Philip Smith; led Episcopal Diocese of N.H.

By Bryan Marquard
Globe Staff / October 27, 2010

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Serving the Episcopal Church as a curate, rector, professor, and bishop was a journey Philip Alan Smith said “provided the impetus’’ for him to distance himself from his beginnings, geographically and philosophically.

“My life in the institutional church has been a varied and immensely satisfying one, which I would be loath to change for any other,’’ he wrote for the 25th anniversary report of his class at Harvard, several years before he was elected the seventh bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire.

“In its course, I have moved out of what was a strongly entrenched New England provincialism, an uncritical and inherited Republicanism, and a denominational narrowness, though the extent of my movement may feel subjectively greater than it might appear objectively, in whatever way such things are measured.’’

Bishop Smith, who led the New Hampshire diocese from 1972 to 1986, died of lung cancer Oct. 10 in the Goodwin House retirement community in Alexandria, Va., where he had lived for many years. He was 90.

“He was, in everyone’s mind, the consummate pastor,’’ said Bishop V. Gene Robinson, who is now the Episcopal bishop of New Hampshire. “He would drop anything and everything to deal with a pastoral matter. He was amazingly responsive.’’

Bishop Smith was adept at various aspects of leadership not always all found in the same clergyman, said David Beers, a lawyer in Goodwin Procter’s Washington, D.C., offices who is also chancellor to the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church.

“He was enormously gracious and at the same time had a devastating wit, but he was also firm,’’ Beers said. “His great gifts as a bishop were in keeping together and balancing all those wonderful traits. He got things done and, at the same time, was a first-rate pastor.’’

Bishop Smith’s daughter Sarah of Northampton said he “had this ability to make every relationship feel like it was very, very special and important.’’

“He loved being with people and ministering to people and laughing with people,’’ she said. “That was very important to my father.’’

Beers pointed out that Bishop Smith “was a progressive and was a strong supporter of Gene Robinson.’’

In 2003, Robinson became the first openly gay bishop in the worldwide Anglican Communion. Before his consecration, Bishop Smith asked “in a humble and almost sheepish manner’’ if he could give Robinson a ring he had worn during his years as a bishop, beginning in Virginia. Robinson said he was honored by the offer, and Bishop Smith presented the ring during the installation of Robinson as bishop.

“It was a great thrill for Bishop Smith to be able to walk up and give Bishop Robinson his ring,’’ Beers said. “Coincidentally, it fit. It didn’t have to be sized.’’

“I’m wearing it now,’’ said Robinson. “It’s a wonderful symbol of continuity.’’

The third of four children, Bishop Smith was born and grew up in Belmont, where his father was a butcher. Bishop Smith forged his early bond with the Episcopal Church through music.

“One thing that was very important to him,’’ his daughter said, “was that he was in the choir at Trinity Church’’ in Boston.

“He loved singing, and that was a very important place for him and a very strong connection,’’ she said. “I think that involvement with the church set his course.’’

During Bishop Smith’s years as a church leader, “when he was standing up front, you could hear him,’’ his daughter said. “He sang out loud and proud. I remember when I was a child, being proud of that beautiful voice.’’

After graduating from Belmont High School, Bishop Smith went to Harvard, from which he received a bachelor’s degree in 1942.

“One month after our commencement, I was a buck private at Fort Devens,’’ he wrote in his 25th class report of enlisting in the Army Air Corps. “Basic training in the Air Corps whipped me into shape at Miami Beach — in six weeks I lost 25 pounds.’’

He served for four years and was stationed in England, France, and Germany with antiaircraft artillery units and was awarded the Bronze Star before being discharged as a captain.

Bishop Smith received a bachelor of divinity degree in 1949 from Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria and was ordained to the diaconate and the priesthood.

Two weeks after graduating, he married Barbara Ann Taylor of Columbus, Ohio, whom he met on a blind date when she was a Smith College student.

“Barbara and I have had a good time of it in marriage,’’ he wrote 18 years later. “She has a background in psychiatric social service, and this has given us much to share. She also enjoys writing and having occasional articles published — not I, I talk, so it balances out.’’

Bishop Smith served as assistant rector at All Saints Church in Atlanta until being appointed rector of Christ Church in Exeter, N.H., in 1952. Seven years later, he left to become an assistant professor of pastoral theology at Virginia Theological Seminary, where he was appointed chaplain in 1962 and associate dean in 1967.

In 1970, he received a doctorate from the seminary and was elected suffragan bishop of Virginia.

Bishop Smith’s wife died in 2007. In addition to his daughter Sarah, he leaves another daughter, Ann of Waltham; a son, Jeremy; a sister, Carolyn Smith Noyes of Brewster; and three grandchildren.

A burial service is planned at 11 a.m. Saturday in Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill across the street from Virginia Theological Seminary. Burial will be in the seminary grounds. A memorial service will be held at 2:30 p.m. Tuesday in the auditorium of Goodwin House in Alexandria, Va. A memorial service in New Hampshire will be announced.

Not long before Bishop Smith died, his daughter Ann read aloud to him a card that was sent by the daughter of one of his goddaughters.

“I think I remember every moment in your presence,’’ the card said. “You taught me to listen intently to the truth that all people speak, to seek the root of justice in all matters, and to speak to the light of God in each one. . . . You are my hero — you will live on in my heart forever. When those moments come when my knees get shaky and I wonder if I should do the easy thing or the right thing, I will seek the courage you have taught me to always speak passionately for justice.’’

In an e-mail, Ann wrote that the card “seemed to sum up what my father meant to those who surrounded him; I carry it with me now.’’

Bryan Marquard can be reached at