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Actively Creating an Impact for Good: The Culvers’ Journey to Sharing The Saint John’s Bible

Eventually, we all face this question: What was the impact of my life? Did I leave the world a better place than I found it? 

Some take their last breath not knowing the answer to that question.  

And there are others who actively push themselves every day to make a difference.  

It’s not necessarily a question of who will remember our good works. It often comes down to how do we intentionally go about creating positive, lasting change.  

In the case of Elaine and Bruce Culver, who split their time between homes in Dallas and Galveston, Texas, it’s about having an impact that may very well ripple throughout communities near and far for centuries.  

Both Culvers were blessed with parents who believed in being useful, and therefore passed this belief onto them. Through their lives, Elaine and Bruce have sought out ways to give back to causes and organizations near and dear to their hearts. It’s in alignment with their beliefs as Episcopalians.  

But one day, the Culvers received a telephone call that resulted in a quantum leap for their idea of usefulness. It changed everything. 

A Trip to Collegeville 

Knowing that Elaine had earned a Master of Divinity degree, Rev. Casey Shobe, Rector of the Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration, located in Dallas, Texas, invited her to be part of a team to participate in a “Deep Dive” Workshop at Saint John’s Abbey and University to learn about The Saint John’s Bible. Another couple, Bob and Francis Martin, devoted and active members of the parish, had arranged for Transfiguration to participate in a one-year program offered by The Saint John’s Bible Heritage Program to use a volume of the full-sized, fine art Heritage Edition within the day-to-day life of the parish. The program, now referred to as “A Season With The Saint John’s Bible,” is also available for shorter durations, too. 

It was during this workshop that took place on May 3, 2022, that Elaine had the opportunity to experience the folios of the original manuscript of The Saint John’s Bible under the thoughtful guidance of Tim Ternes, Director of The Saint John’s Bible, at the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library. 

“Tim was showing us the manuscript – and we were looking at an illumination,” said Elaine, “and he asked us, ‘What does it mean to you? What do you see?’”  

“I grew up in a small town in south central Texas, in a part of the country in which questions, and much less so doubts, about anything or anyone in the Bible were not always welcome,” continued Elaine, “and suddenly the tables were turned. The Bible is asking me questions. It’s asking me, ‘What do I think?’ About that time, new images from the James Webb Telescope were released to the news, and caused me to ask, “You mean, the Creator who created all of these stars, wants to know my opinion?” 

Elaine was so moved by the experience. So much so, that she made a surprise announcement at dinner that evening. 

“I was sitting between Elaine and Casey throughout dinner,” said Brad Neary, Director of The Saint John’s Bible Heritage Program. “I excused myself from the table for only a minute or two to check on our other guests and when I returned, I noticed that Casey had an odd look on his face. And that’s when Elaine leaned over to me and said, ‘I’ve just informed Fr. Casey that Bruce and I going to donate a Heritage Edition set to Transfiguration.’” 

Elaine, who is studying for a Doctor of Ministry (D.Min.) at Southern Methodist University’s Perkins School of Theology, recalls that day walking up a hill on the campus of Saint John’s University after just experiencing the original manuscript. “A little voice in the back of my head said, ‘Transfiguration needs one of these.’ However, as a person who comes from a Great Depression background, she had doubts, too. It was in talking with Brad, and hearing him speak about stewardship, that I realized, ‘We need to do this.’” 

“From those to whom much has been given, much is required, and we have acted on this because we believe it. This is our way of paying it forward,” added Bruce. 

Nearly two years later, Elaine offered this thought about generosity: “We’ve had a lot of people thank Bruce and me for our generosity. But over time, I’ve come to think of generosity as I think of courage, something we do out of duty rather than out of desire. It’s not always this way, but in this case, donating The Saint John’s Bible was one of the easiest things we’ve ever done.” 

A Journey That Keeps on Giving 

In addition to being a part of the Transfiguration faith community, Elaine and Bruce consider themselves to have “dual citizenship” in Trinity Episcopal Church located on Galveston Island, Texas, where they own a second home. The Rev. Jimmy Abbott, who serves as Rector of Trinity, was equally delighted by the gift of a Heritage Edition to his parish. 

In August 2022, Bruce joined Elaine for another trip to Collegeville for another “Deep Dive” Workshop, this time for Trinity Episcopal Church. Seeing the original manuscript was just as powerful for Bruce as it had been on Elaine, but in a different way.  

Elaine and Bruce Culver stand together in front of the Washington National Cathedral.

“I’ve written books about military technology, so I was interested in the process of the making of The Saint John’s Bible,” said Bruce. “And what fascinated me was Tim Ternes’ explanation of how the original manuscript is expected to last 2,000 years, and the printed Heritage Edition sets, if taken care of, will easily last 1,000 years.” 

“That’s when it hit me – that’s 40 generations of people who can benefit from the gift of a Heritage Edition,” Bruce added.  

With that realization, the Culvers continued their journey with The Saint John’s Bible and decided they wanted to donate more. That has led to gifts of the Heritage Edition to Southern Methodist University’s Perkins School of Theology, Sewanee: The University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn., and the gift of an Apostles Edition to Washington National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. 

Bringing The Saint John’s Bible Home to England 

As the Culvers continued their journey, it led to questions about the impact they could possibly have on the connection between the Episcopal Church in the U.S. and the worldwide Anglican Communion, which is centered in England. The Culvers both share a deep respect for Her Late Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, who passed away in September 2022.  

In consultation with Brad Neary, the Culvers asked about making the gift through them of a Heritage Edition to Canterbury Cathedral, often considered the mother church of the Anglican Communion. This in turn, led to a wider vision of creating more access to The Saint John’s Bible in the United Kingdom.  

As the 25th anniversary of The Saint John’s Bible neared, there came a realization that the Culvers could not only honor the life of Queen Elizabeth, but also the incredible efforts of the team that actually created The Saint John’s Bible. Led by artistic director Donald Jackson who proposed the outlandish idea of creating the first hand-written and hand-illuminated Bible in nearly 500 years to the community of Saint John’s Abbey and University, the creative team, primarily based in Wales, created The Saint John’s Bible over a 13-year process, when the first word was inked by Jackson himself on Ash Wednesday, 2000. 

Elaine and Bruce Culver (center) with the Apostles Edition of The Saint John’s Bible at Lambeth Palace.

Thus was born the Dedication Tour (read about the tour – Part 1 and Part 2), in which an Apostles Edition was gifted through the Culvers in honor of Queen Elizabeth to Lambeth Palace Library, and Heritage Edition sets were dedicated at Canterbury Cathedral and Sarum College, a school of theology, on the grounds of Salisbury Cathedral.  

The week-long tour made an incredible impression on the Culvers, especially when they participated in the burnishing ceremony of The Saint John’s Bible in a 13th-century crypt at Lambeth Palace with Archbishop Justin Welby and the Rev. John Klassen, OSB, former Abbot of Saint John’s Abbey.  

“There was a moment that I was almost moved to tears,” said Elaine. “It’s when I saw the Archbishop of Canterbury’s crozier in the right hand of Abbot John, right before processing, after the Choral Evensong and Dedication Service, out of the Upper Chapel in Lambeth Palace. Given the history of the two Churches in England, it was a powerful moment of grace and reconciliation.” 

The tour allowed the Culvers to get to know Donald Jackson and his wife, Mabel, which in turn allowed them to learn about the strong desire for a Heritage Edition in Wales at St Davids Cathedral (also known as Eglwys Gadeiriol Tyddewi in Welsh). According to Neary, a Heritage Edition will be dedicated at St Davids Cathedral later this year. 

Putting The Saint John’s Bible into Action 

In their journey, the Culvers came to another realization – while The Saint John’s Bible is an incredible work, it was not meant to be tucked away and hidden, only to be pulled out for special occasions. These books are meant to be shared, and to be used on a daily basis. Everyone, even very young children, can learn how to touch them and look at them and to turn their pages. 

Both Elaine and Bruce point to the potential of The Saint John’s Bible in reaching a new generation. At Transfiguration in Dallas, the parish’s youth leaders actively shared The Saint John’s Bible with the youth in parish, who were so inspired by the experience, they created their own version – the children’s version – of The Saint John’s Bible 

For Elaine, it’s all about access. In addition to using the Heritage Edition to invite new people into one’s faith community, nothing delights her and Bruce more than to hear of stories about how faith communities are actually bringing them to other places – outside of their faith communities, such as schools and hospitals. In a polarized world, Elaine believes The Saint John’s Bible has the power to break down walls and create conversations between different communities, even communities of different faith traditions. 

Going back to her very first experience with The Saint John’s Bible, Elaine came to understand that the size and the weight of each book within the seven-volume set, shows that the volumes are meant to be experienced as a group.  

From left to right: Donald Jackson, former Senior Scribe and Illuminator at the Crown Office in the House of Lords; The Rt Revd Stephen Lake Bishop of Salisbury; Elaine Culver; Bruce Culver; former President of the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s Univeristy Brian J. Bruess, Ph.D.

“After that experience I wrote somewhere that I felt a mixture of surprise and joy because I was impressed with the whole approach,” said Elaine. “The Saint John’s Bible is that size (2 feet by 3 feet) on purpose because it’s meant to be shared in a group setting. It’s supposed to be people standing around looking at it, giving their impressions and learning from each other.” 

Elaine points to the story of St. Michael’s Episcopal Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado, which was gifted a Heritage Edition by a couple who belong to that parish. Within just the past year alone, St. Michael’s has conducted 62 events – outside of church – with other communities throughout the greater Colorado Springs area.

“That’s the potential we see,” Bruce chimed in. “If congregations use this as a resource and put it out there, it will inspire even more people and it will keep on multiplying. We’re hoping that there’s some cross-pollination that as congregations find out about other Saint John’s Bibles, they’ll communicate and generate more ideas. That’s what we’re hoping for.”  

Thinking of the Future 

While the Culvers’ journey is far from over, what they do know now is the gifts of The Saint John’s Bible given through them, are having an impact now. There are stories of The Saint John’s Bible bringing people to tears of joy, of inspiring people, of igniting curiosity, and most importantly, of bringing people together to talk, share and acknowledge one another. 

The Culvers can see it for themselves and it has made them both incredibly grateful for what The Saint John’s Bible has done for both individuals and groups.  

“We are just so glad and thankful to have been a part of this story,” said Elaine. “The Saint John’s Bible is a gift that keeps on giving. Once a community becomes a steward of a Heritage Edition, it tends to take on a life of its own – it breeds creativity and ignites the spiritual imagination of everyone who engages it.”