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Bishop Grove led with wisdom, love (UM News)

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November 1, 2023

Bishop William Boyd Grove distinguished himself in many ways over a long ministry career, including serving as the first ecumenical officer of the Council of Bishops and writing a hymn that’s in the United Methodist Hymnal.

But in talking about Grove, pastors stress the personal side, especially how carefully he listened and how they knew he was in their corner.

“He cared about each one of us,” said the Rev. Okey Harless, who was a young West Virginia Conference clergyman when Grove was bishop there. “It didn’t matter if we didn’t agree with him 100% theologically. He was still supportive and encouraging.”

Grove — a strong United Methodist voice for ecumenism and social justice, and a lover of his native Appalachia — died Oct. 27 at age 94 in Johnson City, Tennessee. He’d lately faced osteomyelitis of the spine, as well as other health problems.

He’s survived by his wife of 72 years, Mary Lou Naylor Grove, whom he described as his essential ministry partner. Other survivors include their daughters, Susan Grove-DeJarnett and Rebecca Janczewski, seven grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Many United Methodist leaders have been sharing about Grove since his death, including Council of Bishops President Thomas Bickerton.

“Bishop Grove was my mentor and spiritual guide,” said Bickerton, who visited the Groves a day before Bishop Grove died. “His loss hits me deep.”

Bishop Sandra Steiner Ball has been one of Grove’s successors in leading the West Virginia Conference, and she also called him a mentor.

“He came alongside me,” she wrote in announcing Grove’s death to the conference. “Listened deeply. Lent me his wisdom and his support. Helped me to think through things. And he did this not only for me, but for every newly elected bishop in The United Methodist Church.”

Grove was born on April 24, 1929, in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. He earned degrees from Bethany College, where he majored in English, and from Drew University and Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.

In 1951, he and Mary Lou were married in Franklin Street Church in Johnstown, where they had gone to Sunday school and Methodist Youth Fellowship together.

Grove received ordination and began his clergy career in the Pittsburgh Conference, where he served local churches in western Pennsylvania for nearly a quarter century. That included more than a decade as pastor of First Methodist of Pittsburgh.

He was elected bishop in 1980, in the Northeastern Jurisdiction, and assigned to lead the West Virginia Conference. He spent 12 years in that post. He led the Albany (N.Y.) episcopal area from 1992 to 1996, when he retired from the active episcopacy. He was reactivated in 2012 when the West Virginia Conference needed a leader temporarily.

Grove served from 1996 to 2000 as the initial ecumenical officer of the Council of Bishops. He led United Methodist delegations to the National Council of Churches, the Consultation on Church Union and the Eighth Assembly of the World Council of Churches. He also co-chaired the continuing dialogue between The United Methodist Church and the Roman Catholic Church. 

Grove’s commitment to Christian unity manifested early, said his daughter Susan, and in 1993 he offered strong words on the subject.

“The church mirrors the world’s divisions,” he wrote in an op-ed for the Burlington (Vermont) Free Press, “and our disunity is a scandal and an impediment to faith.”

The Rev. Stephen Sidorak was a later leader of United Methodist ecumenical efforts, and an admirer of Grove.

“As I told him a time or two, he made me proud to be a United Methodist,” Sidorak said by email. “He helped restore that ecumenical spirit back into our church, including the upper echelons of it.”

Grove was entrusted with overseeing church trials as a bishop. He was strong for social justice, offering support to striking coal miners and urging The United Methodist Church to apologize for its past and present racism. He had a keen interest in liturgy, and belonged to the Order of St. Luke, which is dedicated to sacramental and liturgical scholarship and practice.

A frequent quoter of poetry in his sermons, Grove also wrote poetry and hymn texts. His text “God, Whose Love Is Reigning O’er Us,” written as a processional for the 1980 wedding of Susan Grove and Douglas DeJarnett and set to an 1869 tune by John Goss, is hymn #100 in the United Methodist Hymnal.

The first verse begins: “God, whose love is reigning o’er us, source of all, the ending true; hear the universal chorus, raised in joyful praise to you.”

The hymn has made its way into other hymnals, and C. Michael Hawn, professor emeritus at Perkins School of Theology and author of many columns about hymnody, said he’s unaware of any other United Methodist bishop having a hymn text in the United Methodist Hymnal.  

Hawn wrote a column about Grove’s hymn, and noted the nuptial occasion.

“The father of the bride wrote a hymn that sent the couple down the aisle and has kept them singing ever since,” Hawn concluded the piece.

Language was important to Grove, and so was Appalachia.

In a 2012 sermon, Grove drew laughs by saying folks in Appalachia were always convinced things were bad and about to get worse and would be disappointed if that proved untrue. But his daughter Susan said he had a deep, abiding love for the region and its people.

Grove was given the Distinguished West Virginian Award in 1992 and received honorary degrees and alumni awards from colleges and universities.

He remained active in the West Virginia Conference for many years past official retirement, and in his 90s accepted Bickerton’s invitation to be part of a Council of Bishops task force planning for the future of The United Methodist Church.

“He said to me, ‘You actually think I could be helpful? If you haven’t noticed, I’m an old man,’” Bickerton recalled in a written tribute. “I said to him, ‘If there is any visioning to be done in this council, your hope for the future is more relevant and needed than ever.”

Bickerton was a Duke Divinity School student in 1980 when he wrote a letter to Grove, then the new West Virginia Conference bishop. He invited Grove to Duke to meet the seminary students from West Virginia. To his surprise, Grove came, and thus began a friendship that would continue more than four decades.

“William Boyd Grove was my ordaining bishop, the bishop that appointed me, and the bishop that opened doors of possibility in my life that would never have opened had it not been for his constant grace and love,” Bickerton wrote.

Many others close to Grove are mindful of his career accomplishments but also of how he valued and nurtured relationships.

The Rev. Lauren Godwin is a third-generation West Virginia Conference pastor whose grandfather retired during Grove’s tenure as bishop and whose father was ordained by him. She received her first clergy appointment from Grove, when he came out of retirement to fill in as conference bishop.

Grove visited in her home when she was a baby, and kept up with her through the decades, including sending cards recently as she faced breast cancer.

“He stayed in touch with people, remembered who they were and deeply cared about them,” said Godwin, pastor of Grace United Methodist Church in Keyser, West Virginia. “It wasn’t like, ‘OK, I’m finished with this (episcopal) area.’ You remained with him.”

Susan Grove-DeJarnett said she had been moved by the many social media tributes to her father in recent days, especially how they stressed his role as encourager.

That rang true to her.

“The quality of him that I will remember most is his empathy,” she said. “He had a tremendous ability to relate to people’s own experience.”

Bishop William Boyd Grove’s funeral will be at Christ Church United Methodist in Charleston, West Virginia, beginning at 1:30 p.m. on Nov. 16.

Memorial gifts may be made to the United Methodist Foundation of West Virginia for ministries and relief aid to children in war-torn areas; to the William and Mary Lou Grove Trust at the United Methodist Foundation of West Virginia; and to the Bishop William Boyd Grove and Mary Lou Grove Scholarship Fund, West Virginia Wesleyan College, Buckhannon, West Virginia.