Reared in Ohio with a bachelor’s degree from Cleveland State, Mark Bowman entered Boston University School of Theology in 1978 as a married man with two daughters, but he soon realized he was gay. He came out with exuberant self-discovery and immediately became active with Boston area gay seminarians. In 1980, he attended the national gathering of Affirmation, the renamed Methodist Gay Caucus that was then five years old. He continued in seminary and was ordained a deacon in his home conference in Ohio, but word of his involvement with Affirmation filtered back, and an official inquiry resulted in revocation of his probationary status. Though he received his M Div degree in 1982, he would never enter ordained ministry.
Instead, he became one of the iconic, pan-denominational leaders of the welcoming church movement.
More Light Presbyterians, dating to 1978, served as the model for the Methodist Reconciling Ministries Network (RMN), originally called the Reconciling Congregations Project (RCP), and other denominational welcoming church organizations. Mark Bowman served on the task force that birthed the Methodist “program in which local churches will declare their support for the concerns of lesbians and gay men.” The Reconciling Congregation Project (RCP) was created in 1983, and Bowman, along with Beth Richardson, served as volunteer coordinators. The second choice for the name of the organization demonstrated a sense of humor: “Self-Avowed, Practicing Churches,” parroting the disciplinary terminology of the church
Their initial focus was simply the 1984 General Conference. Disappointment and rejection had jarred early Affirmation members, and RCP was a fall-back strategy to be implemented in anticipation of further legislative rejection. Indeed, the 1984 General Conference codified Methodist LGBT exclusion from the pulpit. Mark Bowman and his associates in the RCP were prepared; after the plenary defeats, they passed out endless flyers to conference attendees, encouraging local congregations to become reconciling congregations. After the Conference ended, two congregations signed up–Washington Square UMC in New York City and Wesley UMC in Fresno, California–and the movement that would become the Reconciling Ministries Network was off and running.
Bowman continued as volunteer leader. As the organization grew, his status changed to part time paid director and then full time. Along the way, the organizational publication, Open Hands Magazine, won awards and became a pan-denominational publication. Bowman was instrumental in arranging coordination between the various religious LGBT organizations, and he helped arrange two large ecumenical WOW Conferences (Witness our Welcome) that were held after the turn of the century.
By then, Bowman had moved on from RMN to spearhead a new project to preserve LGBT history. Bowman continues as director of the online compendium of LGBT history known as the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Religious Archives Network (www.lgbtran.org).
I first met Mark for lunch near his northside Chicago home in 2011. After I explained my plans for a book, he commented, “That’s a huge universe you’re exploring.” Indeed. Despite that initial skepticism, Mark has been a huge supporter, and we have met face-to-face a couple of times since, and he has fact-checked my manuscript and offered suggestions. Mark is also an accomplished church musician and when he hasn’t been busy with LGBT concerns, he has worked in other social justice ministries including Bread for the World. He is also a doting grandfather to grandkids who live nearby.
He tends to understate his own contributions, but I hope my book will out him.
This is the eleventh installment in the series Cast of characters countdown. I will continue to post biographical notes about the iconic pilgrims and prophets on the road to full inclusion who are featured prominently in my soon-to-be-released book, Queer Clergy.
Here’s the list of prior posts:
1968 Troy Perry (founder of the MCC)
1970 Robert Mary Clement (gay priest who marched in the first Gay Pride parade)
1972 William Johnson (first out gay man to be ordained by a traditional denomination)
1977 Ellen Marie Barrett (first out lesbian ordained to the Episcopal priesthood)
1974 James Siefkes (Lutheran pastor behind the formation of Lutherans Concerned)
1974 David Bailey Sindt (founder of More Light Presbyterians)
1975 Steve Webster (organized the first gathering of gay Methodists)
1975 Dr. Louie Clay (founder of Episcopal Integrity)
1976 Chris Glaser (longtime Presbyterian activist)
1978 Loey Powell (early UCC lesbian pastor and activist)