My Activism in the Episcopal Church
Here is my story about my experience in a "gay affirming" liberal diocese of the Episcopal Church so far. Currently, I am trying to communicate effectively with the new bishop about the need to improve the situation and become honest about the diocese's lack of support of gay parishioners and the need to do something. I am in the Episcopal Diocese of Long Island, New York. Clergy who are openly gay get support here, but parishioners who are openly gay are usually on their own.
I started attending an Episcopal church about eleven years ago. I was a cradle Roman Catholic and left that church as a teenager. In my forties I experienced a spiritual awakening when I was physically sitting in an Episcopal church during a personal crisis. That led me to want to return to church. I asked questions and was told across the board that I would be comfortable in the Episcopal church as an openly gay woman. The first parish I went to was in my town. The rector told me there would be no problem with my getting along in the parish as an openly gay woman. The congregation sort of avoided me. I tried to communicate with the warden and the junior warden about this, and they definitely avoided me. The rector retired early due to health and I spoke with the interim priest. He told me to find another parish.
My second parish was in a town that borders the one I live in. The senior warden of the second parish told me the first parish was letting me know I was not wanted (he shared some of his experience as an African American in the church) and he told me that his parish would welcome me with open arms. The deacon at the parish encouraged me to become involved in a religious education program at the parish. I told her I didn't want to take that risk because I could not deal with the minority of parents who would be against me as a gay woman teaching their children. The deacon told me that she would guarantee that would not happen. She said the rector was gay supportive and that he educated parishioners about gay issues. She promised that she would step in and help me if there was a problem in the parish. (She refused when I later asked.) When I had been at the parish about a year and a half, people started telling me that some parishioners were trying to organize to get the rector to remove openly gay members from activities with children, including Sunday school and acolyte training. This escalated into meetings and discussions. The rector tried to push out various gay members, each in a different way, while at the same time openly adopting and posting a parish statement that all are equal. I am not making this up--there are lots of witnesses, some being other gay parishioners who contributed their time working at the parish and were also targeted and pushed out. The rector finally found my weak spot and I was so hurt and angry that I could not be at that parish anymore.
I went one more town eastward and started attending another Episcopal church. My partner and I met with the rector to tell him our concerns (at that point, we had serious concerns) and to ask if we would be comfortable at the parish. He assured us we would and he was very sweet. After a few months, I heard parishioners talking about boy scout meetings at the church. I left in tears. My partner spoke with the rector (I couldn't handle it), and he said he "feels bad" about having the boy scouts there but he was not going to discuss it with parishioners because it was a small parish. Why wasn't he honest with himself when we asked in our first meeting if this parish would be comfortable for us? This is a question the Episcopal Church has to ask itself overall. The clergy of the Episcopal Church is reciting a sort of "party line" about being gay supportive and then acting in a way very different from that line. This has an impact on real people who are or were going to church. We all are real people, gay and straight as well, we are not political issues but real people with lives and feelings and dignity that can be hurt.
I heard about a parish far from home that was welcoming, so we went there. It was, and the priest was wonderful. I did not care for the worship tone in the church (noisy adults even during prayers) and eventually faced the fact that the only reason I was going there was because they didn't discriminate against me. Eventually, that was not a good enough reason to go there and I felt I should be able to choose a parish for other reasons than just because every other parish rejected me for being gay.
So this brings us to parish number 5. This time I traveled northwest from my home to a neighboring town. This time, I did not ask the rector if I would be comfortable there as an openly gay person. I figured his answer would mean nothing and would not be a reliable predictor of actions. However, I did meet with him and tell him I was interested in joining the parish and he did know by then that I am openly gay. He told me this is a very conservative very Republican very white parish. I just ignored him. I didn't care anymore and he seemed like a gatekeeper to me. He wouldn't let me join the altar guild because I'm gay. There is a lot of detail about how that came about, and I won't go into it now. The priest at parish number 4 had told me that I could have called the suffragen bishop (a sort of assistant bishop) for help with parish number 2. I did not realize that. So I called the suffragen bishop about parish number 5. I started crying when I spoke with his secretary and said I felt like I'm telling on someone. She said I was doing the right thing and that the suffragen bishop was very good at helping with this. She said he had just gone on vacation but he probably would call me right away. I didn't hear from him. A few weeks later, I called again and the secretary said he had called me once and got a sound like a fax machine. I said that can happen with cell phones and was the bishop using one? She said yes. I had her confirm the number I gave her and it was correct. So I asked her to give the bishop another message. When he called me back, I asked him why he didn't call me back in response to my first message. He said he got a sound like a fax machine. I kept questioning him, like why didn't you try again and he was evasive. So I let it go and told him my situation. I said I heard he was helpful in these situations and could he speak with the rector. He refused, flat out. He said let's find you a parish where you will be comfortable. I didn't want that. I am not into segregation.
Parish number 6. I tried another parish. There was a Good Friday service, and I happened to chat with the rector for a few minutes after. Two Sundays later, I went to mass there. On the way out, I asked the rector, "Is this parish gay friendly? Because I have had some problems." He, well meaning, said, "It's not an issue--sexuality is sexuality." I felt humiliated to have my sexuality commented on so bluntly when I was trying to ask whether I would be protected from discrimination. Straight people have the dignity society gives them of not having their sexuality commented on in regular life, such as dating, bringing a child for baptism, asking can I bring my husband to mass. But is there no way for me to ask if I will be discriminated against without someone throwing the word sexuality into the conversation? Contrary to stereotype, I am a private person and not blatant about anything sexual, and this was an excruciating moment for me. Had this been my first parish, I might have tried to discuss it, but I was really too broken by then to do so.
Two or three years after I stopped going to church, a friend told me that this diocese was going to have a new bishop soon and that things often change a lot when that happens. A few months after the change, I emailed that bishop with a very detailed history of my experiences and told him I feel the diocese needs to start training clergy to work appropriately with gay parishioners. He was very sweet and invited me to come see him. He said he would help me find a parish where I would be comfortable. I responded that sending me to another parish was not an option. He also said that clergy were receiving the training I recommended. I dug into that a little and he finally admitted that it is in one required class as a subtopic. He was very defensive and wrote to me, "I hope you understand how much has been done in this diocese to ensure fair and equal treatment." In other words, he wanted to wipe out the reality I described from my first-hand witness and live in his rosey world. I decided not to meet with him because I would just get upset and I didn't want to accommodate someone who would decide he had solved my problem with smiles and a hug and shuttling me off to a safe parish. He also told me about a nationally visible program the diocese had started for homeless gay boys. It is a wonderful program, but against the backdrop of general parish life for gay members, it is tokenism that doesn't touch parish life for the average gay schmoe like me.
Sending a gay parishioner to a "safe" parish when the parishioner doesn't want that solution is not ok. It is not enough. If that's all the Episcopal church is willing to do for an individual, then church leaders should be honest about it and stop putting forward an image of full inclusion. Ordaining gay bishops and priests is a very important step but we lay people are members of "the club" too and it seems the church has forgotten about us. Oh, except for the token projects.
It really concerns me that there is a thinking among Episcopal bishops that sending a gay parishioner to a safe parish is the solution. It smacks of segregation and the idea makes my skin crawl. There is nothing wrong with it as One option offered to a gay parishioner, but there is a lot fundamentally wrong with it if it is the only option and the bishop is not willing to do the hard work to help the parishioner in other ways.
The new bishop with whom I corresponded never commented on any of what happened to me. He didn't say it was a terrible experience, or ask me if it damaged my faith.
I recently emailed the presiding bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori. I did not identify the diocese, but I told her my story and my views. She responded and said she agreed that sending a gay parishioner to a safe parish is not an adequate solution. She said we would not consider it adequate in response to an African American asking for equal dignity. I forwarded her email to the local bishop. I also sent him a snail mail letter and copied Soulforce on that letter. Because the local response has been to brush me away and deny my message about what is happening and what would in reality constitute dignity, I think I need outside leaders to tell the bishop that they validate my view. If this were discrimination against African Americans, the bishop would not dare to brush it off and the parishioner would be able to find community leaders to go to him and make him more accountable for his leadership responsibilities. I tried to do that two years ago. I went to Louie Crew and to a priest in New Jersey who is a leader in the group Integrity. Both refused to talk to the bishop for me. So I am trying again. Emailing the presiding bishop is the first step. Even though I did not tell her the diocese, I have asked her to start speaking to all bishops about this. I am still looking for community leaders to help me in showing this bishop his accountability. Any suggestions for that process would be very welcome.
Cathy in NY