A living history of ministry for the LGBTQ+ community — Part 8: Allies in feminism and hope in grief

In January of 1987 at the annual retreat of The Parsonage at the Bishop’s Ranch, some dreaming was done about new goals and ideas of what The Parsonage could become. Of the ten goals that came from that, three were very specific to showcasing The Parsonage’s new commitment to the intersectionality of feminism with both the church and gay and lesbian issues.

  1. “Embrace a feminist ethic in critiquing patriarchy in the Church and in our midst, in our education and outreach ministries, and in our organizational skills.”
  2. “Develop a strong and active women’s presence in both ministries and spiritual support groups.”
  3. “Demystify feminist issues, theology and ethic.”

At this retreat, Pam Yearout and Bonita Palmer — both active members of The Parsonage family — spoke at length about inclusive language and the idea that God can be Mother. For some men, this felt exclusive and sparked a necessary debate. Numerous thought pieces were written and published throughout the following months in The Parsonage News, which allowed for great spiritual reflection and personal growth for both the writers and readers. Richard Davis — also an active member who attended the retreat with Yearout and Palmer — continued to reflect on these conversations and borrowed from the letter of Paul to the Galatians, writing in the May newsletter that “inclusive language calls us even deeper into our faith. We must go beyond even feminine and masculine images of God, for God (and human beings) cannot be contained within them.” This questioning of gender and seeking to understand is still present today — North Carolina’s infamous H.B. 2 and similar bills and laws across the country are new content to bring into these discussions.

To provide a space for lesbian women to participate in feminism — a movement that was not always accepting, and quite often critical of lesbian people — The Parsonage hosted two regular groups specifically for women. For the third annual Bishop Parson’s Award Dinner, The Parsonage welcomed “noted feminist professor and author” Virginia Ramey Mollenkott as the keynote speaker. Also at this dinner, for the first time, the Bob Smith Award for Community Service would be given — to a woman, no less.

1987 also brought significant events at the diocesan level. Now two years after Bishop Swing had authorized a task force to study a document entitled, “The Celebration and Blessing of a Covenant in Love,” the Bishop’s Theology Group published a 39-page document of its research. In summary, the findings admitted that, yes, homosexuality is normal. Harmful myths like “homosexuality is a mental disorder” and “traumatic events can cause homosexuality” were agreed to be grossly inaccurate by the group. They acknowledged that the Church has benefited greatly from homosexual people who gave their time, money, talent, and more to ministry, the Church, and ultimately God. They reviewed the proposed blessing, and noticed that the rite was essentially a marriage. A blessing of love is a blessing of love, whether you say “husband”, “wife”, or “companion for life.” The late author of the report, Wilfred H. Hodgkin wrote that “a blessing is in the nature of a sacramental act. I believe that both scripture and tradition are clear that same sex unions are not what God intends and that it would be a misuse of the sacramental blessing to use it for such a rite.”

Those words were, and are, extremely controversial. Around the same time that report was finished, Bishop Swing wrote in his newsletter a response to a resolution passed a few months prior at the diocesan convention that called on him, as the bishop, to develop a rite of blessing of the relationship of same-sex couples. He thought it important for the diocese to know his own personal opinions on the matter, which included that “the blessing of same sex couples is vastly more serious a matter than should be decided on a Convention floor after a 35 minute debate.” Thirty years ago, the Episcopal Church as a whole was still quite divided on the matter; Bishop Swing noted that and consequently acted in a way that seems to have aimed to hear all voices. “At a time when the diocese voted overwhelmingly to investigate and study issues related to homosexuality and when the National Church has focused on human sexuality for its next General Convention, I do not intend to pre-empt this Church and lead us into an arbitrary stance.” In different words, Bishop Swing seemed more interested in entering into communal discernment with others over lots of time than acting swiftly and unilaterally.

As debates about blessings and an attunement of feminism and gay and lesbian issues and the church came together, AIDS still occupied much of the energy and work done by The Parsonage. Since the inception of the National Hope and Help Center, people there and at The Parsonage began to fully realize just how much of a national problem AIDS was — the disease had mostly been viewed as a social problem of San Francisco, New York City, and Los Angeles. But within the first year, calls from 35 different states came in through the Hope and Help Center’s hotline, and The Parsonage News circulation tripled; it was a way of sharing information widely within a community that had so few answers.

1987 was also the year that Cleve Jones began the Names Project — now known as the AIDS Memorial Quilt. The goal was to make a huge blanket (or many huge blankets) of 3 foot by 6 foot panels; one panel to represent each person who had died from AIDS and resulting complications. In May, The Parsonage invited anyone to come to Grace Cathedral to work on and complete panels to be sent in and included in the project, so theirs may have been some of the first included in the quilt that was taken to the second march on Washington for Gay and Lesbian rights on October 11, 1987. By this point, some of the founding members of The Parsonage and other members of The Parsonage family had died, potentially at the hands of this disease. However, HIV/AIDS status is protected, even in death, so with few exceptions where confirmation that a person was open in life about their HIV/AIDS status, names of those people who died and any information about their HIV/AIDS status will not appear in this series. But to share the stories of history as accurately as possible, it is important to mention that people at The Parsonage were feeling the effects of this disease personally, and that they were grieving for their own friends, family, and lovers who lost their lives. At Grace Cathedral, some panels made in conjunction with the Names Project still hang in the AIDS Memorial Chapel, and are pictured here.

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