For many in the LGBTQ community, the words “religion” and “progress” are seldom considered synonymous. Still, it’s vital not to downplay the value of those pro-LGBTQ religious activists who have led the charge in both securing rights like marriage equality and normalizing the acceptance of LGBTQ people in faith communities. In the case of the Episcopal Church, although its track record hasn’t been perfect, it’s impossible to deny its quick adaptation to social change. For example, after the Supreme Court secured marriage equality in 2015, the Church immediately took steps to update its policies and allow same-sex couples to be married. Prominent church leaders like Presiding Bishop Michael B. Curry were quick to defend that decision among other less-accepting religious leaders.
On Feb. 8 Michigan’s Episcopal Church will make history with another inclusive move when it ordains and consecrates the Rev. Dr. Bonnie A. Perry as its 11th bishop diocesan. An out lesbian, she will be the first openly gay priest to be elected bishop in the history of the diocese and will be responsible for overseeing over 70 congregations and more than 16,000 baptized congregants. Perry will succeed the Rt. Rev. Wendell N. Gibbs Jr., who has served in his position since 2000. Also notable is the fact that she was selected among three other female nominees from across the U.S.
Chosen in June and officially bishop-elect since Nov. 1, Between The Lines interviewed Perry twice: once after her election and two months before she officially takes the reins. She shared her goals for the diocese, what drew her to the priesthood and gave her thoughts on today’s religious landscape.
“I believe that when we offer communion to people … we don’t own that table. It’s not my table or the Episcopal Church’s table or the Catholic Church’s table. It’s God’s table, and when God sets a table all are welcome. Everyone gets to come unquestionably, because we don’t own these things.”
– The Rev. Dr. Bonnie A. Perry, 11th bishop-elect of the Episcopal Diocese of Michigan
Building on Existing Foundations
When Perry first spoke with BTL she was still serving in her position as the rector of All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Chicago. Considering the changes in both her role and environment, she said that first and foremost, her job is to listen and learn.
“In order to do a good job I really need to know what the issues are, what the needs are, what the gifts are and what people both in our churches in the Southeast section of my new state — and the people who are not in our churches — what they’re longing for,” Perry said.
Six months later and a month and a half into her role as bishop-elect, Perry echoed that sentiment, adding that she believes in the Church’s gospel values of “love and inclusion, fairness, equity” and is “committed to them being enacted in our public sector in our communities.”
In short: Perry said she will be focused on partnerships during her term as bishop.
“So that means we’re going to build on all that is going on right now — we have incredible churches in my new diocese — and continue to build partnerships in the private world and in the government world between those groups and faith communities, because we have to,” she said. “That is the call of the gospel and I am deeply committed to embodying that.”
She emphasized that those partnerships extend to the conservative congregants she will be overseeing during her tenure too, meaning that “bridging chasms” between both conservatives and progressives will be a priority.
“Not everyone, as you would find in every community, is progressive. There are some folks who are super faithful people who have a conservative view on theology and on politics. And I am very committed to those people also having a full participation and full life in our faith community. This is not monolithic. And for me, as someone who is a lesbian who has over my life been excluded for being a lesbian, for my progressive theological beliefs, I know what that feels like. So I’m not going to do that to anyone from the conservative perspective, because I know how bad it feels,” Perry said.
To her, the values of inclusion and fairness embody “gospel values” that she will strive to uphold, building on what her predecessor Gibbs will leave behind. She added that what has heartened her in this pursuit is the pro-LGBTQ community organizing she’s seen on congregation visits in communities “I might not have automatically expected it.”
“… Whether I’m in Lincoln Park or in Wyandotte, [I’m] hearing the prodigious, overt welcome for LGBT people,” she said. “… And looking at people who are saying, ‘We care, we welcome, everyone gets to be God’s people and come and be with us.’ Ten years ago people didn’t even say trans or know what trans was, and to be in a congregation in Wyandotte in the evening really close to Christmas, these people have come on out. And for a trans fellow there [to say] that ‘this church saved my life,’ that is just breathtaking to me. And it gives me such hope for all of us.”
A Changing Religious and Political Landscape
As welcoming and inclusive to LGBTQ people as Perry’s congregants have been in the places she’s visited so far, Michigan, like every state, has a varied religious landscape. Just a few weeks ago in a West Michigan Catholic Church openly gay Judge Sara Smolenski was urged not to come up for Communion — a sacred Catholic rite in which bread and wine is made sacred and consumed to join with Christ — during mass at St. Stephen Church because of her sexual orientation. When asked how she feels about religious exemptions in service, whether it be in a religious setting or in the public sector, Perry said that she feels that no one should be excluded.
“I know that the Episcopal Church in Western Michigan is very welcoming of LGBT people, so I mean when I read that article, I know that there are at least a dozen churches in Western Michigan where the judge could attend and be warmly welcomed and received. So that just makes me sad. I believe that when we offer communion to people … we don’t own that table,” Perry said. “It’s not my table or the Episcopal Church’s table or the Catholic Church’s table. It’s God’s table, and when God sets a table all are welcome. Everyone gets to come unquestionably, because we don’t own these things.”
It is, however, clear that that mindset is not shared by other religious leaders. When asked how she has acclimated to meeting regularly with other religious leaders of various faiths in places like Detroit’s Religious Council, she said that she has always felt warmly welcomed.
“And there were Islamic people there, Jewish people there, Presbyterians, Roman Catholics, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. And I was very, very warmly welcomed by everyone,” she said. “And the world is changing.”
She did note, too, that it is because of that forward-thinking change that she is able to be recognized more fully in her ministry.
“I have to say my sexuality has never been the forefront of my ministry, it’s always been completely a part of who I am. It informs who I am, but it’s certainly not my primary identifier. But as we all know, in previous years other people would have made it my primary identifier and limited my ability to do ministry. And because people have worked so hard — LGBT people and our allies — that’s all shifting,” she said. “But then I get invited, called by the people in the diocese of Michigan to lead our diocese and knowing all of who I am and what a gift. I think any time we limit folks and say, ‘You can’t bring all of who God has created you to be to the table,’ we’re losing part of their gift that God has given us.”
It is in fact that ability to be accepted and feel “profoundly loved by Jesus” in all aspects of her identity at 16 years old during a Catholic youth retreat that Perry said first made her consider the priesthood a calling. By the time she attended Union Theological School in New York City she said she not only felt called to become a religious leader but to “create faith communities.”
“Where people will know the profound love of God so that we can change the conditions of the world for people,” Perry said. “For me, God’s love doesn’t just stop with me feeling good. That then enables an enlivens me to then use those gifts that God has given us to do something good.”
Yet ironically, she said it might be her experiences outside of church life that has given her the most perspective on what it means to be the head of a diocese in 2020. An avid sea kayaker, Perry not only guides groups she coaches them as well and has done so across the globe regularly for years.
I think that’s super helpful because I’m not only speaking with church people. I’m speaking with folks who have lives outside that. And, to be fair and very realistic, faith people, church people have amazing lives outside their faith communities. They have wonderfully nurturing [lives] inside their faith communities, but it’s those outside venues that I think really brings — that’s where the spirit is blowing,” she said. “… And the church has at least as much to learn from the secular world as the secular world has to learn from the church. If we cut ourselves off either way then both groups lose.”
Perry will be ordained and consecrated on Feb. 8 at 11 a.m. As part of Perry’s election process, she submitted five publicly accessible essay question answers at the Episcopal Diocese of Michigan’s website. To learn more about the event and her experience in her previous role visit edomi.org.