The religious journey of Carolyn Tanner Irish, a pioneer in the pulpit who became the first female bishop of Utah’s Episcopal Diocese, was launched by tragedy — the accidental death of a brother — and a pivotal conversation.
Irish, who died Tuesday at 81, watched as her younger brother was hit by a car at a Utah ski resort in 1948. A well-meaning Latter-day Saint bishop, who stopped at the Tanner home later to express sympathy, wondered aloud what the family had done to merit such terrible divine retribution.
Irish’s father, Utah entrepreneur and philanthropist Obert C. Tanner, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, escorted the man to the door with these words: “I cannot see the hand of God in this. I rather think God is weeping with us today.”
Young Carolyn, who was 8 at the time, clung to the image of a “God who weeps with us.”
From that day forth, she embarked on a spiritual quest to find and understand God in the midst of human suffering.
It took her to Stanford University (where she met and married Leon Irish) and then the University of Michigan (where she earned a bachelor’s in philosophy in 1962), the University of Oxford in England (where she earned a master of letters in moral philosophy), and through Mormonism to motherhood, divorce and ordination to the Episcopal priesthood in 1984 and a position at the faith’s Washington National Cathedral in D.C.
Ultimately, Irish came full circle. The Salt Lake City native was elected the 10th bishop of the then-6,000-member diocese back in the Beehive State.
Irish was “proud to be inspired by the pioneer spirit — both because she was from a long-established pioneer Utah family and because she was a pioneer among women bishops in the Episcopal Church,” current Episcopal Bishop Scott Hayashi said Tuesday. “She always said with a smile that she was the first woman Episcopal bishop west of the Potomac River. She was the fourth woman bishop in the church.”
A preaching progressive
Irish’s June 1996 consecration ceremony at Abravanel Hall in Salt Lake City included a two-story wooden cross, dozens of symbol-filled banners, a table-size altar, a velvet armchair, trash cans spewing incense and red-robed bishops, transforming a musical venue into a spiritual sanctuary much like the metamorphosis of Irish herself — from a homegrown Latter-day Saint into a leading voice in the Episcopal Church.
“I was taught by the LDS Church to love Jesus,” Irish said at the time. “I came out of that wonderful, kind, different wing of the family of Christ.”
While leading the Utah diocese, Irish used her position and influence to speak out on progressive issues — against war and capital punishment and for immigration, the environment, LGBTQ rights and, of course, feminism.
In Irish’s homily at a confirmation service that included new member Jeff Laver, she noted that “the Episcopal Church tried to remain neutral when slavery was dividing our nation,” Laver recalled. “She added that Episcopalians were not going to make that mistake again and that we would stand firmly for the rights of LGBT people.”
A number of people from various parishes were being confirmed that day, he said. “We had all been prepared in our own parish and, as far as I know, I was the only queer person being confirmed. I doubt that Carolyn even knew that I was gay. I was touched to be openly included in the Episcopal message that all are welcome and all are equal. She was a firm supporter of women, racial minorities and queers.”
Irish also was an ever-present ally on interfaith issues, earning the respect of Catholic bishops, Latter-day Saint apostles and other religious leaders.
Irish also faced her own rubicon and emerged stronger and more resilient.
At the diocese’s annual convention in 1999, Irish was forced to announce her struggle with alcoholism and left immediately for an out-of-state treatment program. She returned to her responsibilities as a bishop part time the following April. A year later, she was back full time.
“Alcoholism is an isolating condition,” Irish said in a 2000 interview. “Therefore you are left to your imagination and you can imagine the worst.”
Even under the best of circumstances, leading an Episcopal diocese is a demanding, multifaceted job.
“Nobody is born knowing how to be bishop,” she said. “And being bishop is not a straightforward job description.”
Ultimately, Irish thrived in her leadership, building bridges to other faiths and supporting many causes inside and outside the church.
In 2001, she married the Rev. Frederick Quinn, a retired foreign service officer and author of several books.
Throughout her church service and thereafter, Irish continued her generosity toward the community, her leadership of the worldwide O.C. Tanner Co. (started by her humanitarian father) and the University of Utah, which named the Carolyn Tanner Irish Humanities Building in her honor and sponsored the annual Tanner Lectures on Human Values.
In 2010, she became the first woman to be given the designation “Giant in Our City” by Salt Lake City’s civic leaders.
“Bishop Irish will be missed by many, many people within the Episcopal Church and the wider community,” Hayashi said. “She was one of the most generous and giving persons I have ever had the privilege to know.”
From tragedy to triumph, Irish “dearly loved Utah,” the bishop said. “Though she could have chosen to live anywhere she desired, she chose Utah because this was her home.”