Bishop Stuart’s Episcopacy

The Episcopacy of the Rt. Rev’d Albert Rhett Stuart

Sixth Bishop of Georgia

Written by the Rt. Rev. Harry W. Shipps

Born 20 January 1906 in Washington, DC, Bishop Stuart grew up in Eastover, SC., son of a country doctor. He attended Episcopal High School, Alexandria, VA, graduated from University of Virginia in 1928, Phi Betta Kappa, and Virginia Theological Seminary in 1931. He was ordained priest at Church of the Resurrection, Greenwood in the Diocese of Upper South Carolina by Bishop K. G. Finlay. He became rector of this parish, leaving in 1936 to become rector of St. Michael’s Church, Charleston, SC. He served as chaplain in the US Navy during World War II from 1942 to 1947. In 1947 he became Dean of Christ Church Cathedral, New Orleans, LA until elected Bishop of Georgia. In 1945 Bishop Stuart married Isabella C. Alston. They had two children, Garden and Isabelle. The bishop’s wife, Isabelle, died tragically in an automobile accident in South Carolina enroute to their vacation cottage.

Bishop Stuart was elected Bishop of Georgia In 1954 at the diocesan electing convention in St. Paul’s Church, Savannah, succeeding retiring Bishop Middleton Stuart Barnwell. He was consecrated in St. Paul’s Church, Augusta, 20 October 1954. Chief consecrator was the Presiding Bishop, The Rt. Rev’d Henry Knox Sherrill. Co-consecrators were Bishop Robert E. Campbell OHC, and Bishop Girault M. Jones. Bishop Stuart was active in the Episcopal Church nationally, serving as Chair of the Standing Liturgical Commission, and twice on Executive Council. He was President of the Fourth Province and, as bishop of the Diocese of Georgia, was a Trustee of the University of the South. He attended the Lambeth Conferences of 1958 and 1968 crossing the Atlantic on shipboard..

Bishop Stuart and his family lived in the episcopal residence on Victory Drive and Reynolds St. in Savannah. The Georgia diocesan office at that time was in the basement of Christ Church, Savannah; the sole full time employee Ms Olwyn Morgan, a native of Wales. Bishop Stuart moved the offices to the Fort Wayne section at 611 East Bay St, which allowed for additional staff and a chapel. The bishop selected the Rev’d Alfred Mead for the position of Archdeacon, a first for the diocese. By 1957, three years into Bishop Stuart’s episcopate, the Diocese of Georgia consisted of 9,976 communicants with annual confirmations of 591 persons. There were 21 parishes, 35 missions, and 4 chapels. Bishop Stuart drove a comfortable red Buick as he regularly criss-crossed the geographically large diocese for Visitations to congregations and various meetings. He always dressed in black vest and white shirt with French cuffs. The epitome of a Southern gentleman, he had impeccable credentials, strong leadership skills, and innate wisdom, all of which served him well as the storm clouds of racial unrest appeared over the South. He was a trusted leader in the Savannah community, and along with Mayor Malcolm Maclean and a committee of 100 leading Savannah business and professional people, effectively moved the community and diocese into a positive, affirming, and cooperative position, avoiding racial crisis during the early years of the Civil Rights movement.

When the diocesan camp on St. Simon’s Island was sold, an arrangement was made with the State of Georgia to rent the state park at Kolomoki Mounds near Blakely each summer for several years. A successful fund raising drive provided funds to build a permanent camp and conference center on land provided by Brunswick Pulp and Paper Company on Dover Bluff Road in Camden County bounded on the East by Honey Creek; hence the common name for the Georgia Episcopal Camp and Conference Center. Bishop Stuart facilitated a widely acclaimed free annual camping program for 400 underprivileged children at Honey Creek. Much credit can be given to the organizer, Commander Robert Clinton, St. John’s, Moultrie.

The Rt Rev A.R. StuartBishop Stuart could be very direct and firm. He once put a mission under brief interdict for not following his directions regarding the architecture of a new building. On many occasions he made clear his expectations for the people of the diocese (1962 journal pg 46-49). In his 1962 convention address, after announcing the largest number of confirmations in the history of the diocese during the prior year, 819 persons, Bishop Stuart noted: “This is a gratifying achievement, but I must point out that it is below the normal growth rate of 10 % of our communicants. If your congregation did not present for confirmation 10 % of your communicant strength during the year, it is apparent that the members of your congregation are shifting their evangelistic responsibility to the clergy. The instruction for Confirmation in the Diocese should emphasize that each person presenting will himself be expected to present one other person for confirmation within the year. This means that members of God’s Church are under obligation to act like members. This also means communicants make their communions.”

Bishop Stuart also explained that parish clergy are under canonical obedience to transfer from the list of active communicants in good standing those who have not made their communions at least three times during the year, to inactive status, meaning that communicants lists should be limited to those regularly making their communion.

“More important than what we say as a Church is how we live as a Church. The facilities of the church for the public worship of God must be used for the public worship of God”. Furthermore, the Church “must be open to the world with no suggestion that anyone is unwelcome or ineligible. Opportunities to serve God in Christ and in fellowship with one another must be fully available to every person in the family of God. I believe the people of this diocese are tired of uncertainty and are ready to give a clear witness.”

Bishop Stuart organized an evangelistic program named The Bishops’ Crusade, wherein twelve bishops were invited to lead preaching services in twelve locations throughout the Diocese of Georgia.

THE ST. JOHN’S, SAVANNAH AFFAIR

The Rev’d Ernest Risley, a rather conservative clergyman, was Rector of St. John’s Savannah for many years. It was St. John’s policy to not admit African American persons, highlighted by several incidents. At a Sunday evening gathering of all EYC groups of the Savannah convocation in St. Paul’s Church parish hall, Mr. Risley rose and led his group of young people out of the building when the EYC from St. Matthew’s Church, the African American parish, entered the hall.

During Lent of 1965, Mr. Risley invited the Rev’d Harry W Shipps, Vicar of Holy Apostles, and the Rev’d Mark Becton, Vicar of St. George’s Savannah, to preach at special Wednesday evening services. Both clergy wrote Mr. Risley to inquire if all persons were welcome at these services, to which Mr. Risley replied that, in fact, they were not. “I believe that integration is contrary to God’s will. I will resign as a minister before I’ll allow Negroes in St. John’s.” The two priests declined the invitation to preach and reported this incident to Bishop Stuart. After investigation and pastoral approaches, the bishop found Mr. Risley unwilling to change his position. On Easter Sunday, 1965, St. John’s ushers turned away four African American persons accompanied by an Atlanta priest. Two days later, St. John’s Vestry called for the congregation to vote to either disassociate from the Episcopal Church or to obey the revision to Canon 16 by the 1964 General Convention which banned exclusion of any member from worship in any church on the basis of race. By a vote of 785 to 75, the members of St. John’s voted to leave the Episcopal Church. Mr. Risley invoked also the liberal views of Dean James A. Pike of New York as reason for leaving the Church. He and his followers withdrew St. John’s from the diocese, while retaining and utilizing St. John’s property. Subsequently, with approval of the Diocesan Standing Committee, Bishop Stuart deposed Mr. Risley from the priesthood in a Diocesan House Chapel ceremony. Bishop Stuart did not pursue the property issue in the courts, choosing to ‘wait out’ St. John’s. Those St. John’s members loyal to the Episcopal Church, led by Mrs. Samuel (Lila) Varnedo and others, met for Sunday worship in the nearby DeSoto Hotel, led by local supply priests.

At the 1966 Diocesan Convention in Christ Church, Savannah, Bishop Stuart devoted a major portion of his annual address to the ‘St. John’s situation’ in pastoral, yet frank terms. Characterizing the situation as a “tragedy,”he said: “Is the church sent to be a refuge from the world or to transform the world? Is the Church sent to maintain the status quo or to protest evil in this culture or any other? Is the Church to provide a chaplaincy for its members or to serve all men? Is the Church to provide a stained glass sanctuary before a carved reredos for white people or is it to be a place of prayer for all of God’s people? The Church is not a religious club organized by man for pious sentimentality or personal status. The Church is a divine organism created by the Lord for the redemption of mankind. A tragic failure to understand this doctrine has resulted here in Savannah in the collapse of a vocation in Holy Orders and a schism in the Body of Chris. For many years the Rector of St. John’s Parish, Savannah, had difficulty accepting the doctrine and policy of the Church. The loneliness of a congregational position within the Episcopal Church led to the development of a very personal pastoral ministry and the gradual assumption of the parish as personal possession, and of the ministry as a personal profession. A choice had to be made between obedience to the sacred vows of Holy Orders in the in the Body of Christ and an individual personal ministry. The latter was chosen and renunciation of the ministry of the Church followed. A people who have turned against the doctrine and discipline of the Episcopal Church have thereby cut themselves off from the privileges and inheritance intended for them in the Body of Christ and have become a sect divorced from the mainstream of the Church’s life.”

Two years later, under pressure from leading parishioners, Mr. Risley and his followers moved from the property of St. John’s Church to a former Jewish Temple on Montgomery St. They existed for a number of years as an independent congregation. Following Mr. Risley’s death, the congregation eventually became a parish of the Reformed Episcopal Church and moved from downtown to a building on Beauregard St. that formerly was the Episcopal Church of the Holy Apostles. In the meantime, the congregation of St. John’s Episcopal Church reconstituted itself and returned to their original property. From 1970 to 1973, an interim priest, Fr Paul W. Pritchartt, led the congregation until Fr. William H. Ralston became rector in 1974.

In the 1950s, an Anglican Congress in Montreal Canada proposed pairing dioceses in a program of Mutual Responsibility and Interdependence in the Body of Christ. Bishop Stuart formed a Companion Diocese Commission and invited the Anglican Diocese of Guyana, Province of the West Indies, into a relationship with the Diocese of Georgia. Fr. Mead accompanied Bishop Stuart to Guyana on several visits, and their Archbishop visited our diocese.

Bishop Stuart’s close friend, Fr Lincoln Taylor, was Superior of the Order of Holy Cross and Order of St. Helena. When the Sisters of St. Helena considered an additional convent, Bishop Stuart invited them into his diocese. A location in south Augusta was obtained from the Nixon family. Bishop Stuart told the architect, “I want the chapel to look like praying hands reaching up, so that the eye is drawn heavenward. And let it be dedicated to the Ascension of our glorious Savior.” In his 1966 address to Diocesan Convention, the bishop said, “A miracle is being performed in Augusta as the Sisters of St. Helena move toward the completion of the convent, chapel, and guest house on the magnificent site overlooking the Savannah River Valley. We give God the praise and the thanks for this achievement, which will immeasurably bless this Diocese now and in the years to come.”

On February 3, 1972 a reception honored Bishop Stuart on his retirement, and substantial check given him, along with keys to his retirement home on Lincoln Street and fully paid mortgage. His response was touching, and appreciative of his life in the diocese. Bishop Stuart died on 17 April 1973 at age 67, shortly after leading a teaching mission in Augusta, GA. The funeral Eucharist was celebrated in Christ Church, Savannah, with burial in St. Michael’s, Charleston churchyard.

After serving a need for a number of years, the Episcopal Home for Girls in Savannah was sold. With the equity, The Episcopal Youth and Children’s Services was established for educational assistance and Honey Creek camp scholarships, for which a diocesan offering is taken annually.