He has been credited with reaching out to other faiths, welcoming gays and lesbians and playing a pivotal role on the national stage of his denomination. And after 16 years, the Rev. Andrew Cooley, rector of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, will preach his last sermon in Durango on May 1.
“This is totally my initiative to do this,” he said. “There’s no rule for how long to stay, but I’ve seen too many clergy who have been in one place too long, and I didn’t want that to be me.”
When he came to St. Mark’s, Cooley wanted to stay until he was 50 and his daughter had graduated from high school. He’s now 54, and she is graduating from college right after he leaves Durango.
In his next life stage, Cooley will serve as an interim rector at churches in the process of finding a replacement priest.
“I’ll probably do this for the next 10 or 15 years until I retire,” he said. “I’m eager to take the skills I’ve learned here of dealing with people in the midst of anxiety and stress and being an agent of healing and hope.”
An interim pastor will be assigned to St. Mark’s, and the vestry committee will begin a search for a new rector, which will probably take a year to 18 months.
‘Always makes you think’
“He’s a loving, caring, nurturing person,” said Linda Mack, who was the senior warden who offered Cooley the job at St. Mark’s. “But in spite of his gentleness, he gives a powerful and inspiring message every week.”
Scott Hagler, St. Mark’s music director, has worked with Cooley for the last 6½ years.
“People will remember him as warm and engaging and as a preacher of thought-provoking sermons,” Hagler said. “He always makes you think.”
Hagler is grateful for Cooley’s support of the art and music offerings Hagler has brought into the church.
“He has set a tone of ecuminism and open doors, two things that are of utmost appeal to me,” Hagler said.
Congregation member Moni Grushkin agrees.
“He’s my spiritual rock,” she said. “He has a gift for listening and finding the appropriate words. He connects with people who don’t necessarily believe in God.”
A church in transition
Just as the Episcopal Church in the U.S. and the Anglican Communion globally have been in controversy over changing mores, St. Mark’s has seen its own upheaval in the last 10 years.
Cooley has been one of Colorado’s delegates to the Episcopal General Convention for six terms and has already been elected to serve as a senior deputy to the 2012 convention. In 2003, he was the deciding vote to confirm V. Gene Robinson as the Episcopal Church’s first openly gay bishop.
About 30 members left St. Mark’s, he said. The church received hate mail and harassing phone calls from people in the community, the sign was vandalized and one of the sanctuary’s original stained glass windows dating back to the late 1800s was broken.
“It was heartbreaking to see good, faithful people no longer able to remain part of the church,” Cooley said. “The people that left, for the most part, left graciously and faithfully.”
He first became aware of the conversation about the role of gays and lesbians in the Episcopal Church in 1979, when he attended the convention as a student. He was ambivalent about the subject at the time, he said.
“Since then, I’ve been aware of the church’s struggle, and my own struggle was coming into focus,” he said. “I have come to see that the church is so enriched by the gifts that gay and lesbian persons have brought and have seen such profound faithfulness in gay and lesbian persons. I feel compelled to make the church more open to see those gifts expressed in all of my ministry.”
The 2012 convention will probably be his last.
“I’m on a committee now that is preparing a rite for the blessing of same-gender unions that will be presented there,” he said. “It feels like a real arc. I’d like to see that project go through, and it’s likely it will.”
‘An oasis from cynicism’
“He’s a wonderful person and a wonderful Christian,” said the Rev. John Knutson of Christ the King Lutheran Church in Durango. “I will miss him so much. He has a way of welcoming all in God’s house.”
Knutson said Cooley has influenced other pastors, including himself.
“We were having a meeting and discussing how to be more welcoming,” he said. “One man said, ‘Every time I drive by St. Mark’s on my way to church, Father Andrew is outside greeting parishioners, no matter what the weather. Why don’t you do that?’”
Now Knutson does.
Soon after Cooley arrived, he and Knutson began meeting and organizing collaborative events. Now a number of ministers meet twice a month for lunch and hold ecumenical Advent and Lent services. For the community Thanksgiving service held last November, 10 interfaith congregations were represented, including Protestant, Roman Catholic and Jewish, due in large part to Cooley’s efforts.
Cooley has also offered St. Mark’s as worship space to congregations that had no home, such as Congregation Har Shalom, and currently, the Four Corners Orthodox Church.
As he looks back, Cooley hopes he’s left a certain legacy.
“I hope I’ve created a space where artists and musicians, gay and lesbian persons and wounded folk have found St. Mark’s to be a healing and welcoming place,” he said. “I liked it when Judith Reynolds said, ‘St. Mark’s is an oasis from cynicism.’”