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As he prepares to take the helm as bishop of Atlanta, the Rev. Robert Trache, former rector of St. James's, talks about his recent past in Richmond and the long-term future of the Church.

A New Flock

After laboring in the Fan for five years at St. James's Episcopal Church, Rev. Robert G. Trache, 52, left Richmond in mid-December to start his new position as the bishop-elect of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta, which oversees about half of the state of Georgia. Trache will be officially installed March 4, one of only 90-some diocesan Episcopal bishops in the U.S., a position he won in a diocesan election against six other candidates from around the country on the strength of his work in Richmond.

St. James's Episcopal Church is a large and affluent congregation. Its 2,000 members are primarily white, well-educated and upper middle class, drawn from all around the area. The church is generally known for its valiant response to a fire that destroyed the church building in July 1994, just four months after Trache started as the new rector. "It was a warm welcome, as it were," he recalls wryly. Displaced for more than two years, the St. James's congregation shared space with the Jewish congregation Beth Ahabah next door, a memory Trache cherishes.

During his tenure at St. James's, Trache initiated the church's mission work in Rwanda, Honduras, South Dakota, and elsewhere, as well as ecumenical programs with Beth Ahabah and the African-American congregation at Fourth Baptist Church in Church Hill. At his departure, the church was considering the development of an alternative school to be housed at St. James's for students expelled from the city school system. These are experiences and successes he hopes to draw from in his new position.

Though Trache and wife, Mary Louise, relocated to Atlanta, they still have heart-ties nearby: their two grown sons. One is finishing law school at George Washington University in D.C., and a younger son is still living in Richmond.

Style Weekly: Of all that you did while at St. James's, what do you think drew the attention of the Atlanta diocese?

Trache: "I think the parish of St. James's in the last five or six years has gotten some recognition because of its response to that disastrous fire and its recovery from that in a very positive way. I also think that our work within the African-American community was well-known, and the works St. James's began to do throughout the worldwide Anglican communion [which the Episcopal Church U.S.A. is a part of] was something that many people thought was really important for a church that size to be working on. I also think the congregation of Beth Ahabah was most gracious to invite us into their holy space and make us very much at home there. That fostered an even deeper relationship with the synagogue, which I think was also a part of the work of St. James's — in terms of the national church looking at the multicultural world in which we live and trying to participate in that in an active way."

SW: How would you describe the theology of St. James's?

Trache: "Well, when you have 2000 people it's hard to speak for all of them. I think I was probably personally more liberal than most people at St. James's in some ways. But in other ways, St. James's was a church that was open to being challenged and open to taking risks, and it did not have a monolithic theology. I think that was partly because it lived in the city, and any church that lives in a city is affected by the urban environment. We had members of St. James's whose theology spanned the gamut of the church, which I think is one of the healthy things about the Episcopal Church. It can embrace in community people with different viewpoints and hold them together."

SW: From 1994 to when you left in 1999, in those five years what were the greatest changes you saw develop in the church?

Trache: "I think that St. James's became a broader community, and it became more active in the urban community in Richmond and active in missions around the world. We had people working in Honduras, people working in Rwanda, people working in South Dakota amongst Native Americans. So St. James's became a church that was really reaching out beyond the borders, as well as reaching into the city itself. I think that was a change. But what was most important was that in working in different cultures and with different people, it changed the way that people understood their faith and understood themselves. With Fourth Baptist, we were trying to develop a program of interracial dialogue. One of the things I think is true about Richmond and other cities, as well, is that the African-American and the white communities have little way to talk with each other honestly over issues and beliefs and values until there is a problem. We were trying to develop a way in which those two communities could not only communicate, but share experiences together through shared services, socialization, fellowship, teaching and mission work together."

SW: What challenges lie ahead for the Episcopal church at large in an increasingly global and diverse society?

Trache: "I think it's the church's interaction with the culture, particularly with sexuality and homosexuality, which is a part of a community in every urban area, and how the church will respond to those communities of faith. I think there are a lot of social issues that the diocese needs to be involved with, for instance the death penalty in this country and how we deal with it as Christians. We'll also be looking at things like mission work around the world, evangelism and growing. This country is a multicultural country and the religious dialogue exists not only between Christians, but between Christians and Jewish people and Muslims and Hindus.

"[Regarding current controversies over Christians seeking to convert people of other faiths], I think any Christian community is always open to people who are searching for an understanding of God and for people who want to become members of that denomination because that denomination provides a way into the heart of God for them. The other way, though, and I think the true way, is to be able to talk with other communities of faith in a respectful and honorable way, in which you understand that their understanding of God — though different from yours — can inform your understanding of God. It's not that you need to convert every Jew and Muslim and Buddhist and Hindu in the world to Christianity, but that you can share together in the spiritual journey. There's room for conversion, but it depends on conversion meaning openness to other ways of doing it. But I think if you start out with the understanding that the only way to God is your way to God, you're probably not on God's side, even though you fool yourself and think you are."

SW: In Richmond, the ecumenical movement seemed to solidify and become more viable in the '90s. Would you share that perspective?

Trache: "I would share that perspective. I think that denominationalism — Episcopalianism, Methodism, Baptists — all of those Christian denominations are becoming more and more blurred as we move into the 21st century. In fact, I think in another hundred years or so the face of the church will be much different than we experience it now. And I think that's a healthy thing. I think that we will be less denominational and be more open. The [Episcopal] church came out of the history of the Church of England. The Presbyterian Church has its root in Scotland and Calvinism. But all of those birthings now have less influence over the actual way the community does its faith. I think that people have more in common now based on their worship styles, their ideologies, and their spiritual disciplines than in their denominations. Even now in the Episcopal church, in most parishes more than half the people were not raised Episcopalians, and I'm sure that's true of other denominations as well. Right there, that's a sea-change from 50 years ago. I think that the mainline denominations of the Christian churches ... will emerge more united and less fractured, and with a renewed influence in society. Everybody thinks that church communities are going to gradually become less and less influential in society, and I think they're in for a big