The Rt. Rev. Frederick Houk Borsch – whose 1988-2002 tenure as bishop of the six-county Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles was marked by his theme of “Adelante: Forward Together” – died in his sleep April 11, 2017 at his Philadelphia home. He was 81 and succumbed to complications of myelodysplastic syndromes (MDS), a blood cancer, for which he began treatment last fall.
He is survived by Barbara S. Borsch – his wife of more than 56 years and an honorary canon of the Diocese of Los Angeles – and by their sons Benjamin, Matthew and Stuart; daughters-in-law Jeannie, Elizabeth, and Fang Zhang; grandchildren Jack, Emily, Owen and Zoe; by his sister Jane Borsch Robbins and by five nieces and three nephews and their families.
A funeral service at St. Martin in-the-Fields, Philadelphia is set for April 22 at 1 p.m, with a future memorial service to be scheduled at St. Augustine by-the-Sea, Santa Monica; the Borsches have been active parishioners in both congregations. The family has requested that, in lieu of flowers, memorial contributions be made to Neighborhood Youth Association, an institution of the Diocese of Los Angeles (1016 Pleasant View Ave., Venice, CA 90291, //nyayouth.org) or to the charity of one’s choice.
Tributes from church, civic leaders
Los Angeles Bishop Diocesan J. Jon Bruno paid tribute to Borsch April 11 during the annual Holy Week service at which clergy renew ordination vows. “Today we renew our vows in honor of Bishop Borsch and seek to follow his example of ministry, leadership and scholarship,” Bruno said, having learned of Borsch’s death only shortly before the liturgy began at the Cathedral Center in Los Angeles.
“We are so saddened by Bishop Borsch’s death, and we cherish his ministry and presence here,” said Bruno, who spoke by telephone with Barbara Borsch to convey his condolences along with those of the diocesan community. “Mary and I personally cherish his friendship and mentoring as I grew into this position starting 17 years ago. We are all in grief yet mindful that the coming Easter season calls us to resurrection and new life.”
Bruno and Borsch collaborated especially in the construction of the Cathedral Center of St. Paul, completed in 1994 in Echo Park as the diocese’s administrative and ministry hub, which Borsch frequently called a “place of great hospitality and service.” The two also worked closely on diocesan stewardship development, on advancing LGBT advocacy and inclusion — with Borsch launching the first Bishop’s Commission on Gay and Lesbian Ministries in the early 1990s — and in hosting the 1995-96 diocesan centennial celebration.
Retired Bishop Suffragan Chester L. Talton echoed Bruno’s appreciation for Borsch: “I came to work with Fred here in the Diocese of Los Angeles, and while he was the bishop, he was also my friend,” said Talton, who served as bishop suffragan from 1991 to 2010. “I appreciated very much his friendship as well as his steady and very capable stewardship of the diocese. He was a dedicated priest and bishop who served the Lord in a very fine way. I am so grateful for his life and ministry.”
Talton and Borsch worked closely on the expansion of multicultural ministries and early on in response to the 1992 civil disturbances in Los Angeles. One outcome was the founding of the Episcopal Community Federal Credit Union. At the time, Borsch wrote an editorial titled “Outrage and Hope in Los Angeles,” later giving the same title to a book of his collected writings. “In biblical terms, if the society fails to care for the poor, for the widows, the orphans and the strangers in their midst,” Borsch wrote, “that society will come to tragedy.”
“Bishop Borsch was a great friend of mine,” said former L.A. Mayor Richard Riordan, “but more importantly he was a fine leader of the Episcopal Church throughout the United States. He was a kind and generous friend to all people, especially children.”
Riordan and Borsch, both alumni of Princeton University, exchanged views frequently and collaborated in helping to launch the regional Hope in Youth initiative. In more recent years, Borsch enjoyed attending a book group hosted by Riordan. Among civic and economic concerns, Borsch frequently raised with elected officials the importance of paying a living wage, a cause he continuned to uphold after retiring as diocesan bishop.
Los Angeles Bishop Suffragan Diane Jardine Bruce, whom Borsch ordained to the priesthood in 1998, also recalled his friendship and pastoral care. “Bishop Borsch was always kind and generous to me as a seminarian as well as after ordination,” Bruce said. “I kept all his responses to my Ember Day letters — they were and are a great gift to me. His wise words still ring true today. After his retirement when we would see each other he never forgot to ask about Steve, Max and Jardine. A true pastor, a gifted pastor, and a friend.”
A constant advocate of women in ministry, Borsch was quick to fill diocesan management positions with skilled administrators, including the Rev. Virginia Erwin as archdeacon for deployment, and the Rev. Anne Sutherland Howard as canon to the ordinary. He strongly supported the 1988 election of Barbara C. Harris as Anglicanism’s first woman in the episcopate, and he is the author of “Jesus and Women Exemplars,” a chapter in the 1990 book Christ and His Communities.
Former Presiding Bishop Frank T. Griswold III praised Borsch’s “theological acumen that was so important for the House of Bishops and the wider church as we made our way through various issues. He was a superb scholar and colleague widely respected in academia and the Anglican Communion, and a friend whom Phoebe and I will miss greatly.”
From 1988 to 2000 Borsch was chair of the House of Bishops’ Theology Committee and often addressed human sexuality issues of the era. In the 1996 heresy trial in which Bishop Walter Righter was exonerated for ordaining a partnered gay man as a deacon, Borsch helped clarify the defense strategy while recusing himself from voting on the outcome.
Earlier, Borsch served for seven years on the Episcopal Church’s Executive Council, and was a member of the Anglican Consultative Council, attending ACC meetings in Nigeria and Singapore, and then co-chairing the 1998 Lambeth Conference section titled “Called to Be a Faithful Church in a Plural World.”
Cape Town’s retired Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane, a fellow section co-chair at the 1998 Lambeth Conference, sent “deepest and most sincere condolences to Barbara, family and friends” from South Africa: “I remember with great fondness Bishop Fred Borsch, a friend, pastor, theologian and a great bishop. May he rest in peace and rise in glory.”
Ndungane and Borsch worked strategically with Archbishop Emeritus and Nobel Laureate Desmond Tutu in solidarity to end apartheid in South Africa. Borsch hosted Tutu and his wife, Leah, on visits to Los Angeles, and he remained active in other international initiatives, forming the diocesan World Mission Group and establishing companion diocese relationships with El Salvador, North Central Philippines, and West Africa, among others. He was also active in support of the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem and the Middle East.
“Remembering his wonderful and gentle soul will forever remain in my heart,” said longtime friend Octavia Miles, who first met Barbara and Fred Borsch in Chicago at Trinity Episcopal Church there. “Our lives have been intertwined since we were very young people.”
Miles and the Borsches found themselves reunited as parishioners of St. Augustine by-the-Sea Church in Santa Monica. Among clergy there was the late Malcolm Boyd, whom Borsch later named writer/poet-in-residence at the Cathedral Center. As bishop, Borsch was beloved by clergy, laity, and congregations alike, the latter of which he frequently called “power stations for the Holy Spirit.”
Ministries with youth and young adults were also important to Borsch, who in 1999 joined a 47-mile pilgrimage walking with diocesan youth on a trek spanning from Huntington Beach to Pacific Palisades. Borsch was also tireless in his support of the ministries of Camp Stevens in Julian, Calif., and in launching the Episcopal Camp at Wrightwood, active for several years in the San Gabriel Mountains. In addition, he is well remembered as a founder of the Urban Intern program, now in its 26th year of engaging college students in ministry and service opportunities.
Teaching, writing, early life
At the time of his death, Borsch was professor of New Testament and chair of Anglican Studies at the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, where he had served since 2003. Previously, following his retirement in Los Angeles, he was interim dean of the Berkeley Divinity School at Yale and associate dean of the Yale Divinity School.
Prior to his election in 1988 as fifth bishop of Los Angeles, Borsch was dean of the chapel and professor of religion at Princeton University. There he taught courses in history, archeology, and religions of the ancient world. Several of his experiences there are recounted in his 2012 book Keeping Faith at Princeton: A Brief History of Religious Pluralism at Princeton and Other Universities.
Previously, from 1972 to 1981, Borsch served as dean, president and professor of New Testament at Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley, Calif. There Borsch was affectionately known as “Fred R. Dean,” and joined students and fellow faculty members on the basketball court. A lifelong sports enthusiast, Borsch enjoyed regular jogging, swimming, canoeing, and playing tennis. An annual canoeing trip with family and friends was among his favorite activities. As an avid baseball fan, he regulary attended Episcopal Night at Dodger Stadium, often throwing out the first pitch.
Educated at Princeton, Oxford, and New York’s General Theological Seminary, Borsch held a Ph.D. from the University of Birmingham in England, conferred in 1966. He held a bachelor’s degree in English literature from Princeton, earned in 1957. Ordained to the priesthood in 1960 in the Diocese of Chicago, Borsch first served in ministry from 1960 to 1963 as curate of Grace Church in Oak Park, Illinois.
Frederick Houk Borsch was born in Chicago on Sept. 13, 1935, to Illinois native Pearl and Reuben Borsch, an attorney. In his 2001 book The Magic Word, Borsch writes in a chapter titled “Piper City Christmas” of childhood visits to his Grandfather Houk, an undertaker and salesman of furniture and caskets, whose farm-style house doubled as both residence and funeral home. There, with his grandmother, Minnie, and his Aunt Vera, Borsch and his family enjoyed much singing around the piano, including the standard “You Are My Sunshine,” which remained one of his favorite songs long into adulthood. At his request, Diocesan Convention joined in singing the verses and refrain at his farewell dinner in December 2001.
As bishop of Los Angeles, Borsch served as chair or member of a number of boards of directors including Good Samaritan Hospital, Hillsides Home for Children; Neighborhood Youth Association; the Diocesan Investment Trust; the Cathedral Corporation; Diocesan Council, and the Corporation of the Diocese. Also he was chancellor of the Harvard-Westlake School; chair of Los Angeles Council of Religious Leaders (1993-1994); founder (1991) of Episcopal Urban Intern Program; co-founder (2000) of the Los Angeles Interfaith Environmental Council; and a director of the Los Angeles World Affairs Council (1992-2002). He also served a term as president of the Los Angeles Council of Religious Leaders, guiding its members to form the “Hope in Youth” initiative.
Borsch – who founded Cathedral Center Press and was chairman of the board of Trinity Press International – was author and editor of some 20 books, including two novels and ranging from his classic Many Things in Parables to the more recent titles The Spirit Searches Everything: Keeping Life’s Questions (2005) and the poetry collection Parade: Poems of Light and Dark and Light Alike (2010). A full listing of his works and achievements is found at www.frederickborsch.com.
Themes of life and death are found in several of Borsch’s writings, including a 1995 reflection – “Where Was God When the Plane Crashed?” – published in The Christian Century magazine, recounting his experience among surviving passengers when a DC-10, upon landing at Boston’s Logan Airport, skidded off the runway, over the breakwater and into the harbor on a snowy evening.
“Was it only luck? Or was there more to our survival?” Borsch wrote. “When my plane rolled into Boston Harbor, God was not present to intervene and save me and others from the crash, but God nonetheless was not absent. Rather, God was and is mysteriously and powerfully with us, deep in the heart of life: participating in what happens with us and through us; offering faith and courage, even in the midst of tragedies; assuring us that the risk of pain and trying to care and to be creative are worthwhile. The God who cannot be seen is yet present as the Spirit of all that is, willing to share in all the consequences of creation – including evil and suffering – and seeking to transform them through love.”
— Robert Williams is canon for community relations in the Diocese of Los Angeles.