Originally from New Jersey, the Right Reverend Otis Charles was ordained in 1951. In the course of his ministry Charles served variously as a parish priest; executive secretary of Associated Parishes, a national organization committed to the church's on-going renewal through liturgy and mission; associate director of a Roman Catholic ecumenical center; and founder of two schools: the Washington (Connecticut) Montessori School and the Wykeham Rise School also in Washington, Conn. From 1968 until 1982 he was a member of the Standing Liturgical Commission which developed the Book of Common Prayer adopted in 1979 for use throughout the Episcopal Church.
While a priest in the Diocese of Connecticut (1959-71) he served as president of the Standing Committee as well as Deputy to General Convention. In 1971, he was one of three candidates for Bishop of Connecticut. Charles was elected Bishop of Utah that year and served in that capacity until 1986. In Utah, Charles served as Chair of the Board of St. Mark¹s Hospital, Salt Lake City and of Rowland Hall-St. Mark's School. He also functioned as Bishop-in-charge of the Episcopal Church in Navajoland. He was instrumental in establishing Hospice of Salt Lake City and took a leading role in creating a coalition of opposition to the development of Utah and Nevada as the launching site for the MX missile. In the House of Bishops he served as chair of the Prayer Book Committee and as a member of the Bishops' Committee on Racism.
In 1985, Charles became Dean and President of the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In 1997, the Otis Charles Chair of Applied Theology was established by the Episcopal Divinity School with an initial gift of $ 1.3 million, the largest single gift in the School's history.
Since 1979 he has been among a growing number of bishops who have spoken out for full and complete inclusion of gay and lesbian people in the church without restriction, recognizing their calling to ministry and rejecting the notion that a baptized homosexual must live a celibate life. In 1980, he was the recipient of the national Integrity Award. He is represented in Out in the Workplace: Gay and Lesbian Professionals Tell Their Stories.
Upon his retirement in 1993, Charles publicly announced his homosexuality, becoming the first openly gay bishop of any Christian denomination. That September he sent an epistle to his colleagues in the House of Bishops that said, in part: "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, 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."
John McNeil, former Jesuit and author of Freedom, Glorious Freedom speaks of Bishop Charles' coming out as "an extraordinary example (of the) public exposure... required... to... provide an image... of what it is to be mature as Christian and as gay" (pp.82-83). In Last Watch of the Night, Paul Monette wrote of Bishop Charles' coming out as "an important moment in gay and lesbian history, and a ringing challenge to the status quo of invisibility" (p. 304).
The Sunday edition of the New York Times (October 10, 1993) as well as both gay and straight press around the country reported the bishop's action. Boston's Bay Windows editorialized: "the news of a 67 year old bishop coming out of the closet is something at which to marvel. Charles puts it less grandly, however, saying simply that it was a matter of integrity."
After making his public witness Bishop Charles, who appreciates being addressed by his baptismal name, Otis, has welcomed the opportunity to share his story. Whether in an informal gathering or the pulpit, he characteristically begins, "I am a gay man, an Episcopal (Anglican) bishop, a queer who only just mustered the courage to publicly acknowledge the truth of my life."
Charles has continued as an active and voting member of the Episcopal House of Bishops taking many stands on behalf of his community. In 1995, Charles co-founded Oasis/California, the Bay Area Episcopal Lesbian and Gay ministry. In 1998, Charles was appointed Interim Dean of the School for Deacons serving northern California. During this time he also served as Bishop-in-residence at the Church of St. John-the-Evangelist in San Francisco and a founding editor of Millennium3, an on-line and print publication distributed to all 13,600 Episcopal clergy. He was an Assisting Bishop in the Diocese of California until 2004.
Since 1993 Charles lived in San Francisco where he met his partner Dr. Felipe Sanchez-Paris, a retired professor and political organizer. They took part in a church wedding ceremony in 2004, then married officially in September 2008. Charles has spent time working on his memoirs and editing a collection of personal reflections on the contribution of entheogens as an opening to mystical experience. Sanchez-Paris died unexpectedly on July 31, 2013. Charles followed him in death on December 26, 2013.
(This biographical statement provided by Otis Charles.)
Biography Date: May, 2005
Episcopal Church | Integrity | Activist (religious institutions) | Clergy Activist
“I was in the first group of kids to be confirmed by Bishop Charles in Utah in 1972. The first thing I remember was that he announced that people don't have to be confirmed to eat at God's table because he wouldn't turn anyone away any more than anyone else would turn a guest away from their own home. Right then I knew things had changed. I decided to wait to receive Communion until after my confirmation since I had already waited and had looked forward to making it a special occasion. But I welcomed the sentiment. Later many of us teens would drop in at Camp Tuttle, the church camp in Brighton, Utah. He allowed us to be there anytime we didn't interfere with ongoing programs. It was an oasis. We could escape the city and be with supportive friends. I became deeply affected by the pristine natural environment and spiritual communion with nature. There was an occasion when I was to give a talk to the youth group there. I had been assigned a topic on how Christianity is the only true path to God. I had a complete spiritual crisis. I couldn't, in all faith, lie to others when I just didn't believe that to be true. Growing up in Utah and constantly being told by the Mormons that my faith was going to land me in hell, I couldn't be a hypocrite and espouse the same garbage. I truly cherished the Episcopal way, but I believed then as I do now that God speaks to each of us in our own language. I reached out to Bishop Charles and we had a very pivotal talk in the chapel. He told me one of his kids was a Buddhist. He believed my generation had grown up with the vision of the earth from space and we had acquired a global perspective that previous generations couldn't relate to as easily. He told me to tell my truth and it would be fine. Giving me permission to be honest in my faith and to be myself was one of the greatest gifts I've ever received. I have followed Otis Charles' career over the years and I am very happy for him and the world that he has opted to be himself and to tell his truth.”
– as remembered by Barbara Hickam on August 20, 2012
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