Celebrating the life of Bishop William Boyd Grove, ‘an incomparably good man’

By Jeffrey Kanode for RealWV,

Since its publication in 1989, millions of people worldwide have used the United Methodist Hymnal in church. On page 100, “God Whose Love Is Reigning o’er Us” appears. Set to music that John Goss wrote in 1869, a contemporary poet writes, “Holy God of ancient glory/Choosing man and woman too/Abraham faith and Sarah’s story formed a people bound to you./Alleluia, Alleluia/To your covenant keep us true.”

That poet died recently. That poet spent a great amount of his time, and his lifeforce, serving West Virginia.

William Boyd Grove was a bishop in the United Methodist Church. He served as the West Virginia Conference’s resident bishop from 1980-1992, and again in an interim capacity in 2012. Grove and his wife Mary Lou retired to West Virginia, where they lived until recently moving closer to family in Tennessee. 

“He was family to all of West Virginia,” said Rev. Dr. Jay Parkins. Parkins, the lead pastor of Christ Church United Methodist in Charleston, provided the greeting and invocation (opening prayer) for Grove’s funeral service at Christ Church.

Rabbi Victor Urecki, of the B’nai Jacob Synagogue in Charleston, echoed Parkin’s sentiments and expansively described Grove’s dedication to ecumenism and interfaith dialogue. The bishop did not see his role as only serving Christians, or specifically only being in relationship with United Methodist Christians.

 “Bishop Grove not only touched the lives of Christian seekers in this area and all over the world, but he inspired spiritual seekers of all faiths, like myself, and forever changed the religious landscape of our valley, throughout our state – because of his tireless devotion to interfaith unity, ecumenical understanding, and deep respect for all,” Urecki remembered.

The rabbi called Grove a “trusted friend, an incomparably good man,” who was “an exemplary example of warmth, humanity, humility and kindness.”

“His writing touched my soul, his friendship touched my heart,” Urecki said.

Urecki expounded on the words from the Jewish Talmud, which instructs believers to “seek out for yourself a teacher.” The Hebrew can also be translated “make of yourself a teacher.” He noted that Grove was a teacher to many, including himself. 

“We all learned at his feet. He was our consummate teacher, teaching us by his example to learn, to expand our knowledge of all faith traditions. He taught us that we grow through understanding, with respectful but honest dialogue, through the open exchange of ideas, and always with arms extended in love. He taught us to listen with a heart wide open, and to think with a mind and a soul thirsty, and always ready to make space for the different, and celebrate all religious ideas.”

Rabbi Urecki reflected that as a Christian, Bishop Grove “sought Jesus his whole life,” and through a long, faithful life, he had “made his rabbi very proud.”

Bishop Grove and Mary Lou referred to their daughters’ husbands not as the customary “sons-in-law,” but instead by the warmer “sons by marriage.”  One of Grove’s sons by marriage, Rev. Douglas Grove-DeJarnett, reflected on the bishop’s early life. 

Grove was born in Mercy Hospital in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, in 1929. He almost died as a newborn infant. The nurse in charge of his care, a nun, Sister Mary, thought the baby would not live and should therefore be baptized soon. The Grove’s pastor did baptize the baby when he was barely over a week old. “As the years passed, Bishop Grove came to believe that in his baptism, he was healed, and was also called into ministry, and also into ecumenical ministry,” Grove-DeJarnett stated.  

Those formative roots in his infancy — being born  in a Catholic hospital, being baptized by a Protestant pastor but at the insistence of a loving Catholic nun — forever molded Grove. “His mind was Protestant, but his heart was Catholic.  He remembered his baptism every day, and was grateful,” Grove-DeJarnett said. 

Years later, when he was a young pastor, Grove was home visiting his parents in Johnstown. His mother sprained her ankle, so the family rushed her to the emergency room at Mercy Hospital. At his father’s insistence, Grove joined him in seeking out Sister Mary. Before they could find her, she found them. According to Grove-DeJarnett, the frail, small-in-stature nun walked Grove to the nursery and to the very bed within which he had struggled as a tiny baby to live. Sister Mary told the then 30-year-old Grove that the doctor on-call all those years ago had declared to her, moments after the child’s baptism, that the baby Grove would survive. Grove’s father had told Sister Mary the same thing because Grove’s dad had said, “God wants him for something.”

Many people – family, friends, his episcopal colleagues, and United Methodist pastors who served under his leadership—called Bishop Grove “Bispo.” When he was an active bishop, Grove had received an international piece of mail addressed to “Bispo Groves.”  To his grandchildren, and later, to the rest of the family and to the world, he adoringly became known as Bispo. 

Colleagues gather to celebrate Grove’s life in November 2023. Photo by Jeffrey Kanode.

“Bispo. It was just perfect, because it seemed Bill Grove was never not a husband, and William Boyd Grove was never not a bishop, and Granddad Grove was never not a Bispo,” said Thomas J. Bickerton, a United Methodist bishop currently serving in New York.  

Grove ordained Bickerton when Bickerton was a young pastor and Grove was his bishop, in West Virginia.  The two remained close friends. Bickerton said that when Grove came to West Virginia, West Virginia became sacred space to his soul. 

“To know Bill Grove was to know someone who was absolutely captivated and in love with his adopted state. He loved these hills. More than that, he loved the people who lived in the midst of these hills,” Bickerton observed. 

Bickerton framed his eulogy to Bishop Grove around the text of Grove’s “God Whose Love is Reigning o’er Us.” “Listen!” Bickerton whispered as a refrain each time he shared one of the hymn’s five verses, in turn.

 “To understand Bill Grove, you had to always understand that he was always connecting current reality with biblical history. In his mind we were just the latest chapter of the enduring story of God’s grace, God’s mercy, and God’s love,” Bickerton said in one of his commentaries between Grove’s verses.

For Grove, Bickerton said, “Justice [is always] seasoned in mercy.”   The current bishop of the New York area of the United Methodist Church, whom Bishop Grove ordained so many years ago, also reflected, “He had an amazing way of showing us the face of Christ…He valued Christ in us.”

The resident bishop of the West Virginia Conference of the United Methodist Church, Sandra Steiner Ball, reflected on Grove’s love for West Virginia, and for all humanity. “Bill Grove was a tremendous human being, loving, kind, compassionate, faithful, a person and a Christ follower who constantly put the needs of others before his own,” she reflected. She noted that Grove had a “deep, abiding” love for his wife of over seventy years, Mary Lou, and for all their family.

But, Steiner Ball noted, as strongly as Grove’s heart beat with love for his own family, that same heart could only be characterized as all-embracing, inclusive. “Bill’s love, deep concern, and great care to God’s people extended well beyond his family. He lived his life valuing and recognizing the sacred worth of every person.”

Steiner Ball praised Grove’s empathy as a person who “wept with those who wept.” She also reflected on Grove’s spirituality. “Bill lived and breathed prayer daily,” she said.

In some church somewhere in the world this coming Sunday, and perhaps every Sunday hereafter, a congregation will sing the words of William Boyd Grove:

God, whose love is reigning o’er us

Source of all, the ending true;

Hear the universal chorus raised in joyful praise to you:

Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia,

Worship ancient, worship new. 

(The United Methodist Hymnal. The United Methodist Publishing House, 1989.)

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