Bishop Brian Thom is the very definition of a soft-spoken man, but people--plenty of them--listen when he talks. As faith leader to 5,000 Idaho Episcopalians, he travels most weekends throughout his diocese as chief celebrant to one of 30 congregations across Southern Idaho.
"The joy of helping people interpret their holy experience continues to feed me," said Thom, 57. "I truly love that."
During one of the rare occasions when Thom wasn't traveling from his diocese home office on Boise's West Bench, Boise Weekly sat down with the bishop to talk about his life, loves and deeply held beliefs on immigration, gender equity and same-sex unions.
What was the big dream for you as a boy?
To graduate. It was very clear to my brother and me that college was the only option. I attended Oregon State to go into forestry because I saw myself as a park ranger, but an adviser told me that there was no money in that. He said I should learn how to harvest timber instead. I earned a degree in forestry but by then, I knew I had a different calling.
When did you understand that calling?
Once I got clear about what was going on in here [Thom placed a hand over his heart]. I knew the church was going to be a lot more important. I'm a rare bird in the Episcopal Church. I've been an Episcopalian all my life.
Did you ever ask yourself why you stayed with the Episcopal Church?
My older brother met a nice Baptist girl and he is, to this day, an American Baptist, even though he didn't marry that girl. About that same time, a younger priest came to our Episcopal Church and he had three daughters--12, 13 and 14, right about my age--and I thought I would hang around a little longer. Nothing came out of that, but I stayed with the church. When I went off to college, I went with letters of introduction from my priest. Forestry was science and business, but by the time I graduated, I was already on a path toward a life in the church. By then, I was married to my first wife, Judy, and thinking about children. I went to seminary at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley, Calif.
And where were your first assignments?
Portland for two and a half years. After that, I was an assistant in Palm Desert, Calif.
That must have been a significant change for you. How long were you in Palm Desert?
Twenty-three months, 11 days and a few hours.
I'm guessing that you were ready to leave.
It was... let's say... an important experience. Palm Desert is the conservative suburb of Palm Springs. Incredibly wealthy. I met President Gerald Ford there, as well as Mr. [Leonard] Firestone and Mr. [Bruce] Nordstrom.
Were they regular churchgoers?
Oh yes. But one day, I received a call:"This is Bishop John Thornton in Idaho. You're the next rector in Twin Falls. Would you like to come see it?" We came up in September 1971 and, sure enough, I was there for 17 years.
You mentioned that Judy was your first wife. So, you've been married twice?
Judy and I divorced in 2007. After a year and a half of going through that process, I had a parishioner who politely waited and said, "When you're ready, there's someone who you should meet: Ardele Hanson, a good Lutheran girl from Minnesota." But she was about to leave town to take another job. I said, "Maybe I'll meet her at her going-away party." Well, the night of the party, Ardele and I arrived at the door at the same time. It turned out that we were the only guests.
I'm assuming that she was not one of your parishioners.
That would have been against the rules.
Can you appreciate the spotlight on a faith leader in a dating relationship?
Plus, there was the fact that we met just before my name had been submitted as a possible candidate to become bishop of the diocese. In our first year of dating, I was telling her, "Oh, by the way, my name has been put into this pretty big deal. If I get elected, I'll be going to Boise." I was elected bishop of the diocese in June 2008. Finally, I got smart about it and proposed in late 2009. We got married 60 days later because I only had two available weekends in the next year.
How is the Episcopal Diocese of Idaho defined?
It's all of Southern Idaho; the boundary is the Salmon River. McCall and Salmon are my most northern posts. It stretches from Payette and Weiser in the west all the way over to Wyoming. Within that geography, there are 30 congregations, from the very largest at St. Michael's here in Boise to the tiniest: Arco, Challis, American Falls and Blackfoot. I'm required to visit every one of them once a year.
Does your wife travel with you?
Most of the time. She works at St. Luke's Medical Center, where she's a medical technology educator.
It's my understanding that the diocese population, about 5,000, has remained steady over the past 10 or 15 years. Do you track the average age of parishioners?
I can say that in some of our congregations, you and I would be toward the younger end. The Episcopal Church has been taking its hits just like other mainline churches, maybe more so, because of social justice issues.
Is it your sense that the Episcopal Church needed to be in front of certain social issues while many conservative congregations continue to struggle with some of those changes?
Even my own people might cast me on the liberal side of those things. Actually, within the church as a whole, I'm a bit of a centrist. But in Idaho, I'm a flaming liberal. The big issues for us included the equality of women, which we took on fairly early in the 1970s. We ordained the Philadelphia Eleven [women] as Episcopal priests in 1976. A new prayer book was introduced in 1979. And that double whammy was significant. Some people just couldn't handle women priests or a new prayer book. And then, as early as 1976, we had a resolution to try to do the polite thing by saying our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters are equal children in the sight of God and deserve fair treatment.
Let's talk about your vote at a national conference to support Gene Robinson, an openly gay priest, to become the new bishop of New Hampshire.
I came back to Idaho after that vote and got into a bit of trouble for that. I took some heat from my Twin Falls congregation, not necessarily because of my vote but because I hadn't talked about it enough ahead of time. Somebody interviewed me on CNN at the conference and the Twin Falls Times-News printed the story the day before I returned to my church. What was most telling to me was my relation with my congregation rather than my vote. Indeed there were people who did leave or threatened to leave. I went to the home of anyone who wanted to talk to me and I listened to their concerns.
Have you ever conducted a ceremony for a gay union?
No. I can't yet.
What does that mean?
In 2009, the church approved a preparation of a trial liturgy for the blessing of same-sex unions. In 2012, we came back with the actual trial liturgy, and we said that each congregation had to conduct its own study on the matter, and ask permission of their bishop.
Are any local parishes interested?
Four congregations have asked my permission to conduct a study, two in Boise, another in Sun Valley and one in Pocatello.
So does that mean that they're moving toward that blessing?
The church still has to decide in 2015 whether to make it a regular rite.
Do you look forward to the day when one of your parishes offers that blessing for same-sex unions?
I do. I've arrived at that place of believing in full inclusion. If you're baptized a Christian then you should be able to enjoy all of the rites that a Christian enjoys.
I'm assuming that the split among congregations on this issue is generational?
My children think we're just idiots and we should move forward with this, and they ask, "Why are we even wasting time on this?"
Let's talk about immigration. In a previous conversation, you told me that the term "immigration system" is an oxymoron?
Can you imagine being separated from your children? The absurdity of sending the breadwinner home and leaving the wife and American-born children here is a greater strain on our economy. And it flies against everything we're trying to achieve. It doesn't make any sense. It's certainly not a system. And to say that it's systematic is ridiculous.
Tell me about Grace Episcopal Church in Nampa and its efforts to serve Canyon County's immigrant population?
The church has a relationship with Hispanic families out at Farmway Village on the other side of Caldwell. Someone asked Mother Karen [Hunter] the other day if we were giving aid and comfort to undocumented individuals. Mother Karen said, "The only risk is that we might have a broken heart." That's really it.
I'm guessing that faith communities understand the issue of hunger in Idaho as well as anyone. Aren't you continually shocked that the numbers of hungry Idahoans, particularly children, continue to remain alarmingly high?
It's an embarrassment of the first order when we know we could eradicate hunger in the world with our current resources.
Is it your sense that we live in particularly cruel times?
No, not necessarily. Yes, people are afraid, and they put walls up, speaking of immigration. And then they make things black and white and that's usually when somebody gets left out or gets hurt. I don't know if it's intentional. But I do think they're afraid; and when they can't see a way out, they raise the walls up and put on their emotional armor.The church will be what God needs it to be. In terms of why it's so hard to be a human being right now, I think it's because people are afraid. I promise you that if you go out and serve other people, you will find God in that.