Deceased May 20, 1995
“There are no ghettos in the Kingdom of God; there are not even separate neighborhoods. There is one house. There are no options on that score. Those who would really rather not spend eternity under the same roof with those who differ from them have no alternative but to go to hell. That is not my opinion. That is the gospel truth.”—from an article written by Bob for the Diocese of Virginia newspaper, 1992.
Bob Denig’s message was direct, authentic and challenging throughout his ministry and his life: We all matter.
My best friend checked out on May 20, but as I told him in those final days, he doesn’t get to leave. There are too many of us in Massachusetts, Virginia, Germany, Illinois and countless other places whose lives have been so powerfully influenced by Bob that he will always be part of our being.
Bob and I were two Amherst alumni intimates who had had only a passing acquaintance, through the Glee Club. Bob was a deadpan cheerleader for the Lord Jeffs football team, he played one of the fathers in The Fantastics, and from freshman year onward, he dated Nancy Watkins (Smith ’68) who married Bob on June 14, 1968.
A Phi Beta Kappa student, Bob majored in anthropology and was fascinated with ritual. Perhaps the most lasting contribution of Amherst to his life was by his advisor, Donald Pitkin, who pointed out to Bob that he didn’t have to go to exotic cultures to study ritual because it was available to him just off campus at Grace Episcopal Church. According to Bob Nurick ’68, Bob’s dormmates in Stearns determined that the only question about Bob’s future was which denomination would get him as a minister, and the smart money was on the Episcopalians.
In fact Bob gained the sponsorship of Bishop Stewart of the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts to train for the ministry, even though his choice of seminaries was not Episcopalian. He went to the University of Chicago Divinity School, where, as fellow students, he and I developed a lasting friendship along with Nancy and my wife Linda.
In his ministry Bob began early to follow his own path. At a time when few guys were out of the closet, Bob served as an intern with Mattachine Midwest, a support group for gays, demonstrating his commitment to inclusion that would be a hallmark of his ministry. His work with the Brent House Institute for Intergroup Communication brought together disparate groups for intensive weekend workshops on such topics as racism and sexuality and conflict. Invariably the four of us would be unable to let go of these weekends and would be found processing issues and killing some more jug wine well into the Monday morning hours.
From the early days of our friendship, Bob and Nancy exhibited the traits that would last throughout their lives. They had wonderful, eclectic tastes in books, music and art. Their knowledge and sense of history pervaded their conversations. And they were strongly intentional people; life didn’t just happen to Bob and Nancy. They loved to travel, and they planned their trips with great care—the settings they would spend their time in, the clothes they would wear, the hats, the books to have available for poolside reading.
And then there was the lighter side. Bob’s sense that his feet were exquisitely formed! While he always seemed to be absolutely serious on this subject, the rest of us couldn’t keep a straight face. Bob’s musical setting of “Love Them Little Mousies,” based on a Kliban cat cartoon. Finger magic! Bob’s routine in which he “miraculously” made digits on his own hands appear and disappear to his hummed accompaniment. And “evil time”—20-minute period sanctioned by Bob usually preceding the cocktail hour during which all present were allowed to use whatever words they chose. (This program shrank and then disappeared once children arrived and grew old enough to gross out their parents!)
Bob completed his Master of Theology and Doctor of Ministry degrees in 1971 and 1972. He was ordained a deacon in 1972 and a priest in 1973. His first years in the ministry were spent in his sponsoring diocese, Western Massachusetts, as curate of St. John’s (Northampton), 1972-74; Episcopal Chaplain at the University of Massachusetts, 1974-75; and rector of All Saints (South Hadley), 1975-79. In this early period of his ministry, Bob built a reputation as an engaging preacher and man of the people. The All Saints position was an interim appointment which became permanent when the congregation decided that their next rector was already there.
Bob and Nancy were able to combine their wanderlust with Bob’s professional development by moving to Frankfurt am Main, Germany, in 1979, when Bob became rector of the Church of Christ the King, one of five English-speaking Anglican churches in Europe. Opportunities abounded for travel and for growth in Bob’s ministry and family. Nancy experienced quantum growth in her field of landscape architecture while working with the German masters. Bob’s daughter, Julia, who is now 14, and son, Nick, now 13, were adopted during this period.
In his sermon at Bob’s funeral, M. Thomas Shaw, Bishop of Massachusetts, spoke of the “Gospel according to Bob.” Bob had shared with Bishop Shaw his feeling of the limitless love that he felt for his family—for Nancy and for his children, Nick and Julia. Bob could not imagine how he could love anyone or anything more than he loved his two adopted children, and it was through this experience that Bob came to feel the power of God’s love for him as His own adopted child. This “Gospel according to Bob” is one of his extraordinary gifts. Ben Matlock, a friend in Germany and later in Amherst, spoke about Bob’s loyalty: “He could see the good in you you couldn’t see in yourself. And then he remained loyal to that. You might betray that part of yourself, but he never would. He saw a piece of you that made you a better person and in so doing helped you to become a better person.”
In l984 the Denigs moved to Vienna, Va. Bob became rector of the Church of the Holy Comforter, where he served until his election as Bishop of Western Massachusetts on Oct. 3, 1992, and his consecration on Feb. 20, 1993. By this time Bob had reached full maturity in his ministry. I loved being in his presence at his church because he sparkled with enthusiasm and love. I remember him often crouching down on his haunches to get eyeball-to-eyeball with one of the little people in the parish. He was truly gifted at relating to young people on their own level.
The consecration in 1993 was a wonderful celebration of hope and promise, with all of the ritual that Bob could ever have dreamed of as an Amherst student 25 years earlier. He carried off his ceremonial duties with appropriate dignity while allowing his true humanity to shine through. After two hours of pomp, we finally came to the time in the service for the remarks from the new Bishop. Bob said:
“On this day I have not received the greatest gift that God has ever given to me. That was many years ago—46 years ago—when I received the sacrament of Holy Baptism at Central Presbyterian Church. That was the greatest day. But this is not too shabby!”
My personal guffaw at that point was undoubtedly the loudest in the church. I recalled an incident 10 years before, during one of Bob’s visits to our house, when Linda barged into the bathroom to be confronted by our buck-naked priest-friend. Bob, never at a loss for words, instantly responded, “Not too shabby for 36, eh?”
Bob served one year as Bishop before being diagnosed with multiple myeloma, cancer of the bone marrow. He was shattered by the news—he was fully human in his response, immediately focusing on buying time. But his faith was all-abiding. In his sermon of June 5, 1994, commemorating the 50th anniversary of D-Day, Bob said:
“The best I can come up with is this: this is the best world God could create. God simply couldn’t manage a creation in which life happens without allowing the possibility that sometimes all that life happening would get mixed up and run amok ... which is what cancer is. Maybe God had to choose between no-life, no-creation on the one hand and life even if it sometimes included cancer or heart disease or AIDS or whatever on the other. God seems to have decided the effort is nonetheless worthwhile. So do I. Don’t you?”
Bob responded to his predicament as a hopeful realist. Continuing from the same sermon, he said:
“This is tough; this is no fun, but, by golly, I am going to fight. I’m worth it. God made me. God loves me. I matter and my actions matter. I am going to do all that I can for as long as I can.”
And he did. Because we all matter. Even though he was on crutches and in considerable pain, Bob went on schedule to lead “Bishop’s Week” at his diocese’s summer Camp Bement. Eagerly hiking wherever there might be something to share with his enthusiastic young flock, Bishmeister B”—”Just don’t call me ‘Bishop Bob’”—would draw 30 kids for meditation in the lodge on a hot sunny afternoon. He shared of himself and they responded.
One of Bob’s great dreams is a major expansion of this camp and its conference center into a center for Christian development to serve the entire Northeast. That dream will one day be realized through the ongoing efforts of camp director Mark Rourke and others—and thanks both to Bob’s inspiration and to a substantial lead gift he made by designating a portion of his life insurance death benefits to it.
Bob finally received a degree from an Episcopal seminary—a very special one. On Oct. 19, 1994, General Theological Seminary awarded him the honorary degree of Doctor of Divinity.
Nancy, Julia and Nick will continue to reside in Northampton, where Nancy continues her successful landscape architecture practice, Denig Design Associates. Bob is also survived by his father, Robert F. Denig, of Brevard, N.C.; and his sisters, Virginia Packer, of Bedford, Mass., and Deborah Boisvert of Deerfield, N.H.
It may take some of us longer to “get it” than Bob but would that we could all live our lives every moment having decided that our lives have consequence, that our decisions, our actions matter.
John Hillman ’66