BISHOP ENGLAND AND THE PRIORITIES OF LIFE
By Mark Richards
Gina’s and my memories of Brother England are inseparable from our memories of being young “expecting marrieds” in a newly organized student ward of which he was the bishop. The 139th Ward is actually the only ward for which we have any discernable memories from that time in our lives. In my memories, that ward was about as perfect an example of how a ward should function as well as how the members of a ward family should care for each other as any ward we’ve been a member of since. Perhaps it was because we were all young couples and idealistic, but I felt then and still do now that it was mostly due to the example, teaching, and love of our wonderful bishop and his wife.
Things I remember about going to church there:
Often at the beginning of each sacrament meeting Bishop England would spend a few minutes teaching us principles of Christ-like behavior that we could begin to incorporate into our own lives and relationships. He talked of caring for each other, of forgiving each other, of really striving to serve each other in a Christ-like way, and to try and look at everyone within the church and without in the same way as Heavenly Father looks at us. His messages crossed boundaries of religion and politics and at first caused me a bit of discomfort as I wasn’t used to hearing such real application of the Gospel in such a manner. However, I came to really be moved by his messages and found myself truly admiring him for his conviction and humility and the love that I knew he had for all of us as his ward family.
There was a young couple in our ward boundaries who were mentally challenged were the parents of a young girl. I was amazed at how well he helped us accept this couple with their challenges into our ward. I think they were the only members of our ward who weren’t students at BYU, but through to Bishop England’s example and direction, they became functional and important members of our ward accepted for the gifts that they had to offer and helped in the areas where they needed service from others.
While members of 139th Ward, Gina delivered our oldest and only children—our twins Matthew and Alexis. Gina’s pregnancy did not go as smoothly as anyone would have hoped; she went into labor extremely early and ended up spending most of it in bed in hopes of staving off an early delivery. For months, the Relief Society brought by meals and the Elders Quorum insured that all of our needs were being met (not an easy task for students who are trying to keep up with school work and tests and pregnancies and young families of their own). Bishop England was always there encouraging our ward members to look after one and another and constantly remained aware of what our current situation was at the moment. Eventually Gina gave birth ten weeks prematurely, and before the twins could come home from the intensive care unit, Gina herself was admitted for surgery and a hysterectomy as a result of the complications she experienced throughout the pregnancy. There were more meals and blood transfusions in which the whole ward turned out in support, and behind it all was Bishop England and his wife and their loving concern and encouragement and calming influence. It was as if the ward was truly our family and he was our ward father. His counselors reflected his goodness and concern, and we were blessed by their prayers and service. On the night that Gina had the final one of several surgeries, and I as her husband had to make the decision to allow the doctors to perform a hysterectomy, one of his counselors spent the night sitting with me in the waiting room at the hospital. It wasn’t because I’d asked him to, he simply showed up at around midnight and simply sat down next to me and provided much needed support and comfort. He also had twins, which had been delivered in difficulty, with one of his boys suffering irreparable damage. His presence was a blessing and a comfort to me. He was exemplifying the things that Bishop England had been teaching us.
It has been twenty-five years since then. Matthew is married and recently had his first child. Lexi is a recent law school graduate and beginning her legal career in New York City. Gina and I have had twenty-five years of experiences in various wards with various bishops and leaders. To this day, I think of the 139th Ward and Bishop England as the example of what a ward family should strive to become. Bishop England taught us what I’ve come to think of as “grass roots Christianity” – that the charitable service we give to others is in the end simply an indication of the love that we have for our Savior and Heavenly Father.
I never had the chance to really know Eugene England personally; my contact with him came as a result of my calling or in conversations he and I would have about Gina’s current health or whether or not I was “hanging in there,” and then later through his writings. That being said, however, in that year and a half we spent in the BYU 139th Ward, I watched and listened to our bishop very intently and came to know what kind of a person I wanted to be: someone similar to Bishop England.
I later served as a counselor to Bishop England, and I will never forget a cold winter morning when we were waiting as a bishopric for the bishop to arrive so our meeting could begin. Bishop England was mindful of the busy lives we were living, and thus our bishopric meetings were held early on Sunday mornings. On this particularly cold, snowy winter morning, Bishop England had not yet arrived and we all began to worry. He was always the first one there, and it was unusual for him to be late.
As we waited and preparing to call his home to see if he was okay, he walked into the office, about thirty minutes late. When we told him we were worried and about to call, he simply said, “I’m sorry brethren. When I woke up this morning and looked outside and saw the snow and felt the cold, I couldn’t resist the warm comfort of snuggling with Charlotte for a few more minutes.”
He was always teaching us the priorities of life. Putting Heavenly Father first, and making our wives and families our top priorities, was a lesson he taught us all by word and deed. He truly taught us that the gospel of Jesus Christ is taught in the home and that the family is the fundamental basic unit of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
One summer, as we approached the 24th of July, we had discussions as a bishopric on how we might commemorate and pay tribute to the pioneers. Bishop England made the suggestion that we hold sacrament meeting that week up the canyon rather than in our building. As a bishopric, we loved the idea. We were so excited to share this news with the ward.
When we did share this plan with the ward, it was received in very mixed ways, most of which were not favorable. Many couples were opposed to the idea because they said they worked hard to teach their children that they could not go up the canyons on Sunday as it would be breaking the Sabbath. Many said that they could not support this plan as they felt we should be meeting in our “building” rather than the mountains.
Well, after much prayer and fasting, we determined to go ahead with the plan. We arranged to use the Sundance amphitheatre for our meeting. Bishop England let the ward know that after prayer and fasting, the decision had been made to hold our sacrament meeting in Sundance and he invited all to open their hearts and minds to come.
Following priesthood and Relief Society, held in the morning in our building, we then traveled up the canyon to Sundance for Sacrament meeting. We were pleasantly surprised to see a very large turnout. Many came simply because they responded to their priesthood leader’s plea, even though they did not feel comfortable about being there.
As we began the meeting, Bishop England thanked all for attending, particularly those who were opposed to the idea. He then shared with us that as the pioneers crossed the plains, they did not have church “buildings” to meet in. They did not have the comforts of life which we enjoyed. To the pioneers, a church meeting could take place wherever the Saints gathered—on a plain, a river side, in a field, or on a mountain side. He then asked us to think of the pioneers as we met in “God’s chapel” rather than a building made of bricks.
As we met and held a testimony meeting on that beautiful Sabbath day, the Spirit was overwhelming. As we listened to the testimonies of the ward members, many whom opposed a meeting in this setting, tears were flowing. Each of us felt the Spirit as strongly as we ever had. We were all blessed with a recognition that we can worship the Lord outside of the brick church buildings and that what is in our hearts is more important than were we meet.
This type of out-of-the-box thinking has shaped my life. It has caused me to hopefully be a little kinder, love a little more, seek the lost sheep, and serve faithfully wherever called upon. Eugene England taught each of us that it is essentially more important to be as active in the gospel as we are in the church. Bishop England will ever be an icon in our lives that we all look to and try to be a little better each day.
Bishop England was a calm, peaceful guiding light for each of us. His words of inspiration and example caused each of us to love and respect him and his wonderful family. He and Charlotte were the epitome of what each of us wanted our marriage to be.
He also recognized the tremendous talent that resided in our ward and his responsibility to prepare us to go forth to serve. We did not serve in a single calling for an extended period of time in order that many could experience a variety of responsibilties. This not only brought our ward members closer to one another through serving together, it also prepared us to serve in a variety of capacities as we graduated and went out to serve in a normal, family ward.
Eugene England truly had an eternal perspective. Thank you Bishop England for your eternal influence! We love you!