Transitions in The Witness: 1972 to Present

Bill Jr.:

My mother, Dorothy Ibbotson Spofford, died in Newport News, VA., on Feb. 6, 1973, four months after Dad. She had cancer but, spiritually, it was sort of like, ’Oh, heck, without Bill, it isn’t worth it!’ This meant that I, as a bishop of an inter-mountain diocese with all that entails; my sister, Suzanne, busily being a stepmother and mother; and Marcia’s daughter, Lynn Russell Hickerson, working at the Library of Congress and raising a son, were responsible for the Shop, The Witness and whatever was around. Prior to Dad’s death, and when he was most debilitated, I found a homemade will written to us in 1951. It sort of said that, when he died, everything belonged to mother, and when she died, we should act sensibly and work it out. The will, which ended with his customary ‘cheerio’ and a smiling face and ‘The Old Man’ said that the stocks of the Episcopal Church Publishing Co. were in a box at the Morgan Guaranty Trust on Wall Street. After consulting Davis Hobbs, the family lawyer and friend of the family, I went to that bank, opened the box and, among some papers, found the ten shares of stock of the company.  It seems that, by the time of the death of Bp. Irving Peake Johnson, they had agreed that all the assets of the Episcopal Church Publishing Co. should belong to the managing editor, ‘interim’-type though he still was. Through intelligent management, and New Hampshire thrift, and access to some of the best minds of Wall Street, the assets had accumulated. Dad’s ‘comrade number’ may have attacked the capitalists but he was quite willing to beat them at their own game!

One example of his thrift was when, in 1973, after Dad’s death, Dave Hobbs asked Mom how much Dad gave her a month to run the large house on Dark Hollow Road.  She replied: “Oh, just what he gave me when we moved from Park Ridge to Demarest, $300!” No one could ever accuse Dad of being particularly sensitive to what are now called ‘women’s issues’, at least as it applied to his wife of 57 years. She became an expert at picking out and refinishing good antiques while in Tunkhannock, partially, we suppose, because she didn’t get to have much cash.

How does one sell a print shop that, because of the invention of new equipment and computer presses, was in many ways obsolete?  Even more, how does one close down a magazine that has an implied contract with subscribers and advertisers?  Dad, always being a one-man operation and on very little salary, had made no provision for succession. I phoned the Presiding Bishop, John Hines, claiming that, as such, he had to be my episcopal ‘pastor’. As ever, he was gracious, enthusiastic and open. We asked whether, if I could gather some bishops and others who had long term or significant relationship with THE WITNESS, we could meet someplace in New York and discuss our predicament.

I was committed to being Bishop of Eastern Oregon, and had to work out some ideas and plans so that I could get back to my primary vocation. As a result, Suzy, Polly and I, together with Dave Hobbs, met in Bp. Hines’ office at the National Church Center with the following people:  Bp. Lloyd Gressle (Bethlehem); Bp. J. Brooke Mosley (then dean of Union Theological Seminary, N.Y.C.); Bp. Bob DeWitt (Pennsylvania); Ben Arnold (Suffragan Bishop of Mass., central Urban Caucus person and also representing Bp. John Burgess) and the Rev. Joe Fletcher, professor of ethics at Episcopal Divinity School, Cambridge and Dad’s longest term friend and colleague, both in the C.L.I.D. and E.L.S.A. but also as a WITNESS columnist. Bp. Paul Moore (New York) was invited, but could not attend.  Bp. Hines acted as convener and host. After presenting the Spofford ‘dilemma’, the discussion was mostly concerned with the state of church journalism, and particularly in the Episcopal Church, and whether, in light of that assessment, the WITNESS should be folded or continued.

Unanimously, it was decided that THE WITNESS, in whatever form, had historically played an important role in the Church and national/world scene and should continue. We pointed out that this could not be done immediately; that I would have to be working it out from Bend, Oregon; and that we knew nothing about transforming or selling a, perhaps, redundant print shop, which had contracts. I said that, in all honor, we would have to let the subscribers know that, at least for a time, THE WITNESS was being ‘suspended’ or, if they wish, we would try to work a reciprocity arrangement with some other church magazine, such as CHRISTIANITY AND CRISIS (suspended with the March 1993 issue, alas!)….or THE CHURCHMAN. By the grace of God and the hard and mysterious work of lawyers and accountants of various moods and kinds, it worked out. THE WITNESS revived, not as a weekly but as a monthly, under the editorship of Bob DeWitt, who soon thereafter retired and enjoyed his new journalistic role. It was during this period that he, and Bp. Tony Ramos (Cost Rica); Dan Corrigan (retired) and others celebrated the ‘irregular’ ordination of female priests in Philadelphia. That, of course, stirred up major issues within our Church, world-wide Anglicanism and, indeed, the ecumenical scene.

I was asked to be on the board of the new WITNESS, but thinking that being bishop of Eastern Oregon was my vocation, I declined. Also, I thought that the Spofford tag ought to be out of the picture, although I am not sure many people believe me to this day. I did recommend a good journalist and educator, Alice Dieter of Boise, to sit in on planning sessions, as the new board looked for a managing editor.  She recommended that they have Sam Day, editor of THE PROGRESSIVE, and one time editor of the INTERMOUNTAIN OBSERVOR in Boise, be their consultant. They did so and, through Sam and others, discovered a Roman Catholic journalist, Mary Lu Suhor, who was excited about the possibilities. Once she learned the lingo, the intricacies, the polities and the personalities of both the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion, she did a great job, working out of her office in Ambler, Pa. She continued in that role, with a dedicated staff of reporters, largely female, until Bob DeWitt’s retirement to a Maine island, and carried on when Barbara Harris replaced Bob as editor-in-chief. Barbara, of course, was the first woman elected a bishop in the Episcopal Church and THE WITNESS covered her consecration in Boston in a most celebrative and creative manner.

Then Mary Lu had to work with varied chief editors and boards until such time as she retired to Louisiana to take care of her elderly parents. At that point, under the leadership of Dr. William Rankin (new dean of Episcopal Divinity School, Cambridge, as of 1993), the Ambler office was closed and Jeannette Wylie-Kellerman became both publisher and editor. Under her leadership, the quality of the art and many of the issues discussed and explored are different than in Dad’s decades. So, God and history moves!

When the office and operation was moved from Ambler to Detroit, many old WITNESS buffs felt that it had not been done with sensitivity to the needs of the ‘workers’ (all female) in the Pennsylvania ‘shop’. Letters of justification were sent out, and interpretive phone calls were made, but, I must say, on occasion, I think Dad’s ‘shade’ must wonder whether he isn’t getting replays of Marion, Ky.; Paterson, N.J.; and Passaic, N.J. Church journalism, and particularly when it deals with strong and sensitive social issues, as well as individual and ecclesial concerns, is ever conflictual. THE WITNESS has, from the days of Bps. Johnson and Sage, understood this. So, too, with Dean Billy Ladd in the 1920 Berkeley Divinity School fight, one would hope that any Christian journal would rather die on principle than live on pap. In all of these transitions, (and it isn’t filial admiration alone), and with all the changes and moving from a weekly to a monthly, I get the idea that WBS, Sr. was not only an alcoholic, but a work-aholic! He did skip the first issue of January every year, just to get a vacation…but he ‘justified’ himself by saying that the Church never made any real news during Christmas week, anyway…It was too busy praying. So it was a good time to take in somethng at Madison Square Garden or on Broadway…and see the holiday lights!