The religious journey of Carolyn Tanner Irish, a pulpit pioneer who became the first female bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Utah, was started with tragedy – the accidental death of a brother – and a pivotal conversation.
Irish, who died Tuesday at age 81, saw her younger brother get hit by a car at a Utah ski resort in 1948. A well-meaning Latter-day Saint bishop, who later stopped by the house Tanner to express his sympathy, wondered aloud what the family had done to deserve such a terrible divine retribution.
Irish father, entrepreneur and philanthropist from Utah, Obert C. Tanner, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, escorted the man to the door saying, ” I can’t see the hand of God in there. Rather, I think God is crying with us today.
The young Carolyn, then 8 years old, clung to the image of a “God who weeps with us”.
From that day on, she embarked on a spiritual quest to find and understand God in the midst of human suffering.
She took her to Stanford University (where she met and married Leon Irish) then to the University of Michigan (where she obtained a bachelor’s degree in philosophy in 1962), to the University of Oxford in England. (where she earned an MA in Moral Philosophy), and through Mormonism in Maternity, Divorce, and Episcopal Priesthood Ordination in 1984 and a post at the Washington National Cathedral in DC
In the end, the Irish have come full circle. The Salt Lake City native was elected 10th bishop of the then 6,000-member diocese in Beehive State.
Irish was “proud to be inspired by the pioneering spirit – both because she came from a long-standing pioneer family in Utah and because she was a pioneer among the female bishops of the Episcopal Church, “current Episcopal Bishop Scott Hayashi said on Tuesday. âShe always said with a smile that she was the first female Episcopal Bishop west of the Potomac River. She was the fourth female bishop of the church.
The June 1996 Irish dedication ceremony at Abravanel Hall in Salt Lake City featured a two-story wooden cross, dozens of banners filled with symbols, a table-sized altar, a velvet armchair, spitting trash cans incense and bishops in red robes, transforming a musical set in a spiritual sanctuary much like the metamorphosis of the Irishwoman herself – from a local Latter-day Saint to a prominent voice in the Church episcopal.
âThe LDS church taught me to love Jesus,â Irish said at the time. âI came out of this wonderful, kind and different wing of the family of Christ. “
While leading the Diocese of Utah, Irish used her position and influence to speak out on progressive issues – against war and the death penalty and for immigration, the environment, LGBTQ rights and , of course, feminism.
In Irish’s homily at a confirmation service that included new member Jeff Laver, she noted that âThe Episcopal Church tried to remain neutral when slavery divided our nation,â Laver recalled. “She added that Episcopalians are no longer going to make this mistake and that we will stand up for the rights of LGBT people.”
A number of people from various parishes were confirmed that day, he said. âWe had all been prepared in our own ward and, as far as I know, I was the only queer person to be confirmed. I doubt Carolyn even knew I was gay. I was touched to be openly included in the episcopal message that all are welcome and all are equal. She was a strong supporter of women, racial minorities and homosexuals. “
Irish was also a ubiquitous ally on interfaith issues, earning the respect of Catholic bishops, Latter-day Saint Apostles and other religious leaders.
Irish also faced his own rubicon and came out stronger and more resilient.
At the Diocese’s annual convention in 1999, Irish was forced to announce her battle with alcoholism and immediately left for an out-of-state treatment program. She resumed her responsibilities as a part-time bishop the following April. A year later, she was back to full time.
“Alcoholism is a condition of isolation,” Irish said in an interview in 2000. “Therefore, you are left to your imagination and you can imagine the worst.”
Even under the best of circumstances, running an episcopal diocese is demanding and multifaceted work.
âNo one is born knowing how to be a bishop,â she said. “And being a bishop is not a simple job description.”
Ultimately Irish flourished in his leadership, building bridges with other faiths and supporting many causes inside and outside the church.
In 2001, she married the Reverend Frederick Quinn, a retired foreign service officer and author of several books.
Throughout his church service and thereafter, Irish continued his generosity to the community, his worldwide leadership OC Tanner Co. (started by his humanitarian father) and the University of Utah, who appointed the Carolyn Tanner Irish Humanities Building in her honor and sponsored the annual Tanner Human Values ââConferences.
In 2010, she became the first woman to receive the title of “Giant in Our City” by municipal leaders in Salt Lake City.
âBishop Irish will be missed by many, many people within the Episcopal Church and the community at large,â said Hayashi. “She was one of the most generous and generous people I have ever had the privilege of knowing.”
From tragedy to triumph, the Irish “loved Utah dearly,” the bishop said. “Although she could have chosen to live where she wanted, she chose Utah because it was her home.”