Mentor, predecessor to Episcopal Church’s first openly gay bishop dies
Douglas Theuner, the Episcopal Church’s eighth Bishop of New Hampshire and the mentor and direct predecessor to the church’s first openly gay bishop, died Friday in Concord. He was 74.
He had been in failing health for some time and had recently entered hospice care, church officials said in confirming his death.
Theuner led the state’s diocese from 1986 until 2003, at which point, amid a wave of global controversy, the rank passed to Bishop Gene Robinson. Robinson, who publicly disclosed his sexual orientation in 1986, had previously served as the state’s Canon to the Ordinary, a sort of chief of staff to the bishop.
“Doug Theuner is the reason I have a life in ministry,” Robinson said. “He was one of the boldest defenders of justice I’ve ever known.”
Originally from New York, Theuner was ordained in 1962 and went on to lead congregations in Ohio and Connecticut, before being consecrated as bishop of New Hampshire.
As bishop, he led the state’s Episcopal congregation with equal parts fortitude, compassion and off-the-cuff humor, colleagues said.
Bishop Robert Hirschfeld, who succeeded Robinson earlier this year, recalled a voice message Theuner had left him shortly after he was elected to the post.
“He said, ‘Number 10, this is Number 8,’ ” Hirschfeld said. “He said, ‘I’m not going to give you any advice, but don’t be timid. If there’s one thing I regret from my time as bishop, it was that I was too timid.’ Of course, everyone will say the words ‘timid’ and ‘Theuner’ don’t belong in the same sentence. He was never afraid. He embodied this kind of fearlessness that can only come when you’ve become soaked in the love of God.”
Robinson said Theuner had spearheaded the church’s campaign to address AIDS, chairing its national commission on the disease and convincing African bishops to acknowledge for the first time that it existed in their countries.
Hirschfeld said he had also played an instrumental role in developing the New Hampshire Community Loan Fund, which helps low-income individuals and families find secure affordable housing.
Even as the years progressed and in spite of various physical ailments, Theuner remained active in the church and elsewhere. He served on the board of the Disabilities Rights Center, and Hirschfeld recalled seeing him at a church service just a week ago.
“This illness didn’t stop him,” Hirschfeld said.
Richard Cohen, who directs the DRC, described Theuner as a strong advocate for people living with disabilities.
“His voice, his presence, his totally unpretentious manner, and his wonderful engaging manner will be missed by the disability community and by all citizens who are still striving to overcome barriers to a quality life,” Cohen said in an email.
Theuner balked at the formality routinely attached to his stature, Robinson said.
Every three years, he recalled, Theuner would attend a leadership conference and wear the same ratty pair of shorts, which “drove the other bishops crazy.”
“He was always poking fun at the pretentiousness at the church in general, and at the bishops specifically,” Robinson said. “When people asked what they should call him, he would always say, ‘Why don’t you call me Doug, because that’s what God will call me when I go to heaven.’ ”
Theuner is survived by his wife, Jane “Sue” Theuner, two children, five grandchildren and one great-granddaughter. A service will be held tomorrow morning at 10 a.m. at St. Paul’s Church in Concord. A Requiem Eucharist will also be held at 3 p.m. at Church of the Epiphany in Newport.
(Jeremy Blackman can be reached at 369-3319, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @JBlackmanCM.)