Episcopal Bishop of Atlanta (February 1972-December 1983); died on July 17, 2006, at Hendersonville, North Carolina
I’ve developed a strong attachment to the churches, especially the smaller ones….These churches are like persons to me, with their distinct individuality, the fulfillment they are reaching in different ways, their idiosyncrasies and failings and strengths. I will miss this most–the Sunday visitations.
–Bishop Sims in September 1983, shortly before his retirement from the Diocese of Atlanta
Surely we don’t have to park our brains at the church door to feel again the warmth of the Spirit’s fire.
–Bishop Sims in The Time of My Life: A Spiritual Pilgrimage Grounded in Hope (2006), page 72
The War in Iraq is waged by an administration led by a Texas oilman and a ranch owner in the name of a domesticated god who blesses America on demand.
—The Time of My Life, page 37
Seal of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta
Books by Bishop Sims:
Invitation to Hope: A Testimony of Encouragement (1974)
Purple Ink: A Selection of the Writings of Bennett J. Sims as Bishop of Atlanta (1982)
Servanthood: Leadership for the Third Millennium (1997)
Why Bush Must Go: A Bishop’s Faith-Based Challenge (2004)
The Time of My Life: A Spiritual Pilgrimage Grounded in Hope (2006)
Bennett Jones Sims was born in Greenfield, Massachusetts, on August 9, 1920. He spent much of his youth in the Midwest, growing up in the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. Sims graduated from Baker University, Baldwin City, Kansas, in 1943. That year he married Beatrice Wimberly, with whom he had three children, and entered the U.S. Navy, where he served aboard destroyers for three years.
In 1946 Sims entered Princeton Theological Seminary. After becoming an Episcopalian in 1947 he transferred to Virginia Theological Seminary, from which he graduated in 1949. Ordained deacon in 1949 and priest the following year, Sims served the Church of the Redeemer as Curate from 1949 to 1951 and as Rector from 1951 to 1964. While at Church of the Redeemer Sims became increasingly progressive, a fact which irritated some of his conservative and affluent parishioners. First there was the controversy surrounding the building of a new and necessary worship space. People argued over the color of the carpeting and the internal arrangement of the furniture. The more substantial matter, however, was the fact that Sims attended the 1963 March on Washington, an event he described years later as mind-changing. Church of the Redeemer lost 50 families over the Rector’s attendance at the March on Washington.
Sims realized something others did not. Christian faith is not entirely individual; it carries a societal component, also. This understanding informed his career, beginning at Church of the Redeemer.
By 1964 Sims felt the need to leave Baltimore. So he accepted an offer to become a Harvard Fellow for a semester in 1964 then Rector of Christ Church, Corning, New York. In this autobiography Sims wrote that accepting these offers was a mistake. He left Baltimore angry at his congregation. And Sims accepted the offer to become a Harvard Fellow out of ego. He wrote in 2006:
For all the seasons of my long pilgrimage, I have been driven by a need to be better than I think myself to be. This terribly distorting need may be, in some measure, everyone’s Achilles heel, everyone’s core of emptiness that only the supreme gift of God’s forgiveness and the parallel acceptance of one’s self can remove. (The Time of My Life, page 176)
At Corning Sims made changes in parish life. These, no matter how well-considered in the abstract, alienated many parishioners. When, in 1966, Sims resigned to become Dean of Continuing Education at Virginia Theological Seminary, the senior warden was glad. Sims wrote of this experience in his 2006 autobiography, agreeing with the parishioners.
On November 3, 1971, Sims won election as Bishop of Atlanta, a post he assumed the following February. As Bishop he continued to emphasize social issues, including opposition to the Vietnam War, support for the integration of public schools, support for the ordination of women and the adoption and use of the revised Book of Common Prayer. These positions caused consternation in some quarters, but, as Sims prepared to retire in 1983, an Anglo-Catholic priest who opposed most of the Bishop’s positions expressed private support for Sims as a human being. And, in his autobiography, Sims wrote of his response to a letter from St. Paul’s Church, Atlanta, an African-American congregation. It thanked him for his leadership, especially with regard to civil rights. Many parishioners signed the letter. Sims broke down and cried in private.
In his candid autobiography Sims wrote in a confessional tone that he had used theology as a blunt weapon sometimes, but evidence indicates that this was not a dominant pattern. Rather, Sims stood up for what he believed and maintained warm relationships with many people who disagreed with him.
During his time as Bishop of Atlanta Sims issued two statements he retracted during his retirement. First was the 1977 pastoral letter on homosexuality, in which Sims accepted gay identity but not behavior. He meant the pastoral letter for the diocese alone, but Christianity Today published the document and the Church of Sweden adopted it. During the following years Sims rethought his position and published a retraction. He came to accept full equality of homosexuals in church and society.
The second pastoral letter Sims took back dealt with marriage and divorce. In 1979, concerned about the documented effects of divorce in society, Sims wrote of the “indelibility of marriage.” As the Bishop wrote candidly in his autobiography (see pages 64, 155, and 175), his 42-year marriage ended in 1985. He described his first marriage in its final stage as “the mounting disaster of a mismatched pair of one-time lovers” plagued by “the strange undercurrent of insecurity,” which had been present in the relationship from the beginning. Also, Sims confessed in his autobiography that, for most of his career, he had placed the demands of work first and the needs of family second. By 1985 the marriage was no longer salvageable.
In 1983 Sims had founded the Institute for Servant Leadership (ISL), which began life at Emory University. (Sims severed its relationship with Emory and moved the Institute to western North Carolina in 1988.) The ISL was (and remains) committed to teaching leadership as the empowerment of people, not the domination of them. (This understanding underpins many the critiques Sims made of U.S. foreign policy. Based on readings of Sims and of current events, I conclude that, if alive today, he would continue almost almost all of his 2004 and 2006 condemnations of U.S. foreign policy. Sims was an intellectually honest man, not a partisan hack and hypocrite.)
Mary Page Welborn had been administrative assistant to Sims when he was Bishop of Atlanta. During the 1980s she had changed careers and become a consultant in teaching and applying the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, a personality test. In retirement, Bishop Sims asked Welborn to work with him on ISL seminars, and she accepted the offer. Over a few years they fell in love, and so they married in Atlanta in August 1988. At that time Sims received much support from the clergy of the diocese. This marriage ended only when Bishop Sims died.
Bishop Sims retired as President of the Institute for Servant Leadership in 1999, at age 79.
I have finished reading four of the Bishop’s five books. (I have not read Servanthood.) His writing revealed a keen intellect, a warm heart, strong moral convictions, and great candor. Sims, especially toward the end of his life, did not fear to admit his errors and faults, as he understood them. As one ages one needs to reflect on one’s past and evaluate one’s positions and decisions. Sometimes this entails admitting error, and this can be healthy. Do not trust a person who does not think that he or she has made few or no mistakes.
As I write this post I reflect on a few facts. First, I have reached a stage in my life when the date of my high school graduation is approximate to that of the birth or conception dates of many of my college students. Second, I have a few white hairs on my chin and temples. Time has afforded me greater perspective than I had once. And, if I live much longer (Who knows how much time one has?) time will afford me even greater perspective. May I approach my past with at least as much candor as Bishop Sims approached his.
KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR
FEBRUARY 26, 2010 (THE FEAST OF FRED ROGERS)
I read Servant Leadership last Summer, and I am glad I did. You, O reader, might also find the volume edifying and thought-provoking.
July 15, 2012 Common Era
Almighty God, you have raised up faithful bishops of your church, your servant Bennett J. Sims. May the memory of his life be a source of joy for us and a bulwark of our faith, so that we may serve and confess your name before the world, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
Ezekiel 34:11-16 or Acts 20:17-35
1 Peter 5:1-4 or Ephesians 3;14-21
John 21:15-17 or Matthew 24:42-47