Saturday, December 28, 2013

Requiescat in Pace: The Right Rev. Edgar Otis Charles

St. Mark's Cathedral, Salt Lake City
PHOTO: Christian Paolino
The board and staff of Integrity sadly mark the passing of the Right Rev. Edgar Otis Charles, eighth Bishop of Utah, who died December 26th in San Francisco.  Bishop Charles came out as a gay man shortly after his retirement, the first Christian bishop to do so.

"As a bishop, I have been privileged to be with Otis as a fellow bishop, colleague and friend," said the Right Rev. Scott Hayashi, the present Bishop of Utah. "My prayers are being offered for Otis and all his family and friends who, like me, will always be grateful for his life and witness, and who will miss him terribly."

Born in April 24th, 1926 in Norristown, Penna., Bishop Charles grew up in New Jersey, attended General Theological Seminary in New York, and was ordained a priest in 1951. He worked in the Diocese of Connecticut from 1959-1971, founding two schools there.

In 1971, Charles stood for the episcopacy of both that diocese and Utah, ultimately being called to the latter. He served as Utah's eighth bishop but the first following its conversion into a diocese from a Mission Area, while also shepherding the neighboring Navajoland Mission Area and chairing the board of St. Mark's Hospital in Salt Lake City.  "[Otis] carried the diocese forward during a time of great challenge and few resources," said Bishop Hayashi. "Where others might see scarcity, Bishop Charles saw an abundance of spiritual resources from God and in the hearts and wills of the people of the Diocese of Utah."Active in the peace movement, Bishop Charles helped organize resistance to the development of missile sites in Utah and Nevada.

Between 1968 and 1982, Bishop Charles also participated in the creation of the current Book of Common Prayer as a member of the Standing Liturgical Commission.  In 1985, he left Utah to become the Dean of the Episcopal Divinity School at Cambridge, Mass.  In 1997, the Otis Charles Chair of Applied Theology was created via a $1.7M grant, the largest single gift in the school's history.

The Right Rev. E. Otis Charles surrounded by members of the
El Camino Real chapter of Integrity at San Jose Pride in 2001
PHOTO CREDIT: Bart Bartosh
Bishop Charles was married for over 40 years and had five children.  He discussed his same-gender attraction with his wife Elvira in the 1970s, but they remained married until after his retirement 1993, when he made headlines by identifying publicly as a gay man.

"Otis' decision to come out, even though he was retired, changed the equation in the House of Bishops," said the Rev. Michael Hopkins, former President of Integrity.  "No longer could they talk about them."

Bishop Charles moved to the San Francisco Bay area and, in 1995, helped establish the California branch of The OASIS, a diocesan ministry to gay and lesbian (and now bisexual and transgender) people. "At whatever age you come out, you have to live through whatever you've missed," he told the San Francisco Chronicle. "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."

"Otis Charles was part of the bridge generation - those who dared to reach across the chasm of what was to what could be - building a bridge to somewhere. Those who had no examples of how to live authentically as LGBT people and so became examples for those who came after them. Examples of how to tell the truth about their lives - even after decades of denial to themselves and to others. Examples of how to claim the blessing of God's presence in their life and in their love as a witness to a work of healing, of hope, of wholeness," wrote the Rev. Canon Susan Russell, a fellow Californian who also served as Integrity's president.  Her memories of Bishop Charles were republished by The Episcopal Cafe.

Bishop Charles frequently lobbied the church on behalf of LGBT people, including at the 73rd General Convention in Denver in 2000, when he rallied with the Christian justice group Soulforce.
Otis Charles
Dr. Felipe Sanchez-Paris & Bishop Otis Charles
at the Castro Street Fair in 2009
PHOTO CREDIT: Robert Sokol

In 2001, he met Dr. Felipe Sanchez-Paris, who would become his new life partner.  Bishop Charles and Sanchez-Paris appear together in the documentary about The Right Rev. Gene Robinson Love Free or Die, in which Bishop Charles compared trying to living as a straight man to wearing a suit of the wrong size.  "With Felipe, the suit fits."

On April 29, 2004, Bishop Charles' 78th birthday, the two were united at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in a ceremony that lasted nearly three hours. They legally married in 2008, and testified together at the 2009 General Convention in Anaheim in favor of the rite for blessing same-sex relationships which was subsequently approved.  Just days before Bishop Charles' death, Utah became the 19th state with marriage equality.

Bishop Charles is preceded in death by his beloved Felipe. Dr. Sanchez-Paris died unexpectedly in his sleep on July 31st of this year.  In recent months, Bishop Charles struggled with a series of health setbacks, and he entered hospice care earlier this month.  Services will be held both at St. Gregory's in San Francisco and St. Mark's Cathedral in Salt Lake City, where Sanchez-Paris is interred.

Christian Paolino is Chair of the Stakeholders' Council of Integrity

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