[This is a slightly edited draft of a profile I wrote for our local weekly, The News-Gazette, twice as long as the one I ended up sending to be published on Dec. 4, 2019.]
The Rev. Ellis Tucker “Tuck” Bowerfind, 61, has arrived from an Episcopal church in Alexandria to become the new pastor for Lexington’s historic Grace Episcopal Church.
The grandson and great-grandson of Episcopal bishops, he is a descendant of the prominent Tucker family that has served Virginia since the Revolution as judges, law professors (including two at Washington and Lee in its earlier days), congressmen, and an antebellum novelist admired by Edgar Allen Poe. But what appealed to the church’s Call Committee was his quiet, methodical way of engaging other people in ministry.
“Our interactions with Tuck and his wife (Delea) have been wonderful,” said Gail Dickerson, chair of the Call Committee (and now senior warden for the Vestry). “They’re so easy to be around you feel like you’ve known them for years.”
If Tuck Bowerfind is easy to be around, it’s an expression of his theology. “The witness we’re bearing is that all people are made in the image of God, are holy,” he said in a phone interview. “But we also have to construct what we mean by holy.”
In a time when Christianity seems captive to politics, and politics are dividing people, “the most radical thing you can probably do is build a personal relationship,” he said, “regardless of [the other person’s] political views.”
The search for a new rector – “rector” is the head pastor of an Episcopal church – was a year-long process of careful self-reflection for the 179-year-old parish. It came in the wake of a couple of changes that had rattled the historic church. In 2017, the Rev. Tom Crittenden resigned after 10 years as rector. (Crittenden is now an interim rector at another Grace Episcopal Church, in Yorktown, after a successful stint as interim rector of a church in Decatur, Ala.) And just before that, the Lexington church had changed its name from R.E. Lee Memorial back to its original name of “Grace.”
The Vestry, a lay governing body comprising 12 elected church members, selected a seven-member Call Committee in September 2018. The Call Committee proceeded, with careful deliberation, to engage the entire congregation in cottage meetings, a weekly prayer, and a 22-page parish profile for what the document called “a new and promising chapter in the life of our parish.”
Dickerson said that Bowerfind’s name was submitted by a parishioner early in the process. All candidates’ names were first sent to the Rev. Jonathan Harris, a canon with the Episcopal Diocese of Southwest Virginia in Roanoke. Harris narrowed the pool and sent his list to the Call Committee, which winnowed these to several finalists for Skype interviews and other vettings, Dickerson said.
On Sept. 27, a letter went out to the congregation from Lynwood Dent, senior warden, and Steve Shultis, junior warden, announcing the unanimous decision of the Vestry for Bowerfind, “in response to a passionate, unanimous recommendation from the Call Committee.”
Bowerfind was ordained in 1992 in Cleveland, Ohio, where he was born, the son of a doctor and grandson of the Right Rev. Beverley Dandridge Tucker, a past Episcopal bishop of Ohio and Rhodes Scholar. (That bishop’s father, also Beverley Dandridge Tucker, had been the second bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Southern Virginia.)
A graduate of St. John’s College, Annapolis, and Yale Divinity School, Bowerfind served churches in Cleveland and in Barnstable, Mass., before coming to St. Luke’s, Alexandria, in 2003 as rector. Aside from his work at St. Luke’s, he was active in the Diocese of Virginia, where a great-great-uncle, the Right Rev. Henry St. George Tucker, had been the eighth Episcopal bishop (and later, Presiding Bishop of the national church). Last year, Bowerfind was named co-chair of the Virginia Diocesan Committee on Race and Reconciliation.
One of the challenges Bowerfind faces is common nationwide, the fact that the fastest-growing demographic in American religious life, larger now than any single denomination, is the “nones,” those of mostly younger generations who claim no religion at all. For Grace Episcopal, the challenge has this local twist: the parish has traditionally envisioned part of its mission as serving students at its two adjacent college campuses.
“The biggest issue is simply the reality of God and the believe-ability of the gospel in terms of the real world, a scientific worldview,” Bowerfind said.
“Obviously the answer is faith, but certainly it can’t be simply to ask young people to set aside those concerns” about believing in claims of supernatural historical occurrences. “I come from a background where the construction of faith is work you do. To construct your faith is as important as the faith you construct.”
Younger generations are facing extreme change, he said, and they wonder why traditional churches aren’t changing too. “The church thinks it can retain the old trappings, but the trappings are no longer . . . trapping people. It’s a challenge to those of us who love the trappings.”
He said he welcomes the challenge of secular society and the questions the young are asking, because it places an important judgment on the church. He named three big “strikes” against the church in this judgment.
One is unity in Christ – when even people within a church can’t come together in love, that’s strike one. Second is in standing with the poor, the oppressed, the looked-down on, the outsider – strike two, he said.
Strike three is this: “The church ought to be a place where there’s wisdom, in particular, right now, how do we deal with emerging technology, the consequences of which none of us have any understanding.” In particular, he named global warming as the equivalent of our previous terror over nuclear holocaust. Global warming “represents the holocaust that ought to be driving us into each other’s arms to look creatively until we’ve found the solution. . . The question is, will we do it?”
Bowerfind and his wife, Delea, who holds a master’s degree in applied social work, have bought a house just outside Buena Vista. They have four children: Tiffany Joly, a lawyer married to Matt Calise, who works at Georgetown University Law Center; George Bowerfind, who manages a restaurant in Williamsburg; Dorothy Bowerfind, a graduate of St. John’s, and Elizabeth Bowerfind, a classics major at New College in Sarasota, currently in Athens, Greece.
They have one grandchild, Archer Calise, 7, of Alexandria.
Bowerfind preached and celebrated Communion at Grace Episcopal for the first time on Dec. 8, the second Sunday of Advent.