Michigan Episcopal diocese welcomes first female, openly gay bishop

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

Since its formation in 1836, no woman or openly gay priest has ever been elected to lead the Episcopal Diocese of Michigan.

That changed Saturday, when the Rev. Bonnie Perry was ordained and consecrated as the body’s 11th bishop, overseeing more than 16,000 baptized members across the state.

She succeeds the Right Rev. Wendell N. Gibbs Jr., who had served as the diocese’s first African-American diocesan bishop since 2000 and retired in December, officials said.

While the Chicago transplant recognizes the significance of the milestone and how it offers hope to many faithful, Perry believes she is simply answering a calling.

“What we say in the faith community is: each and every one of us is made in God’s likeness,” Perry said. “If that’s the case, then God’s image and likeness has many different faces.”

As conversations about greater inclusion for women and minorities reverberate nationally and influence Protestant denominations, Perry’s advancement encourages Metro Detroit Episcopalians as a reflection of progressive steps.

“I do believe 2020 is the year of the woman,” said the Rev. Barry Randolph, who leads the Church of the Messiah on Detroit’s east side. “There are women in so many different leadership positions. Women are taking hold and rising to the ranks.”

Bishop Bonnie Perry is the first woman and the first gay priest to lead the Episcopal Diocese of Michigan.

Perry is the 39th woman bishop in the Episcopal Church, representatives reported. The church has allowed women to become priests and bishops since the late 1970s.

Before lay members and clergy elected her in June to replace Gibbs, the class “marked the first time in the history of the Episcopal Diocese of Michigan that the slate of candidates was comprised entirely of women,” officials said in a statement..

Perry noticed other women were elected diocesan or suffragan bishops in the U.S. last year.

“We’ve been doing this for a long time,” she said. “I think we’re at a point where, by and large, we’re not seen as women priests or bishops — just who we are.”

Growing up in a Marine family, Perry lived across the country before studying at the College of the Holy Cross, a Jesuit school in Worcester, Massachusetts, in the 1980s, according to her biography and resumè. She then served with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps in Oakland and Los Angeles, California. 

Perry felt called to ministry but the Roman Catholic Church she was raised in does not ordain women. She attended Union Theological Seminary in New York City, where she met her now-wife, Susan Harlow, and was received into the Episcopal Church. 

Ordained in 1990, she served three churches in New Jersey before relocating to Chicago with Harlow, who had accepted a seminary faculty position. From 1992-2019, Perry led the city’s All Saints Episcopal Church, which during her tenure grew from a struggling congregation in debt with about 35 attendees to an active community considered among the largest and most active in the local diocese, she said.

Among the programs launched under her leadership: a food pantry that evolved into a nonprofit, Ravenswood Community Services, which according to its website serves hundreds of neighbors each week.

All Saints members have also annually raised thousands of dollars to fund clean water and other service projects in South Sudan; created an anti-violence ministry; and worked with social justice groups, according to Perry and church officials.

A common thread was allowing her congregants to further their God-given gifts and united around “a sense of agency,” Perry said. “We can do things if we come together that are astonishing.”

Perry also was active in the Chicago Consultation, a group of lay people and religious leaders that has worked to boost inclusion of LGBT Christians in the Episcopal Church and the worldwide Anglican Communion.

“In my view, Bonnie brings a number of remarkable gifts to the role of bishop,” said Christine Modey, who attends St. Clare's  in Ann Arbor and co-chaired the bishop search and nomination committee.

“Her enormous energy and enthusiasm is palpable from the minute you meet her. …Her track record at her prior parish in Chicago, which underwent impressive revitalization and growth during her time there, her fierce commitment to social justice and her ability to mentor and mobilize people to advocacy and action in the wider community … equip her to be the next bishop of Michigan.”

As part of initial diocesan plans, Perry intends to visit all 77 congregations statewide in her first year in office and meet with members to determine the needs in each as well as their surrounding areas.

One of the largest challenges facing the church today, she said, is forming meaningful connections. “We need to be in our community living out our faith values and hearing people’s stories. Listening to what’s going on in their lives. And beginning in that, we begin to bridge some of the differences and chasms we see in our polarized society these days.”

Another goal is “really looking at structures that perpetuate racial inequality and discrimination,” Perry said. She points to one of her favorite Biblical passages, Isaiah 58:6-7, which mentions the need to “loose the chains of injustice.”

“People in faith are not only called to lament but to act and change those structures,” said Perry, who has taught religious courses as well as contributed to the Huffington Post.

That approach, coupled with honing skills in an urban setting and gaining an “extraordinary breadth of experience leading,” make Perry the ideal bishop, said the Rev. Phil Dinwiddie, who leads St. James Episcopal Church on Grosse Ile and voted for her.

“We need someone who will work closely with our congregations to help them to develop their abilities and their leadership to be more effective servants in their congregation. She’s also someone who is going to be a powerful social witness,” he said. “Sometimes people think that religions should be separate from the other spheres of life that we live in. But that’s not what Jesus did. Jesus had a lot to say about money, social systems, people on the margins and God’s love for them.”

Glenda Price, the former president of Marygrove College who participated in the bishop search process, recalls how while still a candidate touring the region last year, Perry asked probing questions and showed an “immediate connection to the issues, and her interest in understanding who was making a difference, how, and what opportunities there are for the church to engage at a deeper level.”

Later, after the election, Price helped introduce her to others in the community. “She is interested to learning how to best be of assistance to individuals and groups, who may or may not be associated with the church,” Price said. “She very much wants to be seen as a resource, or partner in advancing Metro Detroit, and improving the lives of its citizens.”

Perry also left a mark on Randolph, from whom she sought to learn more about the lauded outreach efforts at the church he has presided over since 2002.

“She is really interested in the city of Detroit and what’s going on and how the church can best deal with those issues,” he said. “To bring that energy to us is just amazing.”