Young Henry Parsley planned on becoming a lawyer when, in the midst of writing an essay for a scholarship, he realized that he was being pulled in another direction. Considering his upbringing, that was hardly surprising.
“This church formed me as a Christian person from the earliest days of my life,” he said. “My father was chaplain at Vanderbilt University [Nashville, Tenn.] when I was a child. The wonderful community of students on campus at Vanderbilt, youth ministry and church camp, retreats and my family’s active faith were key parts of my spiritual formation.”
Even in college, a time when many young people experience doubts, Parsley said, his faith grew and matured. “I attended Sewanee [the University of the South in Tennessee] and was involved in chapel ministry and some outreach work. Relationships with clergy and professors were spiritually very important to me.”
Married at age 21 to Rebecca, his spouse of 36 years, he set off with her for New York and life at General Theological Seminary, from which he graduated in 1973. “It’s been a gift, an adventure, to be ordained 33 years this month,” he said in April.
Today, Parsley, 57, describes himself as a mainstream Anglican and speaks about it passionately. “I love the Anglican tradition,” said the bishop who has studied at Oxford College, England, on three occasions. “It incorporates a deep rootedness in Scripture and the catholic faith, but also a generosity of spirit in heart and comprehensiveness and balance of theological thought.
“I value the great insights of the evangelical, catholic and liberal tradition that Anglicanism weaves together so wonderfully … I value the sacramental life and the rich spirituality of Anglicanism and the comprehensiveness that enables us to live with differences, in what St. Paul called the ‘unity of the spirit and the bond of peace.’ And I value our diversity and our deep unity in Christ.”
That unity became threatened three years ago when General Convention confirmed the election of Bishop Gene Robinson by New Hampshire Episcopalians. Parsley did not vote with the majority.
“I felt that we had not reached theological clarity and consensus on issues of same-sex relationships and that we needed as a church more study, prayer and listening and broader Anglican consultation before I could take such a decision,” he said.
“I think our Anglican interdependence and partnerships are very important in a decision of this significance and needed to be made more consultatively and with more ecumenical wisdom. The church was not fully prepared, so I felt in conscience that I could not give my consent.”
Parsley said he believes his diocese has, by and large, navigated the tensions and conflicts in recent years with what he describes as “a spiritual maturity and grace.” “We’ve had some significant tensions and sadly have lost some people [over the Robinson vote], but the diocese as a whole is strong and unified. We’ve lost a few clergy too, which, of course, I’m sad about. But I believe we will heal as we move forward.”
The bishop’s overriding message now to the 34,000 Episcopalians in 91 churches is about mission, not maintenance. “God is calling us from a season of conflict to a new season of mission,” he told his diocesan convention in February. “It is now time to turn outward, to being a church united in Christ and passionate about spreading the gospel and serving the world.”
The Rev. David Meginniss of Tuscaloosa, chair of the diocesan Standing Committee, said Parsley was outstanding for his desire and ability to bring people of disparate opinions together.
“He reminds us what is important,” Meginniss said. “After General Convention, he had a series of meetings throughout the diocese, then visited different churches. He tried to make it clear that he was a bishop for everybody in the diocese, which is a tricky thing to be.”
Parsley listens to those around him before announcing a decision or a plan of action, Meginniss said. “He respects the Standing Committee and is likely to discuss with us a wide range of issues that are not necessarily within our canonical responsibility.”
Mark Smith, an African-American who has lived in the diocese for 27 years, said Alabama Episcopalians developed a new sense of purpose when Parsley came from Christ Church, Charlotte, N.C., to be their bishop. “He came in with fresh ideas and a lot of energy and brought the morale of the diocese up,” said Smith, a member of the diocese’s Standing Commission on Ministry. “From the start, he made sure we had minority representation on all commissions; he’s worked real hard to make that happen. He’s done tremendous work with Hispanic priests and has ordained three.”
Parsley said he believes God calls the Episcopal Church be diverse. In Alabama, he said, the diocese has tried to be inclusive and diverse by supporting its three historically African-American churches, by encouraging all churches to be open to people of other races, by providing anti-racism training and having an anti-racism commission and by working consciously in campus ministries and inner-city ministries to welcome a diversity of people.
“We’ve called in the last five years a Hispanic missioner who has helped us reach out to Hispanics in our diocese and build several congregations. That’s been a very exciting effort,” he said. “We’re also beginning a capital funds effort of $5.5 million to raise money for a number of things, including a first Hispanic church and for a diocesan missioner to help us expand our work among African-Americans.”
The nurturing in faith that Parsley received as a youth undoubtedly motivated him to invest heavily in youth work and campus ministries when he became bishop. “One of the great commitments of this diocese has been campus ministry,” he said. “The diocese has eight campus ministries, four full-time chaplains and a superb community of both chaplains and young people who do that ministry.”
The diocese has 17 full-time, parish-based youth ministers, said Sarah Sartain, the bishop’s deputy for youth ministries and Christian formation. “Only eight churches have 1,000 members or more, so having 17 full-time youth ministers is an incredible thing for us,” said Sartain, herself a product of the diocese’s youth program and campus ministries. “That has a lot to do with Bishop Parsley’s support.”
Allison Kendrick of Montgomery, a 19-year-old university freshman, said Parsley always treated youth as if they were important. “He makes it a point to learn young people’s names and to talk to them,” she said. “He values our opinions.”
Parsley’s administrative style shows not only his pastoral skills, but also that he’s a hands-on person, said Smith, who will serve as a deputy to General Convention this year for the third time. “He doesn’t operate from remote control, and he’s extremely approachable. He’s a visionary and a consensus builder.”
Parsley said he tried to be a collaborative leader in the tradition of servant leadership. “I love people and love working with people. I am committed to leading by example and through team ministry with gifted colleagues. “I think that the Diocese of Alabama is rich in gifted clergy and committed lay leadership,” he said.
Parsley said his love of fly fishing and mountain hiking, as well as his passion for reading poetry, fiction and the Scriptures, provided wisdom and nourishment for his spiritual life. “I take regular short retreats … and a sabbatical every five years, and we encourage our clergy to do the same. I do believe that healthy clergy help to make a healthy church.”
Before his election as bishop, Parsley served as a deputy to three General Conventions. In the past 10 years, he has chaired the wider church’s Standing Commission on Stewardship and Development, chaired of the House of Bishops’ Theology Committee and served on both Episcopal Relief and Development and the Pension Fund Abundance Committee.
What does he believe the church needs from its next presiding bishop? “I think the presiding bishop is called to lead us from a season of conflict to a new season of mission, where we recognize that some of the tough issues that we’ve been struggling with around sexuality will take years to understand and resolve -- and we need to move beyond our focus on them and focus on the larger issues of mission and evangelism,” he said.
“We need to renew our 20/20 vision, our commitment to church growth and young adult ministry, [to] greater diversity and [to] communicate compellingly the message of the Episcopal Church in our society. And I think we need to remember that, in the increasingly secularized world, that mission starts on our doorsteps and extends throughout the world as we seek to serve persons in great need in the Two-Thirds World.”