Pamela Chinnis, House of Deputies president, dies

Published September 1, 2011

Pamela Chinnis, first woman to serve as president of the House of Deputies of the Episcopal Church, and former Presiding Bishop Edmond Browning. Photo: ENS

Updated Aug. 31 with details of the graveside service, which will be held on Sept. 3 in Missouri, and a memorial service, which is planned for Oct. 14 with the venue to be decided.

Pamela Chinnis, who was the first woman to lead the Episcopal Church’s House of Deputies, died Aug. 24 at her home in Virginia Beach, Virginia. She was 86.

Chinnis served three terms as president of the House of Deputies from 1991 to 2000, the maximum allowed. She was first elected by acclamation in July 1991.

Current House of Deputies President Bonnie Anderson, the second woman to lead the approximately 880-member house, said in a statement that “my deepest sympathies and prayers are with her family and her friends across the church,” adding that Chinnis was “one of my role models and has inspired my ministry.”

Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori said “we give thanks for the ground-breaking ministry of Dr. Chinnis as president of the House of Deputies, and give thanks for her life. We hold her and her family in our prayers in this time of grief and thanksgiving for a life well lived. May she rest in peace and rise in glory, and may all who mourn find comfort in the assurance of resurrection.”

Anderson said Chinnis “has given me courage when the going has been rough, and I will miss being able to hear her distinctive voice speaking truth with humor and wisdom.”

“She also was a champion of including the voices of all the baptized in the governance system she cherished and helped to lead,” Anderson continued. “As the first woman to serve as president of the House of Deputies, Dr. Chinnis opened the 73rd General Convention by saying: ‘The House of Deputies was a complete innovation when this church was organized following the American Revolution. Laity, clergy and bishops have an equal voice in determining policy, establishing our legal framework and maintaining a living liturgical life.’ Her invaluable service to the Episcopal Church sought to bring these words to life, and I ask all Episcopalians to join me in giving thanks for her life and ministry among us.”

“I remember most her grace under pressure, her brilliant communication skills and especially her personal courage,” said the Very Rev. George Werner, who succeeded Chinnis as president of the House of Deputies in 2000. “She was not just strong in challenging injustice but also in enduring very real physical pain during some periods of her presidency. I am deeply grateful for my time with her in the House of Deputies.”

The burial service will be held at 11 a.m. on Sept. 3, at Galena Cemetery in Crane, Missouri. The Rev. Brian Grieves, the Episcopal Church’s former director of peace and justice ministries, and the Rev. David Perry, former ecumenical officer, will preside. A memorial service is planned for Oct. 14 in Washington, D.C., with details about the venue to be confirmed.

Chinnis served the Episcopal Church for decades. She also had served as vice president of the House of Deputies when the Very Rev. David Collins was president. She succeeded Collins after he served two terms. She and Collins were first elected to their leadership posts at the same convention during which Edmond Browning was chosen to be the church’s 24th presiding bishop.

She was a member of the Episcopal Church’s deputations to four meetings of the Anglican Consultative Council, including its fourth meeting in London, Ontario in 1979; in Singapore in 1987; in Wales in 1990; and in Cape Town, South Africa in 1993 where she was also a member of the Standing Committee.

As Browning came to the end of his term, he told the 72nd meeting of General Convention in Philadelphia that Chinnis was “a model for lay ministry and an inspiration for the ministry of women, and men.”

At the 73rd meeting of General Convention in 2000, the House of Bishops and the House of Deputies honored her for her service.

The bishops said in a resolution that Chinnis’ “remarkable gifts of leadership, courage, and civility have challenged us to set higher goals for our own work, and to understand better the meaning of partnership in ministry shared across the breadth of this church.”

And the deputies expressed their “loving gratitude” for her “many years of effective leadership of this House.”

Chinnis began her leadership service to the church after she joined Church of the Epiphany in Washington, D.C., where she became the first female warden. (A historical chronology on the parish’s website notes that Chinnis was the third member to serve as president of the House of Deputies. The other two were the Rev. Randolph H. McKim and the Rev. ZeBarney Thorne Phillips, both in the early 20th century.)

She also became involved with Episcopal Church Women and was president of its 1976 Triennial Meeting. Chinnis served on the Executive Council prior to and following her election to the House of Deputies. She was elected by General Convention in 1979 to a six-year term on the council.

“I started 20 or 30 years ago, and I started in my parish, and I certainly had no long-range plan,” Chinnis said in a January 1990 interview with Episcopal News Service. “When I started out, women couldn’t even be seated in the House of Deputies. You start where you are, and you do Christ’s mission there.”

In that interview, Chinnis acknowledged that she was a feminist who pushed for greater involvement of women in the governance of the church. She noted, for example, that ECW set out “to become a power base for women, and we made no apologies for that.”

In the 1970s, Chinnis also advocated for women to be ordained as priests and bishops (women could be ordained only as deacons at that time). She was on the board of the National Coalition for Women’s Ordination to the Priesthood and Episcopacy in the Episcopal Church.

Chinnis was once accused of “stacking” committees to which as House of Deputies president she appointed members with “biased” people. This charge came after she asked in a speech to Integrity, an organization of lesbian and gay Episcopalians, that participants help her identify members of the organization who ought to be considered for appointment to legislative committees of the 1994 General Convention.

“I have given particular attention to identifying competent people from groups which have been previously under-represented in our leadership and decision-making processes, seeking balance in terms of gender, racial/ethnic identity, geography and ideology,” she said in a statement at the time. “I sought persons whose interests and expertise were appropriate to the responsibilities of each interim body, and whose diverse perspectives and willingness to work respectfully with those who oppose their views would enrich the work those groups do on behalf of the rest of the church.”

In early 1995, Chinnis was called on with other elected leaders to deal with evidence that Ellen Cooke, the treasurer of the General Convention and senior executive for administration and finance of the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society (the Episcopal Church’s corporate name), had embezzled as much as $2.2 million from the society. Cooke was later sentenced to five years in federal prison after pleading guilty and the church recovered all but $100,000. The net loss to the church was $422,094, given the costs involved in prosecuting Cooke.

Chinnis later called it “a crisis such as I had never seen — and hope never to see again.”

She was active in human-right issues on a wider scale. In 1983, in the midst of the effort to end apartheid in South Africa, then-Archbishop of Canterbury Robert Runcie named her to be part of a delegation he sent to observe the final days of a government inquiry into the affairs of the South African Council of Churches and its chair then-Bishop Desmond Tutu. The government had planned to restrict the council’s activities because it advocated for an end to the racial-separation policies of the South African government.

She was a member of the governing board and executive committee of the National Council of Churches. In 1998, she led the Episcopal Church delegation to the 8th Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Harare, Zimbabwe, and was later elected to the council’s Central Committee.

Chinnis, a native of Missouri, was a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the College of William and Mary. Majoring in psychology, she did research for the Air Force and later returned the college as an instructor in psychology.

— The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is an editor/reporter for the Episcopal News Service.


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