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William Cockburn Russell Sheridan, Fifth Bishop
William Cockburn Russell Sheridan was elected the fifth bishop of Northern Indiana on 15 April 1972, and he called the event the "most terrifying experience of my life." He had expected another candidate to be elected, and he had not prepared himself for the experience. Sheridan was the first, and to date only, bishop to be elected from its own fold of priests and was consecrated on the Feast of St. John the Baptist, 24 June 1972, in the Basilica of the Sacred Heart Church on the University of Notre Dame campus. The gift came because of his close friendship with Notre Dame president Theodore Hesburgh and Bishop Leo Pursley of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend. Among the consecrans were Bishop Francis C. Rowinski of the Polish National Catholic Church whose orders are considered valid by the Vatican. Following the tenures of two bishops who were not considered pastoral and were not well liked, Sheridan proved himself to be both a pastoral and beloved bishop.
Sheridan was born in New York City on 25 March 1917. He had a patrician appearance and bearing. His mother was English-born and a devout Anglican; his Irish-born father was a Roman Catholic and an alcoholic. William grew up in Baltimore and attended St. Paul's School in Brooklandville, Maryland; then he spent a year at the University of Virginia before the Great Depression forced him to drop out for lack of funds. He later was accepted into a baccalaureate program at Nashotah House Seminary, receiving a Bachelor of Divinity degree in 1939 and a liberal arts degree from Carroll College in Wisconsin in 1943. Many years later Nashotah granted him honorary Master's and Doctor's degrees. He was ordained to the diaconate in 1943 by Bishop Noble Powell of Maryland and the same year married Rudith "Trudy" Treder of Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin. They would have five children, including twin sons.
After ordination, Sheridan served briefly at Mt. Calvary Church, Baltimore, and as curate at St. Paul's Church, Chicago. He was also briefly a priest at Emmanuel Episcopal Mission, in Garrett, Indiana. In 1944, he became rector of Gethsemane Episcopal Church, Marion, and vicar of St. Paul's Gas City. In 1947, Bishop Reginald Mallett ordered him to St. Thomas Church, Plymouth, where he served a long rectorate of 25 years. For ten years he was also chaplain of Culver Military Academy.
Sheridan was a strong Anglo-Catholic and a conservative at a time of profound change in the national Church. He set out to be a pastoral bishop after years of cold formality from his predecessor. In this regard he brought several innovations to his episcopate. One was his decision to rotate the diocesan convention to various parts of the diocese, with every third year held at the cathedral in South Bend. A second was to build relationships among the priests of the diocese by having them and their wives to dinner at the residence. He had planned for clergy across the diocese to get to know one another better, and as many as two or three suppers were served weekly.
Third, Sheridan instituted the bishop's pastoral weekend when making visitations, spending two days meeting with vestries, ECW chapters, guilds, and the ill in hospitals. "As I look back at those years," he later wrote, "the 'Pastoral Weekends' were an arduous undertaking, but I felt they were absolutely necessary." He held approximately 35 such weekends each year, traveling between 27,000 and 33,000 miles a year and sleeping annually in some 60-70 motels. He regarded the liturgical and theological unity of the diocese, still strongly conservative and Anglo-Catholic, as its greatest asset, echoing what Bishop Klein before him had believed. In particular he relished the compliments of a fellow bishop who, in observing a diocesan convention, commended Sheridan for the harmony and spiritual warmth that existed among the priests with no apparent competing interests or jealousies.
Sheridan remained steadfastly opposed to the ordination of women and refused to allow women priests to serve in the diocese. He also led the opposition in the House of Bishops and was frequently quoted in the press at the time. He did allow the Rev. Sarah Tracy to serve as deacon in 1985, and he made a distinction of women serving in the diaconate and those in the priesthood. He also blasted Bishop John Shelby Spong for his series of books that questioned the traditional teachings of the Anglican faith and called him the "great heretic of our time."
As a strong ecumenist with ties to many local Catholics and Protestants, Sheridan felt that the ordination of women challenged the historical nature of the priesthood and rendered it impossible for Anglican orders ever to be recognized by Roman Catholics, a long-desired goal. It also strained much of the ecumenical dialogue that he had worked decades to cultivate. "I could almost literally weep at the anguish of hundreds of priests and thousands of lay people," he wrote, "as the contemplate the possibility of the future ordination of women priests and bishops being forced...As your Chief Pastor, I see the possibility of the sheer, tragic, unnecessary WASTE OF SOULS."
For this opposition, Sheridan has endured some criticism in more recent historiography, which has compared him unfavorably to Bishop John Pares Craine of Indianapolis, who was among the first to support women priests and was a strong advocate for civil rights. Jason Lantzer has observed in an article for Anglican and Episcopal History that opposition to women priests remained in the Diocese of Northern Indiana even after Sheridan's successor, Francis Gray, assented to the ordination of women in 1989. In the late 1970s, during Sheridan's episcopate, the Rev Jackie Means of the Diocese of Indianapolis, ordained by Bishop Craine, came to Gethsemane Church in Marion to preach at the invitation of the rector. Her sermon so distressed the congregation - as did the news of it upon reaching the diocese - that the congregation formally voted not to recognize women's ordination. However, in 1997, little more than a decade later, the parish called the Rev. Megan Traquair, who had a successful rectorate.
The diocese suffered economically for most of Sheridan's episcopate due to a national recession in 1973. Many parishes were in arrears in paying their diocesan assessments, and many could barely afford to keep their rectors and vicars. Sheridan recalled, It was a severe blow to the finances of the Diocese of Northern Indiana. One parish was once $6,000 in arrears of its assessment... That recession, of course, destroyed any plans for a capital funds drive in the diocese. Somehow we never defaulted on our fair share quota to the National Church, but often at the cost of trimming many diocesan projects." An Episcopal Church-wide initiative called Venture in Ministry (VIM) sought to raise funds across the national church for missionary use in parishes and dioceses. Each diocese formed a VIM committee to design a plan that best suited its needs.
Sheridan worked to establish a strong, caring pastoral presence, but he was not, by his own admission, an administrator. Instead, he relied on his Canon to the Ordinary, the Rev. Bradley McCormick, to assist with many tasks. That included editorship of the diocesan newspaper, The Beacon, which Sheridan regarded as an essential tool of communication. Some in the diocese considered the bishop somewhat comical and noted that he sometimes got lost in the liturgy of services he conducted. But Sheridan saw McCormick as invaluable and "made it possible to try to be a 'pastoral bishop.'"
Of the new prayerbook, which was introduced in several trial versions in the 1970s, Sheridan became an enthusiastic supporter. The trial liturgies allowed for the celebration of daily offices, encouraged weekly communion and greater congregational participation, all of which appealed to the High Church wing of the Episcopal Church. The roll-out came with much experimentation and varying degrees of success. At Trinity Fort Wayne, the new prayerbook with modern language was used at the 9 and 11 o'clock services, with Rite I reserved for 7:30. A small group continued to keep the 1928 prayerbook alive at special services on Saturdays. St. Paul's, La Porte, and Gethsemane, Marion, both resisted the new prayerbook and were reluctant to implement its use. At Trinity Michigan City, the new book was used at the main Mass, together with musical experimentation. Fr. Robert Center, its rector, also taught classes on the history of Eucharistic liturgy. In the end, the transition to the new prayerbook proved successful and varied celebrations of the Eucharist became commonplace.
As a deeply traditional Anglican for whom the symbols of faith were very important, Sheridan took a romanticized view of the episcopate. He enjoyed being photographed in his cope and miter, and he was frequently shown clutching his pectoral cross. Yet he was quick to point out that they were only symbols of the office and not the office itself. "A bishop is, or ought to be, a servant of Christ Jesus our Lord, a servant with many responsibilities to his Savior and King. He is called to that office. God have mercy on him if he has sought after the Episcopate - or even lusted after it. He is to 'share' that servanthood. The work share cannot be stressed too much. He is to share both in the happiness and the pain of the Diocesan family. A Father-in-God is to have a special love for priests and deacons in his care...in addition to the lay people. A Father-in-God must be quick to try and inspire others - in order that they will also carry the opportunities and burdens of the Holy Gospel and the Church into life itself as witnesses for our Blessed Lord. There is a saying: No bishop, no church; no church, no sacraments; no sacraments, no certain grace; no grace, no salvation."
Although Sheridan was born with a Baltimore accent, it morphed into something more mid-Atlantic or even English-sounding after becoming a bishop, which some regarded as an affectation but was actually a way for him to overcome a stuttering problem. It enhanced his patrician bearing to those who knew him. Once, a woman at Trinity Fort Wayne stooped down to kiss his ring, and he exclaimed, "Oh, ma'lady!" in a way that generated smiles. He was at ease with both pastoral conversations and small talk, which set him apart from his predecessor. On another occasion, while processing in his cope and miter, Sheridan heard a little boy call out, "There goes the king!" He stopped and turned and said, "No, there goes the king's servant." The bishop also had a most welcome lighter side. He was known to State Police for speeding on U.S. 30 and was frequently given warnings but with a sense of humor. On another occasion, he was in a diner wearing his magenta shirt and a waitress came up and said, "How are you, robin red-breast?" He found the story funny and often told it with great relish. If he regarded the symbols of the episcopate a bit too seriously in some ways, his capacity for laughter and self-effacing humor won him many friends and was also a marked contrast from his predecessors.
After his retirement in 1987, Sheridan threw his support to the Episcopal Synod, which worked to oppose women's ordination, even though it had become commonplace throughout the Church. His successor, Francis Campbell Gray, allowed women priests into the diocese in 1990 as he worked to bring Northern Indiana into the greater fold of the national Church. Even though he disagreed with Gray privately, he always publicly voiced his admiration and support. To priests who confided that they wanted to go over to Roman Catholicism, Sheridan consistently advised against it, stating that they had taken an oath to uphold the Church and should be bound by that vow. The Catholic Church, he said, had even greater problems than the Episcopal Church.
Near the end of his life, during the episcopate of the more evangelical Bishop Edward Little, Sheridan saw the Anglo-Catholic identity of the diocese morph into something new as the national Church changed all around him. Nashotah House would no longer wield its ideological influence on the diocese as it once did, and even it began to admit women into its ranks by this time. In June 2005, Sheridan participated in the ordination of the Rev. Susan Bunton Haynes at St. Thomas Plymouth and told Bishop Little, "Indiana has the best women priests." His views about women in the priesthood had softened. He had also told the historian Jason Lantzer in 1999 that the five women priests serving in the diocese at that time were "of superior quality." All had asked him to serve as supply priest, and several asked him to mentor them. He told the Rev. Megan Traquair that because of her long and faithful service at Gethsemane, Marion, she could now consider herself among the "Marian fathers." Within three months of his assisting with Susan Haynes's ordination, on 24 September 2005, Sheridan died at his home near Culver, a former country church he had converted into a residence. Near the end of his life he wrote, "God forgive me for all my failings and failures. God, also, be thanked for all His Grace and Mercy for those things which prospered!"
Even if some aspects of the style of churchmanship that Sheridan practiced had grown out of fashion, he remained a very spiritual priest, enjoyed being called "Father Sheridan," and was inspirational to many for his personal sense of piety and devotional life. As the last old-style Anglo-Catholic bishop, however, he found that his brand of conservatism, the one his predecessors had practiced, was fast disappearing from most quarters of the national Episcopal Church by the twenty-first century.
Jason Lantzer, "Hoosier Episcopalians, the Coming of Women's Ordination, and the 1979 Book of Common Prayer," Anglican and Episcopal History, volume 52 (June 2003): 229-254.
Jason Lantzer, "Tradition, Transition, Turmoil, and Triumph: Indianapolis Episcopalians Confront the 1960s and 1970s." Indiana University thesis, October 1999.
Interview with Bishop William C. R. Sheridan, Audio File, by the Rev. Robert Center, 1989
Interview with Bishop William C. R. Sheridan, 28 February 1998, by Ryan Taylor and John Beatty, Audio File, Part 1
Interview with Bishop William C. R. Sheridan, 28 February 1998, by Ryan Taylor and John Beatty, Audio File, Part 2
Ordination and Consecration of the Rev, William C. R. Sheridan ... 24 June 1972
Ordination and Consecration of the Rt. Rev. William C. R. Sheridan, Commemorative Booklet, 1972