Bishop Says He 'Took a Stand for Truth' in Disclosure that He is Gay

Episcopal News Service. October 7, 1993 [93174]

Prior to the 1993 annual meeting of the Episcopal Church's House of Bishops in Panama, one bishop of the church quietly sent an epistle to his colleagues. His letter began with a simple sentence that might forever alter his relationship to that body -- and the continuing dialogue in the church over issues of human sexuality.

"For the past several months, I have openly communicated with my family and with growing numbers of my colleagues and friends that I am a gay man," wrote Bishop Otis Charles, former bishop of Utah and recently retired dean of the Episcopal Divinity School (EDS) in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Charles told his colleagues that he would have preferred his communication to be a "personal and private one" but that his respect for the collegiality in the House of Bishops and his own sense of integrity demanded that he be open and honest about his sexual identity. Charles is the first bishop in any mainline denomination to publicly disclose that he is gay.

"My choice to make myself known in this way and at this time is a personal one, whatever motive or meaning others may infer," Charles wrote. "I have promised myself that I will not remain silent, invisible, unknown. After all is said and done, the choice for me is not whether or not I am a gay man, but whether or not i am honest about who I am with myself and others. It is a choice to take down the wall of silence I have built around an important and vital part of my life, to end the separation and isolation I have imposed on myself all these years. It is a choice to live my life as consistently as I can with my own integrity, a choice to be fully who I am and to be responsible for all that I am."

Endured the burden 'by the grace of God'

In a conversation during the House of Bishops meeting, Charles, 67, seemed relaxed and content with his decision to reveal his sexual orientation with colleagues. And yet when he spoke of the long struggle to make the decision, furrows of concern on his face and forehead revealed the burden he had kept hidden over the years.

Charles is the first to admit that he is a storyteller who speaks in paragraphs, rather than in short declarative sentences or pithy quotations. "I don't speak in the language of sound bites," he said, almost apologetically. His recounting of the past 17 years -- the time when he first admitted that he was a gay man -- mirrors that journey. His story unfolds as a complex and digressive series of events, full of detail and a host of interconnected circles.

Although Charles had some awareness of his sexual identity at an early age, it was many years before he fully admitted this reality to himself. In 1976, Charles revealed that he was struggling with his sexual identity to his wife, Elvira, and two friends, Colorado Bishop William Frey and his wife, Barbara. Yet, despite that disclosure, Charles remained in the closet. "I carried this burden for all those years, and I am convinced that I was only able to endure it by the grace of God," he said.

In his letter to colleagues, Charles said, "For 45 years I struggled with my sexual identity. In the isolation and darkness I felt that there must be something wrong with me. I turned to others for help. I prayed with all my heart to be healed. Nothing changed. I was still me, pulled apart inside by feelings I schooled myself to believe were unnatural."

From what Charles said in an interview, it is clear that his highly developed sense of responsibility to the Diocese of Utah, his family, and later to EDS prevented him from making a decision to be open earlier in his life. And, he admitted that he had "internalized" many homophobic stereotypes that constricted his own choices. Throughout the years, Charles shared his internal struggle with spiritual directors, counselors, and a tight-knit circle of friends and family. However in his public life, "I remained silent and by my silence have given power to the forces that work to maintain the culture of silence within the church and community," he said in the letter.

Over the course of time, Charles began to ask what it meant to be a gay man and not respond to that reality, asking if that wasn't a denial of God's intent for his life, a denial of whatever gifts God had given him. Meantime, and almost as a mirror of his inner turmoil, the swirling controversy over lesbian and gay issues was gathering speed in the church.

Charles said that the debate in the 1979 General Convention in Denver was particularly painful for him. He reported that he "toyed with the idea of speaking up" at that time, because he was so moved by some of the brave testimonies during the debate -- particularly by gay and lesbian Episcopalians. Other incidents in the church and the wider society contributed to his increasing need to be open about his identity.

Phoenix was the turning point

But Charles looks back at the 1991 General Convention in Phoenix as a turning point on his journey. In his letter, Charles wrote to colleagues, "I sat silently through the...General Convention. I did not join the debate openly and honestly, simply saying 'Hey, you are talking about me. I am a gay man.' I allowed myself to be one of 'those' spoken about.... "

His experience in Phoenix prompted him to go to Presiding Bishop Edmond L. Browning because he was no longer willing "to be silent and invisible." It had become "a matter of conscience," he said. "Phoenix moved me into another space and I began to disclose myself in a different way."

"The letter was the best way to level the playing field for myself," Charles said. "Perhaps it was a selfish way, but I was dealing with my own inner spiritual health, and I feel clear that my stepping forward, openly and honestly, is a way to serve the church," he added. His recent retirement was a transition point, a "moment to address these issues," he said.

The timing of his disclosure in conjunction with the bishops' development of a pastoral teaching on sexuality in response to the 1991 General Convention is "purely coincidental, not calculated," Charles insisted. Charles said that he had not released his letter in an effort to "push an agenda" at the House of Bishops meeting in Panama.

Not lightly or unadvisedly

Since his letter, Charles has received many private expressions of support from other bishops and friends in the church. However, many also express concern for his wife, Elvira, their five children and nine grandchildren. Some have offered subtle -- and carefully worded -- criticisms of the decision by Charles to separate from his wife. "They say things like, 'How could you abandon your wife and your commitment to your marriage after 40 years?'" he reported.

Charles is particularly sanguine when he addresses that concern, because it suggests to him that colleagues think his decision was impulsive or flippant. In his letter, Charles emphasized that his decision, "deeply affected Elvira and our children. Speaking the truth aloud to Elvira forever changed our relationship. To say that the years since 1976 have been painful is totally inadequate. They have been wrenching for us and for our family...Our marriage has been blessed...Our life together has been good. Slowly, however, Elvira and I have come to realize that we must live our lives separately.

"In reaching this decision, I have been moved and humbled by the support and love of Elvira and our children and their families, by their openness to me, their willingness to hear me, and most of all by their affirmation and love for me," he continued. "Still it would be unreal not to acknowledge...that we are all experiencing the death of our family relationship as we have known it. There is anger, grief and loss, and at the same time we are stronger than ever before in our communication and our understanding of reconciling love."

Charles emphasized that he and his wife had spent a great deal of time in counseling and therapy in an effort to work through the situation. "For me personally and us together it wasn't possible to hold together these two truths or realities in the same place," he said. Charles's decision was made "in the full knowledge and honoring of the sanctity of marriage vows and knowing that in some sense our relationship could never be whole again," he added. "This was not something we concluded lightly or unadvisedly."

Charles said that his children "have had to appropriate who their father is in their own consciousness. We have had, and continue to have a strong family," he said. "We are all working now to create our lives together in this new and different relationship that we have with one another."

For now, Charles's wife is living in Connecticut and he has moved to San Francisco. He said that they have not addressed the issue of divorce.

A bishop from central casting

In many ways Otis Charles fits the bill of an Episcopal bishop from central casting. He is trim and sports a full head of thick, snowy white hair. Words like soft-spoken, mild mannered, genteel and gentle seem to fit his disposition.

He could be described as a "team player" in the House of Bishops. He gets positively animated when he talks about his involvement in the house over the years -- especially when he recalls his work on the revision of the Book of Common Prayer, his contribution to a variety of committees, and his close friendships with other bishops in the church.

Few would describe Charles as "firebrand" or a "wide-eyed radical." Yet, those who know him say that he in not a pushover, that one should not mistake his gentleness for weakness. "Otis has a streak of feisty determination," said a former colleague at EDS. Charles may need to draw on that inner strength in the months and years ahead, now that he has entered into a new and uncertain era of his life.

Charles expressed no eagerness to step into the full glare of the spotlight and serve as a "gadfly" or "celebrity" around the issue of homosexuality. "People have wondered whether I will become a 'professional gay,'" Charles reported with a look of astonishment on his face. "I don't really know what that is supposed to mean," he said. He seemed perplexed to think that his more than 40 years of ministry might be reduced by the media or his critics to the tagline: "the first openly gay bishop."

And yet, Charles does feel a sense of responsibility to continue the dialogue on sexuality issues in the church. "I would hope that I might be remembered for helping to create a world in which the church is seriously addressing the experience of gay people in ways that strengthen the confidence and self-esteem of individuals who are discovering their gayness in a world that is framed by a heterosexual construct," he said in an interview.

Charles acknowledged that new opportunities will be open for him to share his story within and outside of the church. And he displayed a brimming sense of passion about the thought that he might be able to help families -- especially parents with gay children. "I would like to focus on a transformation of consciousness to free parents to see that their children may be different and that there's nothing wrong with that. I can't think of a better way to invest the next 10 years," he said.

"Before my tenure at EDS, I had a very intentional focus on Christian spirituality and I might like to take that up again," Charles added. He described his future ministry as "an extension of my teaching ministry" as a bishop and former seminary dean.

Wait and see

However, Charles is well aware that his disclosure will mean changes -- and perhaps some limits -- for his vocational options in the future. "As far as my episcopal ministry is concerned, I will only do what I am invited to do by other bishops," Charles said, quickly adding that "that would have been the case without my letter. The question now is whether the invitations will be there," he added. Charles reported that one bishop told him he might "direct people to me who are moving through the same experience. So, I don't have a sense that the doors are closed to me, but we'll have to wait and see."

"The Spirit is drawing us to a new understanding and experience of inclusion," Charles wrote in his letter to the bishops. "I also believe God has drawn me to speak the truth of my experience. And I believe that as gay men and lesbians speak openly, telling the stories of their lives, the community of faith is strengthened."

"The future is one of discovery," Charles concluded.

[thumbnail: Bishop Otis Charles.  Ret...]