Meet Randolph Charles

[This is the complete and unedited version of an article that Connie wrote for the Fall Issue of inFauquier. I am grateful to Connie for writing it and I share it with you, the people of St James’, because I want you to know more about my life. RCC]

by Connie Lyons

Sixteen years old, and as teenaged boys will, Randolph Charles and a friend are cruising around a lake, soaking up the South Carolina sunshine and scents of summer. And as teenaged boys will, they are discussing what they’re going to do when they grow up. “You know, Randy,” says the friend, “Somehow I’ve always seen you in the priesthood. Or as some kind of clergy type person.” Charles is surprised, intrigued; his interest is piqued. Nevertheless, the idea seems alien, and he tucks it away for future reference in the deep quiet underwaters of his subconscious.

Now associate priest at St. James in Warrenton, Charles is tall and lean, with a shimmering shock of white hair which flops around as he sings the hymns with engaging enthusiasm. He laces the announcements with personal anecdotes, most recently the birth of six Labrador Retriever puppies to one of his beloved dogs. His preaching style is electric, engaging, animated; occasionally, during a sermon, he bursts into song. And he has come to St. James, recently retired, after 38 years of downtown ministry, working for inclusion and social justice.
Charles grew up in a small rural town in South Carolina. From there he went to Sewanee (University of the South) in Tennessee, where he majored in English. Still, the seed planted by his friend’s chance remark grew silently at the back of his mind, and during his senior year he visited the Episcopal seminary in Alexandria, Virginia. He worked at a few random jobs after graduation; and then the idea of entering the priesthood blossomed, grew tendrils, and took over his life. He talked to the diocesan bishop, who encouraged him, and at the age of 24 he set off to enroll in seminary in New York City.

The allure of life in New York was another element in the decision. “I was star struck,’ he says. “It was such an eye opener, in so many ways.” He grew to love the abundance of cultural resources in the city: theater, opera, symphony, art museums. His work as a seminarian was an eye opener as well. He became involved in the power of justice ministry in urban areas, a passion that continued throughout all the years of his ministry. “And the cultural diversity was a new experience for me,” he says. The seminary required that he spend two months working as a chaplain either at a hospital or in a jail. “Every day I did group therapy sessions at Napa Valley State Mental Hospital.”
In the course of his time in New York he became uneasily aware that he was not certain about having a clear call to the priesthood. “Second thoughts,” he says. “I went into therapy with an analyst at the seminary; we delved into spirituality and meditation. And eventually it all settled down,” he says. “I discerned a real call to the priesthood. I was so glad I took time out; I learned to listen to others and to listen to God.”

He also met his future wife in the seminary library. A divorcee with a six year old son, she was personal secretary to the award winning writer Madeline L’Engle, whose books combine an intense Christian faith with a powerful interest in science. “1976 was a critical year for me,” says Charles. “I got married, I got ordained, and I got transported from the urban ethos of New York back to the bucolic streets of South Carolina.”

Charles was sent to a pair of parishes on Pawley’s Island: he was made priest in charge at Faith Memorial Mission Church, and assistant to the rector at All Saints Waccamaw, a colonial parish. “It was a challenge,” he says. “One church was exclusively African American; the other was entirely white. My intent was to somehow bring them together.” Then he met Miss Ruby, head teacher at a one-room school and wife of the priest retiring from Faith Memorial. “I’ll never forget how I felt,” says Charles. “I was newly ordained. I was excited, full of hopes and dreams, and really nervous as well. Miss Ruby could tell. She grabbed my hand and said, with supreme confidence, “We’re going to pray you into being a priest.”

On the day Charles was ordained, the congregations joined together and put on a grand event, with a large gospel choir providing the choral music. But although many of the people in the two congregations knew each other, there was not a lot of progress in bringing them together in any lasting, meaningful way. “There were some shared experiences and worship events, but not a lot, and not a whole lot of other things, either,” says Charles.

After two years Charles was transferred to Grace Church in Charleston, South Carolina. “The start of my 38 years in downtown ministry,” he says. “We had a very active Young Adult group that was focused on social justice, on working with the poor.” During his time at Grace Church Charles’ two sons, Ryan and Aidan were born. And during that time his marriage ended, and he was left to raise the two boys on his own.

In the summer of 1994 Charles was called as rector of the Church of the Epiphany in Washington, DC. Founded in 1842, the church was sliding toward a financial crisis. “It was a tough call,” says Charles. “The bishop telephoned to welcome me and suggested that it might be a good idea to merge with St. John’s in Lafayette Square.” Charles was more interested in reviving Epiphany and reversing the downward drift toward financial ruin. “I really like redevelopment ministry,” he says. “I wanted to allow the church to live into a new chapter, both for the church and for ourselves. Honor the past, but move forward, in other words.”

Located three blocks from the White House, with little housing in the immediate area, Epiphany had to attract its congregation from a distance. Because the church was historic, and located in the midst of the hustle and bustle of downtown DC, a lot of young adults were attracted. “There were a lot of things nearby to see and do; restaurants and museums; so young people would make a day of it. And we had an excellent music program.” Passionate about the arts, Charles worked hard at building the music ministry. “The organist was artist in residence at the National Cathedral. We had a wonderful Gospel choir with paid section leaders. A sung Eucharist.” God is in the arts, Charles believes; in the music, in the words.

The nearest people in “residence” were the homeless, and from its inception Charles’ ministry stressed inclusiveness. “We invited the homeless,” he said. “We instituted a big breakfast. And you didn’t have to attend church to get it.” But many did come to church; sometimes as many as 200. They filled up the pews, sitting side by side with the more affluent parishioners. “The big question was how to relate across the socio-economic divide. And that’s not an easy thing. And not everyone was happy with it. I mean, maybe you’re sitting next to someone who’s incontinent, or hasn’t showered in weeks.” In addition, Washington is by its nature a transient city, with people continually coming and going. “Still, we managed to do lots of good stuff, and the congregation grew.”

Charles also established a “street church:” in Franklin Square. “Every Tuesday at 12:10 p.m. we would have a classical music concert. And we’d provide lunch. Homeless people would attend and get there in time to eat. It was another way to minister to the poor. And downtown music. We’d have guitars and singing. The event embodied the spirit of downtown DC; government workers elbow to elbow with the poor.”

Inclusivity is key, says Charles. “Immanence. Jesus Christ is in us all. Transcendence is up and down; immanence is horizontal.* But we all have different approaches to faith, to life practices.” The trajectory of Charles’ ministry is reflected in the church’s current mission statement, which says, “For more than a century and a half, we have been called to build an inclusive and diverse community, serve people in need, and celebrate the arts. We are an open and affirming Christian community that is passionate about hospitality and justice. The Epiphany Community includes parishioners, the downtown economically poor, downtown workers, friends, and visitors.” “I hope the church continues to thrive and grow,” he says. “But it’s always a challenge.”

In 2004 a major crisis erupted in the Episcopal Church. A practicing homosexual, Eugene Robinson, was installed as diocesan bishop in New Hampshire. His election sparked a volcanic reaction among conservative congregations. Many of them abandoned the Episcopal Church, formed the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA) and aligned themselves with bishops outside the Episcopal Church in the United States. “These people are not Anglicans,” says Charles decisively. “True Anglicanism is centered on inclusion. It’s not dogmatic. Decisions turn on listening to God and to others. In other words, it’s perfectly okay to be either excited or uneasy over Robinson’s ordination. People should read and hear the Gospel.

“What the congregations who left and joined ACNA did violates the Apostolic succession, in which authority is confirmed, hands on, in an unbroken line, generation to generation, in an inviolate chain,” says Charles. “You can’t just say, ‘I’m leaving the family because I don’t like what you did.’ They miss the basic principle of the Christian Church, which is that God loves all of us equally. They seem to think they’re somehow better in God’s eyes.”

In the summer of 2005 Charles met his second wife, Joanne. “We were at Shrine Mont [an Episcopal retreat center] and some friends thought we’d be a good fit. “So we were introduced, and we danced, and so on and so on, and we agreed to stay in touch.” And so they did, and were married in 2008.

In the summer of 2013, after nineteen years at Epiphany, Charles began to think about retiring. With the idea of spending some time in seclusion and reflection, he drove to a Trappist monastery in South Carolina and stayed for a few days. “And on a Monday morning I woke up at 10:00 a.m. with a clear idea that I would retire in 2018. It just felt right,” he says.

He came home and told Joanne, but she had other plans. ”Let me show you when God wants you to retire,” she said. A casual internet search had turned up an 1880 farmhouse in Orlean, Virginia. It had an acre of land, and Joanne, who wanted to raise Labrador Retrievers, was intrigued because the current owner boarded dogs; the house had a special area designated to their care. Ten feet from the house stood a shed which could be converted into a separate living space. “Your man cave, she called it,” Charles recalls. “I call it my soul shack. There were horses next door, corn fields, wonderful views. We were totally hooked. And at the house next door there was a sign, being refurbished by the owner, that said ‘The Episcopal Church welcomes you.’ How could we resist?” They moved in and acquired three alpacas, a couple of Labs, and two black rescue cats named Mary and Martha.

The Episcopal Church advises newly retired clergy to take at least a year off. “So in 2015 to 2016 I didn’t do anything,” says Charles. “I didn’t feel called to be active as a priest. I played the guitar, hiked part of the Appalachian Trail, and just enjoyed homesteading. Time with family and friends.” Then diocesan bishop Ted Gulick mentioned that St. James in Warrenton was looking for a temporary part time person. Charles met with the church’s rector, Benjamin Maas. “And it just felt right,” he says. “Maybe this is what God is calling me to do.”

St. James parishioner Carole Hertz finds Charles an invigorating presence. “I find Randolph to be a breath of fresh air,” she says. “He beautifully combines religion, current events, and tasteful humor. Positive energy..”

“I was initially impressed at how quickly Father. Randolph learned our names and was able to draw us into conversation,” says Eileen Burgwyn, whose husband, George, is the church’s Senior warden. “His self-deprecating sense of humor makes him very approachable. His sermons, while delivered in an informal, almost folksy manner, encourage deep reflection and challenge
the congregation to put its faith into action.”

In the parking lot Charles points out his new ride, a small, gleaming, brilliantly blue pickup truck. “I always wanted a pickup,” he says fondly.

*Immanence/transcendence: Transcendent means that God is completely outside of and beyond the world, as contrasted with the notion that God is manifested in the world. This meaning originates both in the Aristotelian view of God as the prime mover, a non-material self-consciousness that is outside of the world. Philosophies and philosophers of immanence such as stoicism or pantheism, Spinoza or Deleuze, maintain that God is manifested in and fully present in the world and the things in the world. Wikipedia.