Since Gene Robinson was first elected at a diocesan convention in New Hampshire, hundreds of journalists — and I’m among them — have fallen back on the overly tidy shorthand that he is the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church.
Robinson was the first bishop-elect to be open about his homosexuality as the church debated whether to approve his election. In fairness, though, the first bishop to disclose his homosexuality was Otis Charles, who was bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Utah from 1971 until 1986, when he became dean of Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass.
Charles told his wife about his desires in 1976, but waited until after his retirement to go public.
So it is that a report in Thursday’s San Francisco Chronicle began with these two sentences: “The ceremony lasted two hours and 45 minutes. When it concluded, Otis Charles, the world’s first openly gay Christian bishop, also became the world’s first bishop to wed his same-sex partner in church.”
(This Chronicle photo shows Charles and his partner, Felipe Sanchez Paris, in their home.)
Charles and Paris participated in a ceremony that is approved by bishops in some Episcopal dioceses and forbidden in others. Their ceremony took place at St. Gregory of Nyssa, which is known for its congregational dancing, liturgical trailblazing and bright icons of “dancing saints” such as Malcolm X, Lady Godiva, Martha Graham, Charles Darwin, and a wolf, a bear and a tiger.
Reporter Rona Marech gives a sense of how Charles made his way from a newly divorced bishop to marrying a man nine years later:
He directed a gay ministry. He went dancing. He had openly gay friends.
“At whatever age you come out, you have to live through whatever you’ve missed,” he said. “Even though you’re 67, you have to go through a process I associate with adolescence. Hopefully, you do it with a little more maturity and grace.”
Two years ago, after some relationship fits and starts, he met Paris, 62, a retired professor and political organizer with four ex-wives and four children.
And the white-haired bishop fell in love.
Charles’ self-disclosure never became the same cause celebre as Gene Robinson’s election did ten years later. But there’s a symmetry to his pressing the envelope on gay marriage, just as he began speaking openly about the live he lived in shadows for more than 20 years.
The Chronicle captured a pivotal moment — not only in the life of Otis Charles, but also, most likely, in the Episcopal Church’s debate on homosexuality.