The SFTS community gives thanks for the life and witness of SFTS Trustee (1990-2000), Rev. Dr. Leon E. Fanniel. Dr. Fanniel died December 20, 2018 in Pasadena, California after a long battle with cancer. Having recently turned 88 years old, he told friends at Monte Vista Grove he was amazed to have reached “my 89th year.”
Affectionately referred to as “the Bishop,” Dr. Fanniel was a long-time leader in the Presbyterian Church, USA (a denomination that famously does not have bishops). He served its predecessor denomination, the United Presbyterian Church, as executive director of its General Assembly Mission Council, going on to hold local, regional and national leadership positions within the PCUSA following its creation in 1983. He served the Pacific Presbytery, the Synod of Southern California-Hawaii, and the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission, and was a pillar of the National Black Presbyterian Caucus. In addition to serving as an SFTS Trustee for over a decade, Dr. Fanniel taught Presbyterian Polity and Reformed Worship and Sacraments for the seminary on both its northern and southern campuses. He was well-loved by his students who appreciated his wit, patience, and love for the discipline.
Dr. Fanniel will be long remembered at SFTS for his exceptional leadership gifts, his Solomonic wisdom and for the instrumental role he played in the founding of the Eugene H. Farlough Chair in African American Christianity, first held by Rev. Dr. James Noel, and most recently awarded to SFTS Assistant Professor of Old Testament, Rev. Yolanda Norton.
SFTS Dean and Vice President of Academic Affairs, Dr. Jana Childers offered these words of remembrance:
“SFTS will never be finished repaying our debt to Dr. Fanniel. Few have done more to broaden and deepen the work of the seminary. And very few have done such work with the kind of remarkable humility and grace Leon showed. He was a quiet powerhouse. I remember sitting next to him on the back pew at a major worship event in the nineties. Part way into the service the preacher tried to persuade Dr. Fanniel to come forward and be recognized. First he signaled subtlely, then less so, then he sent an usher back to our pew, then he began to say things into the microphone that made it clear he was about to call Dr. Fanniel up by name. At that point I glanced over in time to see Leon shake his head. It was a very, very slight shake. The preacher immediately changed the subject. ‘Oh that’s why they call him the Bishop,’ I thought.”
A native of Kansas City, MO, Dr. Fanniel attended public schools in Kansas City, graduating from Lincoln High School in 1947. His academic accomplishments include: a Bachelor of Arts Degree from Huston-Tillotson College (now University), Austin, TX (1951); graduate studies at George Williams College, Chicago, IL (1951-52); a Master of Divinity Degree from McCormick Theological Seminary, Chicago, IL (1969); and course work for Doctor of Ministry Degree, San Francisco Theological Seminary, San Anselmo, CA. He was awarded the Doctor of Divinity Degree, by San Francisco Theological Seminary in 2009.
Music was close to Dr. Fanniel’s heart from a young age. After teaching himself to read music and play the piano, he went on to study music and play piano throughout his life. In 2014 he was given the Heritage Award for Musical Excellence by the National Society of Negro Musicians. Well beyond his retirement in 1997, he enjoyed worshipping and playing piano at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Los Angeles, CA.
The Homegoing Service honoring Dr. Fanniel will be held on Wednesday, January 9th at 11 am at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Los Angeles, CA. As he prepared for the service, Rev. Dr. Charles Marks (SFTS DMin alumnus, and Chaplain at New Theological Seminary of the West) reflected on his longtime friend and colleague:
“Leon was a faithful and caring servant in all seasons and among all people. If the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) acknowledged Saints, he would be one of them.”