Interview with Dr. Fredrica Harris Thompsett

Dedication of center altar at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, procession led by Verna Dozier & Bruce Sladen. Credit: St. Mark’s Archives, used with permission

Dr. Fredrica Harris Thompsett is a notable Episcopal Church historian and a friend of Verna Dozier. Confronted by God: The Essential Verna Dozier, which she edited, along with Cynthia L. Shattuck, is the most comprehensive look at the life and theology of Dozier. She also wrote an excellent biography of Dozier. In Spring 2022, she sat down with Caitlin Frazier, along with faculty advisors Rev. Dan Joslyn-Siemiatkoski and Dr. Anthony Baker, to discuss Dozier’s legacy. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Dr. Thompsett, thank you for being here. I am a student at Seminary of the Southwest and I am working on an independent study about Verna Dozier. My sending parish is St. Mark’s Capitol Hill, home of Verna Dozier from 1956 until she died in 2006. But I didn’t come until 2011 so I never knew her personally. I want to say how much I appreciate your work documenting her life and ideas. What was your personal relationship to Verna Dozier?

She was a very good friend. I met her through people who worked with something called the Association for Creative Change. She was doing consulting in the DC area teaching scripture. I had a very good friend who was close to Verna. They worked together as consultants. And I met her at a house party and the rest was history. We became friends and I traveled and spent time with her. I served as a quiet applause giver, trying to get her more positions in the church. Dee Hahn-Rollins did a lot of that too. 

When Verna talked to the Episcopal Church Women, that’s when her fame really took off. People couldn’t believe that there was a woman that looked like her, as she said a woman who looked like Aunt Jemima teaching scripture. And I preached at her funeral. I saw her 3 or 4 times when she was in the care facility. I wouldn’t say I was the closest family friend, but a good friend.

Thank you for that background. Who were Verna Dozier’s theological and intellectual influences?

Not surprisingly, those come out of her life and her witness. I think the most important was Howard Thurman. I’ve just been re-reading Jesus and the Disinherited, noticing again that some of the rhythms of his work are repeated in her work. A lot of the sentence structure that I hadn’t noticed before, was very similar. She met him when she first went to Howard University at age 15 having skipped grades at Dunbar. She liked him so much she had her father go with her when she heard the sermons at Howard. He was quite a commanding speaker, plainer than his writings. He sat well in the pulpit. She couldn’t believe it when Harry Emerson Fosdick questioned the divinity of Jesus. Thurman was on that track, largely because he wanted to attract a multi-denominational, multifaith congregation. He didn’t want belief to stand in the way of other folks. And she was always making room for that. Thurman did much the same. 

Verna Dozier and her parents, Lonna and Lucie Dozier. Credit: the African American Episcopal Historical Collection, a joint project of Virginia Seminary and the Historical Society of the Episcopal Church curated at Bishop Payne Library

I wonder if there are any women in particular, or any Black women who influenced Dozier?

I asked her about that and she said that the women in her group at Church of the Savior were theologians and had theological impact on her. She said theologians were the people around her. And that’s when I wrote We Are Theologians. Obviously she’s not a systematic theologian. She’s a biblical theologian. She wanted to make sure that everyone did their work. I know she loved meeting Marion Kelleran, who was at Virginia Theological Seminary teaching christian education and some theology. 

Did Dozier come around to the lower christology or did she stay critical of that?

She accepted the resurrection as a story that was essential for her faith. I don’t remember her ever talking about Christ enthroned above. I don’t remember any of that heaven/hell cosmology. She was always more comfortable talking about Jesus and the folks around him and the stories he told. But the resurrection was a myth that needed to be pursued and held in faith. 

Part of this also came out of the dynamic between her father, who she said was agnostic and had a lively mind and her mother who was a Baptist of the old tradition, the hymns and all. She lived in a household where there was, if not tension, there was considerable disagreement and they read the Bible out loud every day. 

That leads into one of the tensions I have been exploring, which is what makes Verna a theologian and not just a prophetic voice or a critic of the church? It seems like so much of what she said was about how the church went wrong, how the laity have not lived up to their expectations. What makes her a theologian in particular?

I think there’s a shift from The Authority of the Laity to The Dream of God. She was known widely for the Authority of the Laity. That was a popular book in Eastern liberal/progressive churches and it was at a time when laity were first widely acknowledged as important in the church’s life. She just wanted to make sure that their voice was heard and counted and she wanted them to do their own work. The Episcopal Church was not doing a lot of Bible study when she started out. And there was was some charismatic fundamentalism and she wanted to stand against that, so that’s one of the reasons she wanted the folks that she was working with, her colleagues and students/mentees, to do their own work and not to settle for what somebody else said. She didn’t want a doctrine to get in the way. 

I don’t remember her talking about clericalism much. She didn’t really push it. She pushed theological ambiguity to invite other people’s thoughts in. So she wasn’t going to try to put laity over clergy, quite the reverse as she says the laity have the higher job: they’ve got to understand biblical messages and they’ve got to understand their own field of expertise. 

She got pushed by Loren Mead and Celia Hahn and others to say what her worldview said about divinity and what it said about the whole theology of the church. She worked her way toward that between writing The Authority of the Laity and The Dream of God. She wanted to create a vision of God, a framework. I think that’s when she moved toward seeing herself more as a theologian. 

The dream is actually something Thurman talks about quite a bit. Remember he’s a mystic. There was a conference at the College of Preachers in Washington, D.C. and she insisted that lay preachers be invited as well. She sent most of the clergy off to write the bible story in a paragraph and they struggled with it. There was blood, sweat, and tears. They went off to their rooms and tried to figure it out. And she said I think I can do that in 5 or 6 words: created, chosen, trusted (though not perfect), forgiven, and pursued. And she would trace that through the Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament and work at it a little in the epistles and other documents. She had a chart that mapped that out.

“Chosen” was one of her favorite words. “Trusted” was another, trusted but not perfect. She was appalled because a lot of the participants showed up to the preaching event and very few of them mentioned the Old Testament. She was just floored that that had happened. She was working to build a framework and I think that’s why she’s a theologian. Her talk about God resided in a universe about God. She was mostly thinking about God and God’s story. She had a vision and she wanted to teach it. Her reference was biblical, period. That’s why I call her a biblical theologian. She really wanted to tie back to the story, the big story. 

You have mentioned a couple of times  just how intensive her requirements for religious life were. She saw the work of the laity as not just knowing your own profession, but, like you are saying, to also know the Bible. She sets a very high bar, a rigorous vision for Christian life. Is that a feasible vision for people then or today? How can we hold the ordinary aspects of life with her prophetic call?

I think part of that high bar came out of her experience in Church of the Savior. The requirements that Gordon Cosby put forward were not only tithing, it was a prayer rhythm, almost monastic. But there was a learning dimension of that, what we call today exegesis. She was active in the Church of the Savior while she was also learning in college. 

Do I think [Verna’s requirements of the laity] are achievable? I think it’s doable, but may not be fully achievable. She wanted to make sure the laity were learning alongside everyone else. And they were learning about their own life. She was very pragmatic. It’s not as intense a way to live as they lived at the Church of our Savior, but it is a habit to follow. 

It is interesting how Verna Dozier talked about the authority and responsibility of the student very similarly to how she talks about the authority of the laity, because of her background as a public school educator.

That’s her methodology. I think that there’s a strong, strong connection there. She wanted to treat her students as if they and their views mattered. Some of her former students were back for her funeral and I talked to a couple of them. She was, as we might suspect, unforgettable. But one student said he had learned to read documents differently after having Ms. Dozier. She was doing all this work on deep reading with poetry and Shakespeare and other documents. 

If Verna Dozier thinks there should be greater equality between clergy and laity, how did she understand the role of clergy?

Clergy have the sacrosanct. They have this sacramental ministry to attend, and she thought that was plenty. Their role was to support the laity. She believed that clergy were not able to become bivocational because tending the holy and opening it up and supporting the laity was a full-time job. And it took time for the laity to be supportend into knowing their chosenness. 

She was working with African American students in really troubled schools in the District and convincing them that they had ability and they had voice and they had meaning. That was the same sort of energy and passion that she wanted clergy to bring to the laity. So I think her methodology and her teaching are just right in line. 

There was quite a bit of energy about anti-clericalism at the Alban Institute. Why don’t you tell the clergy to stop making us believe what they believe? Why aren’t you talking about anti-clericalism? I think the same respect she had for the student, she had for the clergy. She was not going to teach about being trusted, being supported, having integrity, and having wisdom with one group of Christians and then say that’s not true of the clergy. So the clergy were to be encouraged. They weren’t to take over space. They were to share it. She supported clergy and she said they have a heck of a job. 

Where do you see Verna Dozier’s vision today? Is Michael Curry’s Way of Love an example of it?

Absolutely. There’s some of her rhythms in his. There’s a biblical form of teaching they both did. And love was at the center. If there was an answer to your inquiries, it’s love. You have to give up everything else, but don’t give up love. 

When I saw her about two weeks before she died, she asked me why I had called the book Confronted by God and I said because you were always wrestling with God. She said, “But I knew at the core there was love.” 

There’s something that Verna and Bishop Curry did. She said they used to meet on Good Friday and do a rival preaching activity on the seven last words. He would preach and then she would preach and then he would preach and she would preach. They would take turns. I asked Bishop Curry if there was any record of those sermons and he said no.

Verna Dozier and Mary Grundman, 1996 or 1997. Credit: Linell Grundman, used with permission

Why do you think Verna Dozier was interested in writing on ambiguity toward her later years? Do you see that as part of her Anglican identity?

Toward her later years she was challenged more about her christology and about her theological framework. She ended up with students who would slip over into biblical literalism. It became harder to approach ambiguity in those years. 

I used to say, “Who do you trust biblically as an interpreter?” She said Marcus Borg because he gets the story right. She would go to conferences and get all these questions: what do you think about the incarnation? How would you write a creed? She said I would not write a creed. I would tell a story. 

The anti-gay, anti-lesbian stance in Christianity really disturbed her. She saw people doing things with scripture that she thought were not accountable to the truth of the story. She was speaking against the society that wanted firm responses and clear ethical guidelines from the Bible. 

Dr. Thompsett, thank you for joining us today.