Letting Culture Decide
Timothy Palmer spends his days as the director of communication for Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church
Published: Thursday, May 31, 2012
Updated: Thursday, May 31, 2012 09:05
Timothy Palmer spends his days as the director of communication for Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church designing bulletins, creating promotional materials and maintaining the church’s social media outlets.
This scene, however, may come as a surprise to those who knew him 20 years ago. In the early 1990s, Palmer was working as a corporate speech writer for IBM and had not been involved with church since his childhood. Why? Palmer is openly gay.
Palmer, originally from Texas, attended University of Texas and graduated with an undergraduate degree in liberal arts in 1980. He worked as a freelance writer and returned to UT to earn a masters degree in American civilization.
Raised Catholic, Palmer’s issues with the Christianity took root throughout his teen years as he realized his homsexual attraction. During college, he left the church because of the discord between his faith and his sexuality.
His job as an IBM corporate speech writer took him to New York. After ten years with IBM, he began to think that there was a different role for him to fulfill in society and he began considering the New Thought Church, a religious practice that combines eastern and western spiritual thought.
Palmer took a leave of absence from IBM for a year and began to intentionally discern his future through prayer, meditation, and journaling.
He began to contemplate an advanced theological degree. One morning during prayer, he decided seminary was the next step.
“I felt the Holy Spirit writing the words for me,” Palmer said, describing what he experienced while praying.
He applied to Yale School of Divinity, Pacific School of Religion, and Union Theological Seminary. He was accepted to all three schools but did not know where to go.
One night while eating dinner with friends from IBM, he found himself praying about the options. In that moment, he “felt guided” to Union.
In 2005, he began a masters of divinity. Palmer described seminary as the best three years of his life.
“I was intellectually and spiritually engaged for a sustained time,” Palmer said.
At the end of his time, he found himself questioning how he could serve Christianity. What was his role in the church? His homosexuality remained with him, and he questioned if he could live with integrity and be a part of the church again.
Palmer began reading the work of John Shelby Spong, a liberal Episcopal bishop who advocates for social issues like LGBT rights.
“Spong convinced me I still had a place in the church and part of my mission was convincing the church there was a place for me,” Palmer said.
Palmer tried to become a priest for the Episcopal Church. However, he was denied the priesthood for reasons related to theology.
“I was disappointed when I was turned down,” Palmer explained. “I thought I would serve most effectively as a priest. Being ordained gives you credibility in social issues.”
Palmer is concerned with issues pertaining to sexual justice, women’s health, and income inequality. From 2007 until 2010, he worked for Religious Institute, a multi-faith organization that promotes sexual education.
In 2010, Palmer accepted the position at Fifth Avenue Church. He still attends an Episcopal Church, however, because he appreciates how the denomination incorporates elements of his Catholic upbringing, and their inclusion of LGBT members.
“The Episcopal Church believes the LGBT community is equal in the church,” Palmer explained. “I’m convinced the overarching message of the Bible is inclusion.”
He believes that churches have every right to talk about their interpretation of sexual issues and teach the values they impose on sexuality.
Palmer explained that he believes there are spheres where divergent thought in the church is acceptable. For example, he respects the pro-life message and understands their stance, but personally believes a woman should make the decision for herself.
Sexual doctrine, however, is not in the domain where disparate views are equally correct, Palmer contends. He asserts that homosexual behavior is God-given and teaching to the contrary is erroneous.
“It’s as clear as racism,” he expounds..
Palmer admits “the Bible is not easy” and there are passages that address homosexual behavior.
“There are parts of the Bible that are timeless and parts that are time bound. Cultures decide which pieces are which.”
Palmer maintains that churches should study the whole of Scripture, including the pieces that address sexuality. “Everything [in the Bible] still speaks to us,” he explains.
He adds, however, that “we decide what it means to us now.”