The Rt. Rev. R. Stewart Wood Jr., the ninth Bishop of Michigan and an advocate for social justice, died in Hanover, New Hampshire, on August 1 at 89.
Wood led the diocese based in his hometown of Detroit from 1990 to 2000, and garnered national media attention in 1994, when he ordained Jennifer Walters, a lesbian, as a priest at the Church of the Incarnation in Pittsfield Township, Michigan.
The Diocese of Michigan’s current bishop, the Rt. Rev. Bonnie Perry said, “Though we’d never met, I knew that as a lesbian in the early 1990s that the Diocese of Michigan was a place where I could find employment and be supported by the bishop. When I told Stew this he was so joyful that his presence had that encouraging effect on a young priest.”
At the beginning of his ministry as diocesan, Wood faced major divisions in the diocese over the then-illegal practice of blessing same-sex relationships. He participated in a symposium on “the theological implications of blessing same-sex couples” in a Detroit church shortly after becoming diocesan bishop in 1990. At the gathering, billed as “the first of its kind,” several speakers discussed their experience of ministering to same-sex couples, and questioned celibacy.
Controversy broke out a few months later at Michigan’s diocesan convention, when Wood urged a halt to the practice until he could work with all the clergy “to fashion a ministry that honors the church’s historical understandings of Christian marriage, monogamy, chastity, and fidelity, and provides a pastoral and liturgical ministry to homosexual persons.” Wood’s moderation was criticized by gay clergy within the diocese, with one priest vowing his refusal to stop the practice.
When Wood later took a firm support in favor of same-sex blessings, and ordained Walters, conservatives pushed back against his policies.
The Mariners’ Chapel, a conservative flagship in downtown Detroit (famous from the 1976 Gordon Lightfoot hit “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”) successfully broke away from the diocese in 1991, after Wood deposed its rector for his refusal to use the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. The parish was allowed to keep its historic church building after a circuit court ruled that the 1842 bequest that created the chapel did not affiliate it with any denomination.
Ten conservative bishops also filed charges against Wood in 1995, along with four other progressive bishops, alleging that their decision to ordain gay and lesbian clergy violated a 1979 General Convention resolution that said the ordination of open homosexuals was “not appropriate.” The charges were dismissed on the grounds that “there is no provision of the Constitution or Canons of the church which prohibits the ordination of homosexuals.”
During a 1996 strike of several hundred workers at The Detroit News and The Free Press, Wood spoke out strongly against the newspapers’ decision to hire substitutes and was arrested, along with several other religious leaders, for participating in a public protest that blocked the entrance to The News’ office building.
A graduate of Dartmouth College and Virginia Theological Seminary, Wood began his ministry in parishes in the Diocese of Indianapolis, and was the director of a diocesan counseling ministry in Indiana’s capital city for six years. He later served as rector of Christ Church in Glendale, Ohio, and St. John’s Church in Memphis. He was elected as coadjutor to the Diocese of Michigan’s eighth bishop, the Rt. Rev. H. Coleman McGhee Jr., on the fifth ballot in 1988.
Wood is survived by a daughter, two sons, and eight grandchildren.