Malcolm Boyd, one of the most important gay figures in the realm of religion in the past several decades, died Friday in Los Angeles at age 91, due to complications of pneumonia.
Boyd was ordained an Episcopal priest in 1955, having left a career in film, TV, and radio production for the religious life, the Episcopal News Service reports. As the 1950s gave way to the 1960s, he became an activist clergyman, advocating for racial integration and other social justice causes. He embraced the era’s counterculture, speaking in coffeehouses and other unconventional venues, such as the Newport Jazz Festival and the Hungry I nightclub in San Francisco. At the latter he sometimes opened for politically outspoken comedian Dick Gregory.
In 1965, Boyd published a landmark book of prayers called Are You Running With Me, Jesus? It “took prayer out of church onto the city streets in a slangy vernacular not found in Sunday missals,” the Los Angeles Times noted in its obituary. Dealing with such issues as racism and teen pregnancy, the book “is a classic of spiritual writing for its generation,” the Rev. Robert Raines once told the Times. “It tells about the underbelly of society, which Malcolm knew something about. His was a Christian faith lived out in bars and on the streets. His prayers came out of the realization that God is not only in church. God is in the painful situations of your life.”
While many lauded Boyd’s unusual approach to ministry, few of his fans — or members of the church hierarchy — were ready to embrace his homosexuality when he came out in 1976. For several years no church would hire him.
“It was wilderness time,” he told The Indianapolis Star in 2003. “There was criticism, there was unemployability. I learned you have to be flexible in life.” He wrote books on gay spirituality and ran consciousness-raising groups, and finally, in 1982, St. Augustine-by-the-Sea in Santa Monica, Calif., offered him a job.
“We lost some members but those who stayed loved Malcolm dearly,” the church’s rector, the Rev. Frederick Fenton, told the Times. “He was incredibly creative, compassionate, funny.”
Boyd stayed at St. Augustine-by-the-Sea for 15 years, during which time he met his life partner, Mark Thompson, who was a senior editor at The Advocate. In an indication of how the Episcopal Church’s position on homosexuality had evolved, in 2004 the Right Rev. Jon Bruno, bishop of Los Angeles, blessed their relationship in a church ceremony. They were legally married in 2013, after California’s Proposition 8 was struck down. Thompson survives.
In addition to his ministerial work, Boyd was a prolific writer. Besides Are You Running With Me, Jesus? he wrote many other books, including 1978’s Take Off the Masks, in which he discussed the difficulties of being a gay Episcopal priest. He also wrote for newspapers, magazines, and online publications. He served three terms as president of PEN Center USA West, a regional branch of an international group that advocates for freedom of expression.
“Malcolm lives on in our hearts and minds through the wise words and courageous example he has shared with us through the years,” Bruno said in the Episcopal News Service article. A celebration of his life will be held at 2 p.m. March 21 at the Cathedral Center of St. Paul in Los Angeles.