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Former US represenative Amory Houghton Jr. (right) spoke with Episcopal Bishop M. Thomas Shaw, lending his expertise in a mission on politics and faith.
Former US represenative Amory Houghton Jr. (right) spoke with Episcopal Bishop M. Thomas Shaw, lending his expertise in a mission on politics and faith. (Globe Photo / Christina Caturano)

The apprentice in a public ministry

Episcopal Bishop M. Thomas Shaw once served as an intern in former US representative Amory Houghton Jr.'s congressional office. Now Houghton is returning the favor, lending his expertise in a mission on politics and faith.

At 78, Amory Houghton Jr. is significantly older than the usual intern. And as a longtime member of Congress and onetime chairman of a large company, he's also considerably better qualified.

Five years after Bishop M. Thomas Shaw, leader of the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts, attached an intern's badge to his own monastic robes and apprenticed himself to the New York State representative, Houghton is returning the gesture. After leaving Congress in January, Houghton traded his spacious office on Capitol Hill for a narrow, windowless chamber next to Shaw's and is devoting this phase of his retirement to volunteering for the Episcopal Church.

The arrangement reflects a longstanding friendship between the liberal bishop and the GOP politician, who share an interest in putting the values of their Christian faith into action in the secular arena.

''My family was very devout, and I was thinking of going into the ministry myself," said Houghton, who represented western New York in Congress for 18 years. ''And it just seemed to me that rather than going down to Florida and playing golf and bridge and things like that all the time, I would try to do something which is reasonably worthwhile.

''I can't come in with any golden wand, but I do have a little bit of experience in business and in politics, and I've had an association with the church. So I think I can blend some of those things together."

Houghton is tackling several projects for the diocese: advising on public policy; visiting parishes to talk about the expression of faith in public life; and assessing the financial risk associated with the diocese's possible support of a housing project in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

On a recent Wednesday, the former congressman, wearing a sweater instead of the jacket he typically donned in Washington, met over sandwiches and sodas with Shaw, Bishop Roy F. ''Bud" Cederholm Jr., and other top staff in Shaw's lofty office on Tremont Street, behind the Cathedral Church of St. Paul. Houghton wasted no time in offering his opinion -- the Ramallah project was a bad deal, at least as initially constructed by the AFL-CIO, because the diocese would assume all the financial risks.

Houghton also reported on his first visit to a parish in Natick, saying he was asked about the role of evangelical Protestants in politics, to which he responded: ''I consider myself a Christian, but I feel on the outs with them."

Houghton then met with the staff at Episcopal City Mission, the diocese's ministry to the urban poor. As leaders described the mission's activities, Houghton offered advice and anecdotes about his experience on Capitol Hill: He urged the diocesan staff to do a better job in forming coalitions with other religious denominations when lobbying on Beacon Hill and to send more parishioners, not lobbyists, to see their local legislators.

Houghton, a native of New York state and a Yankees fan, has had a long association with Massachusetts. His family owned a home in Marion. He is a graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Business School and served two terms on Harvard's Board of Overseers, from 1964 to 1970 and 1971-'77. His wife, Priscilla Dewey Houghton, owns a home in Cohasset.

Houghton said he is motivated in part because of concern about the future of the Episcopal Church USA, whose congregation numbers have been dwindling since the mid-1960s.

''I believe in Tom, I believe in the church, and I believe in the basic mission he has of trying to grow this diocese and grow the church rather than letting it squander itself," Houghton said. ''The country's been going north, and we've been going south . . . and if you take a look at the next 50 years, it don't look so good unless we do something different."

In Washington, Houghton cochairs the Faith & Politics Institute, an organization of religious leaders and members of Congress who meet to talk about values. Houghton said he wants to explore setting up a similar organization in Massachusetts, ''not as a holy-roller type of thing, but . . . trying to see, how do our lives intersect."

The Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts is among the oldest and largest dioceses in the nation, touting 77,000 baptized members in 194 congregations in Eastern Massachusetts.

Shaw had already stepped up his political activism, at times to considerable public notice, since returning from his internship in Washington in spring 2000. He has pushed for assistance to combat AIDS in Africa, debt relief for developing nations, child-care subsidies for low-income families, and a more sympathetic foreign policy to the concerns of Palestinians. Locally, he is pushing for more state support for affordable housing and for youth programs.

He made a splash in the fall of 2001, when he and his two assistant bishops joined at a pro-Palestinian protest in front of the Israeli consulate in Boston. The appearance precipitated a rift in local Jewish-Christian relations, but also drew attention to deepening Protestant concerns over the conduct of the Israeli government, recently intensified with moves by the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the World Council of Churches to consider divestment from some multinational companies that do business in Israel.

Shaw has also been increasingly visible as one of the most outspoken mainstream Christian leaders to support same-sex marriage, and last month he was honored by the Religious Coalition for the Freedom to Marry for supporting civil marriage for gays and lesbians, though his denomination prohibits religious marriage for same-sex couples.

Shaw has met recently with Massachusetts House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi and has been talking with two influential Episcopalians -- Beth Myers, chief of staff to Governor Mitt Romney, and Merita A. Hopkins, chief of staff to Mayor Thomas M. Menino of Boston -- about how to increase the role of the Episcopal Church in public policy.

He also started an annual lobby day for Episcopalians to gather on Beacon Hill and lobby legislators. He established a Public Policy Network, which has representatives from 138 of the 194 Episcopal parishes, and an advisory committee on public policy made up largely of Episcopal priests, and is planning to establish a broader group of politicians and others.

''I was going to Washington to figure out how a bishop could have a more effective public voice, and . . . I learned some things there and made some connections that have helped me in trying to encourage other bishops to be more of a public voice. It's helped me to do the same thing."

At the time Shaw went to Washington, he was hoping the diocese would have the energy to focus on public engagement after a period of controversy over tensions among the diocesan office and its parishes and the suicide of Bishop David E. Johnson -- Shaw's predecessor -- in 1995 after Johnson had engaged in several extramarital relationships.

The last several years have seen the diocese again in the midst of controversy, this time over the church's posture toward gays and lesbians. Shaw, an outspoken champion of gay rights, supported the consecration of an openly gay priest, the Rev. V. Gene Robinson, as bishop of New Hampshire. Dealing with national and international fireworks that have resulted from Robinson's election has consumed a portion of Shaw's time and energy.

He consults with the archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, and the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church USA, Frank T. Griswold, on preventing schism in the Anglican Communion, and he is also reaching out to constituencies, including gays and lesbians and conservatives, in the Massachusetts diocese.

Shaw said he is determined to find a balance between his response to the Anglican controversy and engagement with public policy. ''The time that I had in Washington, and just my own ongoing conversion, makes me realize that I have to be involved in this stuff that's out there," he said, ''because I think that's what Christ is calling us to do. I can't let myself become so absorbed in just the inner workings of the church."

Michael Paulson can be reached at mpaulson@globe.com.

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