Cedric Earl Mills: A Prince of the Church
By: The Right Revd. Carl Walter Wright
Old School Meets New School
I remember well the day I “met” Cedric Earl Mills (1903-1992): it was as if two different worlds had come together. I had driven down to his pleasant home in San Pedro from the hustle and bustle of Los Angeles. I sensed immediately that the Bishop’s orbit and mine were not the same. I feared they might collide. This was not a meeting, it was an audience. Mrs. Mills admitted me. When the Bishop entered, he extended his hand (the one with the ring on it!) in a recognizable gesture. I believe it was a test. The first face-to-face meeting between a Bishop from the “old school’ and a postulant for holy orders from the “new school” had, at once, to establish who was who and what was what. I dutifully kissed the episcopal ring, and started right in chatting-up the Bishop. He was the essence of grace and tolerance. I told him I was delighted finally to meet the man behind the legend. He was not amused.
Then, as would be expected, Bishop Mills tried to place me. Very early on, he needed to know (and suggested that he and Mrs. Mills had been trying to decide) which family, of his more than 2,000 parishioners, I represented. All Baltimorians are aware that the “who you are” – and, failing that – the “who you know” games are deadly serious. When Cedric Earl Mills had been consecrated Bishop of the Virgin Islands in Saint James’s Church , Baltimore in April 1963, I was all of five years old. Worse, I was not from a socially prominent or high-profile family. We lived literally on the margins of the Church. Though a mere two blocks away in terms of location, we were light-years away from away from the affluent blacks in St. James’. So, of course, the Bishop found it difficult to place me. I was not cast into outer darkness, however, for he did remember my late grandmother who took us for daily walks in Lafayette Square, where the church is situated. Likewise, he chuckled knowingly when I spoke of our fun times with Father Bob Powell who, as curate of St. James’, had been a hero to us kids and had run the Lafayette Square Community Summer Camp. Mills, as rector and member of Baltimore’s Citizens’ Planning and Housing Association, had laid the foundation for the Camp.
The Bishop may even have remembered seeing me on one of the rare occasions he returned for pastoral visits. I confessed my only memory of him, aside from the frequent stories of parishioners, is his formidable portrait, in cope and mitre, which stared down at me from various places over the years.
Our identities now firmly established, we proceeded to what both of us really wanted to do: share fond memories of our beloved parish. This is how my first audience with Bishop Mills went. The Bishop in the twilight of his ministry ministered to the future seminarian (and incredibly, future Bishop). It was very much the disciple sitting at the Apostle’s feet. He interspersed godly admonitions with anecdotes. He spoke, almost autobiographically, about things to do and things to avoid. (His advice on making sure the treasurer pays the Pension Fund premium was sage! That alone would have been worth my trip to San Pedro!)
When I heard the news of Bishop Mills’ death, I was saddened. Although I did not know him a long time, I felt I knew him quite well. We had many conversations subsequent to that first meeting. Also, I knew him through the people he influenced – which is often the case with giants.
Warner Traynham, the then Rector of St. John’s Church, Los Angeles, and a Mills protégé, loves to tell a story about Father Mills. On one occasion, there had been some internal bickering within a certain guild of the parish. Rather than stooping to fight, Cedric Mills attended the next guild meeting, asked the ladies for their books, and pronounced the guild dissolved! Everyone departed in peace; and the matter was never spoken of again.
You might say that behavior seems dictatorial or authoritarian. You might even say that could not happen in the church today. And, you might be right on both counts. However, that incident demonstrates the calibre of the man and the sort of respect he commanded. It is a window into the world Cedric Mills inhabited.
Bishop Mills confessed to me that his world and his times were quite different from mine. In his world, for example, opportunities for black clergy were more limited. In his world, you served a congregation for a long time. In his world, people expected their clergy to be strong leaders, not “team players.” In his world social mores and standards for clerical behavior were absolute. The late Bishop Orris George Walker, another protégé of Mills’ reported that the late bishop admonished aspirants that a clergyman should never be caught with lipstick on his collar, Johnny Walker on his breath, or bay rum on his cheeks.
I feel privileged to have met (or, I should say, to have been in the presence of) Cedric Earl Mills. I mourn his death. It is no exaggeration to say he was a great man, a prince of the church, and a Christian gentleman, the likes of whom one does not see today. He served long and he served well. Usually when you meet a legend in the flesh, you’re a bit disappointed with reality. This would not have been the case had you met Bishop Mills. When our worlds intersected in Southern California, I came to understand why people revered him. When you were with Bishop Mills, you were in the company of a man of God. May he rest in peace.
(N.B. This piece was first written for Linkage: A Journal of the Office of Black Ministries of the Episcopal Church, June 1993.)