The Rev. Ann Bartlett, creator of the downtown labyrinth and a champion of interfaith work, will retire Sept. 12 after a decade as Trinity Episcopal Church's first woman rector.
Bartlett, 64, and her husband Bill, a business and travel consultant, will remain in the area. They live in Talent.
Known for her lively, eloquent and incisive sermons, Bartlett will deliver her last on the 12th with blessings from Rabbi David Zaslow of Havurah Shir Hadash, followed by a community breakfast at the Elks Club.
Bartlett, the former associate rector at St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Medford, came in 2000 to Trinity from St. John the Baptist Episcopal Church in Portland.
She led the campaign seven years ago to build a meditation labyrinth on the adjacent vacant lot, a place for all community people to sit by a fountain, calm their cares by walking the ancient, winding pattern, meditate on benches and honor those whose ashes are placed in the south wall.
Trinity in Ashland, she says, was her dream job.
"The first time I was in this church, 18 years ago, I thought, if ever I'm going to be a rector, Trinity is where I want to go. I never thought I would, because they had two women deacons, but to my incredible joy, they chose me and it was so right from the beginning."
The congregation will begin the search for a new rector, a process that can take a year, with interim deacons filling in, she says.
The ministry has moved far beyond its days as a male club, with all six of Ashland's mainstream churches now having middle-aged, female ministers, she says, and "it's wonderful, but I hope they look outside the box and overcome the new barrier ... where are the men?"
Bartlett "immediately hit it off" with Rabbi David Zaslow when she got him to teach adult classes at St. Mark's — and the two have drawn each other — and their congregations — into many interfaith services, teachings and events over the years.
"She's one of the most special people," says Zaslow. "Her spirituality is profoundly linked to a discipline in the most magnificent expression of the Christian practice. Her liturgy and prayers are beautiful and the way she expresses them lifts the heart and soul of parishioners."
While many ministers talk about ecumenicalism, Zaslow adds, "she has taken great risks, really unheard of in her faith. She always tried to do holy work in Ashland and leaves a legacy of love of God and community."
Zaslow would preach at Trinity's Easter vigil and after the much-attended winter solstice labyrinth walk.
"We both believe strongly in honoring the connection between Jews and Christians — and healing some of the past sins by the church against our Jewish brothers and sisters," Bartlett says. "We had a heck of a lot of fun together and were the Ashland God Squad."
Other successes, Bartlett notes, include development of the lay ministry, where "we are all ministers," the music program under director Paul French and organist-composer Jodi French and a worship with "a true north that's been the sense of joyful reverence."
Paul French said her ministry has been "phenomenal, extraordinary, a great combination of head and heart. She's smart, well-read and thinking but never abandons the big, open, generous heart. We're really going to miss her."
Bartlett has worked to get across the message, she says, that progressive churches such as Trinity "take the Bible seriously, but not literally" and are inclusive to all.
"We have to present that to a culture that assumes they know what Christianity means but don't know this open and tolerant style," she says.
Although the church nursery is full, Trinity and other mainstream churches have been impacted over the last 30 years by a decline in attendance among the young, she says, and are "no longer the social, cultural standard of Christianity."
The future of mainstream Christianity, she adds, may lie in the Emerging Church Movement — younger people who love Christ, seek mystery and ritual, not doctrines and creeds and consider themselves "spiritual, not religious."
"The Episcopal Church is perfectly aligned with that," she notes, "but I feel like Moses, looking over to the Promised Land. It's in God's hands. But my deepest hope is that the heart of the experience is the community of faith ... bound together in the presence of Christ."