Remembering Fred Borsch
The Rt. Rev. Dr. Frederick Houk Borsch, professor, colleague, and friend to many in the LTSP community, died early on April 11, 2017, from complications of myelodysplastic syndrome, a form of leukemia. He was 81 years old. Dr. Borsch and his wife Barbara joined the LTSP community in 2004 when he became Professor of New Testament and Chair of Anglican Studies. After his retirement, he was honored in 2014 when the Chair was renamed the Frederick Houk Borsch Chair in Anglican Studies. In retirement, he and Barbara remained a part of the community, and he died in his sleep at their Philadelphia home. You can read about the naming of the Anglican chair here.
Educated at Princeton, Oxford, and the General Theological Seminary, his doctorate in New Testament studies was from the University of Birmingham in England, according to an announcement from St. Edmund’s Episcopal Church in San Marino, California. He held teaching posts in England, at Seabury-Western Seminary in Illinois, and at General Theological Seminary, New York, prior to becoming dean and president of the Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley, Calfornia, where he served from 1972 until 1981. That year he became dean of the chapel and religious life at Princeton University. Borsch remained at Princeton until his 1988 election as fifth bishop of the Diocese of Los Angeles, where he served until his retirement in January, 2002, and within three weeks he had accepted the post as interim dean at the Berkeley Divinity School at Yale University. He spent 18 months there as dean, and also teaching, an experience that reminded him greatly of his previous teaching roles in other schools. Bishop Charles Bennison of the Pennsylvania Diocese told him of a new chair at LTSP. “He asked me to think about chairing Anglican Studies here at the seminary,” Borsch recalled in 2014. He remembered traveling in a borrowed convertible from New Haven to Philadelphia to be interviewed for the chair opportunity, rumbling down Germantown Avenue’s cobblestones to the campus, his wife Barbara at his side. He was welcomed by then President Philip Krey, Dean J. Paul Rajashekar, and the Rev. Dr. Timothy Wengert, Ministerium of Pennsylvania Professor of Reformation History.
Contributor of essays, articles, and poetry to a number of journals and newspapers, Borsch was the author or editor of some 20 books. A bibliography, along with more biographical information, is available here. The Diocese of Los Angeles’ remembrance of Dr. Borsch is here. An obituary in the New York Times, entitled “Frederick Borsch, Bishop Who Worked to Empower Minorities, Dies at 81,” can be found here. The Los Angeles Times entitled its story “Former Episcopal Bishop Frederick Borsch dies at 81; early LGBTQ advocate pushed for living wage in L.A.” It can be found here.
In remembering Fred Borsch, LTSP President the Rev. Dr. David Lose recalled, “You rarely spent time with Fred and didn’t leave without feeling uplifted, more hopeful about the church and, for that matter, yourself. He had a twinkle in his eye that was simultaneously welcoming and mischievous – as if he was always up to something and wanted you to join in.”
An April 22 memorial service was held at St. Martin-in-the-Fields Episcopal Church, Philadelphia, and another service will be held at a later date at St. Augustine by-the-Sea Episcopal Church, Santa Monica, California.
(Additional information from Episcopal News Service and the Diocese of Los Angeles, photo by the late Kemah Washington and supplied by Dr. Katie Day. Dr. Day notes, “The picture of Fred was taken at a vigil for victims of gun violence, I think around 2012. It’s all there – baseball, bishop, advocacy, and resolve. I love this photo.”)
The Rt. Rev. Frederick Houk Borsch, PhD, in 2014 talked about his tenure at LTSP, being part of an ecumenical seminary community, and the future of the church.
Dr. Borsch talked about one of the Treasures found in the Krauth Memorial Library’s collection during the library’s centennial in 2008.
Photos from Dr. Borsch’s time at LTSP.
Members of the LTSP community share memories of Fred Borsch:
Reflections on Fred…. (Katie Day)
“I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father…” (John 15:15)
This is the text used by the preacher at the funeral for Fred Borsch. Here Jesus does away with hierarchy and reframes his relationship to his disciples as one of equality and intimacy, and in the process, makes friendship sacred.
This passage perfectly captured not just who Jesus was, but Fred Borsch’s reflection of Jesus. Fred was one who moved in our community as a sacred friend.
Fred “retired” to Yale and came to LTSP in 2004 with Barbara, the love of his life. During those years we all got to know Fred as teacher, chaplain, and neighbor — but in each of those roles, truly, a friend. Even though he maintained his home in California (a home he loved), when he was here, he was fully a part of the community. Others can speak of the fun he brought to studying the parables or the peacebuilding role he played as chaplain in the midst of the pain around the chapel a few years ago. But he was also an essential ingredient in the community built at LTSP. When walking across campus, Fred would always stop and chat (and/or listen). When he visited, he never came to our houses empty-handed — he would bring wine or an apple, or once, a dishwasher soap pod. One night, Fred and Barbara reached out to their neighbors during the blackout of Superstorm Sandy and invited everyone to gather in their apartment. It was a “dark and stormy night,” scary especially for Theo — the five-year old son of LTSP’s Dr. Storm Swain. But we lit candles and played games together…as friends. We laughed and chased away our fears. This was so typical of their home.
Fred was an avid (obsessive?) sports fan. He was a scorer on the faculty basketball team in our annual game against students into his late 70s. Sometimes, even in the last year, he would play tennis with me and a few others. One women who joined us, a good Episcopalian, was so intimidated that he was a bishop she could hardly play. Needless to say, he did not wear a miter on the court physically or figuratively. The real reason to be intimidated was his lob shot.
Not a native Philadelphian, Fred nonetheless befriended the city and got involved in local issues. Last year he participated in POWER’s (Philadelphians Organized to Witness, Empower, & Rebuild) door-knocking campaign for fair wages. He was also a strong supporter of Heeding God’s Call (a faith-based movement to prevent gun violence) and attended local vigils, facilitated organizational connections, and contributed to the Heeding God’s Call organization financially until his death. He supported many groups working on different issues, from environmental to LGBTQ: Fred was a friend to those who fought for justice.
Fred was so many things, at LTSP and beyond. But most basically he was a friend — a relationship he held as sacred. He listened and empathized; he offered advice, when asked, until the very end when he was mustering all his strength to fight for life on this planet, life which he so loved.
This year I have been staying with Fred and Barbara after moving out of my campus house. It has been a privilege to be a friend with and to Fred in the difficult last few months. He would come downstairs to dinner, light candles, and say grace every evening. We would pray for his comfort, strength, and healing. And he would thank God for his grandchildren, or for my daughter’s new car; he would pray for refugees from Syria, and for our students.
Much will be said, and should be said, about Fred’s writing. He wrote poetry, fiction, scholarly works on the New Testament, and devotional literature. If you have not, do read his work. It is an extension of both his imaginative, curious mind and his large heart.
All that he did as bishop, scholar, teacher, poet, and administrator was infused with a deep and abiding sense of friendship. “I call you friends” makes everyday friendship sacred … and sacred friendship is transformative. Thanks be to God for Fred Borsch and the gift of his friendship. It changed us.
The Rev. Dr. Katie Day is the Charles A. Scheiren Professor of Church and Society and Director of the Metropolitan/Urban Concentration at LTSP
When the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania established the Chair of Anglican Studies at LTSP, it was Bishop Charles Bennison who recommended Bishop Fred Borsch to us. I distinctly remember meeting Fred together with President Krey, Prof. Timothy Wengert, and Bishop Bennison for an initial conversation in the President’s office. Fred in his own humble way said, “I still have some energy left to be of some use to the seminary. I like the ecumenical atmosphere and the diversity of people, race, gender, and sexual preference at LTSP. To be honest, Anglican Studies isn’t really my field but I can help in laying some groundwork for that program and offer some courses in New Testament.” I told him we would love to have him on the faculty and he can teach anything he wants. Fred never forgot my remark and would quote me on several occasions as a way of explaining why he stayed so long at LTSP.
Fred brought immediate recognition to LTSP by his presence on the faculty and he provided us with wise counsel when we were faced with difficult issues. He was loved and admired by our students. Initially he wanted to be on the faculty for only three years but he loved being at LTSP so much that he would come by our offices and gently suggest he would like to continue for another year. So we kept on extending his contract that lasted more than a dozen years. Not only did he teach New Testament courses and courses on Anglican divines and mystics, Fred also served as the Dean of Chapel at LTSP for two years.
The Rev. Dr. J. Paul Rajashekar is Luther D. Reed Professor of Systematic Theology and Director of the Asian Theological Summer Institute at LTSP
When our son Per was in fifth-sixth grade, he was terribly sick and Fred went to a fundraiser for one of the charities of Philadelphia Phillies ace pitcher Cole Hamels. The statement was made and announced that no autographs would be given, but Fred — knowing how much Per loved baseball, and the Phillies in particular, (although Fred himself had a torn loyalty between the Los Angeles and the Philadelphia teams) — went up to Cole Hamels and said, “I know you said no autographs, but I have a young friend who’s really sick and a big fan of yours and I think an autograph from you would really be a big boost.” And so, Fred brought to Per a scrap of paper with Cole Hamels’ signature and a “Get well, Per” which was indeed a boost and a blessing and stayed framed on our son’s wall until he moved into college this past year. Every year, Fred would host our family of four to a baseball game, a generous act that also gave all of us time to enjoy him and share his love of the game.
Per was not the only diehard Phillies fan in our household. My wife was as well, and every summer when Barbara and Fred would return to Los Angeles, Fred would give us the keys to their apartment on campus so we could watch the Phillies whenever there was a game (we couldn’t get it without cable). I’m not sure how grateful I am about that because Dianne was always bugging us to go and watch a game at Fred and Barbara’s!
Fred and I talked about many things — baseball (we even had our own “hot stove league” — off season discussions), canoeing (we shared a love of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area and the Quetico of northern Minnesota and Canada — the one book he gave me was John McPhee’s The Survival of the Bark Canoe!), things New Testament, and our own “shop” (LTSP). He was a remarkable churchman, one from whom I learned many things, though in our relationship his ecclesial identity was always understated. He was a good friend — knowledgeable about the things that interested him or he thought important, clever in conversation, and deeply concerned about those whom life threw his way. I miss him deeply. When I am up North in the Boundary Waters later this summer, I will extend his blessing to that place of wildness he loved and knew so well. My own relationship to that place — and many other things — that he so loved has been deepened by my good luck to have been in Fred’s life for 15 years.
Erik Heen, PhD, is John H. P. Reumann Chair in Biblical Studies at LTSP
From ELCA Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod Bishop Claire Burkat:
This scripture came to mind as I meditated on Bishop Borsch’s leadership and spiritual gifts:
“I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” Ephesians 3:18-19
His ministry and witness was wide and broad, deep and high, a remarkable mixture of:
+ Courage and Compassion
+ Intellect and Integrity
+ Wisdom and Wistfulness
+ Grace and Generosity
+ Justice and Justification
+ Humility and Humor…
Above all a man who loved Christ, loved His Church and loved people.
One Lucky Girl, A Reflection on Bishop Borsch
During the summer of 2015 ,as I was preparing to start classes at LTSP, I received an email from the seminary telling me that since the chair of the Anglican Program, Dr. Storm Swain, would be on sabbatical, they were assigning me a Dr. Fred Borsch as my advisor for the year. Hmm, I thought. I wonder who this guy is? Naturally, I Googled him. Hit after hit after hit filled my screen: impressive education, books written, Deanships at very young ages, former Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles, and a poet to boot! I quickly emailed my Rector with his name, asking if she knew him. Her response? “Um, yes. Everyone knows or knows of Bishop Borsch. You are one lucky girl!”
As you might imagine, I was nervous before our first conversation. Here was this great man of many accomplishments. And then there was me: a middle-aged woman in a complex relationship with my own diocese, arriving at seminary with a thousand questions and a bit of a queasy stomach. None of my previous professional or personal accomplishments would matter much; I was starting over from scratch. I was starting over because God asked me to. Was I crazy?
We sat in his empty office for an hour and a half, our conversation ranging from our families, my writing, my messy call to ordained ministry, to the Holy Spirit, the path our work had taken us, and the grace of God. He gave me some good advice and a few things to think about until we met again, which he hoped would be in a month or so. And then he leaned toward me and said the kindest words I have ever heard: “I will walk with you on this path as long as I am able.” Not lead me, not follow me, not push me, but a promise to walk with me. I was, indeed, one lucky girl.
Over that year and into the following fall, he did just that. Always leading with pastoral care: How was I? How were my parents, and my adult children? He would ask in a way that implied that he really wanted to know. And then he’d listen. Really listen. We’d think through strategies for my next steps and laugh at stories. He’d make introductions to folks that I should talk with, people that could help. All the while, the Bishop was teaching me about the church, about myself, and about God. When his travel interrupted our regular meetings, we would email or talk on the phone.
The following summer, when the course catalogue was published, I discovered that he was teaching a senior seminar on Parables and Healing Stories. Being only halfway through my junior year, I emailed him telling of my desire to jump at the chance to take his class, and asking for permission even though I wasn’t a senior. I added the following parenthetical remark: (I’d actually jump at the chance to take advanced tiddlywinks from you, too, but I don’t see that on the schedule…) Permission was granted. In class, he came alive! Lobbing in provocative questions and then grinning as the class erupted, playing one of the parts as we acted out the parables, and even quizzing us on the material in the most specific and maddening way. I was a lucky girl.
My heart broke when I heard of his death. But I was comforted with a vision of him entering heaven. I could see him walking with that unique shuffle skip, whistling softly under his breath, and with a twinkle in his eye, coming into the full knowledge and embrace of God’s love. I could see him thinking, “Wow, this is even better than I thought it would be!”
I heard the testimonies at his funeral, the repeated expressions of his goodness, his quick wit and intellect, and his humility. I felt the pain of his family and friends — oh, to have known him as long as they had! And I realized that I was one of hundreds, maybe thousands of people, deeply touched by his kindness and guidance. How grateful I am for his mentorship, his care, and his guidance. I remain one lucky girl.
Maryann D. Younger is a seminarian in the Anglican Studies program at LTSP
My first introduction to +Fred Borsch was in my job interview at LTSP, where he called me a heretic. It gave me a window into his humor, discernment, dedication, and profound collegiality that characterized the way this bishop of the church, well published academic, wordsmith and poet, functioned as a senior member to one so junior. During the faculty interview portion of the campus visit, when it was time for questions from the wider faculty, +Fred piped up and said that he saw from my presentation and writing that I was a heretic. I have to confess, I was a little gobsmacked that a bishop that I had only just met not only identified my heretical notions so quickly, but also explicitly called them out publicly in front of others. I must have mumbled some non-committal reply wondering to which heresy he was referring. “You’re a patripassionist,” he said. “I guess I am,” I hesitatingly replied. “That’s okay,” he said with a twinkle, “so am I.” What’s not to love about such a man?
For the mentoring, grace, forbearance, humility, and wisdom of +Fred; for the opportunity to team teach ‘Poets, Mystics, and Theologians’ with him, and for my final opportunity to pray the daily office with him, saying, “Lord, you have now set your servant free, to go in peace as you have promised,” I am eternally grateful.
The Rev. Storm Swain, PhD, is Associate Professor of Pastoral Care and Theology at LTSP
When Fred walked into the library, the books smiled. He loved them, and they knew it. When Fred walked into the library, we smiled because he loved us, and we knew it. He welcomed us into his world by talking about an upcoming conference where he was going to read a paper, or by sharing a new insight into his love for William Tyndale (see the video above) or George Herbert. I am grateful to Fred for his love of the people of God. He came out to Washington Memorial Chapel in historic Valley Forge on two occasions. The first time was on a Sunday evening in October 2015 to speak to a group of 15 adults who were about to join the church. The second time he preached at the Solemn Evensong the Valley Forge Deanery hosted on the 15th Anniversary of 9-11. He made both events memorable! Fred is with God. We give thanks. However, the books miss him, as does the library staff. I know the people of God at Washington Memorial Chapel miss him and are holding him and his family in our prayers.
The Rev. Dr. Karl Kreuger retired as Director of the Krauth Memorial Library and Professor of the History of Christianity at LTSP, and now serves as Associate Priest at the Washington Memorial Chapel, Valley Forge, Pennsylvania
To be truly wise you need to be truly kind. Fred Borsch taught me that. Fred was one of the wisest people I have been fortunate enough to know. When any issue came up in the Biblical Area at the seminary — scheduling problems, handling an awkward situation with colleagues or students, how best to approach a particular biblical question — or in the general life of the seminary, I would make a beeline to Fred. He always offered the most sensible, yes, wise advice and the heart of his counsel was always that he cared about the people involved, all of them. You could hear it in his voice, in the care with which he reflected on the intricacies of the question. He sought ways to do the right thing to resolve whatever was at stake, but also to make the people involved feel respected. It was remarkable gift given very freely.
But then, Fred was a remarkable man. Energy, intelligence, vision, a poet’s heart, genuine humility, the love of God deep in his soul — that was Fred. He utterly loved life and he loved those around him. A little more than a month ago, when he was very ill, Fred called my wife and me and asked if we would conspire with him to throw a surprise birthday party for his dear wife Barbara. I could hear the glee in his voice as he imagined the surprise. Plans were laid and the day arrived, a small coterie of guests hiding as best we could in our dining room. It worked. Barbara was completely taken by surprise. And Fred — well, Fred was transformed, the illness forgotten for the moment, his eyes shining with delight, toasting Barbara, toasting life. God gave Fred a good life and he wasn’t going to miss it — or keep it to himself. Thank God for such a wonderful man as Fred Borsch.
The Rev. Dr. Robert Robinson is Anna Burkhalter Professor of Old Testament and Hebrew at LTSP
Fred Borsch was before my camera a number of times during his tenure at LTSP, and those times always promised an enjoyable sharing of interesting stories told in his quiet way, often with the twinkle in his eye that others have described. He was always gracious with his time, putting up with the usual technical delays as lights were adjusted and we got just the right sound and the right camera angle. He told the Tyndale Bible story (you can watch the video above) in a way that sounds like he was truly weaving a tale, and I recall being drawn in by the story as the camera was recording. It’s as much fun and interesting to watch today as it was while creating the recording.
Fred and Barbara were a part of progressive dinners that made their way around campus, and clearly enjoyed sharing food and conversation with everyone who came through. On campus or off, whenever you would see them, they took the time to share conversation, and were clearly enjoying life.
John Kahler is part of the LTSP Communications Team
Share your memories of Fred Borsch in the Comments area!