Retired Episcopal bishop continues pilgrimmage
Retired Bishop William Spofford celebrated Easter Eucharist at St.
Peter’s Episcopal Church in La Grande and shared passages from his book,
“Pilgrim in Transition.” In its introduction he writes, “A classic
pilgrim is not a tourist, but a seeker. The pilgrim always desires
insights, relationships, revelation.”
Spofford was consecrated bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Eastern Oregon in 1969 during a snowstorm in Ontario. Many remember Spofford arriving by motorcycle on his pilgrimages to the diocese’s outback parishes. For a man who grew up in Brooklyn, he knew how to cross the urban/rural divide.
The Rev. Canon John Peterson said in his forward to “Pilgrim in Transition,” “His life is a life of pilgrimage, alternating between urban and town/country cures.”
In 1980, Spofford crossed the rural/urban divide once more and moved to Washington, D.C., to serve as Bishop John Walker’s assistant. During his time in the nation’s capital he would visit the Ghandi Memorial and witness political protests along the way.
“I went to D.C. during the Iran hostage crisis. I would walk downhill from the Cathedral, through a park full of daffodils and past a mosque picketed by Sunnis and Shiites,” he said. “Further down the hill there was picketing at the British Embassy and a little further down from there and across from the embassy I would go to the Ghandi Memorial to honor him.”
Ghandi, too, was a pilgrim in transition and his peaceful ways influenced the future bishop. In 1931, Spofford shook Ghandi’s hand at Prince Albert Hall in London. His father was a clergyman and his family had been invited by the Bishop of Manchester, later Bishop of Canterbury, William Temple, to attend the event.
Spofford’s father was not only a priest, but the editor and publisher of The Witness, a radical church weekly, he said. Spofford lives out his own heart for social justice as a member of the ACLU, the League of Women Voters and Oregon United Nations Association.
Peterson’s forward says, “Bill Spofford has always been an articulate and concerned spokesperson, an activist for peace and social justice issues, two realities which he never separated.”
In 1994, U.S. Episcopal Presiding Bishop Edmond Browning appointed Spofford as bishop chaplain to St. George’s College in Jerusalem. For a year he and his wife, Polly, lived in the most disputed territory on earth surrounded by a variety of Christian, Muslim and Jewish traditions. While there, Browning asked Spofford to write daily meditations, which he compiled into his book, published in 1996.
Browning says in his preface, “These meditations are from the pen of one who continues on the pilgrim path with joy and faithfulness.”
So often a place of tumult, the Middle East, Spofford said, was relatively calm during his stay that came on the heels of the September 1993 meeting between Yassar Arafat and Yitzak Rabin on the White House lawn.
“So we went to Palestine/Israel during that year of transition,” he wrote. “Everything … the land, the farms, the cities and “The City,” the economy, the politics and the cultures were in transition. So were we!”
As chaplain, Spofford and Polly traveled to archeological sites in Sinai, swam in the Sea of Galilee and traveled with Bedouins. One day, ancient history and modern day turmoil came eerily together.
Spofford wrote, “Dotted about between Egyptian army posts and Bedouin encampments would be some of the oldest burial sites in the world. More recently, relics of the Sinai war between the Jewish state and Nasser’s forces were left. We were surprised on one occasion when we were preparing a desert Eucharist to discover that we were using a cliff side machine gun emplacement as our temporary altar.”
His time in Israel was not completely without violence. A backlash from the peace agreement created the “Machpala Massacre.”
Spofford wrote, “One morning, while Muslims were doing their prayer discipline in the mosque, Dr. Baruch Goldstein entered and sprayed the congregants with bullets from his Uzi. Many, of all ages, died. The furor and the fear were ferocious. In the melee Dr. Goldstein was killed.”
He saw some of the Palestinian/Israeli conflict firsthand while returning from the Gaza Strip into Jerusalem; Israeli soldiers manhandling grandmotherly types who fought back and scratched, he said.
“To go to Gaza is to go into one’s own confusion and anger, with a heavy dose of shame and guilt overlaying them,” he wrote.
Spofford finished writing his book of meditations after he returned to Oregon. Before it was published, Rabin was assassinated. Despite international efforts, the peace accord was collapsing. Palestine/Israel continued its painful process of transition.
A pilgrimage to the Holy Land is a dream most Christians never realize. Spofford said his time in Israel and traveling following St. Paul’s route through Turkey made a memorable impact.
“If someone was to approach me today and say they want to be ordained, I would tell them to go to St. George’s College in Jerusalem first,” Spofford said.
The bishop continues to live in Portland. His beloved Polly died a couple of years ago. He said he travels as much as he can, often with his youngest son, Dan. Father and son made their Easter pilgrimage this year to La Grande for Easter mass at St. Peter’s and spent a weekend at Ascension School in Cove, considered a holy place in its own right by many generations of Eastern Oregonians.