by Ellen Johnston
“Bill is a gifted composer and an excellent choral conductor. Most of all, he is an encouraging mentor and a trusted friend.”
Dr. Marty Wheeler Burnett
William Bradley Roberts and I first met in 1984 at the Mississippi Conference on Church Music and Liturgy. It was my first time to attend this conference, an event that would become a very important part of my life. What I remember most about Bill at that first conference is that he was so nice to this newcomer and that he had a beautiful voice.
Beginning in 1990 Bill was invited to return to the Mississippi Conference as member of the faculty and has returned in that capacity every five years since, joining with Dent Davidson to teach conferees good vocal production, effective choral skills, and successful rehearsal techniques.
Even though he has always worked at very large parishes with ample resources and staff singers, he never lost the ability to connect with musicians who served in parishes with very limited resources, both financially and in personnel. He always worked hard to find good music for those serving in smaller parishes – music that was satisfying to sing but did not require professional singers. Most of what I learned about being a good church musician I learned at the Mississippi Conference and from Bill Roberts.
Jessica Nelson, Organist and Choirmaster at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Cathedral, Jackson, Mississippi, and current Director of the Mississippi Conference, tells me that “Mississippi always claims her own, and we certainly claim Bill Roberts! This fellow Mississippian has been a mentor, supporter, and perhaps best of all, a friend to me throughout my career. He has, with his own distinct blend of gentleness and humor, encouraged me, redirected me when indicated, and created opportunities for me. In particular, Bill’s work around clergy/musician relationships was a career-changer for me, and I always keep a copy of Music and Vital Congregations nearby. When I think about the kind of church musician I want to be, and the kind of career I want to have, Bill is the first person that comes to mind. I’m grateful for his example and his ministry to the Church.”
Bill’s decision to attend the Mississippi Conference was a natural one since Mississippi was home for him. He was born in Greenwood, in the heart of the Mississippi Delta region. Bill’s family soon moved to Jackson, Mississippi, where he lived until leaving for Houston Baptist University, where he earned a Bachelor of Arts degree, majoring in voice and music education. From there he went to Southern Seminary, a nationally renowned Baptist seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, where he earned a Master of Church Music and Doctor of Musical Arts degrees with an emphasis in conducting and voice. One of Bill’s colleagues at Southern Seminary was Dr. Michael Hawn, recently retired professor at the Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University, who spoke about his relationship with Bill. “As one who was in my early teaching days when Bill did his study at the Baptist Seminary in Louisville, I observed that he had a winsome spirit, possessed a warm smile, and — above all — was a person of impeccable taste in all things. The winsome spirit endeared him to his peers and the faculty. The warm smile was at once genuine and a way of saying, ‘Rise above it — I really do not want to enter your inter-nicene fray.’ (Baptists love a fight!) For the sake of the church universal, I am pleased that he has maintained all of those wonderful qualities and found his way.”
I asked Bill about his upbringing in the Southern Baptist Church and how it formed him as a musician and a priest. “When I moved from ordination in the Baptist tradition to become ordained in the Episcopal Church, I often heard the comment, ‘He saw the light.’ I can take a joke, but if the person was interested in a serious discussion, I would respond, ‘I saw the same light from a different angle.’ The gifts I brought with me from my Baptist heritage were the primacy of Scripture, the importance of prayer, and the necessity of Christian community. I was also blessed to grow up in large churches with ‘graded choir programs’, that is, choirs for people of every age. While we sang the gospel repertoire, like the hymns found in Lift Every Voice and Sing II (LEVAS), we also sang the great works of the classical music tradition, so works like Mendelssohn’s Elijah, and Handel’s Messiah were important, as were standard anthems like Bach’s Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring. Music and spirituality were deeply imbedded in one another, something that’s never changed for me.”
When Bill and I met he was serving as the Director of Music at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Louisville, Kentucky, his first position in the Episcopal Church, and had brought several choir members with him to the conference. He was much loved at that parish! One of his best-selling choral anthems, Savior, Like a Shepherd, Lead Us, an exceptionally touching piece for unison choir and flute or oboe, was written for that parish and dedicated to one of his choir members at St. Andrew’s. Leslie Gross, a member of the St Andrews Choir told me that singing in the St. Andrew’s choir “was a wonderful experience for me because of Bill. While I had done musical theater it was as Bill’s soloist that I really learned how to be a professional musician. He had high expectations and the thought of not meeting those expectations was out of the question for me because I respected him so much. He returned the respect to all his soloists.” She added that “choir rehearsals were great fun, as well as well as being hard work. Bill rehearsed music thoroughly. I can always tell when we do a piece now that I learned with Bill by all the doodles in the margins done during those ‘thorough’ rehearsals. His attention to every aspect of the service was second to none.”
It was during this time at St. Andrew’s that Bill met David Hoover. David was pursuing a Master of Divinity degree from Louisville Presbyterian Seminary and then a Masters in Social Work from the University of Louisville. They have been together ever since. They were married at the Church of the Epiphany in Washington, D.C., in March, 2014, the Rev. Ann Gillespie officiating.
Until his retirement in the summer of 2019 David was program manager for the Inova Juniper Program and also their Transitional Services having worked there for 12 years. In addition, David leads retreats and sees clients for psychotherapy and spiritual direction.
Moving to the Diocese of Los Angeles late in 1984 to be Director of Music at St. James Episcopal Church in Newport Beach, Bill, in 1993 accepted the call to be Director of Music at St. Philip’s-in-the-Hills Episcopal Church a large parish in Tucson, Arizona. As a church musician, Bill’s time at St. Philip’s was expansive. He oversaw a large program of choristers, choirs, as well as a concert series.
After nine years at St. Philip’s, Bill and David headed back east where Bill was called to be the Director of Music at St. John’s Lafayette Square, “the Church of the Presidents.” Lisa Koehler, a long-time choir member at St. John’s said, “I have been so fortunate to sing with Bill for sixteen years, starting with his tenure at St. John’s. In those early days, we would sing his compositions when the ink was barely dry. I vividly recall “Huron Carol” from a penned, LEGIBLE, manuscript. Remember those? Now his works are published and loved by parishes everywhere. Ever the modest, Southern gentleman, if a section was having difficulty in one passage of his music, Bill would say in his soft and soothing Mississippi drawl, ‘Mmmm, that is strange. I’m not sure why the composer wrote that, but we’d better keep it there for now’.”
Throughout his time in Kentucky, California, Arizona, and the Washington, D.C., area, Bill was an important part of the life of the wider Episcopal Church. He served as Chair of the Standing Commission on Church Music for the Episcopal Church (1991-1994) in the time before that body merged with the Standing Liturgical Commission. It was during his tenure as Chair that the Leadership Program for Musicians (LPM) was developed.
The Leadership Program for Musicians, a program for musicians serving small congregations, had its start at Virginia Theological Seminary. Bill was one of the founders along with Dr. Raymond Glover, the Rev. Edward Kryder, Marilyn Keiser, Marti Rideout, Dr. Carol Doran, and Mimi Farra.
This program arose from a mandate from the General Convention in 1991 to the Standing Commission on Church Music. The need for such a program surfaced due to “changes in our church and in our culture during the last few decades [which have] limited the availability of continuing education for church musicians.” [LPM Program Manual by Dr. Carol Doran; ©1995 Carol Doran and The Standing Commission on Church Music of the Episcopal Church.]The changes noted in the manual then are still relevant today.
A key phrase in the manual speaks to the importance of this program, “Because music is so central to our liturgy, lack of capable musical leadership can affect in a negative way not only the community’s worship, but also its self-concept.” [LPM Program Manual by Dr. Carol Doran; ©1995 Carol Doran and The Standing Commission on Church Music of the Episcopal Church.]
In order to address these issues, the founders of LPM designed a curriculum comprising seven courses covering virtually every aspect worship. Bill was charged with writing the curriculum for Voice Training for Choirs and The Philosophy of Church Music. He also served a term as the chair of the LPM Board.
Bill’s reputation was clearly becoming more and more national within the Episcopal Church and he proved to be a significant influence to church musicians across the country. Dr. Marty Wheeler Burnett, President of the Association of Anglican Musicians says it best: “Bill Roberts is a leader in the field of church music. As chair of the Standing Commission on Church Music and the Leadership Program for Musicians, as well as through his work in the Association of Anglican Musicians, he has made a lasting impact on the Episcopal Church. His teaching and writing have shaped an entire generation of church musicians and liturgists. Bill is a gifted composer and an excellent choral conductor. Most of all, he is an encouraging mentor and a trusted friend.”
But ministries such as LPM were not the only way that Bill has had a productive influence in the Episcopal Church and beyond. Certainly, his work as a composer has brought him acclaim and affection from both choirs and people in the pews. Jessica Nelson remembers that she has “swayed along with his setting of Savior, Like a Shepherd Lead Us more times than I can count, buried beloved friends with May the Angels of God Watch over You,”and sung along with all the saints in glory with his hymntunes.” While Bill has written beautiful and imposing pieces which call for large choral forces, i.e. Let All Creation Bless the Lord and Didn’ Mah Lord Delivuh Daniel?, for me, his anthems that can be sung well by small and medium size choirs have been of great use in my work as a church musician. Titles like In All These You Welcomed Me, Like the Stars that Hymned Creation, When I’m Afflicted give small choirs good music to sing – music which they can sing successfully. In addition to a wide range of anthem literature Bill has written many psalm settings in Anglican Chant and Simplified Anglican Chant using hymntunes. These are settings which appeal to choirs and congregations alike and can be sung confidently by both.
In his career Bill has often been called upon to do the unusual and extraordinary. The Right Reverend Shannon S. Johnston recalled, “Given the past thirty years I’ve known Bill, one thing that stands out the most is his coming to the rescue for the liturgy celebrating my ordination and consecration as bishop. That service at the National Cathedral was an enormous undertaking on the part of many people and featured a great deal of carefully chosen music throughout. When the person who was to serve as principal conductor chose to withdraw, Bill graciously agreed, on quite short notice, to take charge of all of the music, including a choir numbering more than two hundred. What a gift Bill Roberts was, not only for me as the new bishop, but also for the whole Diocese of Virginia. I’ll never cease being profoundly grateful to Bill for working all of his magic on that day.”
Clearly, Bill can do the “big things” but it is no less worth noting that he does the “small touches” just perfectly. This is true in all phases of Bill’s life and relationships – as a friend, teacher, colleague, and priest. We all know those times when just the right touch makes all the difference, and that quality comes so naturally to Bill. All of us should try to make the “small things” important as a gift to others, and no one need look any further than Bill Roberts to see how it’s done.
After serving at St. John’s for six years Bill was called into academia. He began his work at Virginia Theological Seminary in 2007, as Director of Chapel Music and Professor of Church Music. I asked Bill what made him want to leave music ministry in the parish to teach at a seminary. He told me that “earning a doctorate in music early in life was intended as preparation for teaching in higher education. Then God showed me another plan—parish music. The truth is that I was doing both at various parts along the way, but I spent several decades as a full-time parish musician. Of course, teaching is required of a parish musician, and I always relished that part of the vocation. Moving to the vocation of seminary professor was a natural progression, and the years of parish work have informed my teaching.”
Bill would be the first to point out that in his time at VTS he has been blessed with exceptionally talented teaching assistants. The Rev. Eric Mancil, Rector of the Episcopal Church of the Holy Spirit in Alabaster, Alabama, was effusive in his praise for Bill Roberts. “I attended the Virginia Theological Seminary as a student from August of 2012 until May of 2015. Singing in the choir and serving as Bill’s TA were highlights of my time in seminary.”
“Bill is deeply spiritual, a quality I discovered not only as his TA, but also as his student. He is a passionate teacher and a devoted friend.” Eric adds, “Indeed, Bill has many admirable qualities, but quite possibly the most admirable is his commitment to the Gospel. If you spend any time with him at all, you will quickly come to know through his words and actions that he cares deeply about spreading the Good News of God in Christ with all people. As his former student and now colleague, I am so proud of all he has accomplished during his tenure as Professor of Church Music at VTS, and I wish him all the best in his retirement.”
The respect and affection which Bill Roberts engenders seems to begin with how he communicates about music with everyone in the community. This aspect of Bill’s ministry cannot be overstated. The Rev. Stephen Tamke, Curate at St. John’s of Lattingtown in Locust Valley, New York, remembers his time with Bill. “It was a pleasure to work with, learn from, and minister with Dr. Roberts for the Seminary’s weekly community eucharist and other special services. Bill’s love of music is grand, and is only matched by his love of offering music for the greater glory of God. Dr. Roberts will be missed greatly at VTS, but his legacy and presence will live on in the prayers which are offered in the chapel through anthem, hymn, and psalm chant. Well done, good and faithful servant!”
It is important to emphasize that in Bill’s teaching and ministries he is formed by the music of the Church, but that only scratches the surface. The Rev. Margie Baker, St. John’s Episcopal Church in Hartford, Connecticut, tells me, “I think that some people think ‘music professor’ and don’t realize the breadth and depth of knowledge required to form leaders for the church, both lay and ordained.” Even so, there can be no question that everyone knows how and where music helps hold all things together. Margie goes on to say, “Dr. Roberts cares deeply about the church, about music, and about making a joyful noise to the Lord. He also cares about his students, about who they are and how music can deepen their relationship with and worship of God. Dr. Roberts continues to urge our church to branch out its musical repertoire and to embrace all genres.”
Bill has been blessed through working with fine organists during his tenure at VTS. Thomas Smith (Christ Church, Georgetown) and Jason Abel (Christ Church, Alexandria) have served as organists for chapel services for the past several years. Jason tells me, “As I reflect on the last thirteen years of my involvement with chapel services, I marvel at the changes that have progressed. Much more music is being sung daily at the seminary, the music being sung is far more diverse than it was prior to his arrival, and the student body seems to sing better year after year. People show up to chapel, and they sing!” Jason goes on to say, “I consider Bill not only a colleague, but a mentor. I’ve witnessed him in countless conversations with students making gentle suggestions on how to more effectively program music for worship. And, whether it’s a student with an advanced degree in music, or someone who is struggling to understand how to read music, Bill has been a cheerleader in encouraging them to expand their understanding of the power and role of music in worship. Those of us who are professional church musicians can easily be tempted to allow our personal preferences to weigh the decisions we make for our congregations. Bill has exhibited no signs of this; he understands that people can be drawn to God in a wide variety of musical styles. Thus, whether one revels in the harmonic splendor of Herbert Howells, the contemplative nature of Taizé chants, or the confidence and assurance of an old Gospel hymn, Bill has offered them an avenue to sing their prayer and praise to God.”
In the middle of Bill’s tenure at VTS, the chapel burned. The building, organ, and all of the music were lost. Bill was a member of the chapel planning group and was instrumental in the building of the new organ. Jason Abel commented, “The marvelous Taylor & Boody organ and the wonderful acoustics found in Immanuel Chapel will long be a symbol of Bill’s influence on the campus. However, his most lasting impact will be found in all of those clergy who studied with him. And, while VTS will search and no doubt find his successor, they will never find his replacement.”
Bill’s qualities as a person can lead us to overlook his gifts as a professor. The Rev. Dr. Lloyd A. (Tony) Lewis, retired Professor of New Testament sent me his thoughts about Bill’s time on the faculty at VTS: “Years ago, Bill Roberts taught a group of us a hymn as part of his interview for the teaching position at Virginia Seminary. I cannot remember what the hymn was. But I do remember watching with fascination a gifted teacher practicing his craft. In the course of learning the hymn he interwove the history of the hymn, the way that hymns are constructed, and why singing in church is a profound act of the worship of God. Since that day he has been a valued academic colleague, a creative artist, a fellow laborer in ministry, and a trusted friend. Bill loves the Lord through his music. He has moved generations of students to understand theologically how music speaks to the heart and soul. He has helped all of us to see why it is important to sing plainsong AND Anglican chant AND spirituals because they are all pigments on the same palette which constitutes divine praise. This breadth of appreciation simply mirrors his witness to the Good News of God’s inclusiveness, something to which he testifies through his life.”
Dr. Lisa Kimball, Associate Dean of Lifelong Learning and Professor of Lifelong Christian Formation told me: “My first dinner in a faculty home was at the table of Bill Roberts and David Hoover. After a faculty meeting in my first semester at VTS, Bill approached me with his characteristic warm smile, put his arm around my shoulders and said, “Thank you, Jesus, for calling another extrovert to the faculty!” I know Bill as a friend and colleague whose gifts as musician, composer, teacher, and priest are always grounded in prayer and expressed in joy. Bill inspires people to believe in themselves and reach notes they never imagined were possible. Similarly, Bill’s commitment to developing resources for sacred music in small congregations has raised spirits and strengthened local mission where many have given up. Bill’s faith is contagious – he was an Episcopal Evangelist before it was cool! His life obeys the great spiritual,
‘Let your little light shine, shine, shine, and let it shine all night long. There might be someone down in the valley tryin’ to get home.’”
“Bill’s music makes my heart sing: it seems to flow without effort and his harmonies are serious and deep, beautiful, without being trivial or conventional. But it is Bill the person who excites me even more, as a colleague and as a friend,” said the Rev. Katherine Grieb, Ph,D, professor of New Testament. “There is something about the way he embodies, incarnates, his great learning about the history of music and musicians, the varieties of musical styles, the subtleties of choral expression, that is absolutely remarkable and inspiring. He is one of the few people I know who can combine a deep passion for excellence and an almost fanatical precision in performance with a wicked sense of humor and a genuine love for people at all levels – or none – of interest in music. Bill is an ambassador for Christ in every way and, although he is an excellent preacher, in my view, his finest sermons are his compositions.”
After decades as a lay musician and professor, Bill discerned a calling to ordination as a priest in the Episcopal Church. He had been ordained in the Baptist Church when he was twenty-five and always knew that church music was a vocation – not just a profession. I asked him how ordination to the priesthood informed his vocation as a musician and teacher. He replied: “Ordination brought new expectations—baptisms, preaching, weddings, leading worship, hospital visitation, etc.—and, at the same time, deepened my sense of calling.” So, after following the ordination process in the Diocese of Virginia, he was ordained priest on May 22, 2016, by the Right Rev. Shannon S. Johnston, Bishop of Virginia.
Shannon reflects on being the bishop who ordained Bill to the priesthood: “In my ministry of ordinations it is only natural that Bill would stand out for me because we have shared so much over three decades, but it goes much deeper than that. I had long felt that Bill was born with the charism for priestly ministry. Since he has brought so much fulfillment and distinction as a disciple of Jesus, I felt greatly privileged to ordain him a priest. The Diocese, indeed the whole Episcopal Church are the better for it.
After ordination, in addition to his teaching and music making as a member of the faculty, Bill began preaching and presiding at VTS and at churches in the Virginia and Washington, D.C. area.
One of Bill’s signature accomplishments at VTS was founding the Center for Music and Liturgy. Like the Leadership Program for Musicians, the mission of the Center is to serve clergy and musicians serving in small and medium sized parishes, helping them to discover resources and to develop skills in liturgy, music, and preaching. Bill spoke about his motivation in starting a Center for Liturgy and Music: “The Center for Liturgy and Music grew directly out of Ian Markham’s charge to me, as I was interviewed in his office in 2007. He wanted VTS to have greater visibility in liturgy and music and to be seen as a leader in these areas. Building upon the fine work of my predecessors, I envisioned the Center’s being a place to refresh and renew leaders, to help them stay abreast of materials and ideas for designing effective worship, and to inspire both professional and avocational church musicians and liturgists in their work. Our conferences on Prayer Book and Hymnal revision drew large and enthusiastic crowds and seemed to identify us as agents in such conversations.”
Through workshops, conferences, on-line courses, and a website, the Center for Liturgy and Music, now a part of Lifelong Learning at VTS and called Music, Liturgy, and the Arts, is helping the mission to be fulfilled.
I asked Bill what he saw as his main accomplishments at VTS. He told me, with characteristic modesty, that “this is easier for someone else to address. Hymnal editor and VTS music professor, Ray Glover, of beloved memory, said repeatedly that I had raised the level of choral singing, and I was grateful for Ray’s consistent affirmation and friendship. I have tried to maintain a stylistic diversity of music offered in worship, so that graduates are not shocked when they encounter the wide range of music practiced in parishes. Founding the Center for Liturgy and Music—now a part of the Department of Lifelong Learning—seemed to raise our profile among liturgists and musicians in the Church, something Dean Markham charged me with in my job interview. Our musical instruments on campus, except for Charlie Price’s Steinway in the old chapel, were a bit shopworn when I arrived and have been replaced. There is a lovely, rebuilt nine-foot Steinway grand from the 1890s in the chapel, an instrument that pianists rave about. The chapel has a new Taylor and Boody organ that has drawn such a steady stream of visitors from around the globe that I often joke that my primary job is docent of the organ. More than anything I have wanted our students to see the musician as a partner in ministry and to expect and nurture that identity in their parish work.”
Dean and President Ian Markham sums up Bill’s time at VTS thus: “Bill is that deeply talented musician who was loved by those who wanted music at its most Anglican and most traditional and was loved by those who wanted music that engaged with cultural diversity and was more contemporary. He is a talented composer. And the piece he composed for me to mark my ten years at the Seminary was so special. As a colleague, he was popular. As a teacher, solid. And as a friend, a delight.”
The respect and affection of friends and colleagues is obvious from the words contributed by them for this article. It is quite clear that whether he is aware of it or not Bill holds faithful friendship to be a theological virtue. This has been expressed in countless ways.
The Rev. Dr. Tony Lewis attests, “I have never seen Bill ‘down.’ His smile is infectious, his humor lifts the heart, and his care and concern seemingly know no bounds. Recently, when I was ill, Bill and his David visited me in the hospitals and rehabilitation facilities in which I was resident. Most of the days of that confinement, which went on for months, they were there, bearing three things: the New York Times, the oil of anointing with prayers that I would be returned to “robust health”, and the assurance that I was surrounded by the love and care of friends. I know that over the years he has been a part of the Seminary other members of the community have experienced this same love and care.”
The Rev. Ann Gillespie, Senior Associate Rector at the Church of the Holy Comforter in Vienna, Virginia, also describes Bill as a trusted friend: “Bill Roberts has been like a brother to me for the last 19 years – we have enjoyed countless meals, movies, plays, anniversaries, liturgies, laughs, and tears together.”
Ann continues: “Having met through my parents in Tucson at the dawn of the new millennium, we both moved to the D.C. area around the same time. Through my ordination and his, through a shared love of music and art, Bill and David have been the closest thing we have to family nearby. I had the privilege of presiding at their marriage in DC before it was legal all over the country. I will miss them desperately, but thank God, Richmond isn’t too far away.”
All of these accomplishments, and more, are achievements we eagerly applaud. I have no doubt that after moving to Richmond, Bill will be in demand as a preacher, presider, composer, and workshop leader. David will be affiliated with the Westwood Group therapy practice in Richmond and continue to do psychotherapy, spiritual direction and lead retreats. They will be missed by faculty, staff, and students alike.
On a very personal note, my husband Shannon and I know first-hand how the music of William Bradley Roberts touches hearts and lives indelibly. Bill composed a magnificent anthem for our wedding based on a complex Robert Bridges text, and was commissioned by the Mississippi Conference to write a choral piece in my honor (I Saw a Stranger Yestereen) based on the Rune of Hospitality. In addition, I commissioned him to write an anthem in honor of Shannon’s fortieth birthday based on a blessing that Shannon wrote (May the Angels of God Watch Over You) and he wrote a hymn tune named “Shannon” for the text Rise, O Church by poet Susan Palo Cherwien for Shannon’s ordination and consecration as Bishop of Virginia. We shall always be grateful to him for these lovely anthems.
I close with that blessing written by the Rt. Rev. Shannon S. Johnston and set to music by William Bradley Roberts: “May the angels of God watch over you. May the love of God enfold you. May all the saints, in Heaven and on earth, pray with you and for you through the Grace of Jesus Christ our Lord; and the blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, be upon you, and remain with you forever. Amen.”
Ellen Johnston and Bill Roberts