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PINE BLUFF, AR: Grace Church to transgendered priest: No, thank you - UPDATED

PINE BLUFF, AR: Grace Church to transgendered priest: No, thank you
Lenten focus taken off the Cross and put on the struggle for gender identity

By Mary Ann Mueller
VOL Special Correspondent
www.virtueonline.org
March 1, 2014

As Ash Wednesday approaches and the Lenten journey to Calvary is about to begin, a male priest at Grace Episcopal Church announced to his small congregation Sunday that although he was born a male he now sees himself as a female -- so please call him "Gwen."

His announcement sent shock waves throughout the parish, the wider south central Arkansas community, and on up to the Diocese of Arkansas and Bishop Larry Benfield (XIII Arkansas), causing him to step in and take charge. By midweek, the transgendered priest was stripped of "his" altar and of "her" pulpit. However, s/he was not inhibited; his Episcopal priesthood remains intact.

"There's lots of misinformation floating around out there about the diocese's response to a priest announcing that that priest is transgender," the Diocesan website noted on Thursday. "To be clear, the Episcopal Diocese of Arkansas has NOT severed ties with the priest. Our prayers and support are with the priest during this time."

It seems that Fry's "transgenderation" has been a while in coming. As the story broke Monday, making headlines and creating sound bites, the Arkansas bishop stood behind the transgendering Pine Bluff priest. Fry is the second transgendered priest in the diocese, but the first transgendered priest to be "currently working in a congregation [who] has made such an announcement ... "

On Feb. 19, Bishop Benfield wrote the parish: "For the past few months I have been talking with your priest, Greg Fry, after he revealed to me his awareness that he is transgender. I want to share with you my thoughts about what this situation means for Grace Church and Greg ... I have known Greg and his wife Lisa ever since we all attended Virginia Theological Seminary. I have respected and valued the ministries that they both bring to the church ... I have learned much since working with Greg and another transgender priest in Arkansas, as well as my encounters with other transgender members of the clergy throughout the larger church ... I continue to value Greg's presence among all of you at Grace Church. He continues to be a faithful pastor. He and Lisa will be working on the next phase of their lives simultaneously with our working on learning more about this issue and how it is lived out in Greg's life."

Last Sunday, Fry told his congregation about his desire to live out the rest of "her" life as woman.

"Dear friends," the transgendering priest began. "The time has come for me to share something with you that is deeply personal. This is not easy, but important journeys never are, so let me just say what needs to be told and invite you to join me in this journey ... My entire life I have known that there was something different about me and the way I felt inside. It has been like my inner self was out of sync with my outer self and so I have always experienced (to use a technical term) dysphoria ... I am going to begin the final stages of transitioning and I would like you to invite you to join me in this journey ... I will continue to be that person you know and, if possible, I hope to grow and become even a better and more whole person and priest ... My hope and my prayer is that you accept my sincere invitation to make the journey with me ... To walk with me as I complete (finalize) the transformation that has been working on me from the day I was born."

This was all a bit too much for the small congregation that, in its recent past, has had female priests at the altar and in the pulpit. In the past 10 years, the congregation has lost nearly half of its Sunday attendees. In 2002 nearly 80 people came to Sunday services, but the latest 2012 TEC figures show that only about 40 parishioners regularly show up. Grace isn't the only Episcopal Church in Pine Bluff. In fact, in 1959 Grace started out as a mission to Trinity Church, a thriving traditional Episcopal congregation that stretches back to 1838.

A hastily called vestry meeting was planned for Wednesday evening to deal with the unfolding situation. At that meeting, Grace's Senior Warden George Talbot read a letter from Bishop Benfield confirming Fry's removal as Grace's priest-in-charge -- a post the beleaguered priest has only held since March 2013.

"Dear Greg and members of the vestry," Bishop Benfield's letter begins. "The announcement by your priest-in‐charge that he is transgender has resulted in our church taking a look at gender in ways that would not have likely occurred in a previous generation ... I realize that at Grace Church one thing I can do to assist with your current health and to refocus all of us on mission is to offer my leadership as your bishop in the most constructive way possible. With that end in mind, I have decided to dissolve the relationship between the priest‐in-charge and Grace Church, effective February 28, 2014 ... This action will allow the priest to transition at a pace that might not otherwise be possible ... I have great respect for Greg's ministry among the people of Grace Church this past year, and I have equal respect for the witness of Grace Church to the people of Pine Bluff and beyond ..."

On Thursday, Bishop Benfield elaborated on the Grace situation on the Diocesan website. "After a week of serious conversations with the people involved, I decided that the long-term wellbeing of the priest, as well as that of the congregation, is best served by dissolving their pastoral relationship. This move will allow the priest to work on transitioning and begin a new life that will be lived with authenticity. It also allows the congregation to focus on the work that we have in every congregation: to restore all people to unity with God and one another in Christ."

In another statement on the Diocesan website, Fry said he concurred with Bishop Benfield's action.

"I fully support and agree with the bishop's action of dissolution and believe it was the very best thing to happen for everyone involved," he wrote. "I thank the bishop for his generous and pastoral response in this situation and fully support his decision and leadership in bringing a gracious and holy end to this. ... My hope is that someday this will not be newsworthy, or even an issue at all, and people may live as the children of God in all the wonderfully diverse ways there can be."

The Episcopal Diocese of Arkansas' Canon to the Ordinary, Jason Alexander is scheduled to be at Grace for this Sunday's (March 2) morning worship service. He told VOL that the Diocese is lining up supply clergy so that worship can go on as usual following Fry's unexpected removal. The Canon noted that Grace has "fantastic leadership," and that he was confident "that they will go on to do the good work they have been doing."

Fry was originally ordained to the transitional diaconate and priesthood in 1990 by Kentucky Bishop Don Wimberley (V Lexington). He has served churches in Northfield, Ill (Chicago); Phoenix, Ariz. (Arizona); and Sarasota and Arcadia, Fla. (Southwest Florida). He is married to a female priest -- Lisa Fry -- who is the associate rector at St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Little Rock. In 2011, Lisa Fry was ordained to the diaconate and priesthood by Bishop Benfield. Together the couple has a college-age daughter.

Fry's congregational announcement came as a bolt of lightning. Few people were privy of the cleric's proclivity, although it has been rumored that he was fond of cross-dressing.

The Episcopal Church's loudest LGBT advocates are dismayed by the turn of events.

"Integrity USA and TransEpiscopal were saddened to learn that the Rev. Gwen Fry is no longer the Priest-in-Charge of Grace Episcopal in Pine Bluff. We pray for healing for the Rev. Fry, for Grace Church, for the Diocese of AR, and the wider LGBT community in the coming days and months," a statement posted on Episcopal Cafe reads. "We remain clear and confident that the wider family of the Episcopal Church and the Episcopal Diocese of Arkansas - including the Rt. Rev. Larry Benfield - embraces, supports, and is confident in the leadership of the Rev. Fry. We look forward to hearing about the next ordained position into which she will step in the Episcopal Diocese of Arkansas."

Integrity and TransEpiscopal are not the only ones who have already transitioned to calling Greg Fry -- "Gwen." By the end of the week, the Diocese of Arkansas' website posted: "Statements from the Rev. Gwen Fry and Bishop Benfield," although Bishop Benfield still referred to Fry as "Greg", he tended to use non-gender specific terminology such as "the priest," when referring to Fry in his latest communiqués.

Last October, Grace Episcopal Church posted a new Statement of Inclusivity on its Facebook which states: "We extend a special welcome ... to those who are single, married, divorced, partnered, LGBT, filthy rich, dirt poor, or struggle to speak English. ... We welcome tourists and locals, seekers and doubters, bleeding hearts and hardened ones ... and you."

Apparently Greg Fry fell through the cracks at his own church. That special all-inclusive welcome was not extended to "Gwen Fry" in a seeming violation of the newest Episcopal Church canons which embrace transgenderedness in all its forms.

Mary Ann Mueller is a journalist living in Texas. She is a regular contributor to VirtueOnline

FOOTNOTE

From David W. Virtue DD

While the Episcopal Church in Arkansas continues to battle sexual and spiritual confusion, the Anglican Church in North America has a strong presence in what is largely a rural state. Arkansas boasts of seven ACNA congregations with more sure to follow.

There are faithful, traditional ACNA churches in Hot Springs, Hot Springs Village, Jonesboro, Little Rock, Springdale, Marion, and Mountain Home, Arkansas. There is also a vibrant continuing Anglican church in Heber Springs, Arkansas that is a member of the UECNA.

There is one ACNA bishop in Arkansas, The Rt. Rev. Sam Seamans, who serves as an Assisting Bishop in the Reformed Episcopal Church, and also serves as the rector of St. Thomas Anglican Church in Mountain Home, Arkansas. Bishop Sam Seamans said that he is "always ready to assist in church planting anywhere in the state."

If TEC Episcopalians in Arkansas finally get tired of the theological liberalism of that once great church, chances are that they are not too far from a faithful Anglican church that upholds the Christian faith that has been taught and believed everywhere, always, and by all.

END

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