Bishop Keith Ackerman
“JUST BECAUSE he’s an American doesn’t mean he’s a bad person!”
Grudging humour may seem a caricature of English reaction to our transatlantic cousins but it is often not far from the English traditionalists’ response to the American church. So much that is theologically disastrous has spread, like an infection, from that minute, wealthy and powerful body that we, too often, lose sight of the good things. Its catholic past and orthodox teaching still nurtures a good number of her sons and daughters. It is true that only four orthodox bishops remain in office today but there are a good number still who, having bowed the knee to the Baal of feminism, keep a recognisable grip on other areas of orthodoxy.
One of the great encouragements of Lambeth was to work alongside the highly dedicated orthodox American laity whose networking, writing and knowledge of the third world churches was invaluable. They were very keen that English readers should get another view of the American church and suggested I interview Keith Ackerman, Bishop of Quincy. Enthusiasm for this project was fanned by very positive comments, not only from fellow English traditionalists, but also from the assessments of odd members of the press corps. You don’t often get phrases like, “a godly man”, “a real man of prayer”, “a lovely guy” from fellow scribblers.
As luck would have it, Bishop Ackerman was the celebrant of the midday Holy Communion. He had been asked to do it at a few minutes’ notice and celebrated prayerfully and gave a brief but profound and scriptural homily. Immediately afterwards, over lunch, we were introduced and fixed an interview for breakfast the following morning.
Ackerman is like a miniature (affectionate English admirers refer to him privately as “Diddy”). He is small, neat, with boyish good looks and a welcome mixture of pastoral gentleness and evangelical enthusiasm, a very relaxed person without a trace of pomposity or side. We met in the lobby of one of the residential halls and there then followed several minutes of high farce. Ackerman very kindly introduced me to the bishop standing next to him. He did not respond with the warmth and grace Ackerman clearly expected. Ackerman was not to know that his man’s exploits had been faithfully recorded in the 30 DAYS column recently. The second introduction was even more woeful. It was to the man most widely blamed for the liberal destruction of my old college. He stood wide-eyed, like a rabbit in headlights, unable to articulate more than a weak smile and noncommittal hum. The final attempt at bonhomie was equally doomed. A private patron had once suggested my name for a parish in this man’s diocese and been informed that I would become vicar there over his dead body. You don’t often get an offer as attractive as that!
Five minutes later I was explaining to Ackerman with what unerring precision he had located every land mine in the lobby and laughter and tea and toast were exploding all over his apartment. When some semblance of self-control had descended on us, I asked him:
Where did you begin?
“McKeesport, Pennsylvania – an industrial area outside Pittsburgh. It was a steel town. My father and grandfather, he came from Wales, worked in the mills. My ma had been a ballerina”.
Any other family?
“My maternal grandparents were killed on the way home from my parents’ wedding and my two older sisters died before I was born. My mum and dad began a new family with me. On the eve of my ordination, my mum told me that she had stood before the altar and dedicated me to the Lord – ‘If he lives, I give him to you’.”
When did you know you were called?
“At 5, I knew I was called and at 12 I knew it was to the priesthood.” (At 15, Ackerman’s priest was Fr John Heidt. He has remained a great friend and influence).
What about education?
“In my neighbourhood no-one went to college. In order to do that, I worked the midnight to 8.00am shift in the steel mill and went to college during the day. I was really interested in psychology and qualified in that discipline, going on to work with delinquent boys in a church related institution. When I told them about my vocation, the St Francis Boys Homes released me with their blessing “to be the best priest you can be.” They were very supportive”.
In his late twenties, Ackerman found himself at Nashota House, the leading catholic seminary.
Were you married then?
“Oh, yes. Joann was my childhood sweetheart and we married when I was 21.”
Keith, 27, is director of human resources in a Psychiatric Hospital, Renee is a Shakespearean actress and Lynne is training to teach at the University of Illinois. They’re all very active in church – youth director, Sunday school teacher and so on.”
Nashota House in Ackerman’s time produced three seminary deans and two bishops (so far). The Dean himself became Bishop of Quincy and remains a personal hero of Ackerman’s.
“I remember going to his consecration in Peoria and thinking, ‘Well, I’ll never be here again’. But the diocese has a great sense of continuity – of apostolic succession – one man building on another’s work, not undermining his predecessor. It’s been anglo-catholic since its foundation in 1877. On the cathedra, it says ‘Cathedra of the Catholic Bishop of Quincy’, and on the crozier the same apostolic claim.”
Where was your first parish?
“Long Island diocese. They needed a young priest to run a pastoral counselling centre and a school. I was there for two years and it was, then, a good catholic diocese.”
Last year, now firmly in the liberal domain, Long Island became the centre of a huge scandal involving senior clergy, Penthouse magazine, serious alcoholism and Brazilian rent boys – it made national headlines.
“We were called home to W. Pennsylvania and I became Rector of St Mary’s, Charleroi. Like every church I’ve worked in there was a shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham and a regular devotion. Charleroi was very tractarian. It was also a very industrial area – great unemployment, labour disputes and union activity. I got involved as peacemaker/negotiator on contracts and you had police protection when it came to counting ballots. We ran five agencies for unemployed people. Joann and the children were involved with food provisions, hospitality, counselling centre, etc. It shaped our childrens’ lives in many ways.”
How long were you there?
“Thirteen years. We turned down every call to see the thing through and better employment and conditions. We helped women to make things to market. When the church floor was disintegrating we got a professional to train people in the skills to repair it and so on. Discover their talents, retrain, encourage, give hope. All our lives, it has been our privilege to be in depressed communities and enjoy magnificent worship which gives a vision.”
Joann has been very ill, hasn’t she?
“Yes. She’s had cancer for four years and is recovering. She also has fibro myalgia – like arthritis – which leaves her in permanent pain. She has been used a lot by people for spiritual help in cancer. You discover Christ in the suffering and to go to Christ and thank Him for trusting us with His pain.”
Those who know these two will bear out that the awful purification by suffering and the shining of the light of Christ in holy lives is a living reality. We get into a discussion about our experiences of the miraculous. I knew we would – you can always tell when someone has that kind of experience and discernment.
Have there been things
witnessed by others?
“Yes. We were in church, Holy Week, the Lenten veil over the Holy Family. My son, small then, nudged me. On the veil had appeared the face of Christ. Everyone saw it. One lady said she saw it and prayed it would be proclaimed by the mouth of a child. It was. Joann and I and the children wept. The image remained even when the veil was moved. At Easter, there was suddenly no crown of thorns above the Christ but a light around Him.
When my father died I was praying at the shrine of Our Lady and tears started from her eyes. I ran home to get my family and call parishioners and we stood in awe as she wept. The tears left a permanent stain on her cheek.”
When you tell stories like this, half the world thinks you’re mad. The other half comes and tells you their miraculous experiences which they never told anyone else before – in case, you guessed it, they were thought to be mad! We believe in a supernatural God. I’m never quite sure why we should be so surprised.
Where to next?
“St Mark’s, Arlington, Texas. It wasn’t advertised. Bishop Pope asked me to come. It was growing, booming, large and with staff! I’d always been used to areas of blue collar unemployment. Suddenly with the onset of recession, it was white collar unemployment. “Down sizing” was the polite term and we were ministering to people living beyond their means – a totally different situation. The church had financial problems too, so we took a concession next to Texas Rangers’ baseball stadium and sold root beer, fries and hamburgers. Until we’d paid off the $100,000 owing on the building, I enjoyed doing that – there was, as always, a lot of personal contact and evangelism. It was very relaxed – you get an opportunity to pray with people on the street, in a shop, wherever they come to you. You should always be prepared to lay hands on them, anoint them” (Ackerman never goes anywhere without his oil stock),” hear their confession. I once heard confession in a meat locker. Our job is to take Christ to the people and bring them to the altar.”
I am reminded of one of the pictures from the great Solidarity strike in Poland many years ago. Surrounded by armed troops, the Gdansk Shipyard workers leaned on their faith, making their confession, kneeling in the street. Their religion was as natural to them as breathing. You feel that with Ackerman.
Five years on, he was nominated for Bishop of Quincy.
“I was elected on the 2nd ballot, a very quick and clear decision. However the rest of the Episcopal church was not keen and there ensued a five-month battle to receive consents from the standing committee of each diocese .I did not get involved. False rumours were started about me. I was asked constantly where I stood “on the issues”. The issue they were interested in was, would I ordain women. I simply repeated my credal beliefs – born of the Virgin Mary – died for our sins on the Cross – rose from the dead. I tried to get them to understand that the only issue for me is Jesus.
In the end, the majority was the closest of any consent process and the bishops then reluctantly approved. At this point, I was a few weeks away from consecration, without house, home, preparation. We moved into temporary accommodation.”
It would be easy for the English Anglican to be brutally critical of the American liberal establishment’s very public wickedness. The reality over here is, of course, different. Being English there is no public beastliness, orthodox candidatures are quietly assassinated before they see the light of day.
How did the diocese respond?
“Wonderfully. They united behind us. Even those who disagreed were personally supportive. At the consecration, I asked my predecessors, Parsons and McBurney, to stand with me and I said, “This is for the Bishops of Quincy and the catholic faith.”
Do you get a lot of priests coming to Quincy?
“No. We have a lot of small towns, part-time ministries, self-supporting priests, poor pay, hard work and no career prospects. Do you want a job?
But I love it. Most of my time I’m out visiting. It’s small enough to pastor and I couldn’t do the prince bishop or bureaucrat role. The diocesan staff is tiny – a part-time secretary and a priest who does two afternoons’ admin. All correspondence is hand-written.”
How do you cope with being a persecuted minority/
“I’m used to being a tolerated minority. I’m not used to being not tolerated. I believe the same as I believed fifty years ago but not changing can change your position. I’ve often been in the midst of negotiations and labour disputes, so I can live joyfully in the midst of conflict. I try to find Christ in everyone. God never gave me the excuse that I don’t need to love them. I find, if I pray more and strategize less, things go better.”
Have you ever thought of Rome or Orthodoxy?
“I was raised in an RC and Orthodox environment. So I have a very realistic view of them. Half of my graduating class have gone to one or the other. Enemies want me to leave. If they force me out somehow, I will still seek the Lord’s will, still try to feed my sheep. I don’t have a legal mind, I just have to look to Christ.”
Do you get much support?
“Yes, I’m a member of SSC (Society of the Holy Cross), I get great encouragement from third world bishops who say ‘I’m right with you, brother’, and really good friendships in England. Joann and I have had great enrichment from our friendship with the Gaisfords (Bishop of Beverley)”
What do you make of the flying bishop system?
“I accompanied John Gaisford on a parish visit and I cried. It was so moving to see those people being pastored. Why can’t I do this in the States I’m no empire builder but I just want to meet the needs and care for our people and love them. If there was the offer of a flying bishop in the States we’d grab it.”
What was your best moment in England?
“It’s been a great thrill to preach and celebrate here. I went to Walsingham and was elected a shrine guardian on my first visit. I felt I was coming home and I felt very humble. I had longed for this moment. I’m a man who, but for the grace of God, would have spent his life in the steel mills and now, here I was, a priest kneeling at the Shrine! What can I say”
Robbie Low is Vicar of St. Peter’s, Bushey Heath in the diocese of St. Alban’s