Bishop William Swing was born in Huntington, West Virginia in 1936. He grew up involved with a sense of awe towards the outdoors, and his appreciation of the majesty of nature would inform his faith in the coming decades. As he grew, this emphasis on the lived experience of people would be an important part of his ministry. He pursued his undergraduate at Kenyon College and graduated in 1958.
He returned nearer to his home state for his Master of Divinity degree, which he received from Virginia Theological Seminary and was ordained in the Episcopal Church in 1961, the same year that he would marry his wife Mary. After his ordination, he became the curate at St. Matthew's Church in Wheeling, West Virginia, ministering to a primarily working class parish. From 1963 until 1969 he would be the vicar of two separate churches in West Virginia: St. Thomas in Weirton, and St. Matthew’s in Chester. In 1969, he was called to be the rector at St. Columba's Church in Washington D.C., where he would be the priest for ten years. Although this would be a great change of scenery for him, he was able to adapt to a very set of parishioners through listening and paying attention to the lives of his congregants.
In 1979, he was elected to become the next Bishop of the Diocese of California. Bishop Swing had by his own admission never had a conversation with an out LGBT person before coming to California, and so he began his ministry to the California LGBT populace by listening. He recalled the skills that he had used to understand workers in West Virginia and government workers in Washington D.C., the ability to listen to a person's life experience. His outreach to the LGBT populace of his diocese began early. In 1981 he and two priests began what was called the “Parsonage on Pentecost,” a way of teaching the people in the Castro neighborhood to be ministers to each other. By beginning this ministry, Bishop Swing was also able to interact and learn about the lives of the LGBT people that he was ministering with.
After several months of working in the Castro, Bishop Swing had a revelatory moment. Many of the LGBT residents of San Francisco were not originally from the area, and the reason that they lived in enclaves like the Castro was because of the harm done to them by Christian families. He began to see the necessity of places like San Francisco as a testament to the inability of Christian communities and parents to love and accept their children as God did. This realization led Bishop Swing to see his LGBT congregants not as a mission or as a political tool, but as people in need of pastoral care that was not given to them by many other Christians.
Part of this was treating his LGBT congregants like he treated his heterosexual congregants, which extended even to ordination. Although many on the Standing Committees that interview applicants to ordination were upset by this, Swing was able to open the ordination process to many gay and lesbian people who otherwise would not have been able to become ordained in the Episcopal Church. By the end of his tenure, Bishop Swing had ordained more gay- and lesbian-identified clergy than any other bishop in the two-thousand-year history of the Christian Church.
His ministry changed a great deal during the AIDS crisis, which particularly hit California's LGBT population. Working with many congregations that lost a great deal of members to the disease, Swing became even more convinced that what was important in his calling to his LGBT congregants was the emphasis on their human dignity. He began the Episcopal Sanctuary in 1983, housing 40 people within Grace Cathedral. This would eventually grow to become a part of Episcopal Community Services that houses 2,000 people in the downtown San Francisco area. From 1985 until 2004, he also served as a member of the board of the American Foundation for AIDS Research. He did not see himself as someone trying to push a liberal agenda, rather he wanted for the LGBT people he met and ministered to to be given the same dignity as everyone else.
In 2000, Swing also became a leader in interfaith dialogue by beginning the United Religions Initiative, which was intended to be a religious parallel to the United Nations. He is also the author of Building Wisdom’s House (1997), co-authored with Rabbi Stephen Pearce, John Schlegel, S.J., and Bonnie Menes, The Coming United Religions (1998), and A Swing with a Crosier (1999).
(This biographical statement provided by Bishop William Swing, edited by Joel Layton)
Biography Date: April, 2012
Episcopal Church | AIDS | Ally | Author/editor | Clergy Activist | California | San Francisco | Swing, William
“On 23 April 1987 Bill Swing accompanied by his wife Mary arrived in London at my invitation on behalf of the Ministers’ Group which was attempting to meet the challenges of HIV/AIDS. He spoke to many groups of clergy and lay people, did press conferences, broadcasts and presided over a Service of Healing. He also met the bishops of London and Southwark who were woefully ignorant of the subject. He stayed at my home and they were a delight to be with. Many people benefitted from his experiences in California. I asked him about his fellow bishops and he said, "Sometimes I want to say to them that God became man, why don’t you try it?"”
– as remembered by Malcolm Johnson on October 22, 2016
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