For Rev. Bonnie Perry, the unpredictable pastor of Chicago's fastest-growing Episcopal congregation, the opportunity to become bishop of California is not about stirring controversy. It is about answering a call.
But as one of three openly gay candidates who could be selected for the job Saturday--there are seven nominees in all--Perry, 44, stands at the edge of a global controversy threatening to split her church.Church leaders in Africa and South America have severed ties with the Anglican Communion since their American counterpart, the Episcopal Church, consecrated a gay bishop, New Hampshire's V. Gene Robinson, in 2003.
Some American bishops also have disavowed the Episcopal Church, saying it abandoned them when it condoned the sin of homosexuality. U.S. Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold says focusing on a candidate's sexual orientation is the sin.
Representatives of clergy and laity in the Diocese of California will vote to select their bishop, and delegates of the Episcopal General Convention must approve the winner in June.
Perry, who has shied away from the turmoil and declines most interview requests, said it was the opportunity to lead a largely young, unchurched and diverse community that spoke to her and inspired her to run.
"Those are the three passions of my life," she said in a brief conversation. "I was struck by a profile that so overtly spoke to gifts and skills I have. ... So I prayed about it and decided to go forward with it."
Friends, family, parishioners and mentors say Perry has never let obstacles stand in the way of a calling. Thirteen years ago, she rescued All Saints Episcopal Church from the brink of closing by inviting members of the Ravenswood parish to celebrate their faith in traditional yet deeply personal ways.
She has left her imprint on dozens of seminarians who sought out her invigorating guidance, and she has inspired parishioners to take on ministries of their own.
"She looks at things like: Nothing is impossible and let's give it a shot," said Heather Gleason, 35, a parishioner from Albany Park. One of Perry's sermons about self-doubt gave her strength to cope with her own, Gleason said.
"She realized she was exactly what God wanted her to be," Gleason said. "Sharing that moment of humility and humanity really helped me realize that I'm fine the way I am, what God intended."
Perry is doing her best to discern what God intended for her. Born in San Diego on April 15, 1962, she grew up the oldest of four children in a military family. Devastated by the loss of their first daughter, Jeanne Marie (the name as published has been corrected in this text), at the age of 9 months, her parents Ray and Mary Jane considered Bonnie a blessing.
Retreat brings first calling
A gifted athlete at the head of her class, she was a hard act for her siblings to follow, her father said. As a high school junior, a Roman Catholic youth retreat changed her life.
"I had such a profound encounter with Christ when I was 16--that all my life I have wanted everyone to have some sort of sacred encounter in their own lives," she later wrote.
When it came time to choose a college, Perry sought the intimate religious atmosphere of College of the Holy Cross, a Jesuit school in Massachusetts.
She started out with pre-med courses but reached a turning point as a junior when she asked religion professor Alice Laffey to create a course on women and the church just for her.
There was one obstacle in her way. Perry was a devout Catholic woman confronted by the call to be a priest. As a divinity student at New York's Union Theological Seminary, she searched for a place to answer that call and fell in love with the liturgy of the Episcopal Church.
She also met her partner, Susan Harlow, a doctoral candidate at Columbia University who also took courses at Union. Perry graduated in 1988 and was seen as an up-and-comer. In 1990, she was ordained by now-retired Newark Bishop John Shelby Spong, an outspoken liberal leader who recruited rising stars and still champions the ordination of openly gay clergy.
If Perry wins the California post, Spong already has offered to ship her his miter--regardless of whether the national church approves.
"If the church turned Bonnie down ... to me that would be a debilitating blow to the integrity of the whole church," he said.
Perry's decisions to leave the church of her youth and, later, to announce that she was a lesbian were a challenge for her parents. "We knew Bonnie had a true calling," Ray Perry said. "It took us a while to think this thing through.
"My daughter is a wonderful lady who has always been very independent minded," he said. "I see that as a top quality in her. If she makes a decision, I know that in her mind it is a morally right decision and as such I don't question her. ... I say this is a kid with character. I only wish I had as much."
In 1992, Harlow, an ordained United Church of Christ minister, got an offer to teach at Meadville Lombard Theological School in Hyde Park, and Perry followed. Bishop William Persell hired Perry to join a group of pastors charged with reviving congregations about to shut their doors. At 30, Perry was the youngest pastor on that team.
"She's always stood out," said Rev. Linda Packard, who had been hired to rejuvenate a similar parish in Oak Park. "She seems to have more fun than most of us. She's doing what she loves to do."
That is obvious. A self-described evangelist, Perry recites Gospel from memory and delivers homilies with a dramatic flair. She also has made social justice central to All Saints' ministry.
Influenced by her Roman Catholic upbringing, Perry maintains God's presence by not straying from the liturgy, yet successfully connects the worship with people's lives.
Nikki Seger attributes her comfort level at All Saints to the way Perry does not take liberties with the liturgy. In fact, when Perry blessed Seger's commitment to her partner Jennifer Rangel in March, the by-the-book priest insisted the word "marriage" never be said.
Perry also never fails to inject her own personality and sense of humor. When installed as the rector of All Saints in 2000, altar servers carried a kayak up the center aisle to underscore the importance of having fun.
Doing the `unexpected'
For weddings, baptisms and festivals, Perry pops open champagne, mixes sparkling and consecrated wines in the communion cup and welcomes everyone to take a sip.
"Bonnie is somebody who will do the unexpected," said Rev. Ruth Meyers, of Seabury-Western Theological Seminary. "That inspires people to not only live faithfully as a Christian, but really to bear witness to the transforming power of the Gospel."
Perry does not make her sexuality central to her ministry, and applying to run the California diocese does not include pushing an agenda, she said.
"I think God is going to be in this," Perry said. "A call is where it's democratic and divine. A call is issued by God and confirmed by the people. It's not just one person's prerogative and belief."
Still, some have made her sexuality an issue before.
In September 1997, Perry received a death threat that declared, "Homosexuals like you do not belong in the ministry," an experience she wrote about in her application to be bishop. Vandals have painted anti-gay epithets on the church doors, parishioners said.
For that reason, Perry's father is relieved that his daughter is keeping a low profile as she seeks higher office.
She has assured him that she would ask the Holy Spirit to be her guide. At the same time, she said, she must heed the call to go forward--the same sentiment she shared with All Saints parishioners on Easter.
"That's the thing about resurrection. Once we embrace it ... we can no longer wallow in the fear that upholds the status quo," she told parishioners before sending a champagne cork soaring through the rafters.
"Embracing resurrection means we no longer get to be conned or frozen in time by real or imagined threat. Resurrection means there's always something more."