Imagine the scene: The Diocese of South Carolina’s bishop was in his office at St. Philip’s Church in downtown Charleston when one of his own priests stormed in, unhinged by rage.
The armed priest was irate about Bishop William Alexander Guerry’s efforts to advance racial equality in the church. The priest shot Guerry. Then he shot and killed himself.
Guerry died four days later at Roper Hospital, reportedly uttering Jesus’ words: “Forgive him, Father, he knew not what he did.”
The tragic scene took place on June 5, 1928, 85 years ago this past week.
To honor Guerry, Grace Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston is celebrating a “feast day” today and is dedicating a chapel in the church to the bishop’s memory.
Guerry is not officially on the list of “Holy Women, Holy Men,” a compilation of church saints published by the Episcopal Church. However, Grace members and others are taking early steps to get his story out there in hopes that one day he will become the first South Carolinian to be included. “It’s quite a story,” said diocesan Chancellor Thomas Tisdale, who is in the final writing stages of a play about Guerry. “He is a hero.”
Yet when Tisdale began researching Guerry’s history, he was surprised how few lifelong Episcopalians in town knew much about the bishop’s violent demise or his beliefs. “It’s like it has been erased,” Tisdale said.
Guerry, a South Carolina native, is buried at the historic St. Philip’s. He attended what today is Porter-Gaud School, then studied at and later became chaplain at the University of the South, where he was also professor of homiletics and pastoral theology.
Guerry was one of the few Southern bishops who supported the Social Gospel, according to Episcopal Church archives. Among issues that angered the murderous priest was Guerry’s support for installing a black bishop to minister to black parishioners as a way to keep both races under the same church umbrella, Tisdale said. “He was looking for ways to keep African-Americans in the church,” Tisdale said. “It was very controversial and was a lot of the reason the priest who shot him became so enraged.”
The priest previously had written that, if allowed, the bishop would harm the principle of white supremacy, according to a history of Guerry’s life posted on Grace Episcopal’s site, www.gracechurchcharleston.org.
Tisdale said that part of the renewed focus on Guerry is due partly to the bishop’s emphasis on unity, which reverberates today as social and theological issues divide Episcopalians and other Christians.