At his rectory desk, the Rev. Spencer Morgan Rice reached into a pot that once held black ink and choose from a rainbow-colored array of felt-tipped pens as he composed each week’s sermon, writing sentences that seemed to spring from his soul and from the deepest yearnings of those who listened every Sunday in Boston’s Trinity Church.
“When Spencer preached, this man, who out of the pulpit was reserved, even formal, and gave the impression of being self-assured, became a person who seemed to wrestle with the same torments and doubts that his congregation had,” Elizabeth Hunnewell wrote in a preface for a collection of Rev. Rice’s sermons.
During the decade he was rector at Trinity, church membership increased dramatically and Sunday attendance nearly quadrupled to where “they were in the rafters, practically,” Hunnewell recalled last week. They filled Trinity Church to hear Rev. Rice give voice to vulnerabilities in ways that were uplifting and inspiring.
“He didn’t mind telling you about his own imperfections, and his sermons were built on letting you know that he had troubles himself. He had pain and regrets,” said Theodore E. Stebbins Jr., curator of American art emeritus at Harvard’s Fogg Museum. “You think of most preachers in the pulpit as preaching down. Spencer didn’t do that. Each one of us felt, ‘Oh, he’s on my case today. He’s speaking to me.’ ”
Rev. Rice, who first visited Trinity Church as a 19-year-old in the Navy when his minesweeper docked in Boston, died Jan. 15 in The Wellstead senior living facility in Rogers, Minn. He was 85 and his health had failed in recent years.
“I write each section of a sermon in a different color. It makes it easier to read,” Rev. Rice told the Globe in 1983, speaking of his practice of writing in different hues.
“It was as if he knew exactly on that day what I was struggling with, and it was as if he was speaking directly to me,” said Richard Dalton, who edited the collection of Rev. Rice’s sermons titled “Trust Me . . . Jump!”
“During a service people would take notes,” Dalton said. “They would go to lunch after the service and have these great discussions about the sermon he had just delivered.”
Preaching in one of Boston’s landmark churches, Rev. Rice “knew worship had to be dramatic enough to fill the empty space in a great building,” said the Rev. Ed Miller, who was assistant rector at the beginning of Rev. Rice’s tenure at Trinity and is now rector at St. John’s Episcopal Church in McLean, Va. “His ultimate goal was to use the filling of the building to fill the emptiness in people’s lives.”
The Rev. Samuel T. Lloyd III, Trinity’s current rector, said that during his predecessor’s tenure, “many who might not otherwise have been churchgoers, including a substantial gathering of young professionals, found that his struggles spoke to their struggles.”
As Rev. Rice delivered a sermon with the church lights dimmed “you were just mesmerized,” Hunnewell said. “And then the lights would come up and you’d sort of have to blink. There are not many people who hold you in thrall like that.”
One of five children, Rev. Rice spent his childhood in San Marino, Calif., until his father, a former officer who became a civilian employee of the Navy, moved the family to Washington, D.C.
Joining the Navy on his 17th birthday, Rev. Rice went directly into the service from Woodrow Wilson High School in Washington.
Afterward he returned to California, where his family had lived for generations. He went to Occidental College in Los Angeles, and then headed north to Berkeley, Calif., where he graduated from Church Divinity School of the Pacific, an Episcopal seminary.
He served California parishes in San Fernando and Palo Alto before becoming rector of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church. Located along San Francisco’s auto row, the church drew few to its services until Rev. Rice arrived.
“Over the course of his time there he built it from sort of a lonely building to a powerful and dynamic parish,” said his son Winston of Washington, D.C.
“He was adamant that people’s experience in the church be meaningful,” Winston said of his father’s leadership in San Francisco and Boston. “Interestingly, some of the times in my life that I felt closest to him were when I was in the congregation. He had the ability while preaching to make you feel like he was speaking right to you about something important. Of course, he was my dad, but you spoke to 12 people around you and they felt the same thing.”
Rev. Rice’s first marriage, to Shirley Barrow, ended in divorce.
In 1970, he marrried Harriett Hadlock, who had gone to St. Luke’s after she heard about a dynamic new preacher there. They had a daughter, Gaylord Rice Young, who now lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Harriett Rice, who while in Boston had cherished keeping a small study next to her husband’s in the Trinity rectory, died in 2001.
After leaving Trinity in 1992, Rev. Rice lived for many years in the Washington, D.C., area, where was an adviser and adjunct clergy at St. John’s Church until his health failed.
“How does a man of God retire? No one knows the answer to that question,” his son said.
In addition to Winston and Gaylord, Rev. Rice leaves another son, Byron, of Minneapolis; his siblings, Evie Templeton of San Pedro, Calif., and Gayle of California; and three grandchildren.
A memorial service will be held at 10:30 a.m. Feb. 7 in St. John’s Church in Washington.
As the organist played the processional hymn at Trinity Church each Sunday, Rev. Rice entered the sanctuary and headed to the front, “tall and fit, his white surplice billowing, his head bobbing from side to side, greeting parishioners while he boomed out the hymn,” Hunnewell wrote in the preface to the collection of sermons.
“He was a handsome man,” Stebbins recalled. “He knew he looked great walking down the aisle in his flowing robes.”
In the pulpit, Rev. Rice “made the Scripture living,” Winston said. “He made the teachings of Jesus applicable to your life now.”
The sermons were a tapestry of allusions to history, philosophy, and science, incisive references to popular culture, occasional well-placed quips, and lessons drawn from New Yorker magazine cartoons that Rev. Rice loved.
“People are increasingly seeking meaning for their lives in terms of a sacred community,” he told the Globe in 1990, adding that “today, what’s important are places where people can make connections to other human beings who are also struggling.”
Rev. Rice wanted to draw out the sacredness in each parishioner, Miller said, and reminded those with whom he worked to “listen to the people’s needs and respond. We’re not here to serve ourselves. We’re here to serve the people.”
At the end of each sermon, Dalton said, Rev. Rice offered “the following blessing: ‘Go forth. You are healed, ransomed, restored, and renewed.’ And indeed we were.”