The Rev. Paul Matthew Washington, rector of North Philadelphia's Church of the Advocate for 25 years, died Monday of heart failure at Lankenau Hospital in Philadelphia at the age of 81.
The Philadelphia Inquirer described Washington as an 'elegant, energetic Episcopal pastor who became a relentless champion of the oppressed and such a steadfast acolyte of Christian liberalism that one political leader dubbed him 'the high priest of the progressive movement'.' Washington was also called the 'conscience of the city' of Philadelphia by U.S. Representative William Gray III.
Under his leadership, the Church of the Advocate hosted meetings of the Black Panthers and other groups; fought against racial discrimination, police brutality and the Vietnam War; pushed for open housing; and lobbied for civil rights for lesbians and gays. Washington also helped build and later taught for six years at Cuttington College in Liberia.
In 1969, Washington led a walkout of black clergy from General Convention in South Bend, Indiana, over the issue of reparations for the sufferings of Africans during the slave trade. In 1974, he opened the church for the ordination of 11 women, now referred to as the 'Philadelphia Eleven,' by three retired bishops. Washington later preached at the historic consecration of one of his parishioners, Barbara C. Harris, as bishop suffragan of the Diocese of Massachusetts--the first woman bishop in the Anglican Communion.
In 1980, Washington joined a group of Americans who defied a U.S. travel ban and attended a conference in Iran while that country was holding 53 Americans hostage in the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.
In a farewell sermon at Church of the Advocate in 1987, Washington said that, soon after he arrived at the church in 1962, 'I heard God speak to me. It wasn't anything like the prophets might have heard, a voice from above. I heard God speak to me through the voices of the people who came to my church. They said they were hungry, cold, homeless, oppressed, brutalized and exploited. And I knew it was God telling me to do something about it.'
In retirement, Washington served as interim rector of Church of the Crucifixion in South Philadelphia, where he had been ordained and married. He revitalized the congregation and continued to celebrate the Eucharist and preach there until November.
The Paul and Christine Washington Family and Community Center, to be built adjacent to Church of the Advocate, is scheduled to be completed next year, housing a summer camp and after-school programs for children.
Born in Charleston, South Carolina, Washington was raised a Baptist, but discovered the Episcopal Church during pre-med studies at Lincoln University in Chester County. He graduated from the Philadelphia Divinity School (which merged to form Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts), and was ordained a priest in 1947.
Besides his wife, he is survived by three sons, Marc, Kemah and Michael; a daughter, Donya Washington; and seven grandchildren.
A Service of Celebration will be held at 3 p.m. October 14 at the Church of the Advocate. Burial arrangements are private. In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made to the Church of the Advocate, 18th and Diamond Streets, Philadelphia 19121.
Portions of this report were taken from articles in the Associated Press, the Philadelphia Daily News, and the Philadelphia Inquirer.