Even Bishops Have Hat Hair
(It's the Miter)

By Judith Green

The Right Reverend J. Neil Alexander ’76, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta, hasn’t lost his North Carolina drawl, though it has been years since he grew up in Home Moravian Church in Winston-Salem.

His sermon to a tiny congregation in the North Georgia town of Clarkesville on January 27 is as comfortable as his accent: low on mysticism, high on the real life of the world. And when it’s time to baptize a baby and read the rite of welcome to a group of adult confirmands, he takes off his miter and fluffs up his hair a bit, where the gold bishop’s hat has left a ridge.

The core of that Sunday’s Gospel reading (Matthew 4:12-23) is Jesus’ words to the brothers Simon Peter and Andrew: “I will make you fishers of men.” Alexander reminds his listeners that Jesus did not send out his teachings from the inner sanctum of a temple. “Jesus goes to the fishermen,” he said, “instead of telling them to come to where he lectures.”

This is a metaphor of his own life, for Alexander spends much of his time on the road, going to the fishermen, since he was elected the ninth Episcopal bishop of Atlanta last summer. The diocese comprises not just Atlanta but all of North Georgia, a 29,000-square-mile area of pine woods and small towns, sawmills and carpet factories, little sectarian colleges and the University of Georgia, and the two largest cities in the state, Atlanta and Columbus. It has 95 churches, ranging from inner-city parishes and one-room country chapels to the imposing stone complex of the Cathedral of St. Philip. It contains missions, shelters, schools, and camps; and its ministry goes out to hospitals, retirement residences, and day-care centers.

John Neil Alexander started out to be a musician, and music is still an important part of his life, as is the Moravian service of his childhood and college years. “I still can quote, and I often do, large portions of the Moravian liturgy and sing the old Moravian warhorse hymns,” he said.

He attended the North Carolina School of the Arts in high school and for two years of college before he transferred to Moravian for a liberal arts education. He graduated in 1976 with a major in music and “very positive feelings about my alma mater,” he said. “When I did go to graduate school, my Moravian education stood me in good stead.”

Half a lifetime later, he remembers many of his teachers, including Lloyd Burkhart and Robert Burcaw, both in the English department, and Jim Hilander in sociology. “Dick and Monica Schantz labored tirelessly to turn my love of performance into music,” he said. But he has especially warm memories of a professor of history. “Knowing what I know now about my vocational path, I would have taken every class Dennis Glew had to offer.” Alexander studied Greek and classics with Glew, who had joined the faculty in 1970 and is now chair of the history department, and credits him with kindling his own interest in the ancient world and the early church. And when Alexander got married in Borhek Chapel the day after a blizzard in January 1976, Glew trudged through the snow to attend the wedding.

The Alexanders then went to South Carolina, where he received a Master of Music (organ, choral conducting, and “a good bit of composing”) from the University of South Carolina (1979) and a Master of Divinity from Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary (1980).

After more than a decade as a Lutheran pastor and teacher in South Carolina, New Jersey, and Ontario, Canada, Alexander was ordained as an Episcopal priest in 1988 and taught at General Theological Seminary in New York while he worked toward his Doctor of Theology (1993).

Why the denominational detours on his journey? “It’s not a story filled with deep spiritual intrigue; there was no great spiritual crisis,” he said. “It’s a practical story of how the church calls people to do specific things in particular places.

“I grew up in the Moravian family, and [that was] the trajectory I was on. I discovered I needed to do ministry in a larger context, and the Lutherans took me up on the idea. After a while, however, I found that I was spending most of my time working for the Episcopalians, teaching courses, speaking to conferences, and coaching clergy, though I continued to be and function as a Lutheran pastor. When I joined the faculty at General, it became clear that I should become a part of the Episcopal family. It has been a wonderful pilgrimage vocationally and spiritually, and I wouldn’t do it differently if I had the chance.

“I think my comfort level with the Episcopal Church has a lot to do with my Moravian upbringing,” he said. Among his many books and articles, Alexander has written Waiting for the Coming: The Liturgical Meaning of Advent, Christmas and Epiphany (Pastoral Press, 1993).

“It is framed in the Moravian piety that I absorbed growing up at Home Moravian Church on Salem Square: the candle teas, the Moravian stars, the lovefeast buns. There’s a lot of Wissenschaft [academic knowledge] in it, but the heart of the book springs from the heart of child growing up in the Moravian community in Winston-Salem.”

J. Neil Alexander 76 is presented to the congregation during his installation as ninth bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta.

Photo: John Whitt/
CrossRoads Photography