Robin Williams Was Episcopalian

Robin WilliamsI have commented from time to time that “the Episcopal Church gets all the good ones eventually.” Typically I mean that of the theologians and bible scholars that I have known, many of whom can be found in our sanctuaries after retiring from careers associated with other denominations. Brian McLaren admitted to our Diocesan Convention a year ago that he worships with us, and I think to my first Old Testament professor, Brevard Childs, who was raised in the Presbyterian/Reformed tradition, but who found a home at Christ Church, Bethany, CT. But this can also be said for the world of public figures of all sorts. Eleven American presidents were Episcopalians, a surprise in that we have never been more than a few percent of the American population. In the entertainment world Sam Waterston of Law and Order fame is an Episcopalian, as is Garrison Keillor — that despite his stories of growing up in a protestant “house church” and poking fun at Lutherans on his radio show. Humphrey Bogart, Fred Astaire, Van Morrison, Judy Garland, Duke Ellington, and Cecile B. DeMille all knew The Book of Common Prayer.

You will see and hear much in the way of tribute to Williams with the recent news of his death, presumably by suicide, and my bet is that not much of it will call attention to his faith. A fan for many years, I have occasionally caught a biblical reference or a mention of church practice in the midst of his famous verbal outpourings. My colleagues from the Diocese of California (which is actually quite small, consisting of San Francisco and a few surrounding counties) were always quick to claim him as “one of us” and to share appreciation for his generosity to his congregations and others in the area. At the General Convention in 2006 many of us brought home souvenir tee shirts with this “Top Ten” list.

Top Ten Reasons to be an Episcopalian (According to Robin Williams)

10. No Snake Handling

9. You can Believe in Dinosaurs

8. Male and Female God Created Them; Male and Female we Ordain Them

7. You don’t have to Check your Brains at the Door

6. Pew Aerobics

5. Church year is Color Coded

4. Free Wine on Sundays

3. All of the Pageantry, none of the Guilt.

2. You don’t have to Know How to Swim to get Baptized

1. No matter what you Believe, there’s Bound to Be at least One Other Episcopalian who Agrees with You

In the context of his death and the now more public conversation around his struggles with drug addiction, alcohol addiction and severe depression, his third reason speaks to his faith. The Episcopal Church preaches the Gospel, making it clear that there is a tension between the boundless love God has for us, and the expectations that love places on us in terms of our affections, our behaviors and our witness to the world. But unlike many other Christian traditions, we do not couch our message in guilt. We talk more about sin than we do about sinners. This may be why Williams could still be a good Episcopalian while struggling with such huge demons: we don’t make personal struggle harder by adding blame or shame to the battle. Instead, our liturgy offers a glimpse each week into the beauty of holiness, as well as a chance to practice heaven at the altar.  And in the witness of Scripture we read of many who battle against demons, urges and despair. In Genesis Jacob wrestles with an angel by night, but refuses to submit and receives the new name Israel, “He who Strives with God.” King Saul, from a modern perspective, was subject to bouts of depression, as I think was Jeremiah.  St. Paul’s own struggles against his share of demons, both physical and emotional, appear regularly in his writings.

I quipped at our Tuesday morning service the day after he died that putting Robin Williams into our collection of Holy Women, Holy Men — our calendar of Saints — might be a really good idea. First of all, he could stand as Patron of those who suffer and struggle with similar demons. Interestingly, we honor The Rev’d Samuel Shoemaker on 31 January, whose descriptions of the “12 Steps” have led to health and wholeness for countless addicts, but not “Bill W.” who first trusted Shoemaker’s advice. That Williams died by suicide is, I think, not so much an acknowledgement of personal failure but more a testament to the power such demons can wield. The example he offers is a lifetime of struggle against an enemy which ultimately defeated him.

But second, he would be the first of our saints whose work is not preserved as print on paper, but whose inspired and inspiring genius comes to us in the visual media of television and film. If humor is as important to human health as I think it is, his extraordinary performances will be a blessing for years to come. There is tragic irony at work here. Recall Luke 4:23-24

He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’” And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.

Sadly, for all the joy he brought to so many of us, he could find none left in himself.

“May his soul, and the souls of all the faithful departed, rest in peace.”

The Rev’d Canon Dr. Mark Gatza


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