In October 2014, I met up with Bishop Edward Salmon at the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport — otherwise known as the third ring of hell. I had already been there for a couple of hours, stuck because of bad weather in some other part of the country. The bishop’s flight had been delayed too, keeping him cooped up on the tarmac for an insufferable length of time, but he stepped off the plane and into the terminal like a force of nature.
You would hardly know that the man was 80, given the energy he was exuding. He began talking on the phone to people at a parish he was caring for in Washington, talking to airline personnel, plugging things in, and telling me about his plans for our scheduled meeting, all virtually simultaneously. I was both nervous and awed.
I had met Bishop Salmon in the flesh a year earlier when I traveled with him and Fr. Charleston Wilson. We had been talking and corresponding since 2012, when the bishop decided on the recommendation of a friend to invite me onto the board of Hillspeak, the organization that produces The Anglican Digest. At the time, the Digest was preparing for some major restructuring, and I was invited to be a part of it because of my experience as a blogger. I do not think the bishop exactly knew what a blog is, but that seemed not to matter to him. He knew that all of the old and dear institutions and traditions, if they are to be passed on, need to find new life. He trusted me to be someone who would take that seriously.
When I asked my friend, Fr. Bryan Owen, what to expect when meeting Bishop Salmon, he said, “When you’re with him, you’ll know that you’re in the presence of a bishop.”
I didn’t really know what that meant at the time, but when I finally did meet him it became pretty clear. Despite the man’s almost frenetic pace of activity, he retained a quiet dignity. He spoke carefully and slowly in his characteristic Southern drawl. He was kind and generous, with good humor, and willing to admit his own ignorance or inadequacies. But when he made a decision about something, it was final, and no one challenged it. It was like the crowd who reacted to our Lord by saying, “What is this? A new teaching with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him” (Mark 1:27).
I enjoyed all of my interactions and meetings with Bishop Salmon in the brief time that I knew him, but that 2014 trip was special. He and I traveled together at his insistence. Once we finally made it out of Atlanta, we flew to Springfield, Missouri, and then rented a car to take us the remainder of the way into the mountains of Arkansas. The bishop drove, hugging the turns in and out, reading a foldout map splayed over the dashboard as he drove, scaring the living crap out of me.
In between towns, as we motored along past long stretches of wilderness, he would talk to me. He was willing to entertain my many frivolous questions about church politics and minutiae, most of which seem silly now in retrospect. He told me about his years as a parish priest and what they meant to him.
I asked him what the secret is to being a good priest. “Love Jesus,” he said. There were other words, but those were the ones he repeated and they are the ones that stuck.
In many ways the passing of Bishop Salmon marks the end of an era. He was controversial to some. Liberals thought him too conservative. Some conservatives thought him too willing to listen to what liberals have to say. He did not fit easily and neatly into an ideological box. He was Anglo-Catholic to his bones, though willing to buck against even that when he needed to do so. But what made him extraordinary was the authority he carried easily and honestly. He knew intuitively what has often been lost on the generation of clergy that came after him: our job as priests is not to be therapists, cheerleaders, life coaches, or political activists, but to be shepherds who point beyond ourselves to Christ.
Far too often, I get swept up in the back-and-forth, petty bickering of life in the Church. More often than I would like to admit, I allow myself the sinful indulgence of cynicism and sarcasm. What Bishop Salmon taught me is that it is possible to rise above these things and to live with integrity by keeping a single-minded focus on the Lord and his leading. Bishop Salmon may be the last bishop of his kind that we see for quite some time, but I pray that his example will not be lost on us.
I pray that it won’t be lost on me.
Fr. Jonathan Mitchican is rector of Church of the Holy Comforter in Drexel Hill, Pennsylvania. His other posts are here.
The Living Church’s obituary for the Rt. Rev. Edward Lloyd Salmon, Jr. (1934-2016), is here.