Bishop Irish comes full circle

Episcopal chief loves her life, job

Published: Sunday, Feb. 29 2004 12:00 a.m. MST

Episcopal Bishop Carolyn Tanner Irish leaves St. Paul's Episcopal Church after services this past Sunday. She is the first woman to ever head a church in Utah.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret Morning News

It's never been easy for Carolyn Tanner Irish or the star-crossed family in which she was reared, but here she is, in her seventh decade, saying these are some of the happiest days of her life.

Why, then, does she sound almost apologetic about it?

"If anything, I'm embarrassed that my life is so wonderful when I see so many difficulties all around," she says.

But then she has had her share of those in her 63 years. The people who know her would say the good times are overdue. She has endured family tragedies, divorce, alcoholism and a long search for religion and her place in the world.

In many ways, her life has come full circle. Who knew she would find happiness and contentment back where she began. Who knew she would grow up a Utah Mormon and decades later return as a member of the Episcopal Church, as the bishop of Utah's Episcopal Church, as the first female ever to lead a church in Utah.

In Salt Lake City, where she was reared by philosopher-philanthropist-teacher-author-businessman Obert (O.C.) Tanner, she found a second husband, stared down her alcoholism and pioneered her church calling.

"I'm at one of the best points in my life," she says. "It just all came together. I have a deep satisfaction in my work. I'm crazy about my husband — he's one of the loveliest, kindest people I've ever known. Having a companion when you do a difficult job makes it a whole different thing than when you do it by yourself."

Bishop Irish has had many incarnations — LDS girl, dancer, dance teacher, student, intellectual, housewife, mother, Episcopal convert, Episcopal bishop — and now she has returned home.

Or has she?

Ask about her old friends, and she says, "There's a sadness there that what I do is not OK. I'm not blaming them. It wasn't a return to home and friends I had had. My friends are such a mix of everything that being of another faith wouldn't be an obstacle. But it might be for them. But many have said or written me at the time of my election as bishop that they weren't surprised, that they knew I'd do something like this.

"I have relatives who wouldn't be happy to see me because I've become non-Mormon. The trouble with being a minority is that you're defined as a non-something."

Notwithstanding, she has not approached her role timidly.

As religious leader of between 6,000 and 7,000 people, she has taken strong stands on social issues. She has spoken out in support of Bishop V. Gene Robinson, the first openly gay leader in the Episcopal Church, while also warning clergy not to ask her to perform same-sex weddings because she believes marriage is between a man and a woman.

She has taken on the cause of the environment and the working poor and immigrants, advocating low-income housing and speaking out against English-only laws.

She poked fun at the Legislature for a law saying churches wanting to ban guns from their premises had to publicize the ban by, among other ways, posting signs. She complied by placing giant signs, nearly 4 feet tall, on the doors of Episcopal churches, with a big red circle through a gun, and these words: "The Episcopal Church welcomes you — but not your guns." The signs earned mention in Newsweek.

"I don't think churches needed signs — so we overdid it," she says. "We wanted to tweak them for that."

Maybe this is why her assistant, Mary Kay Williams, says, "She's not afraid to jump in the fray. There are going to be people who don't agree with her on everything she does and says for her church, but they can't say they don't respect her honesty and integrity."

Deep LDS roots

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