When he did joint appearances with other priest-candidates to become Bishop of Olympia, Texas-based Episcopal priest Rev. Greg Rickel reflected that a time would come to move on. Where? “There’s always bartending in Key West,” he joked.
Bishop Rickel, 59, has just announced he will be resigning and moving out, although not all the way to the Florida Keyes. He will leave his episcopal office at year’s end, the fourth Sunday of Advent being his last liturgy. Next January, he intends to “see through” a COVID-delayed Holy Land Pilgrimage.
“Fifteen years has been a good run and it is the 15-year mark that is about the time many episcopacies start heading South or start getting stale and uncreative,” Rickel said in an announcement posted Friday. “A few suggest that’s already happened. So instead of waiting for that, I’m gonna literally head South.” The bishop is “heading to some different things, not totally firmed up and not totally disclosable at this time.”
Rickel insists he “never stopped having fun” but he has faced thankless challenges. He inherited a diocese divided and troubled from the tenure of predecessor Bishop Vincent Warner. Rickel had to oversee a lengthy “healing process” after the tumultuous departure (with a $313,333 severance package) of St. Mark’s Cathedral Dean Robert Taylor. An outside bishop mediator had identified widespread distrust in Dean Taylor’s relations with staff, vestry, and others in the congregation.
The healing was successful with arrival of another Southerner, the Very Rev. Steve Thomason, as the cathedral’s new dean. One highlight of recent years was when the diocese hosted a 2018 visit by Episcopal Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, which ranged from preaching at St. Mark’s to visiting a homeless encampment in Aberdeen.
Rickel had a sense of the moment. He would spend Ash Wednesday taking ashes to crew members of ships docked in the Port of Seattle. He delivered a memorable keeping-community-together homily just as Western Washington churches were shutting their doors and screening the eucharist during the pandemic. He conducted services at the beginning of anti-violence marches between St. Mark’s and St. James Cathedrals, after the Newtown, Conn., massacre of school children and the slaying of patrons at an LGBTQ nightclub in Orlando, Florida.
The Diocese of Olympia joined with the ACLU and two University of Washington students in suing the Trump administration over the president’s 2017 order banning travelers, immigrants, and refugees from seven predominantly Muslim nations. The diocese argued that work of its Refugee Resettlement Office had been “completely disrupted” by the Trump executive order.
The bishop’s job comes with messy personnel problems. In 2011, Rickel passed on to the Presiding Bishop “a credible allegation of marital infidelity” by his predecessor, and the PB barred Bishop Warner from the exercise of ministry.
Roman Catholic bishops are appointed by the Holy See, and get word in a phone call from the Apostolic Delegate in Washington, D.C. Hence, Anchorage Archbishop Paul Etienne was sent south to Seattle when health problems led to early retirement by Archbishop J. Peter Sartain. Pope Francis has put his stamp on the hierarchy, notably in bestowing a cardinal’s hat on progressive San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy and bypassing maladroit Los Angeles Archbishop Jose Gomez. Spokane Bishop Blasé Cupich was tapped as the new Archbishop (now Cardinal) of Chicago.
Episcopal bishops are elected by priests and laity of a diocese. Since Rickel doesn’t want to be a lame duck, the Diocese of Olympia will get a provisional bishop. The Standing Committee of the diocese will set to work drawing up a profile, naming a search committee, and establishing a transition committee. That process is expected to take 18-24 months.
“I’ve always wanted to leave long before we were all waiting for it to happen,” said Rickel. “I think that time has come.”