New clergy at Island’s Emmanuel Episcopal Church

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Technically, they’re just temporary employees with long, complicated titles. But talk to Emmanuel Episcopal Church’s Interim Rector The Rev. Father Charles Searls Ridge, D. Min. and Interim Associate Rector The Rev. Dr. Marilyn M. Cornwell, and you realize they’re so much more.

Start with the names: they prefer Father Chuck (or Charles), and Marilyn. And though they’re due to serve only about a year or 18 months as interim rectors, neither has a case of short-timer’s disease. They’re both fully committed to their congregation, and engaged in their jobs.

It’s policy in the Episcopal Church to appoint interim ministers after a rector leaves a church, and it’s also protocol that the person filling the interim position does not get hired on as the permanent replacement, said Ridge. “An interim period is one where church members are grieving the loss of the former rector, and are in a vulnerable state,” he said. “If they ask the interim to stay, they never really look at who they are or where they want to go as a congregation.”

So, how did these two end up at Emmanuel?

Like all good life stories, you need to go back a bit to get the full picture.

Marilyn Cornwell, 54, moved with her husband and son to Mercer Island in 1991. A scientist with a PhD in biochemistry and pharmacology, she joined the faculty of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, where she conducted research on how tumor cells become resistant to chemotherapy.

She also joined Emmanuel. “I have been a faithful Episcopalian all my life,” said Cornwell. “It was the integration of these two things - science and religion - that is the beginning of the story of how I became ordained.”

By 1995, Cornwell had broadened her study of patients with cancer. “I had been studying issues of patient care, the use of other strategies to make cancer go away,” she said. That year, she was asked by her church to be the connection between the Hutch and a family who had arrived from South Carolina. The husband was ill with cancer. “This young family had to find its way through the bewildering high tech health care system. Emmanuel became their spiritual home.”

For the next five years, Cornwell continued to help patients she met through the church. “I was the bridge person between spiritual care and health care, a de facto chaplain,” she said. “There was a stirring in me to be with people who were dying. The movement of the Holy Spirit in me caused a huge shift, from bench to bedside.” She added, “It’s a privilege being with people who are dying. You get to see through the veil, and it puts everything in perspective. It’s an incomparable gift to the person who can accompany them.”

Deciding she needed to go in another direction, she began studying for a master’s degree at Seattle University’s Institute for Ecumenical Theological Studies. “The Hutch let me be a chaplain there while I went to school,” she said. “It’s the kind of place where that kind of thing can happen.” She eventually finished her master’s degree after spending a year at an Episcopal seminary in Berkeley, Calif., The Church Divinity School of the Pacific, and was ordained to the priesthood at Emmanuel in January of 2007.

Cornwell said some people were surprised at her career change, but for those who knew her well, it wasn’t hard to grasp. “I was very driven to be successful as a woman in science,” said Cornwell. “I’m still a driven person, but more aware. I have a very curious mind. I love hearing what the church community wants, listening to what comes bubbling up, and helping to find ways to make it happen.”

Cornwell thinks her shift of focus was of particular interest to her fellow scientists. “It freed people to see what the possibilities are for their lives,” she said. “It reassured people that there is life after science.” She bequeathed her lab to a brilliant young scientist, and left with no regrets. “My heart is so full,” she said. “Nothing is lost. All of the pieces are used in new ways, as long as you are open to it. Live without fear - that’s the true Christian message.”

For Charles Ridge, the hard part came early, but it’s been easy ever since.

“When I was a junior in college, I had a terrible time deciding if I should be an automobile dealer or a priest,” said Ridge, 70. He loved working with cars, and several members of his family were in the business. But at the same time, he thought he might have a calling to the priesthood. He remembers one night being filled with frustration, cursing his inability to choose. And suddenly, it became clear. “I have never doubted my decision since that time,” said Ridge. “Some clergy experience doubts and are constantly reexamining their decision, but I never have.”

Ridge attended seminary in New York City. His first parish was in Dover, Del. where he worked with black and white college students in the early days of integration. Next he went to Nogales, Ariz., on the Mexican border. “I fell in love with the Spanish language,” he said. After six years in Arizona, he and his young family continued reaping the rewards of cross-cultural experience by moving to the Dominican Republic for seven years. Returning to the United States, he completed a doctorate in ministry at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

Following a divorce, Ridge next moved to New Jersey for 10 years, and remarried. He spent his last eleven years as a rector, 1990-2001, at the Church of the Ascension in Seattle’s Magnolia neighborhood. “In 2001 I retired after 40 years in the ministry. But I found that I’m much happier doing ministry, and my wife Courtney is much happier having me out of the house,” he said. He served as interim rector at St. Paul’s on Queen Anne for two and a half years, and came to Emmanuel in October of 2006.

Ridge and Cornwell feel they make a good team. Cornwell says she is still learning the ropes, and appreciates the wonderful mentoring she receives from Ridge. “We have a wonderful relationship,” agrees Ridge. “Marilyn is exceedingly skillful, dependable, educated. She knows this parish, and one of the hardest things to do as an interim is to give good pastoral care. It’s easy to let it slip to the side.” Her familiarity with the Emmanuel congregation allows her to do most of the pastoral care, while he focuses on the administrative tasks. They share liturgical duties.

Ridge said Emmanuel’s Search and Call Commission meets weekly to work on determining the 400-member parish’s vision and what kind of rector and associate rector they want. After identifying ten or 12 candidates, they will visit those people in their home churches. The list will be further narrowed, usually to three candidates, and Emmanuel’s vestry will make the final decision.

“Emmanuel has been very friendly and welcoming,” said Ridge. “I’m very happy here.”

So, too is Cornwell. “The hard part is going to be leaving these people I love,” she said. “But once you establish relationships with people you love, you stay connected.”

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