Tomorrow the Rev. Mr. Robert D. Edmunds and his wife Deborah leave the Island after 15 and a half years of ministering to the community. The rector at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church of Edgartown and his wife have new jobs and they’ll need their passports.
They’re heading for Jerusalem.
While in Edgartown, Reverend Edmunds oversaw 234 baptisms and 186 burials. He performed his most recent Island wedding, the 100th, early this month.
The Vineyard stay has been a wonderful experience for the 53-year-old rector, who has been an Episcopalian minister for 23 years.
The couple are on their way to Jerusalem for a one-year assignment. From downtown Edgartown, they are going to one of the big cities in the center of the Christian faith, yet also in the center of the international fray.
Beginning later in June, the rector will go to work for the Anglican bishop in Jerusalem, the Right Rev. Suheil Dawani, a Palestinian who oversees the Episcopal Christian faithful in five countries.
Reverend Edmunds will be the Bishop’s chaplain. His wife, Deborah, will take on the duty of being the Bishop’s executive personal assistant.
The one-year appointment comes as a surprise not only to the two, it comes as a surprise to the parishioners.
There is an explanation for a celebrated Island minister’s journey to work in one of the most highly regarded spiritual cities in the world, but it is not a deliberate, direct path from a small town on an Island off the coast of Massachusetts to one of the big cities of the Middle East.
Reverend Edmunds and his wife have always paid close attention to the affairs of that part of the world. Mrs. Edmunds grew up in Beirut, Lebanon. The couple have always had an interest in the Christian faith in that area.
Last year, Reverend Edmunds and his wife went to Jerusalem for two months, from March to May. It was a sabbatical. If events had been different, they would have come home to Edgartown and perhaps retired here years from now. Shortly before their departure, they had an opportunity to have a conversation with those in the diocese.
“Bishop Dawani is new. We were in Jerusalem at the same time that he was taking on the task,” Reverend Edmunds said. They met with him and his staff.
Talks began and extended into last summer. The appointment came not just through the bishop but from Episcopalian officials in this country.
“The position evolved,” he said. “It was a complete surprise to us. We weren’t particularly thinking of relocating. We didn’t go over there to volunteer. Having said that, I can add that we had experience and interest.”
The bishop oversees a diocese that is centered in Jerusalem and includes 30 congregations in five countries: Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Palestine. The diocese also operates schools, hospitals and rehabilitation centers.
The church is made up of mostly Arabs and Palestinians, though Reverend Edmunds said, “There are many expatriate Americans and other Episcopalians living in the city. There are people in the diplomatic service, people in business.”
Two per cent of the population of Jerusalem is Christian, the rector said. “Ninety eight per cent are Muslims and Jews.
“As you can imagine, the bishop has local responsibilities,” Reverend Edmunds said. He sees himself stepping in to help the bishop in working the external affairs in an international city, articulating the Palestinian Christian perspective for Western ears.
“I speak a little Arabic and will speak a lot more when I am done. The language of the Christian community there is Arabic,” the rector said.
Hard to believe, but there are similarities that will be familiar to the couple. Jerusalem attracts a lot of tourists, just as Edgartown does.
“It is very urban but there are interpretive skills,” Reverend Edmunds said. “You are dealing with tourists all the time. I have been in two parishes in my 21 years. You are constantly talking with tourists all the time. We interpret the Island for visitors all the time. Though where we are going it is a different language, and different issues, it is the same kind of work over there.”
If the news of the departure of the rector and his wife comes as a bit of a surprise, it is also due to the wishes of the couple. Reverend Edmunds said they chose not to make a big deal about it.
His last service was last Sunday.
An interim minister will start in mid-June. The Rev. Mr. Stephen White of Newcastle, Me., starts on June 15. He will serve until a new rector is found.
During Reverend Edmunds’s tenure, St. Andrew’s has been an active church. The average attendance in church when he started in February 1993 was around 70 people. That number has risen to 110.
In 1999, the church membership built a new parish house, a 6,100-square-foot building across the street. Reverend Edmunds is proud of the church for having done it but he declined taking any credit for the project.
The rector is a 1984 graduate of the Berkeley Divinity School at Yale and served at St. Luke’s Church in James-town, N.Y., until he became the rector of St. Paul’s Church in Mayville, N.Y. He served as vicar of the Chapel of the Good Shepherd at the Chautauqua Institution.
The couple have two grown children: Matthew 27, who lives outside of Boston and Nathaniel, 25, who lives in Tokyo.
In his years of service, Reverend Edmunds said he heard a religious leader once ask the question of church leaders: “Do you have the skills and the vision to write the next chapter of the church?”
“When I came back to the Vineyard last spring, I was thinking it was time,” he said. “This came at a time when I think I had written as much of the book as I could write. You kind of run out of ideas after a while. This is a good change for the parish. They need new leadership. This is not an issue of failure. It is an issue of what is really going on here.”
On average, most Episcopalian ministers spend a good deal less time than the time the Edmundses have spent in Edgartown, so they feel both fortunate and pleased with their years here.
“We ask ourselves: What is the next chapter for the church?” the rector said.
So what is the next chapter for the rector?
“I heard someone say, ‘Oh, gee whiz. This is a great feather in your cap, or a resume builder.’
“I am way past that. Who cares? We are very much looking forward to this. This isn’t better. This is just different skills that we have had and we haven’t put to use.”
The Edmundses will stay connected to the Vineyard. “My mother Carolyn resides in our house here. She is planning to stay and we will be back,” the rector said.