In 1984 I was asked to appear on a panel of former clergy at the Freedom From Religion Convention in Minneapolis MN. As I pondered how I had made the transition from the Episcopal priesthood to atheism, I decided an appropriate title for the talk would be "A Queer Road to Atheism." As a gay person I had much conflict within the church. Most people who know me now assume that I rejected the church because of my anger about its views on homosexuality. This is far from the truth, but the sexuality issue was certainly a catalyst in my decision to reject any belief in a god or gods.
To understand how I reached the conclusion that I was not a believer, it is necessary to look at why I was a believer in the first place and, more particularly, a clergyman. I was born at the beginning of the Great Depression. Being in banking, my father became unemployed shortly after my birth. His lack of employment and his struggle back to being a productive "breadwinner" during the first decade of my life meant that I grew up in relative poverty. I like to tell people that I attended an "integrated" grade school although I did not know it. I went through the public school system before integration. However, we lived in a poor section of Minneapolis where there were many "colored" families.
I was a very shy child with very low self‑esteem. Also I knew that I was different (gay) but did not understand what that difference was. My family moved often as I grew up, so I changed schools several times during my childhood. Having no roots in any one neighborhood nor continuous friendships with other children, I was very lonely. Only recently have I come to understand ( through a more enlightened mental health profession ) that I have suffered from clinical depression all my life. The last six years have been wonderful because I am on proper medication which has stabilized the chemical imbalance of my brain. I mention this because it is a factor in my feelings of being alone, unwanted, and disliked. I also realize that my mother must have been clinically depressed most of her life. This certainly affected her ability to be a wife and mother.
Ours was far from a religious household. My mother claimed that she could not attend church because she had no money for the collection plate. I guess that reveals something about the church's message and to whom it ministers. My father, I later realized, was an atheist. But he kept quiet about it. Also in what we would now call a dysfunctional family, he had little influence on my life, mainly because my mother had convinced me that he was a very evil person.
During my adolescence the family's economic condition improved because my father was fully employed in a World War "defense plant". My mother could now "afford" to go to church. She began attending an Episcopal Church (her background) where she found her niche singing in the choir. Eventually she persuaded my younger sister and me to attend the same church. Within a short while I was really awed by the whole idea of the Sunday worship. The richness of the vestments and other accoutrements of the church were thrilling. The pageantry appealed to me. And, most important, I felt warmly welcomed. We settled into one parish church even though we continued to move to other parts of the city. At last, I had found a place where I was accepted and felt a sense of worth. The idea that I was a "child of god" was comforting and appealing.
Enamored with the ceremonial and ritual of the Episcopal Church and wishing to do something worthwhile with my life, I eventually decided that I should become a priest. Most of my reasons for this decision, I now understand, were subconscious at the time. The priesthood gave me a "safe" place to be part of society as an unmarried man. Although I had not come to terms completely with my sexuality, I knew that it was unlikely that I would ever marry. Also, for a person with very low self‑esteem the priesthood would provide instant status and recognition in the community.
My three years at the seminary were wonderful in many ways. I was in a safe environment where my physical needs for food and shelter were provided more than adequately. I was part of an all male community. However, I had real difficulties with the teachings of the church. Although the whole concept of god and the bible really made little sense to me, I never would have admitted it. I honestly believed that there was something inherently faulty in my logic. And, of course, the church told us our doubts were from a lack of faith. If only we had greater faith, we would believe. How I prayed for more faith! Ann Gaylor is correct. "Nothing fails like prayer."
After about a decade in the ministry, two realizations came to me. The first was that perfectly good people believed the things that I said just because I said them. This became a heavy burden because of my serious doubts. I knew that I was not infallible, and that I did not have all the answers. Yet people were so ready to accept my words as truth just because I had the word "reverend" before my name. This became an intolerable burden. Some years later when people were amazed at the people who followed the Rev. Jim Jones to their death, I was not. More recently we saw the results of following David Koresh. I had seen this blind faith all too often in my own small churches. Those who blindly follow fundamentalist ministers or the catholic hierarchy do not surprise me.
The other realization was something more subtle. Early in my ministry I would be discouraged because people did not attend church regularly. Now I began to wonder why people came Sunday after Sunday to subject themselves to the church services. I was at a church in a small community in central Wisconsin. Quite frankly the music was terrible compared to what I had known in a larger city parish and in the seminary. My preaching had to be terrible‑‑mainly because I did not really have my heart in it. Why would people subject themselves to this torture week after week?
In 1967 I had one of my many bouts with major clinical depression. The psychiatrist I was seeing told me that I should move to a metropolitan area where my chances of a social life would be improved. He felt that the isolation of living in a small community as a single person contributed to my major depression. Although I frankly discussed my homosexual "tendencies," he convinced me that I was not homosexual and that I should date women and get married. The city would also give me a greater opportunity to date.
Fortunately, I obtained a civil service position with the State of Minnesota and moved to the city of St. Paul in the spring of 1968. I continued to perform priestly duties on Sundays for the next four years.
In 1971 I became aware of the budding gay liberation movement. I took tentative steps towards dealing with my sexuality. These were quite painful because the people I met at gay gatherings were much younger than I and tended to be counter‑culture people. As a very middle class person, I was most uncomfortable with these people and again had that terrible feeling of loneliness. But with a sense of the need for justice I became politically involved with the gay movement before I "came out" sexually. As with so many things in my life, I did this backwards, too!
In the summer of l972 things came to a head for me, and I knew that I could no longer function within the church. I could no longer pretend to believe the church's teachings or practices. As I was coming to terms with my own sexuality and seeing how the church treated gay people, I also became more and more aware of the way the church oppressed women. Incidentally, as a delegate to the national convention of the Episcopal Church in l967, I voted with the narrow majority to allow women to be delegates to future conventions; thus being considered heretical by many of my colleagues. This is one action during my days in the church of which I am truly proud. One Sunday in August of l972 I attended Sunday services as always, but I could not wait for the service to end. I bolted out of the building that day never to return except for the occasional wedding or funeral.
In about 1973 I was approached by someone who was attempting to establish a Metropolitan Community Church (the primarily gay denomination). I said that I was not interested in being part of any church. However, after giving it some consideration, I realized that there were many disenfranchised gay Christians (I have since considered gay christian an oxymoron) and agreed to be of assistance. I let this man, who claimed to be an ordained Roman Catholic priest, use my home and my telephone to do some organizing. He agreed to reimburse me for the phone bills. He ran up quite a long distance bill calling the Rev, Troy Perry, the founder of MCC, in Los Angeles on an almost daily basis. Unknown to me, he was using my automobile while I was at work during the day to call on his "flock". I later learned that he had claimed that it was his car. One day I came home from work to find my wrecked car parked at the curb and a note telling me that he wanted nothing more to do with me because I was such an evil person! Some days later I discovered that my liquor cabinet contained only empty bottles!
I filed a suit in small claims court for the phone bills and the insurance deductible part of the car repairs against this "minister" and his congregation. Later I was considered an evil person my many in the gay community for doing anything so reprehensible. In the meantime, it also discovered that he was not an ordained priest but a lay brother from a monastery.
Before the court date a Russian Orthodox priest who had befriended this man while he was at a state treatment center paid me the amount for which I had sued‑‑obviously to save the church any embarrassment. He telephoned me and said that it was not christian to sue another clergyman. I informed him that I was not a Christian. He gasped and hung up. As we have seen in many other cases in the press it is not christian to be honest, but it is christian to cover up for offending clergy.
In 1975 I had the fortune of meeting David Irwin. We decided to begin life together and purchased a condominium late that year. In my usual holiday letter updating my friends about my life I was eager to tell of my good news. Most of my friends were fellow church people. Not surprisingly, I never heard from many of them again. I did receive some rather nasty and condemning responses, but also some very supportive correspondence. It is interesting that only one of my many clergy friends has stayed in touch with me since then. Also the condemnation came mostly from clergy, while the lay people seemed to be the most loving and caring in their responses.
David and I had been attending the local chapter of Integrity, an organization for gay and lesbian Episcopalians. Neither of us cared to attend their religious services, but we did enjoy their social events. The members of Integrity seemed to respect our decisions and welcomed us at the events we chose to attend.
The editor of their newsletter asked to publish my personal holiday letter. I had some reservations about this, but did agree to let him publish the letter only if he would indicate the kinds of reactions that it had engendered. They published the letter but did not respect my request for telling about the responses. However, in a later issue they did a follow‑up indicating the kinds of responses that I had received including the fact that I had not so much as received a Christmas card from my bishop.
Obviously clergy did read the newsletter because I received a rather disparaging letter from my bishop in which he took me to task for what I was doing and said that he could neither endorse nor condone it.
In 1979 David saw Ann Gaylor from the Freedom From Religion Foundation on the Phil Donahue show. He wrote for information, and soon we were receiving the newsletter from FFRF. That fall David wanted to attend the convention in Madison, Wisconsin. The idea was far too radical for me, but I went to the convention to please him.
That weekend was a real turning point for me. For the first time in my life I spent a total weekend with a wonderful group of intelligent, thinking people. Unlike church conventions that I had attended, no one was drunk. I was impressed with the fact that most of the people were mature and had obviously seen a lot of life. They were not just young dreamers with radical ideas as I had suspected. They looked at life very realistically and judged ideas on their merits and from life experience.
Also, unlike other meetings I had attended, I sensed no animosity or rejection from people when they learned that we were a gay couple. Some told us they had never had the chance to talk with gay people before, but welcomed the opportunity.. Their comments and questions were intelligent and non‑judgmental. They were not the usual moralistic expressions that one hears from the general public and religionists
It was at least another year before I could identify myself as an atheist. In retrospect I realized that I had been a closet atheist all my life. I realized that I had denied my true thinking as I had denied my true sexuality in order to conform with what I thought was expected of me by others. I had already experienced the liberation of my sexuality. To accept myself for what I am, to be happy with my orientation and to live my life to its fullest as a responsible gay person was truly liberating. However, LIBERATION FROM RELIGION WAS EVEN GREATER!