Frustrated by the Episcopal Divinity School’s refusal to hire its first ordained Anglican woman to serve on the faculty, the Rev. Harvey Guthrie Jr. threatened to step down as dean in 1974, and he issued his ultimatum in the most public of forums: a speech during commencement ceremonies.
He said that if the school’s board claimed no funds were available, he would quit so his salary could be used. “That is blackmail, but I believe it is Gospel blackmail,” he told the Globe. “It is all I can do about it, but in the name of God, something has to be done.”
Several months later, the Cambridge school hired two ordained women, the Rev. Carter Heyward and the Rev. Suzanne Hiatt. While Dr. Guthrie was dean, the school also became the first Episcopal seminary to let ordained Anglican women celebrate the Eucharist in its chapel and the first to admit openly gay and lesbian students to degree programs.
The school “had a dean who was practicing ecclesiastical disobedience,” said the Rev. Gary Hall, who recently stepped down from chairing the Episcopal Divinity School board. “That was a hard moment, but he didn’t back down.”
Dr. Guthrie, who in retirement returned home to California and volunteered as a legal aid advocate for the poor late into his 80s, died Dec. 17 in Oxnard, Calif., of complications from a fractured hip. He was 93 and had lived in Fillmore, Calif.
“The trustees had said, ‘We don’t have the money to hire any more people.’ And he said, ‘This is really a matter of justice,’ ” Hall said.
Through Dr. Guthrie’s teaching and leadership, “he had a gigantic” influence on the Episcopal Divinity School, said Hall, who added that he also “was one of the major leaders in ordination for women and really had an impact in ways that are hard to measure.”
In 1998, Dr. Guthrie told the Los Angeles Times that his push for gender equity in the Episcopal denomination sent a message that “this isn’t just a male establishment here.”
“He was consistently supportive of women’s voices and women’s leadership in ways that were genuine from his toes to his brilliant mind,” said Fredrica Harris Thompsett, an Episcopal Divinity School professor emerita.
In a statement to the school community, the Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas, the current dean, wrote that “Dean Guthrie was admired and respected by so many in the Episcopal Divinity School family, including myself, and I am indebted to him for the legacy he has left.”
In 1958, Dr. Guthrie joined the faculty of what was then the Episcopal Theological School, and he was named dean in 1969. He was a leader in the 1974 merger of the institution with the Philadelphia Divinity School, and was co-dean with the Rev. Edward Harris of the renamed Episcopal Divinity School until Harris retired a couple of years later. Dr. Guthrie stayed as dean until 1985.
He taught Old Testament and “was a riveting lecturer,” said Hall, who added that he “took every class I could from him” while studying at the school.
“He was a great scholar, but he was someone who could really teach a subject to people who were at various levels of competence: people who knew nothing about the subject and people who were experts,” said Hall, former dean of the Washington National Cathedral. “He could talk for exactly 50 minutes, which I was always impressed with. He would make his point, the bell would ring, and the class would be over.”
Harvey Henry Guthrie Jr. was born in Santa Paula, Calif., which is part of Ventura County, known for its citrus industry. His father, Harvey Sr., was a laborer and held many jobs. His mother, the former Emma Aubrey, had been a church custodian and later worked in a lemon packing plant.
Upon graduating from Ventura High School, the future divinity school dean aspired to be either a lawyer or minister. He attended Ventura Junior College and graduated from Missouri Valley College with a bachelor’s degree, but reading “Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic,” by theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, provided direction. Dr. Guthrie headed to Union Theological Seminary in New York City, where Niebuhr taught.
“While I was there, I decided the Episcopal Church was the one I wanted to be ordained in,” Dr. Guthrie told the Los Angeles Times. “I was attracted to the Episcopal tradition of inclusiveness and doctrinal freedom.”
He spent three years as vicar of St. Margaret’s Church in White Plains, N.Y., before becoming an instructor at General Theological Seminary in New York City, where he received a master’s and a doctorate, both in theology.
In the 1960s, while at Episcopal Divinity School, he helped found the Boston Theological Institute consortium, which allowed students to take some courses at any of seven area seminaries.
Dr. Guthrie also had been a president of the Association of Theology Schools, and after stepping down as dean of Episcopal Divinity School he served until 1995 as rector of St. Andrew’s Church, in Ann Arbor, Mich. The books he wrote include “God and History in the Old Testament” (1960), “Israel’s Sacred Songs” (1966), and “Theology as Thanksgiving: From Israel’s Psalms to the Church’s Eucharist” (1981).
In 1945, Dr. Guthrie married Doris Peyton. They had met while they were college students, and in retirement they lived in her family’s home in Fillmore. Mrs. Guthrie, who had worked in survey departments at universities in Massachusetts and Michigan, was 91 when she died in their home in 2016. Their son Lawrence died last year.
Upon returning to California in 1995, Dr. Guthrie became a legal aid volunteer, and was honored in 2011 for his work.
“People really loved my dad,” said his daughter, Lynn of Seattle. “My dad lived a long and meaningful life, right up to the end, and lots of people cared deeply for him.”
He spoke Spanish fluently and until a few years ago was helping families, many of whom were Latino immigrants, secure Social Security and disability benefits. “The justice gene was deeply, deeply planted in Harvey’s DNA,” Harris Thompsett said.
In addition to his daughter, Dr. Guthrie leaves two sons, Stephen of Cambridge and Andrew of Hong Kong; a brother, Jim of Port Angeles, Wash.; and three granddaughters.
A funeral service will be held at 10 a.m. Saturday in Trinity Episcopal Church in Fillmore, Calif., which he had attended in retirement, finding equal sustenance in the pews as he had standing at the pulpit.
“I find myself saying, ‘Hey, I really do believe all this stuff, even when I’m not standing up front getting paid for it,’ ” he told the Los Angeles Times.
Dr. Guthrie “was just a tremendous person,” his brother said. “He was very witty, along with his penchant for helping people.”
“Harvey was an exemplary Christian person in so many ways, but he was also smart and warm, and you don’t always see that combination in life,” Hall said. “He had a brain and heart in equal measure, and I really miss him more than I can say.”Bryan Marquard can be reached at email@example.com.