This year, I will pay tribute to a priest whom I’ve only known for five years but who left a big impression.
The first time I met Fr. Tyler Strand, who leaves the Philippines tomorrow for his new assignment in Northern California, was at the consecration of the new bishop of the Central Philippines Diocese (as coadjutor). This was in February 2003. Early on, I saw one distinguishing characteristic that I would always remember: he knew his liturgy. So he handed the thurible to a surprised Prime Bishop at the beginning of the consecration liturgy for the censing of the altar, something which was done at his place and which most contemporary Anglo-Catholic commentaries commend. To the Prime Bishop’s credit, the Bishop took the hint.
I knew Fr. Tyler both in person and by reputation. The latter is something worth noting, because it has not been an unmixed one. He has been described in turn as both arrogant and humble, warm and frosty, frank (in a good way) and tactless. Those who criticize him have pointed to the departure of the parish’s biggest donors (thanks largely to his attitude, they claim) and the resultant crisis that occurred toward the end of his tenure. To be sure, he has alienated people, but at the same time, he has made an effort to be welcoming. I should know. On Trinity Sunday, I am proud to claim that I have two parishes, both with the same name. It was under his tenure that this parish has become the most diverse in the Episcopal Church in the Philippines. Moreover, those who praise him would say that it was his leadership that will enable future moves (including one very necessary decision) because he was able to help the community identify leaders who would effectively carry them out.
On balance, I would understand such a man who has the capacity to draw both “praise and critique,” as the Senior Warden of Trinity put it today. I would do so because in a way, many of us are like that. And there is something of the artistic spirit in Fr. Tyler that can somehow justify the transparency of feeling which he possesses. It is a spirit that showed itself in a dream fulfilled.
For many of us, especially those 300 who watch theater, he will always be Tevye the milkman. It is a role that was right for him, not only because of his size and his love for the theater (it was under his tenure, by the way, that a Blue Rep alumnus took over the Sunday School), but also because the tensions Tevye represented were tensions that his life as a pastor also possessed. It was in the context of acting the role of Tevye that he spoke in one interview of “liturgy as theater,” echoing the insight of Hans Urs von Balthasar that theology itself is dramatic. (The interview was with his colleague Joy Virata in The Philippine Star, and if anyone can find me a permalink, please leave a comment.) The point was that liturgy, like theater, has roles and movements and a “stage,” and the goal was to draw people into being involved in its story. The story, far from being a past event, is happening to us now.
He felt that his experience as an actor helped him as a priest. I see it as unsurprising. Karol Wojtyla and Matthew Moretz, the Episcopal priest who does YouTube videos, would wholeheartedly assent. I think if he stayed on longer, the Loyola School of Theology would have had a theology hour with him as the guest speaker, on the subject of theater and liturgy. But it is too late now. Tomorrow, on my birthday, he will be leaving town for a parish in the wine country of California.
To be honest, I think his departure will leave a big hole that a replacement could only partly fill. But in another sense, he has left the door open. For one, my friend Don and I once envisioned Trinity as the counterpart of St Paul’s Covent Garden—an actor’s church. I hope that possibility can be pursued. For another, Fr. Tyler helped give Fr. Geoff Short, the first ECP priest on Facebook, the support he needed as he came back to ordained ministry. I know that Fr. Geoff, who will coordinate the pastoral work of the parish during the search process, will not only do well, but take Holy Trinity in new and surprising directions.
What I will recall, in the end, is what he said this morning: that the Trinitarian life in which we are called to share is a common dance, and that indeed this experience of being rector of Trinity has helped him grow. I have promised to look him up if ever I go to the States. And I hope to stay in touch with this remarkable priest.