Longtime St. Luke’s reverend in Park City will give his final sermon Sunday
Charles Robinson led church for 17 years
Reverend Charles Robinson plans to give his last sermon as rector of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church on Sunday, April 18, after 17 years of weekly sermons and service in the Park City community.
“I’m retiring,” Robinson said in his trademark unassuming way. “I’m 66, and I had always planned when I got to 66 that I would hang up my spurs.”
Sunday’s sermon will be simple, and one of thanks, he said.
“I’m going to express my deep gratitude to the congregation,” Robinson said. “We’ve had a congregation devoid of destructive conflict. That has allowed our congregation to function in a way that is life-giving and aware.”
A peaceful congregation wasn’t what Robinson stepped into when he first arrived for the job in 2004.
“If we go back, the most obvious aspect about St. Luke’s in particular, and the culture in general, was the church had become snagged by the culture wars,” he said. “The Episcopal Church, which is our church, had proudly ordained our first openly gay bishop in the summer right before I arrived, and that set off a firestorm across the nation and the world with people who hadn’t quite caught up on thinking about sexual orientation in non-moralistic terms.”
Looking back, Robinson attributed misinformation and misunderstanding as the fuel to the firestorm.
“There was this notion that people chose their sexual orientation, and there were a lot of people at St. Luke’s who were told all of their lives that being a gay person was somehow a perversion rather than a creation of God, could not accept the morality of being gay,” he said. “That was what I walked into.”
In addition, a number of the church members took issue with the feminist movement and nurtured leftover tension regarding immigration, Robinson said.
“A lot of folks just couldn’t get past it, and we did lose a lot of members that first year I was here,” he said.
Instead of wallowing in despair, Robinson, a licensed marriage and family counselor who holds degrees in clinical psychology, philosophy and divinity, worked with the remaining members of his congregation to rebuild.
St. Luke’s adopted a set of principles that would guide the congregation.
• Love for God, as revealed in the love of Jesus
• Intentional hospitality
• Intellectual freedom
• Respect for the dignity of every human being
“These are a set of principles that came right out of healthy-family functioning literature,” Robinson said. “We agreed as a congregation that we would develop a culture of agreeing to disagree.”
The congregation also agreed to not engage in what the reverend calls toxic triangulation.
“If I have a problem with someone I would go talk with that person and not bring a bunch of other people into the conflict, even if it was uncomfortable and anxiety producing,” he said. “And If I was too scared to do that alone, I would take someone along who could hold my hand.”
Shelle Jennings, St. Luke’s congregant and former music director of the Park City Follies, remembers how Robinson’s mild demeanor added to his leadership at that time.
“When Charles came to town, by golly, he came in with both feet, but in a very subtle way,” she said. “It wasn’t like he was knocking people over the head. It was slow and steady, and with great integrity for the common good.”
Jennings reflected about one year when Robinson agreed to let the Park City Follies use St. Luke’s for a video celebrating a gay wedding.
“He was all about community, and he felt it was important for St. Luke’s to have a face in the community, as not just as a spiritual congregation, but also as a mover and a shaker,” she said. “That was what was so special about his willingness to be part of Follies.”
Out of the principles came St. Luke’s commitment to keep an open and healthy dialogue with people who disagreed with each other, which included starting up public forums such as the Project for Deeper Understanding and its subsequent program, Braver Angels.
“It was the work of getting people who see themselves as conservatives with people who self-identify as liberals and put before them some open-ended questions in hope they will open up to each other and develop a better understanding of where they are coming from,” Robinson said. “That was the thrust of our work.”
Cultivating a culture of mutual respect and dialogue was how Robinson addressed the church’s spiritual mission.
“There’s a passage in the Bible where Jesus says it’s easy to love somebody who loves you back, but the trick comes in enacting that behavior with people who disagree with you, who argue with you and who hold positions you disagree with,” he said. “That’s the hard spiritual work, and that’s the precise thing that we’re called to work toward within the Christian tradition. But we’re human beings and we’ve been able to do it sometimes successfully and sometimes not.”
Throughout the years as rector, Robinson has attempted to find an intellectual balance with the spiritual aspects of being Christian through his ministry.
“The work that I have tried to do on the intellectual side at St. Luke’s has been to offer a way of approaching the Bible that doesn’t require uncritical acceptance of supernaturalism, and I’ve tried to give people the option of thinking about the Bible and Christian doctrine as written by people for people about people,” he said. “If we read this literature symbolically, we can interpret it through the lens of what it says about us, what we want and what we hope for. In contrast to telling people you have to believe things that seem to you as unbelievable in order to be a Christian.”
Doing so has been a challenge, Robinson confessed.
“I had talked myself into thinking that there was a huge market out there for people who wanted an alternative to supernaturalism in faith, and I thought we would become a large church, given the demographics and the growth of population in Summit County,” he said. “But throughout the years, I’ve met people who view religion as problematic, and somehow or another I couldn’t get them interested. So we haven’t grown numerically in the way I expected we would.”
Still, Robinson isn’t disappointed in St. Luke’s basic mission and the work it has done during his tenure.
“I’m proud of what we tried to contribute, and I’m very proud of the people of St. Luke’s in terms of how flexible, open and willing to learn and explore they have been and are,” he said. “This is a terrific congregation. Whoever follows me will be a lucky person.”
Although Robinson wasn’t able to recruit significantly more members, he has become a respected religious leader and member of the community, said Myles Rademan, director of Leadership Park City, an annual yearlong program that introduces participants to the workings of the community.
Rademan got to know Robinson in 2006 during the Leadership Park City tour that visited Reno and Lake Tahoe, Nevada.
“We’ve been blessed here in Park City with a number of religious leaders who have been very ecumenical in their outlook, and Charles’s religion isn’t just words for him,” Rademan said. “He lives his religion and is a role model.”
Robinson reminds Rademan of a quote by Benjamin Franklin.
“I grew up in Philadelphia, so I had to study Ben Franklin a lot,” he said, laughing. “Ben Franklin had a saying: ‘The greatest dream without action is nothing more than hallucination.’ Which means to me that the best trait of any leader is the ability to translate vision or dreams, whatever you want to call them, into action. And this is what Charles has done, quietly and in his own way. He is doggedly determined to make life better for people, bring people together and create community. And it’s been wonderful for me to know him.”
Robinson’s work with St. Luke’s has also reached across religious lines, said David Levinsky, who has been the rabbi of Temple Har Shalom since 2015.
“Charles was the first clergy member of the community to reach out to me when I first arrived, and he showed me an openness to the beliefs and ideas that are different than his own,” Levinsky said. “That has also enabled him to create dialogues amongst different voices in the community, and it has enabled me as a non-Christian clergy to have a strong relationship with him.”
Levinsky will miss Robinson’s low-key personality.
“Charles has that ‘aww shucks’ folksiness about him that I find that very charming,” he said. “He’s shown me that the most important thing about clergy is to start with kindness, and I’ll miss having a partner from a different faith who deeply understands how to work productively with differences.”
Robinson, in turn, will miss his friends in the community and his congregation.
“I think I’ll be fine until we get past the holidays, but after that I think I’ll start missing these wonderful friends of mine in the congregation something fierce,” he said.
He will also miss his St. Luke’s staff that includes Parish Administrator Beckie Raemer, Minister of Music and Liturgy Manuel Clayton and Reverend Claudia Giacoma, St. Luke’s assisting priest.
“I have been the luckiest person in the church,” Robinson said. “They all do their jobs so well and have been my rocks.”
Robinson plans to remain in town for at least another year and a half.
“I have a 17-year-old who will be a senior in high school in September, so the earliest we can move if we do is summer of 2022,” he said. “But I think after that I will take a year off and do basic reconciliation and dialogue work. I also hope to get an adjunct-teaching job at a college and teach a couple of philosophy classes.”
In the meanwhile, the church will hire an interim pastor who will work with St. Luke’s congregation for 18 months, Robinson said.
“The pastor will take them through a reflection process and ask who they are without Charles and where they want to go,” he said. “Then they’ll put together a parrish profile that says what the congregation is looking for in the next pastor, and that goes out across the nation and anyone can apply.”
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