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Former Bishop of Utah reflects on homosexuality and faith

After 60 years in the clergy, including 40 years as an Episcopalian bishop, Otis Charles, 85, was one of three openly gay bishops within the faith, he said. Although, when he first entered seminary in the 1950s homosexuality was not talked about, let alone embraced, by many in the church.

“I never would have imagined how far we’ve come – in the church and in general. It’s a different world. I never would have imagined, when I was first entering seminary, that I would be able to be married to my husband and enjoy all the benefits that come with that,” Charles said. “In my lifetime I’ve seen the onward movement from being outside of the movement into the ongoing life of the community in ways that I never would have imagined.”

After graduating from the seminary, Charles served as a priest in Connecticut until he was elected as the Bishop of Utah. He married and had five children while focusing on peace-positive issues, opposing Utah as a launching location for the MX missiles. He served as the chair of the Prayer Book Committee and was a member of the Bishops’ Committee on Racism. He later became Dean of the Episcopal Divinity School in 1985.

After he retired in 1993 he came out as an openly gay man, the first Christian bishop to do so. In 2004 he and his partner held a ceremony in San Francisco and in 2008 the couple wed legally during the brief window where same-sex marriage was legal.

The path to arrive as a happily married, accepted bishop was more than three decades in the making; the issue of openly gay clergy members was first raised in 1976 during a general assembly where Charles testified about the need to accept gay clergy members, although he was not open about his own sexuality. In 1979 he was a member of a coalition of leaders who signed a letter in opposition to the newly enacted policy prohibiting gays and lesbians from being ordained into the ministry.

Charles, along with eight members from the Utah delegation, opposed the church’s new position, which led to Utah having a liberal reputation.

“We were kind of a place of refuge for gay or lesbian individuals who wanted to be ordained and their home bishop wouldn’t accept them or recognize them,” Charles said. “The authorities in the diocese of Utah supported more than one such person. And so the dioceses in Utah have a spirit of openness for a long time.”

And while the situation has generally improved and Charles is welcomed by most religious leaders within his church, there are still barriers to overcome.

Charles was selected as part of a group of gay and gay-friendly priests to speak at the Most Holy Redeemer Catholic Church in San Francisco’s Castro district last month. However, Archbishop George Niederauer told the parish to rescind the invitations to Charles, Rev. Jane Spahr and Rev. Roland Stringfellow due to their pro-gay positions. The Most Holy Redeemer is normally seen as queer-friendly and, due to its location, often sees gay and lesbian patrons.

This experience is unusual, Charles said, and the world is slowly moving toward acceptance.

“This is something everyone is dealing with. If you look at the Catholics, the Methodists, the Episcopalians, the Presbyterians, the Jewish faith and even the Muslims, they are all facing the same issue,” Charles said.

He will be featured in the upcoming Sundance Film Festival documentary, Love Free or Die. And on Sunday, Jan. 21, the day before the premiere of the film, there will be a 10:30 a.m. worship service at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Park City. It will be followed by a short coffee-hour reception and a discussion about helping conflicted people of faith support same-sex marriage with many of the national movement leaders from organizations such as the Human Rights Campaign, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the Center for American Progress.

Seth Bracken

Seth Bracken is the editor of QSaltLake

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