A Life of Lasting Value
By Cissy Jackson
Photos by Brit Huckabay
Portico: The COVID-19 pandemic has affected just about every person on the planet in one way or another. How has it affected you?
Doug Carpenter: Well, personally it hasn’t affected me. I haven’t driven since I had a stroke six years ago, so I was all trained in how to be home all the time! But one of the great losses of the pandemic has been people dying alone. Priests used to do a lot more visiting, and I have frequently been with people as they’ve died. Now the medical personnel are having to try to take on that role.
P: Do you think the pandemic has taught us any spiritual lessons?
DC: I think some things have been strengthened. I believe the most important thing in life is our loving relationships with people, and people are more aware of that now than when they were more active and moving around. The First Epistle of John simply describes God as “God is love.” I believe very strongly that when we come in touch with love, we come in touch with things that are eternal.
P: What do you miss most about being the leader of a parish?
DC: What I miss is the daily contact with all those people. I’ve spent my whole career building parishes and congregations, and I think coming together in a place with a common purpose is so important. I miss that connection.
P: That must have made retirement really hard. Were you sad?
DC: No, I’ve stayed pretty busy. I preached or spoke in 25 churches in Alabama in my first two years of retirement, and I kept that up until my stroke six years ago. I led a good many conferences, I was appointed chaplain to the retired Episcopal clergy in Alabama, I’ve written five books, and I’ve kept my hand in at Camp McDowell. These days I spend the entire morning communicating with people by phone or email — I don’t do social media — then I have lunch, maybe a nap, and then work on a project in the afternoon.
P: What project are you working on right now?
DC: There was a man in my congregation years ago who always answered everything with: “What difference does it make? What difference does it make?” It was the first time I’d had close contact with a nihilist. He got cancer and I said, “Oh, I’m so sorry.” He replied, “What difference does it make?” When he went into remission he said the same thing, “What difference does it make?” When he was about to die he said again, “Oh, what difference does it make?” I’m not sure I was ever able to say the right thing to him, so I’m trying to do that in an article now.
P: How did you decide to become a priest?
DC: I was a pretty severe agnostic in college. I wanted to believe, and I never quit loving what went on in the church, but I was very agnostic about God. I was trying very hard to understand everything. During my senior year at Princeton, I was reading Albert Schweitzer’s book The Quest of the Historical Jesus. It’s a scholarly book, but he explains that you can never find out everything about Jesus’ life from history. It’s pretty much just what’s in the Gospels. So Jesus comes to each generation as one unknown, just as he came to the disciples by the Sea of Galilee. He calls to us in every generation, and as we follow him and do the tasks that he calls us to do, we come to know “as an ineffable mystery” who he is. And that turned me around. I realized I wanted to go to seminary to help other people get through atheism, agnosticism, despair, whatever.
P: How do you prepare your sermons?
DC: In seminary, they told us we should write our sermons down at first, so I have some of my early sermons. They were so intellectual— I don’t know how anybody paid any attention! When I went to Huntsville to start St. Stephen’s up there, I had a very small salary, and I wondered if I could make any money writing. Somebody suggested I take the Famous Writers School correspondence course, so I did, and it really changed my sermons. They told me if you write for the public, you need to engage all the senses. I realized I wasn’t doing that in my sermons. From then on, all my sermons have been partly storytelling. I’ve watched congregations, and whenever the preacher says, “Now let me tell you a story,” everybody looks up and pays attention. Billy Rushton used to always go to the early service at St. Stephen’s Birmingham and sit on the back row, even though he was a member of a different church. If I saw Billy get out a pen and start writing on his hand, I knew I was doing some really good things with that sermon.
P: You’ve said Camp McDowell was far more formative than any of the expensive schools you went to. What is it that makes Camp McDowell so special to you?
DC: Camp McDowell, our Episcopal conference center, is now the largest Episcopal camp and conference center in the United States. For my own life, building McDowell gave me significant work to do at age 14. I could do my part along with older teenagers and men as we built a camp that would be a very important place for generations.
At Camp McDowell I learned to respect the environment and to have reverence for all of life.
I have been so fortunate in my life to be in on the beginning of some wonderful things. I was on the first work crew to start building Camp McDowell, I was the first resident priest in Brewton, Alabama, I started St. Stephen’s Huntsville in ’63 from scratch, and St. Stephen’s Birmingham in ’73 from scratch. Starting things is really exciting for me. In a way it’s easier because when you go into old places, you’ve got to live with a lot of the early mistakes. When you start things, it’s only your own mistakes you’ve got to live with.
St. Stephen’s Birmingham confirmed my belief that much good can come out of tragedy and loss. I had suffered a divorce which made me available to start that parish. Of course, you start with the “wounded healer,” Jesus. The crucifixion was a terrible tragedy and loss. Out of that comes Christianity. It’s strong theme throughout Christianity that out of hardship or failure, if you keep your eyes and heart open and alert, a lot of good things can take place.