In a world where religion divides so many, All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena has forged a path in the other direction, representing a rare beacon of social progressiveness. Guiding this radically inclusive spirit has been the Rev. Ed Bacon, who is retiring after 21 years as rector of All Saints. Following his final sermon this Sunday, May 1, Bacon and wife Hope will move to Birmingham, Ala., in order to spend more time with their children and grandchildren.
“This is a very demanding job, and I have loved absolutely every second of it,” said Bacon, 68, who first thought about the idea of retirement two summers ago. “It can challenge one to have a string of 12- to 14-hour days, and that’s not so easily done when you get to be over 65. So it really had to do with an age thing for me. There were lots of other things to do here that I could do, so it was not one of those situations of ‘I’ve done what I need to do.’”
What Bacon has done for All Saints throughout the past two decades is cultivate a community in which everyone is treated equally, regardless of race, gender, faith or sexual orientation. All Saints has been blessing same-sex unions since the early 1990s, and Bacon opted to continue the practice upon his arrival in 1995. He has since co-founded the groups Beyond Inclusion and Claiming the Blessing, which are composed of both gay and straight Episcopalians seeking justice for gay and lesbian people at large. Bacon also helped establish the Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace coalition, the Abrahamic Faiths Peacemaking Initiative and New Vision Partners, a nonprofit that prepares youth to live in today’s interfaith world.
“We here at All Saints have a great opportunity to be involved in a lot of interfaith religions,” said Bacon, who has been honored with numerous awards, including ones from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People as well as the American Civil Liberties Union. “I’m deeply grateful for my colleagues who are Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Bahá’í, atheist as well as Christian. The challenge to both recognize religious difference and celebrate religious difference and define our commonalities as well as find our differences, that’s been very, very rich for me.”
This convivial ideology is a far cry from Bacon’s beginnings in Georgia, where he grew up in a politically and theologically conservative environment. It wasn’t until he began familiarizing himself with the work of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. that his mindset began to change. In 1967, while at Mercer University studying to become a physician at the urging of his father, he encountered King in the Atlanta airport.
“It was a jaw-dropping experience,” Bacon recalled. “ … He had four or five people around him who were getting his luggage. … I thanked him for his work and got his autograph. They whisked him off and it lasted no more than 10 minutes. But I’ll never forget it.
“His theology was really about the interdependence and interrelatedness of all of us. … All of that was swirling in me as I was being formed as a teenager and a college student in Georgia. Because of Dr. King’s assassination, I dedicated myself to his movement.”
Bacon’s immersion steered him toward the Episcopalian religion. He was eventually ordained in 1993, two years before arriving at All Saints. During a recent farewell event for Bacon, friends, colleagues and parishioners spoke about what he has meant to them throughout the years.
“Ed Bacon and Hope both have been an incredible gift to my life,” said All Saints Senior Warden Cathy Keig. “I am so happy for them to be able to retire and go off to Alabama. It will never be the same here, but I will always have them in my heart and I’m really looking forward to hearing about their new adventures.”
Lorna Miller worked with Bacon for 15 years as All Saints’ director of the Office for Creative Connections. She appreciated how he constantly informed the community about new ways of thinking, whether it was through a book suggestion or bringing one of his theologian friends to All Saints.
“He has really enriched us theologically and spiritually by the giants he’s introduced us to,” said Miller, who retired five years ago. “ … He did a tremendous amount on the interfaith, bringing different people, different creeds together and sensitizing us to it, too.”
Bacon’s reach has extended beyond the confines of All Saints. He was invited to be a guest panelist on Oprah Winfrey’s radio show “Living Your Best Life.” In 2009, Bacon received national attention when he told a homosexual caller that “being gay is a gift from God.” As a result, Winfrey invited Bacon back, and he soon became a regular on her shows.
“She’s very, very sincere and passionate about the spiritual life,” Bacon said. “So I count her to be a trusted friend.”
Bacon’s 18-month stint on Winfrey’s radio show involved interviews with many authors, which inspired him to write a book of his own, titled “8 Habits of Love: Overcome Fear and Transform Your Life.” The 2012 work is a spiritual guidebook about living life through love and connection rather than through fear and isolation.
“Without the kind of deep reflection that’s inspired by someone who thinks and expresses himself as deeply and committedly as Ed, we don’t really grow as people and we don’t contribute to the world what we should,” said Fred Sanders, a parishioner at All Saints for the past six years who also plays standup bass in the church’s musical ensemble.
Sanders will likely be in attendance this Sunday, when Bacon officially ends his tenure at All Saints during a special 10 a.m. service at the church on Euclid Avenue. Bacon plans to preach about the importance of love conquering fear, and has
invited a Jewish friend and a Muslim friend to assist with his call to prayer.
“I’m really looking forward to the whole parish turning out and worshipping together, welcoming my friends from other religions,” Bacon said. “It’s going to be a great day.”
As Bacon prepares to move across the country, back to his native South, he will miss many aspects of Pasadena — the weather, proximity to the ocean, lunch at the Westin, the culture and architecture, to name a few. But there are also several reasons for him to look forward to his new life in Birmingham.
“The first thing I want to do is sleep in,” joked Bacon. “[All Saints] is quite driven and I’m part of driving it. I’m driven, so I can’t blame it on the place. That’s why the place and I have been a good match over the years.”
Bacon also hopes to spend more time with his wife, working out, reading and writing. He has three new book ideas in his head, and retirement may provide him the necessary time to put those thoughts onto paper. However those books unfold, Bacon will be hard-pressed to come up with a better tale than the one he has woven at All Saints these past 21 years.
“I would do this job just to have the community,” Bacon said. “The stories that people have told me, the journeys that they’ve shared with me. Being able to marry a couple and baptize their children, and marry their children, bury their parents or grandparents, that set of relationships is always, I think, pulsing at the heart of a happy priest. Because All Saints, thank God, is deeply spiritual and passionately political, I have loved the integration of those two elements so that I could be a person of prayer and contemplation, and preach out of that appreciation for Scripture.”