A living history of ministry for the LGBTQ+ community — Part 3: Outreach, organizing, and becoming official

To stay true to The Parsonage’s liturgical calendar “birthday,” an open house to celebrate their first anniversary was held on June 6, 1982 — one week after Pentecost. Although Bishop Swing’s schedule didn’t allow him to be present, he wrote a note to the 100 guests praising The Parsonage with “delight that we are backing up our commitment” to support the gay and lesbian community, and a couple of weeks later on the 21st he commissioned the third group of 13 Parsons at Grace Cathedral, again with some 250 people in attendance. The second year was off to a great start; later that June, there was an Episcopal contingent marching in the Gay Freedom Day parade made up of Parsonage members, Integrity (the Episcopal organization for LGBTQ+ people and their allies) members, and parishioners from All Saints, San Francisco.

In the fall of that year, The Parsonage hosted a series of workshops designed for the spiritual well-being of Parsons and a multi-day program about promiscuity at their cottage. To celebrate St. Francis day, The Parsonage put on an evening picnic followed by compline with the Franciscan brothers at Dolores Park. Tom Tull and Alan Schut, two dedicated volunteers — who had been involved with The Parsonage since the very beginning and were commissioned in the first class of Parsons — finished training the fourth class of Parsons in December.

Alan Schut and Tom Tull at the Parsonage

By the close of 1982, The Parsonage was the home of two AA groups and a Shanti support group, in addition to weekly contemplative prayer and biweekly Integrity meetings. With such success and tangible reconciliation happening, The Parsonage was getting positive attention from priests across the country, some of whom from New York saw The Parsonage as a model and dreamed of beginning their own places like it.

The commissioning of the fourth class of Parsons in January of 1983 drew a large crowd of approximately 700 Christians from many denominations, including a group from Dignity, an association for LGBT Catholics and their friends and families). Tom Tull also worked closely with Ron Washburn — who was made a Parson in June 1982 and who sang with Tull in the Lesbian/Gay Chorus of San Francisco, whose chamber chorus performed at the fourth commissioning — to design a banner for The Parsonage, which was carried for the first time at the commissioning of the fourth class of Parsons.

Parsonage banner sketch

Also in the beginning of 1983, Bishop Swing tasked the diocesan commission on liturgical renewal with the charge of considering “what liturgical response might be appropriate to same-sex couples seeking the blessing of the Church on their commitment to each other.” In March of that year, the rumor of a wedding between two people of the same sex at a San Francisco Episcopal church spread quickly both in local Episcopal circles and to the broader public. When Bishop Swing forbade the church-in-question’s property from being used for a wedding or blessing of the couple, the priest at that parish suggested that a commission be created to “consider the general issues” surrounding homosexuality. So the commission on liturgical renewal’s task grew. Early questions for discussion in that commission included what it meant that canonically, same-sex couples themselves could be blessed, but the relationship between them could not.

On June 7, 1983, the second annual report on the state of The Parsonage highlighted the successes and noted the growing pains present in the young outreach ministry. Bill Lowe — chairman of the Steering Committee for The Parsonage — wrote that although 49 total Parsons were commissioned in the first four classes, the training program had “not produced the committed workers;” a large majority of commissioned Parsons actually needed to be on the receiving end of the listening ministry they had been sent out to do, as they were “not yet ready to minister” to others. The responsibility of keeping The Parsonage open and conducting all events and ministries fell mostly on about a dozen Parsons’ shoulders, especially Lowe’s, who noted that he could not continue to do the amount of work he was doing without increased support from others, especially given the recent development of the Parish Outreach Program that May, which was another way in which Parsons were called to be ministers for congregations. Parishes had the opportunity to send their priest and a dozen parishioners to learn about the gay and lesbian community, the importance of reconciliation, and how to get involved. Lowe also wrote of uncertainties surrounding the source of funding for the third year, but there was a lot of hope for the future. The Parsonage redesigned the training curriculum for Parsons with “an emphasis on commitment and self-motivation,” and had a charter signed by Bishop Swing on May 20, 1983, making The Parsonage an official outreach ministry of the diocese of California.

For more of the living history of ministry for the LGBTQ+ community series, click here.