Hello St. Paul’s,
Many of you know and love the Rev. Dr Mark Trotter, longtime senior pastor of First United Methodist Church and former preacher in residence at St. Paul’s. Mark and his wife Jean have long been good friends to St. Paul’s, and despite some serious health issues, Mark is still willing to preach at the cathedral from time to time in recent years, and we all love his sermons. I recently had a conversation with Mark about his long life of ministry.
Question: You’ve recently mentioned that preaching two services on a Sunday morning is more challenging than it used to be. Can you say more about that?
Answer: The principal reason why I am no longer preaching is that I am rarely invited anymore, which makes your invitation of several months ago much appreciated. Especially so because it was at St. Paul’s where, for many years, Jean and I were so warmly welcomed. But I must also say that at eighty-eight I have discovered physical limitations that make preaching two services difficult. All of which makes me grateful for the long career I enjoyed, and especially that being named “Preacher in Residence” at St. Paul’s. That occurred, I recall, in 2001, the year after my retirement from First UMC in Mission Valley. John Chane was rector at that time.
Question: Please tell us about your call to ordained ministry.
Answer: I entered seminary following my graduation from college in 1955. The decision came a few months earlier as a result of my prayerful struggle as to what to do with my life. I entered college determined not to be a minister. I had felt that I was being pushed into ministry by the momentum of tradition. My father was a Methodist minister, my two older brothers were in seminary at the time preparing for ordination, my grandfather had been a Methodist minister in Ireland, as had his father before him. In addition, I had an uncle, my father’s brother, who was also a Methodist minister. My rebellion was based on my determination to be myself. But in the midst of my senior year I realized that I had virtually no vocational choice or knowledge of what I would do following graduation. To sort things out I chose to spend time in meditation. The result of that discipline was the decision to go to seminary in order to investigate what ministry was all about. I attended Boston University School of Theology, and by the end of the first year decided I was called to ministry.
Question: What were significant influences on your development as a preacher?
The most powerful influences on me were exposure to contemporary theology that interpreted culture from a biblical perspective. Equally strong were the examples of powerfully relevant preaching by George Buttrick at the Harvard University Church, and Theodore Parker Ferris, rector at Trinity Episcopal Church in Copley Square. I had never heard such meaningful and relevant preaching before. I also had the privilege of being invited by Trinity to work with college students in the Canterbury Club. Jean and I were also guests of Ferris for dinner at the Trinity rectory. My studies, and the inspiration of clergy, were strong influences in my choosing to be ordained.
Question: What are the biggest changes you’ve observed over your two decades with St. Paul’s?
Answer: Obviously the biggest change at St. Paul’s has been the remodeling of the chancel and the addition of elegant space to carry out ministry to the community. There was a time when churches in the urban area of San Diego were leaving for more hospitable environs. First Methodist was probably the earliest to leave back in the early sixties. But from the time I first became Preacher in Residence I heard clergy and laity at the Cathedral talk of the church’s commitment to stay and witness to the Gospel in the heart of the city. St. Paul’s has done that in a marvelous and creative way and made a difference in the lives of people who attended church because the Cathedral was there. I learned that while attending services during stewardship campaigns, when you solicited financial pledges from members. I heard testimony from people who attended church because the Cathedral was there. People who found St. Paul’s because it was part of their neighborhood gave testimonies to what the church had meant to them, It was a most inspiring moment when someone who felt alone, or different, in other parts of their lives, found acceptance and affirmation here. There is no greater testimony to the quality of ministry than the replication of the first century church’s mission to welcome all people to the Lord’s Table. The spoken invitation puts that forth in a beautiful way, and in a way that I am sure would shock the constituencies of some other churches.
Question: What is your abiding impression of the culture of St. Paul’s Cathedral?
Answer: I have always felt that all people are welcome at the table of the Lord, and thus in the fellowship of Christians there is no need to ask the congregation if they disagree. If they disagree it is a failure on the part of the institution to make clear that diversity is the sign of a healthy Church. It’s the same problem Paul faced in the early church and his answer to critics was that the Church is a new creation, God’s plan to get rid of the old rules that divide and be a “new creation.”
I found life at the cathedral to be patterned upon the New Testament pattern. I suspect it happens in large part because the focus of worship in the Anglican tradition is on the Communion where unity amidst diversity is emphasized, especially in the invitation to the table you offer before each meal. That is my clearest impression of the Cathedral through the years, and it appeared to be there in each rector’s or dean’s tenure. Jean and I came for the sacrament and the dignified manner in which it was celebrated. There are few places in the city where one can find that spirit week after week. The power of St. Paul’s is the worship, which enriched our lives.
Question: What principal differences do you see between the Methodist and Episcopal traditions?
Answer: I am afraid I am not qualified to give an authoritative answer to that. We have a common history, in that John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, lived and died a member of the Anglican priesthood. After a frustrating journey to the colony of Georgia as an Anglican missionary and priest to the colonists he realized that his faith was shallow and lacked confirmation. He found that confirmation of discipleship through an experience with the Moravians who had a small immigrant community in London. While visiting a service he “felt his heart strangely warmed,” and defined it as the assurance of faith that had been lacking in his life. He remained a priest in the Church of England all of his life, but felt he was called to preach “grace” to those in England who were poor and socially outcast, and more important, outside the ministries of the established church. His work in England consisted of organizing those he preached to into “classes” and training them in Christian life. He also sent missionaries to the colonies, and two of his clergy, Coke and Asbury, commissioned lay preachers in the colonies to preach to the thousands in remote settlements on the frontier.
Another determining event for Methodism in America was the “Great Awakening” in the second decade of the 19th century, which shaped Methodism as evangelical, and very different than the Episcopal Church which had now returned to America and focused on sacramental worship. But after the Civil War, and the burgeoning of industrial America, a middle class was emerging and the Methodist Church responded with more churches and with a seminary trained clergy. By the twentieth century the Methodists were moving away from the heritage of the Great Awakening to return to the formal liturgy of the Episcopal Church. After a century of renewal and reform, the Methodists now embrace the formal liturgies and the sacraments, while still stressing the centrality of the sermon. Unfortunately, today the United Methodist Church is disuniting over the issue of ordaining gay clergy. Each parish in the denomination will be asked to decide whether they will remain with the United Methodist denomination or join a new, anti-gay denomination that calls itself the “World Methodist Church”, I assume because they are counting on the foreign conferences like those in Africa and Asia, that have strict rules on sexual identity, to join them. In the meantime, I pray the Spirit will work to, at some point, unite us again in ministry to a desperate world.
Question: Is there anything else you’d like to share with the people of St. Paul’s?
It is simply this. When Jean and I after 24 years, were without a congregation, St. Paul’s welcomed us and treated us as if we were real Episcopalians. For that gift we are most grateful.
I know I speak for the whole cathedral community in thanking Mark and Jean for their long association and friendship with St. Paul’s. I hope we will be able to persuade Mark to return to the pulpit from time to time, and of course he and Jean will always be regarded as part of our cathedral family.
See you on Sunday!
Your sister in Christ,