RIP: George Werner, past House of Deputies president, dies at 85

By ENS staff
Posted Feb 7, 2023

[Episcopal News Service] The Very Rev. George L.W. Werner, who served as House of Deputies president from 2000 to 2006, died Feb. 6 at age 85 after suffering since at least last year from progressive dementia. Werner’s death was announced by his son, Bill Werner, in a Facebook post.

Werner was born in New York in 1938. He came to The Episcopal Church as a teenager, after a fellow golf caddy invited him to come to his church, All Saints Episcopal Church in Bayside, Queens. Werner later said that the parish “adopted” him.

“While we will surely miss his humor and good spirit, we can give thank that he passed along our way. President Werner provided leadership in our church that was both deeply faithful and open to new insights, truly just and genuinely kind,” Presiding Bishop Michael Curry said in a written statement to Episcopal News Service. Curry was bishop of the Diocese of North Carolina during Werner’s tenure as House of Deputies president.

“His was leadership deeply rooted in the Gospel of Jesus Christ and a reminder that good leadership is still possible in complex and difficult times. May he rest in peace and rise in glory.”

Bishop Frank Griswold, who was presiding bishop during Werner’s time as House of Deputies president, called Werner “a wonderful colleague and wise friend.”

“As a weaver of parables drawn from his wide-ranging ministry, punctuated from time to time with a light touch of humor, he was able to thaw many a frosty moment in the life of ‘this wonderful and sacred mystery’ we know as the Episcopal Church,” Griswold said in a written statement to ENS. “George and I often came at things from different perspectives, but then ended up in the same place.”

And in an email to the House of Deputies, President Julia Ayala Harris said: “George and I began corresponding several months ago after I announced my candidacy for president of the House of Deputies. George was always gracious, kind, and affirming in our conversations. After my election, George started sharing more about his experiences, and I will always treasure the advice that he gave me. It is a humbling honor to succeed him in this unique role in our church. I pray for George and his family daily.”

Werner, the 31st president of the House of Deputies, was elected at General Convention in 2000 in Denver, Colorado, and re-elected in 2003 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. From 1994 to 2000, he served as vice president under President Pamela Chinnis. He also served eight terms as a General Convention deputy and as deputation chair from the Diocese of Pittsburgh.

During the then-brewing dispute between the Diocese of Pittsburgh and the wider Episcopal Church over the latter’s stand on the full inclusion of LGBTQ+ people in the life of the church, the Pittsburgh diocesan convention did not re-elect Werner as a deputy in 2004. That made him ineligible for election to a third and final three-year term as president. Only sitting deputies can stand for election to the leadership post. The House of Deputies vice president at the time, Bonnie Anderson of Michigan, was elected to succeed him at the next meeting of General Convention in 2006.

Werner also served for a time as a trustee of the Church Pension Fund and its Church Hymnal Corp.

A frequent Facebook user, Werner used his page to discuss his physical health in recent years, for example, noting in June 2022 that he was dealing with arterial fibrillation. Twice in 2022, with an apology in the second post for perhaps repeating his message, Werner wrote that he was “sinking deeper into dementia.” He wrote that he had “few illusions” about his future, having cared for loved ones who suffered from the same illness.

“Audrey remains fabulous and by my side… other family members & friends are aware. In my middle 80s, I have had a wonderful run, so I hope I can keep gratitude as my daily companion,” he wrote on Oct. 2, 2022. “So thank you to so many, who have blessed and accompanied me on my journey.”

Werner held a Master of Divinity degree from Berkeley Divinity School, now known as Berkeley Divinity School at Yale. He was ordained as a transitional deacon by Bishop Walter Gray of Connecticut in 1962 and Bishop Suffragan John Henry Esquirol of Connecticut ordained Werner to the priesthood in 1963. Werner served in several parishes in Connecticut and New Hampshire before becoming dean of Trinity Cathedral in Pittsburgh in 1979, where he served until 2000.

In Pittsburgh, Werner turned his energies to urban mission, working with The Episcopal Church’s Venture in Mission effort, to make the cathedral a welcoming space for the entire community, from unemployed steelworkers to teenagers and white-collar executives.

Berkeley Divinity School and Nashotah House Theological Seminary each awarded Werner an honorary Doctor of Divinity degree.

Werner told ENS in 2006 that he “was especially proud of bringing more young people into the workings of General Convention.”

“I was anxious to appoint youth to positions at the table,” he said. “We had talked about that ever since I have been in the church.”

He also said he made a conscious effort to stay in touch with all parts of The Episcopal Church.

“I have chosen to go out and visit the church because we are in a time of some tension, and I have tried to connect,” he said. “That’s something a beat-up old parish priest like me was told to do back in the ’60s.”

On Sept. 10, 2009, Werner served as guest chaplain to the U.S. House of Representatives. In introducing him, then-Rep. Jason Altmire, D-Pennsylvania, said Werner had “earned a special place in the hearts of Western Pennsylvania and especially The Episcopal Church” and had “made a career out of advocating for fairness for all of our citizens and helping those less fortunate.”

Werner is survived by his wife, Audrey, their four children, 14 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

A funeral service is scheduled to be held at St. James The Fisherman Episcopal Church in Shallotte, North Carolina, on March 11, at 2 p.m.