Fr Greer was the only Episcopal priest he has always referred to, often even in the third person in conversation with others, as Fr Greer.  Heck as Crusty got older and became a Rev Dr himself, he increasingly has seen old mentors as colleagues; he has referred to his old field ed supervisor and the bishop who received him into the Episcopal Church and even primates by first name, but never Fr Greer.  He was an important mentor to COD, Crusty wouldn't be Crusty without him.

More on Fr Greer in a minute, but this week Crusty has been on a nostalgia trip, partly due to Fr Greer's passing but also due to some other, personal matters COD doesn't feel like sharing with the interwebz.  Got me thinking about the past, how Crusty got to where he is today, and mentors in general.  There have been many over the years, but these three in part come to mind this past week as Crusty has been pondering.

The first was my grandmother.  She was an amazing woman:  sent off to live on a farm with a family not her own, grew up without running water and electricity in rural New Hampshire.  She was the only woman in her high school graduating class; all the other women didn't finish, got married and got to work.  But my grandmother finished, and not only that, was the valedictorian.  She went off to college when it was rare for anyone to go, let alone women, graduating from the University of New Hampshire.  She was a mentor to me not just for her courage and intelligence, but as a Christian as well.  Crusty was a child of a mixed marriage. Dad was Irish Roman Catholic and Mom a New England Yankee Congregationalist, and it was still a bit of a scandal in 1950s Boston when they
Grandma circa 1935.  I still miss her.
married.  Since they were married in the Catholic Church, the deal was we had to be raised Catholic, and Crusty was.  Yet my grandmother was a proud and faithful Congregationalist; she was important to COD because she was someone I saw who seemed more interested in living out her faith day to day than in outward acts of churchly devotion and piety.  As a child COD struggled with what it meant to be Catholic apart from having to do (or not do) stuff:  go to Mass, not eat meat on Fridays during Lent, and so on.  Of course there's a long tradition of Catholic social justice teaching, Crusty's just saying it didn't enter into his worldview much in 1970s Massachusetts.  My grandmother, on the other hand, seemed more interested in doing stuff in the world than in church.   As East Boston began to experience increased Hispanic/Latino immigration, she helped set up Sunday schools in poorer neighborhoods. COD vividly remembers her telling stories of chasing rats out of Sunday school classrooms in churches in East Boston when she got there in the morning.  She was also a feminist, albeit in her own way.  She went back to school after my mother went off to college, earned a library science degree, went to work for the Congregational Library and Archives, eventually becoming the director herself, the first woman and first non-clergyman to head the organization.  Over the years COD has come to appreciate her as someone who was more interested in doing than being, and as someone who was willing to openly challenge what the church thought you could or could not do.  COD has tried to do the same.  Plus, she was one of the funniest, most acid-tongued people Crusty has ever known, and had no patience for fools.  When CODW (Crusty Old Dean's Wife) was meeting OMOCOD (Official Mother of Crusty Old Dean) and OFOCOD (figure it out) she said, "I hope your parents like me."  Crusty replied, "Forget them, you better hope my grandmother likes you."  Crusty likes to think he has inherited a bit of her acid-tongue.

The second was (is, he's still alive but retired now) a rabbi.  Crusty arrived at college in thoroughly skeptic mode.  After Confirmation, COD still went to church, not as often as before, and mostly out of a sense of obligation, and by his late teens AYMC (Angry You Man Crusty) has was skeptical of much of Christian belief and doctrine and began styling himself as an agnostic.  The church just seemed so hypocritical, Christians didn't seem to follow the teachings of Jesus and were obsessed with people's sex lives, and so Crusty's faith was in benign neglect and he becoming content with trying to do unto others as he wished they would do unto him.  However, Crusty was just a poser when it came to agnosticism, and it really didn't suit him.  For instance, while a Russian Studies major, he began taking
RBI Klein discussing I-Thou relationship with the ball with Buber.
religious studies classes.  There was something about the whole religion thing AYMC just couldn't shake.  And then he met Rabbi Roger Klein, the Jewish chaplain at the university Crusty attended.  The movie "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" had just come out, and we used to call him Roger Rabbi.  One of my buddies was a big fan of the band the English Beat, and instead called him Ranking Roger.   He was a tall man, with his rabbinic beard and booming voice.  He played softball on the religion department team, which earned him another nickname, RBI Klein.  He said that he was able to still play shortstop at his age because "I have an I-Thou relationship with the ball."  He was real, he was authentic, he was cool -- and he was a rabbi.  Crusty hadn't come across this combination of authenticity with faith before.  Sure, there has been hip and cool clergy Crusty had come across, but he often found himself wondering why they were clergy if they seemingly didn't believe in anything.  The rabbi was authentic but also a faithful Jew.   COD took several courses with him, and went to him for vocational advice, wondering if he should go off to study religion at the graduate level or continue with the plan to do doctoral work in Russian Studies. The rabbi told AYMC he could go become anything and probably be happy; but where might God be calling him to a life of wholeness, not just success?  Of fulfillment, and not contentment? Crusty was also very uncomfortable in the Catholic Church, but the rabbi told him to stick with it for now; he said asking questions would help me understand what I really believed; that too much change at once was too much; and to come to grips with the faith of my upbringing and make peace with it first before considering anything else.  Wise words from a wise man.  Rabbi Klein was an important mentor in showing COD you could be authentic and be a person of faith.

Then COD arrived at Yale Divinity School in the fall of 1991, 22 years old and planning to do a Master of Arts in Religion degree and eventually move on to doctoral work in biblical studies.  He walked into his first class, sat down, and in walked a man in a clerical collar with a dog trailing behind him.  COD was startled; he had never had a person in a clergy collar in a classroom!  The Catholic chaplain at the university he attended seemed rarely to dress as a priest except for Sundays.  And with a dog!  Fr Greer then opened class...with a prayer!  Crusty had never thought about beginning class with prayer before.  It was all so startling.  That was Fr Rowan Greer, and the course was Introduction to Church History.  COD took five classes with Fr Greer, and he was instrumental in helping Crusty switch from the MA in Religion to the MDiv, to begin to consider he might be called to ordained ministry, and to move from an emphasis in Biblical studies to Church History.

Academically, Fr Greer bridged New Testament studies and church history.  Crusty had taken OT and NT survey courses as an undergraduate, and some philosophy of religion classes, but it seemed that  the years from 100-1600 had been entirely skipped, and up to that point my academic work ended with the NT and picked up again with Descartes.  Fr Greer opened up all that space in-between.  His own doctoral work was in New Testament, but he bridged the NT and Patristic periods, in his writings he
Fr Greer and McGregor during Crusty's time at Yale.
focused on examining how the early church understood and interpreted Scripture.  This came as a breath of fresh air, because, as COD proceeded with his MAR with emphasis in New Testament, it had all started to feel a bit constricting.  COD wasn't sure he wanted to continue writing papers comparing the use of the hortatory subjunctive in the Pauline and deutero-Pauline corpus.  That's not a joke, that was an actual paper COD wrote. Fr Greer also made the early church come alive it all its fascinating weirdness, peppering his lectures with the bizarre oddities of the period (including sharing the earliest known evidence of a whoopee cushion) and his own shorthand mnemonic devices (the Frankenstein Theory of the Papacy; the Three Bears' Theory of the Trinity; the Mayonnaise Theory of the Incarnation).   By his third year in seminary, having switched to the MDiv, been received into The Episcopal Church, and considering both ordination and future academic work, Fr Greer became my academic advisor.

Fr Greer was an important mentor in the way he embodied being a scholar and a priest.  His priesthood didn't inhibit his scholarship, not did his scholarship overshadow his priesthood.  Crusty got to experience both sides, since Fr Greer was also the assisting priest in the congregation where COD did his field education work, Crusty got to see him in both his academic and his pastoral contexts.  He gave COD some of the best advice he's ever received, things Crusty still passes on to his own students.  One of my favorites was one of Crusty's first days assisting Fr Greer at the altar.  I was clearly a little nervous.  Fr Greer said, "Don't worry.  For one thing, if you make a mistake, just keep going.  Most of the time if you look like you know what you're doing nobody will notice.  You know, I forgot the Lord's Prayer once, and I don't think most people noticed.  Or else they assumed I probably did it on purpose, when I fact I just flipped two pages instead of one and didn't notice until it was too late."

As a seminary professor, Crusty finds himself sometimes echoing some of the things he learned from Fr Greer.  Crusty always tries to return papers as promptly as possible, like Fr Greer did.  Fr Greer would also rarely write in the margins of your paper, he would attach often several yellow lined pages with extended comments. COD can't pull this off -- he prefers papers submitted electronically -- but tries to add as many comments as he thinks are helpful.   Fr Greer always was focused on the student and learning, when at times it can feel as if you're a cog in some kind of machine.  Crusty tells every student at the seminary where he teaches, "The students aren't here for the seminary, the seminary is here for the students."  I like to think I picked that up from Fr Greer.

There are any number of Fr Greer stories.  The time his dog threw up a half-eaten bird in class and he went on lecturing without missing a beat.  While presiding at a weekday Eucharist, reading a particularly tendentious biography in Lesser Feasts and Fasts, then rolling his eyes and saying, "Good God this has to be one of the dreariest commemorations someone could have thought up.  Let's translate another commemoration." The way he never liked shaking hands during the peace, but would stand with his arms crossed and nod in your direction.  COD always wondered, in part, whether it had to do with the impairment on one of his hands due a childhood accident.

He was refreshingly blunt without being cynical or snarky or mean, there was a sincerity and honesty to his bluntness.  In particular Crusty remembers telling him he was going out to meet with a couple of parishioners at the congregation where I was doing field ed and he was assisting priest.  He rolled his eyes and I asked what that was about and he said, "Tom, you need to know that in every congregation there are a handful of people whose sole purpose is to undermine and destroy every single thing you want to do.  X and Y are two of those people."  He paused, then added, "The funny thing is they are sometimes really nice people otherwise."

While at Yale, and thanks to mentor and friends like Fr Greer and others, Crusty wanted to grow up to get a PhD in Early Church but also teach in Anglican Studies, which, astonishingly, Crusty has ended up doing.  In 2002, Crusty was absolutely floored to be one of the finalists for the Walter Gray Chair in Anglican Studies that Fr Greer has held (and BTW they chose the perfect candidate, COD's former classmate, while honored to be a finalist I would have picked the current incumbent over me).  I sent Fr Greer my dissertation when I finished it, attached a letter thanking him for helping crystallize my academic interests, but also thanking him for being such an important mentor and model of what it means to be a priest and a scholar and a teacher.  With typical graciousness, he send a hand-written reply several pages long and commented (favorably, I might add) on several points in the dissertation, demonstrating he had taken the time actually to read it.

So it's been a sad week for Crusty, not just with Fr Greer's passing, but, as noted above, with some other things he would rather not share.  Crusty felt a tinge of guilt he hadn't kept in touch with Fr Greer, or even let him know how important he was in COD's personal and vocational development.  Someone's passing often leaves us with regret for things unsaid.  But alongside this nostalgia and sadness there is also a bit of hope and encouragement.  Crusty has been pleased to see the outpouring of remembrances of Father Greer as news of his passing spread.  It made me remember what a privileged position it is to be a teacher on any level, to walk with people on their journeys.  Amidst challenges of preparing for accreditation, keeping an eye on the seminary's investment portfolio, and changing batteries in smoke detectors -- all the glamorous elements of being a seminary dean -- Fr Greer's passing has reminded Crusty that the seminary is here for the students.


  1. Beautiful tribute.


  2. He was a very patient teacher, and very generous to this rather mediocre term paper author. He always wrote more notes on my paper than I had written myself. I owe him a great deal. May he rest in peace.

  3. Sixteen months after his passing, I only this week discovered the death of Mr. Greer. He was always "Mr". Greer to me even after decades of exchanging Christmas cards and notes. Thank you for your tribute. Here is my own. LINK ragreer3@blogspot.com


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