“Can I get you a glass of lemonade? Iced Tea? Diet Root Beer?”
“Lemonade, please.” After arriving several minutes early for my interview with Archbishop Robert “Bob” Duncan, his wife of 43 years, Nara, has lost no time in making me feel right at home.
Set in the rolling hills of Donegal, PA, Nara and the Archbishop live in a modest log-home. As Nara shows me around, I get a sense that the Duncan household is centered around hospitality. The entryway opens up into a loft-ceilinged dining room which flows nicely into a kitchen with a long island which easily seats four. “If we turn the table long-ways and extend it into the kitchen, we can fit twice as many people for dinner!” Nara explains.
Turning from the kitchen, I’m greeted by a piano ornamented with photographs of grandchildren, friends, and various pieces of sheet music. The piano is located in the main living space which offers ample seating for family and friends to gather. An earthy, stone fireplace reaches up to the ceiling of the back wall and is surrounded by windows, providing a breathtaking view of the fields and hill beyond blooming to life in the early stages of spring.
As Nara and I discover our mutual love of music, Archbishop Duncan arrives home from an early morning meeting in Pittsburgh. I can tell that it has been a long week and he is tired, but his face lights up with a smile as he embraces his wife and welcomes me to his home.
Settling into the living room to begin our interview I take a sip of refreshing, bittersweet lemonade and watch as Archbishop Duncan fondly pets Fergus, one of their two English Springer Spaniels. Their other dog, Trout, is already curled up on the couch with her head in Nara’s lap.
Starting from the beginning Archbishop Duncan explains that the family he grew up in was “marginally Christian.” During the 1950s, “the pattern in most households was to make sure ‘the baby got done.’ That is baptized.” At the age of 11, the Archbishop’s parents sent him to confirmation. This was done more out of custom than a sense of spiritual devotion, though. Fortunately, through the efforts of his priest and concerned lay people it was at confirmation that Bob met the Lord.
Afterwards, he became involved in youth group and had a profound experience. “When I was 13,” the Archbishop recalls, “the Lord spoke to me very blatantly and said, ‘You will be my priest.’” Though he was hesitant to tell people at first, the experience ultimately formed and directed much of his path in the coming years.
By the time he was of college-age, his father had left his emotionally unstable mother and Bob was left to find a source of stability through his grandparents. His grandfather had his heart set on a military career for young Robert, hoping he would attend WestPoint after graduating valedictorian of the local Bordentown Military Institute in 1966. God had other plans, though, and Archbishop Duncan chuckles as he remembers his grandfather’s persistent military hopes. “Happily, my eyes were poor enough that the service academies weren’t in my future. When I was elected bishop at 47, I went to tell my grandfather. He sort of scratched his chin while thinking and then said, ‘Well, hmm..let’s see, you’re 47 now…that would be equivalent to a General Officer!’”
In the fall of 1969, while completing his senior year at Trinity College, Bob married Nara Dewar, a girl from the same church that had played an integral role in the development of his faith. The year after their wedding, Bob continued to follow his call to the priesthood and enrolled in the General Theological Seminary of the Episcopal Church in New York.
As a seminarian Bob excelled and earned the privilege of studying Scottish history at Edinburgh University. Recognizing his talent and love of history, many of his professors urged him to pursue a PhD and an academic career. “Their plan for my life and God’s plan for my life were somewhat different. I really was cut out to be a parish priest,” Archbishop Duncan assures me with a smile.
From my seat in the living room, I glance up to the loft library. Shelves stretching from floor to ceiling are covered with books. Throughout the living room, end tables and mantles support stacks of books. He may not have pursued an academic career in history, but the Archbishop continues to nurture his passion for it. “For enjoyment I read history,” he explains, gesturing to the books around the room. “It gives me a perspective on all the things that God has done. It gives me a confidence that the Lord always has his way. It may take a long time…but the Lord will have his way .”
True to his word, Archbishop Duncan has modeled much of his leadership from the lessons of history. I mention that his term as Archbishop of the Anglican Church in North America has reached the halfway point; he has no qualms about handing off the baton when the time comes. “I am very aware that one of the most destructive things you can do is to stay too long. Leaders and movements who have God’s blessing to do what they do need to pay attention to the people they lead and to the movement they lead. And they need to step away soon enough as opposed to too late.”
Looking at George Washington as an example, the Archbishop speaks of how the first President of the United States had in integral role in stitching together the diverse and unique American colonies into one nation. Yet, after eight years of Presidential service he realized that it was far better to let go at the right point than to stay on. As difficult as that was for him, he was unwilling to risk the new nation establishing unhelpful, idiosyncratic behaviors.
This observant, outward-facing mentality has characterized much of Archbishop Duncan’s ministry. Looking at the remaining two and one half years of his tenure he believes that “the vision that God gave us back in 2004…was of a Biblical, missionary and united Anglicanism in North America. That vision has not changed at all.” Expanding upon this, he states, “I hope to push forward with Anglican 1000. I hope to continue to strengthen our international ties, particularly what we do through the Anglican Relief and Development Fund.”
These ministries relate directly to a core, structural idea set forth in the Constitution of the Anglican Church in North America. This idea is that “the local congregation is the fundamental agency of the mission of the church. And the individual Christian is the principal agent of that mission.” Having been brought to faith through the work of individuals from his own local church, the vision to equip and power local congregations and individuals throughout North America and the world is close to Archbishop Duncan’s heart. “It is not surprising that I’d call on the church to plant 1,000 new congregations.” He explains, “Recognizing the way in which people are reached is through the local congregation. It is simply how we do our mission.”
We continue to discuss his remaining time as Archbishop and then I raise the question, “What happens next? What are you going to do when you retire?” After spending close to an hour talking about his passion for mission and sharing the Gospel, I should not have been surprised by his answer, “The reality is I’d love to be a pastor again. I’d love to be more deeply connected to my own people.”
Archbishop Duncan shares several possible scenarios for his retirement, ultimately leaving the future in God’s hands, “We’ll see what happens. If God gives us years beyond these years, we’ll try to use them in the most creative way we can.” Even so, I begin to notice two clear patterns. The first is that whatever he does, he looks forward to sharing the experience with Nara. Whether that is traveling, continuing to serve as a bishop, leading a seminary or a school, planting a church among undergraduates, or walking in the fields and working in their garden – they will do it together, as a team, supporting one another.
They are, indeed, avid gardeners. We decide to venture outside to have a look. The sun is shining and the air is crisp. Nara shows me the difference between the poppies and the peonies, both of which are beginning to sprout up. Bob points out the handful of fruit tree saplings waiting for him to dig holes so they can be planted along the hillside. I spot a small, unique tree with curling, delicate branches and ask Nara what it is. “It is a curly willow,” she informs me, “I love when some of the branches fall off because they make beautiful additions to flower arrangements.”
This has turned into quite the gardening lesson and I’m beginning to think of how pleased my wife will be with my newfound knowledge! Trying to be a good student, I point at another unfamiliar plant and ask about it only to learn, “Oh, that’s a weed. And such a pain to get out!” At that Archbishop Duncan excitedly asks me if I have a digging bar. Apparently, it is great for removing deep weeds and digging in rocky soil. Judging by the confused look on my face, he leads me around to the garage and pulls out a five foot long, one inch round steel bar. There is a knob handle at the top for gripping and the bar flattens like a spade at the bottom.
He hands me the heavy bar and points to a new flower bed that he recently built despite the rocky soil. I picture a particularly unsavory section of my backyard that I have avoided for two years and then look back at the new flower bed. I will be buying a digging bar this weekend.
Now that we’re in the garage, Nara invites me to tour the lower level of their home. As I step through the door, I’m greeted by cheerful yellow walls and a comfortable sitting area. We walk through several bedrooms and bathrooms as Nara and the Archbishop talk about the most recent occupants of each room and the experiences they shared together.
And that is the second pattern that I have noticed. As they discuss their lives, both now and in the future, it is clear that both the Archbishop and Nara find great joy in welcoming people into their home. They talk of dinner parties on the lawn, the children’s nook that he created in the loft, hosting lunches for a ladies group, and even invite my wife and I to stay with them when we ski. Once more, Archbishop Duncan reveals his pastor’s heart, hoping to use their home for ministry even in retirement, “It would be nice to be in this place and just receive people who want to come and talk about things.”
Returning to the living room, I pack my bag and thank the Archbishop and Nara for their time and hospitality. We’ve gone well over our allotted time and I do not want to impose any further. Bob is looking forward to attending his nephew’s lacrosse game at WVU that evening and Nara is finishing preparations for a lunch they are hosting the following day. As I drive away, I fleetingly realize that I never finished my glass of lemonade. But that is alright. I know I am always welcome back for another one.
PHOTO 1 Caption: Archbishop “Bob” and Nara Duncan enjoy time with their two English Springer Spaniels, Fergus and Trout.
PHOTO 2 Caption: Nestled in their garden, the Archbishop and his wife, Nara, take a moment to enjoy the beautiful day with one another.