St. Martin's Episcopal Church

Yes, President George H.W. Bush was an Episcopalian (and that is still a noun)

Yes, President George H.W. Bush was an Episcopalian (and that is still a noun)

Back when I was breaking into journalism, soon after the cooling of the earth’s crust, I quickly learned that religion-beat specialists know lots of inside jokes.

Take this classic one, from the “light bulb” genre: How many Episcopalians does it take to screw in a light bulb? Answer: One. Along with 10 others to start a newsletter about the utter irreplaceability of the original, historic bulb.

Yes, that’s a really old joke. Today, “newsletter” would be “Facebook page,” or something like that.

In this GetReligion post, the key thing is to note, in this joke, that “Episcopalian” is a noun.

Want to see the adjective form?

While working at the old Charlotte News (RIP), I got some nasty telephone calls after writing a column with this lede: “When covering an Episcopal convention, never stay in the hotel room next to the ice machine.”

As the late Associated Press religion reporter George Cornell — an Episcopalian’s Episcopalian, if there ever was one — once offered, in my presence, a quip that went something like this: You can tell that a journalist is a religion-beat reporter when they know that “Episcopalian” is a noun and “Episcopal” is an adjective.

I bring this up because lots of journalists — few of them religion-beat specialists — will be covering the funeral rites for President George H.W. Bush. Since he was a faithful Episcopalian, of a rather traditional bent, all of these rites will occur in Episcopal settings, with Episcopal clergy involved.

It’s safe to say that mistakes will be made. Consider, for example, the following passage in a lovely Houston Chronicle sidebar about the current emotions in the parish that Barbara and George Bush attended in Houston. The headline: “At Bush’s church, a moment of pause for ‘a remarkable life’.” The story opens with images from the 8 a.m. Mass at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church, a service that tends to attract an older, quieter crowd:

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Behold, a Barbara Bush mystery: Family matriarch waited 'til age 90 to be confirmed as Episcopalian?

Behold, a Barbara Bush mystery: Family matriarch waited 'til age 90 to be confirmed as Episcopalian?

If you watch the whole Barbara Bush funeral, you really get a sense of her personality and how she fit into Houston as a community, but especially life at St. Martin's Episcopal Church (the largest Episcopal congregation in North America).

The service (click here) was loaded with interesting choices, in terms of the readings and hymns -- all negotiated in fine detail, months before her death by the clergy and the extremely literate Barbara Bush.

There's a lot of humor in the service, since we are talking about the life of one of the wittiest figures to grace the American political stage in the 20th Century. There are quite a few tears, too, since she led a large family and clearly had a big impact on all of them.

However, let me note that the service also contained one big surprise and/or mystery and, sure enough, it concerned Barbara Bush's faith. I am sure that religion-beat reporters -- had any been given this choice assignment -- would have caught it.

So what was it? In my GetReligion post following the Bush matriarch's death, I noted that George H.W. Bush and his wife were dyed-in-the-wool, old-school Episcopalians and that this fact helped shape their lives, culture and style. You can see this right at the top of the fine New York Times story about the funeral:

HOUSTON -- At the Episcopal church that has been her spiritual home for more than 50 years, the former first lady Barbara Pierce Bush was celebrated at her funeral as one of the most beloved political matriarchs in American history.

Mrs. Bush, the wife of the 41st president and the mother of the 43rd, died on Tuesday in the bedroom of her home in Houston. She was 92, and took her last breaths holding the hand of her husband of 73 years, former President George Bush.

Note especially the reference to St. Martin's being her "spiritual home for more than 50 years." With that in mind, note this material drawn from the eulogies by son Jeb Bush and the church's rector, the Rev. Russell J. Levenson Jr. This passage was way down in the USA Today report:

When [Jeb Bush] asked his mom recently how she felt about the idea of dying, he said, she didn't miss a beat. "She said, 'Jeb, I believe in Jesus and he is my savior. I don’t want to leave your dad, but I know I will be in a beautiful place.’”

Rev. Russell Levenson Jr., the Bush's pastor for the last 13 years, revealed that Bush came to him in 2015 -- at the age of 90 -- and asked to be confirmed in the church.

Wait a minute!

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