Letter by Bishop Otis Charles to Bishops of the Episcopal Church

Episcopal News Service. October 7, 1993 [93175]

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. While in many ways I would have preferred that this communication remain a personal and private one, I am well aware that given my vocation and my calling as a bishop, and given the general climate of public speculation so prevalent today, that could not long be the case. Out of respect for the collegiality of the House and for our personal relationship, as well as to avoid conjecture I want to communicate with you directly.

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.

Then God did a marvelous and wonderful work in my life. God led me to Agnes Sanford. God led me to ask Agnes Sanford to pray with me for my healing -- to pray that I might be delivered and God heard my prayer. I was healed. To my surprise it was not from homosexuality but from my fear of myself, from my discomfort about who I am. It was a charismatic moment for me. I was born again and yet the power of the learned experience that it was unacceptable to be both priest and gay kept me silent. I said nothing to my wife, my family, my bishop.

Only very much later in another moment touched by the Holy Spirit did I have the courage to say aloud what before I had spoken only to my confessors and to Agnes Sanford. Since that evening of truth telling to Elvira and our friends Bill and Barbara Frey in July 1976, I have for the most part remained silent and by my silence have given power to the forces that work to maintain the culture of silence within the church and the community.

As recently as the summer of 1991, I sat silently through the Phoenix 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 outside the House -- the guessed-about number of Bishops who are gay. I was sufficiently troubled by my silence that I subsequently told the Presiding Bishop what I had been carrying silently in my heart for so long and, one by one, I have been doing so with other bishops and colleagues, as well as family and friends.

Some may question what calls me to speak out now. After all, I am 67 years old. My children are grown and independent. I have retired from my ministry as Dean of the Episcopal Divinity School after eight fulfilling and fruitful years. Why not simply and quietly live out my years in a respectable, comfortable arrangement with my wife and family or else pursue my expression of my sexuality quietly, outside the glare of public notice and attention? Some may even wonder if all this is being made known now because of some incident or misconduct that has come to light. That is not the case.

My choice to make myself known in this way and at this time is a personal one, whatever motive or meaning others may infer. Sexuality is a part of the richness, the complexity and mystery of God's creation. It is an essential part of our human experience, and it is a part of the experience of priests and bishops. Indeed it deserves -- perhaps even requires -- to be dealt with as straightforwardly and sensitively as matters of doctrine and pastoral care.

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.

It is also a choice that has 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. Elvira and I began our life together with a deep commitment to have and to hold each other in sickness and in health, for richer or for poorer, until parted by death. Our marriage has been blessed. We have five healthy, intelligent, creative daughters and sons and nine wonderful grandchildren. 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. Still, it would be unreal not to acknowledge that for each of us this is a very different experience. We are all of us 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.

I am aware that the reactions to my openness about my sexuality will encompass the whole range of emotion and opinion. For those for whom homosexuality is an incomprehensible (or even reprehensible) aspect of human behavior, there may be a sense of shock and perhaps revulsion or sadness. For those for whom the expression of their sexuality as gay and lesbian men and women has long been hidden, suppressed, and scorned, there may be a sense of affirmation and perhaps even victory.

Beyond the reactions, beyond any sense of winning or losing, beyond any opinions and feelings about what is right and what is wrong, I would hope for people to be able finally to see in my story neither a victory nor a loss but a fellow human being and Christian on the journey that life is, a human being subject to all the feelings of joy and sorrow, of pain and wonder, of love and fear, a human being doing his best to follow his heart and his Lord and to live a life of integrity and service to others.

This may be particularly difficult within the Episcopal Church. For the past twenty years or more, the subject of diversity -- racial, sexual, cultural -- has been controversial, painful and often divisive. Yet something new is being done in our midst -- in spite of our reluctance. We now have three black diocesan bishops. Three women have been elected to the episcopate, one a diocesan. The same diocese that elected a woman to be its chief pastor seriously considered a gay man, living in a covenanted relationship. Blacks, women, gays -- all have had to struggle and continue to struggle to be visibly present with voice in the exclusive world of white, male, heterosexual dominance.

Because we are a people of faith, our quarrels have at times taken place as theological and moral arguments -- often ignoring or even threatening the very ties of brotherly and sisterly love that bind us together as a community of faith, bound to one another in that faith, I believe God is breaking the walls of separation. The Spirit is drawing us to a new understanding and experience of inclusion. 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.

As for the future, I expect to continue to live my life in the context of my calling as a priest and bishop. After a period of reflection and prayerful meditation on what God is calling me to be and do, I intend to find ways to allow my experience to inform my ministry and to make a contribution to others. I have made this commitment to myself, for myself, and for the church I love.

I count on your continued prayers and support and look forward to being with you at the meeting of the House in Panama.