By Kirk Petersen
No diocese in recent memory has faced a starker transition from one bishop to the next than the Diocese of Albany. Bishop-Elect Jeremiah Williamson wants the diocese to know he comes in peace.
The ninth Bishop of Albany, William H. Love, for years was the face of the resistance to same-sex marriage in the Episcopal Church. He was one of eight diocesan bishops (out of nearly 100 American dioceses) who prohibited such marriage rites in 2018, when General Convention eliminated the so-called bishop’s veto. Seven of the eight accepted an alternate-oversight provision that enabled them to permit such marriages without personally approving them.
Not in Albany, Love declared.
His stance led to division in the diocese. Some priests rallied behind their bishop, while others rebelled. Love’s pastoral letter maintaining the ban was burned outside one church, while a bivocational priest declared his availability to perform a same-sex marriage as a test case. After a two-year struggle that saw him convicted of disobedience by a church court, Love resigned as Bishop of Albany effective February 2021. He later left the Episcopal Church entirely, and is now a bishop in the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA).
Williamson supports same-sex marriage, and has personally performed two such ceremonies.
He enjoyed overwhelming support among lay delegates in the September 9 election, while prevailing on the fourth ballot in the clergy order by the barest of margins, 56 to 54. He has received the necessary consents from the broader church, and will be consecrated the 10th Bishop of Albany in early 2024.
In an extended conversation recently with TLC, Williamson talked about how he hopes to assuage any concerns among priests with differing views.
“There were folks who had questions like, if you’re supportive of same-sex marriage, are you going to make the clergy of the diocese perform same-sex marriages? And the reality is, the canons are not written that way,” he said. “The canons give clergy the space to follow their conscience, to use their discretion. And what I told them is, no, of course, I’m not going to force anybody to do any marriage, same sex or opposite sex.”
In visits to the diocese, he’s also found that same-sex marriage is far from the only thing on people’s minds. “They almost exclusively talked about growing their church, the pain of watching their churches get smaller over the years, the struggle of not being able to fund their ministries, the challenge of trying to do really beautiful church music, with very limited resources and very few people,” he said.
Williamson’s life experience has equipped him to be open to divergent theological views. “I was raised in Pentecostalism, from about the time I was seven until I went off to college,” he said. He went to Greenville College in Illinois, which is affiliated with the Free Methodist Church, an evangelical denomination separate from the much-larger United Methodist Church.
The Free Methodist church in Greenville worshiped with the Book of Common Prayer. “And I loved it. And for my senior gift, they gave me a 1979 Book of Common Prayer. So I still wasn’t familiar with the Episcopal Church, but I had the prayer book,” he said.
He went on to Drew Theological Seminary in Madison, New Jersey, intent on an academic career. “That first year of seminary, I walked down the hill, and I found Grace Episcopal Church. I was trying to find the church that matched that prayer book,” he said. (Disclosure: my wife and I are both former parish administrators at Grace, and knew Williamson from those years.) “Instantly I felt like I was home,” he said. “It was the beautiful liturgy. It was these incredible people. It was that the church gave me permission to really think about my faith and allowed my faith to grow and to be questioned in a way that I had never experienced before.”
He switched to the master of divinity program at Drew, which is affiliated with the United Methodist Church. He went on to get an Anglican Studies diploma at General Theological Seminary in New York, and was ordained in the Diocese of Newark.
“It feels like quite a journey from Pentecostalism to the Episcopal Church, which are not exactly the same,” he said, deadpan. “But for me, it always felt very natural” and guided by the Holy Spirit. Some of his Pentecostal friends “would ask me all kinds of strange questions like, do they have Jesus in the Episcopal Church? I said, I assure you, they talk a lot about Jesus. There’s Jesus all over that service,” he said.
In addition to an eclectic theological background, Williamson also has experience in dealing with conflict. A predecessor at his current church, Grace & St. Stephen’s in Colorado Springs, had been deposed from ordained ministry after conviction for embezzling from the church. “When I came to Grace & St. Stephen’s, they were coming out of a time of a lot of turmoil, and had significant conflict,” he said. When he first read the diocesan profile, “I felt like, in a lot of ways, God had been preparing me for the kind of ministry that the Episcopal Diocese of Albany would need.”
He has been moved by the people of the diocese during the transition period. “Since I’ve been elected, they send out every week a prayer for me and my family as the bishop-elect, naming all my family members by name. And so there’s this kind of beautiful spirituality. And I think an honesty about the challenges of the diocese,” he said. “It gives me it gives me a lot of hope that we really can find and model a communion across difference where we’re committed to our mission as ministers of reconciliation.”
TLC asked if there is anything else he wants the diocese to know about him. He said he thinks sometimes people are curious about his baldness, but are afraid to ask.
“I lost my hair when I was 9 years old,” he said, because of a genetic autoimmune disorder called alopecia. It was “a really pretty shocking and traumatic event in my family, because my parents weren’t sure what was happening. But I would wake up and I would brush my hair to go to fourth grade and big clumps in my hair would just fall out really suddenly,” he said.
“Growing up in Pentecostalism, what I would hear constantly is if you have enough faith, your hair will grow back. And it didn’t. And you know, that was sort of the beginning of me questioning some of the things I was hearing.”
According to the National Institutes of Health, “Most people with the disease are healthy and have no other symptoms.” The primary risk with alopecia is psychological, and Williamson has had more than 30 years to deal with that. “It’s actually now hard to even imagine having hair,” he said. “And if I had the choice, I would probably choose not to at this point, because it feels like it’s so much a part of who I am.” And, he’s saved thousands of dollars in hair-styling expense.