The Bishop Candidates: The Very Rev. John B. Burwell

Part 1: Faith Story and Call to Ministry

The Very Reverend John B. Burwell is Rector, Church of the Holy Cross Sullivan’s Island, Daniel Island and I’on, South Carolina. Holy Cross is a fast growing congregation with three locations in affluent communities outside Charleston. It has, according to Fr. Burwell, “gone from a divided and contentious congregation of 75 to a united and influential parish of over 1800, and… from a budget of $55,000 to one of well over two million dollars.” It has a well-designed website, that, curiously, makes only passing references to the Episcopal Church. Its Resources page does not have a link to The Episcopal Church site, but does have a link to Trinity School for Ministry, the seminary outside of Pittsburg that a year or so ago dropped the word “Episcopal” from its name. It’s the only seminary listed, which should give one pause, since the Search Committee’s report assures us that “all five nominees support, without question, remaining in The Episcopal Church.” It’s not clear from his resume whether Fr. Burwell attended Trinity back when it still called itself an Episcopal seminary, but a Post and Dispatch article from 2007 noted that he “attended seminary in Pittsburgh.”

Fr. Burwell’s faith story tells the fairly standard evangelical parable of “I once was lost, but now am found.” He blames his lostness “on being overly influenced by the works of Friedrich Nietzsche” while studying philosophy at the University of South Carolina. (Full disclosure: I have a cat named Friedrich Nietzsche. He is a Russian Blue/grey tabby mix, and has a definite nihilistic nature. Burwell surely has a point here.) Even though he had “accepted Jesus as my Savior” at age 9 in a Baptist church, after college he wandered the desert of unbelief. An undisclosed “personal crisis” brought him to his knees and “God met me where I was with grace and restored me.”

While pursuing a successful career in broadcast media, Burwell “heard God call me to the priesthood” one Sunday in 1979 during Morning Prayer. His media career prepared him, he says, “ to preach life oriented sermons and to understand the culture of the society into which God called me to minister.” That sentence provides a glimmer of hope that Fr. Burwell might follow the long tradition of Anglican evangelicalism which focuses not simply on a “born-again experience,” but on social justice as a living expression of Christian faith. Understanding the culture, however, is quite different than holding it accountable for injustice.

So far, my Deacon’s heart is not, in John Wesley’s born-again words, “strangely warmed” by John Burwell’s faith journey. Maybe tomorrow’s answers will be better.

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