Retired, but still working Rector: The former rector at Memorial Episcopal Church finds a new home with another city church.


After 29 years as rector of Memorial Episcopal Church in Bolton Hill, the retired Rev. F. Lyman Farnham is finding that life isn't any slower on the other side of the altar rail.

Farnham, known to just about everyone as "Barney," had become synonymous with urban ministry in the Episcopal Church. He left the pulpit earlier this year, but he is not leaving Baltimore.

"My heart is in the city," he said.

And he is not sitting still. "I have to continue to do ministry in some way, whatever that might be. God never stops calling," said Farnham, 65.

So, instead of moving to the suburbs, he and his wife, Suzanne, restored a dilapidated rowhouse in Ridgely's Delight in the shadow of Camden Yards. And they have joined a predominantly African-American congregation, St. James Episcopal Church in West Baltimore's Lafayette Square.

"I really needed to go to a city church," he said. "I needed to be fed as well as to feed."

During his tenure at Memorial, a gray-stone church with a Gothic-arch entrance at the corner of West Lafayette Avenue and Bolton Street in the heart of Bolton Hill, Farnham was known as a minister who was not afraid to push the envelope. He instituted liturgical changes that were revolutionary in the late 1960s, such as a more participatory service in which the sermon consisted of the congregation's reflections on the Scriptures. He also initiated outreach programs, such as free breakfasts, a food pantry and support groups for substance abusers, that riled some of his neighbors.

Some saw him as a rabble-rouser the moment he walked through the front door in 1969. In an interview in The Evening Sun shortly after he arrived, Farnham, who is white, called his new neighborhood "a white island."

"We must face and attract a wider community," he said then. "How? By getting to know them, each one of us. There is no need for patronizing concerns, just for more and more real individual, on-the-street contact.

"Black and white people must just talk to each other more."

The article did not endear him to some of his new parishioners.

"I had a lot of encouragement to go back to Yankee land. People told me to 'Go home, Yankee,' in some rather nasty unsigned letters," said Farnham, who moved here from a church in Horseheads, N.Y.

But he refused to retract his remarks. "One of my calls was to bring people together in a very racially divided city in any way I could in the context of the church," he said. "A lot of people didn't like that, and I lost some parishioners. But we survived that."

The church not only survived but thrived. "He came into a struggling church, struggling for members and finances and for vision," said Stephanie Hull, Memorial's senior warden, the highest-ranking lay person in the parish. "He was able to bring that struggling church into a strong, vibrant Christian community that had a vision and had outreach ministries. And he was able to invite diversity into that church and then maintain unity in diversity."

Farnham agrees that if there has been any focus in his time as a priest in Baltimore, it has been to build up a community at Memorial that welcomed everyone.

"We're a very diverse congregation," Farnham said. "We have gays, lesbians and straights, young and old, and we worship Jesus Christ in all of our diversity. That is primary."

In 1979, Farnham was the second rector in the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland to hire a female priest to be his assistant, the then-Rev. Phebe Coe, now Phebe McPherson, rector of Epiphany Episcopal Church in Odenton.

McPherson said the hallmark of Farnham's ministry has been his compassion. "He is a gentle, kind man who loves easily, and that has been a great gift to the people of Memorial Church, but also to the greater community," she said. "He's able to meet people and understand them and listen to them and be an advocate for people, especially the poor."

The church had one of the city's first AIDS ministries and at one time had the diocesan AIDS healing service.

In 1992, Memorial was the site of a controversial ceremony that blessed the union of two lesbians. Farnham was on vacation at the time, but he was aware the ceremony was going to take place, had informed his vestry and thought that the bishop had been informed.

"It really hit the roof," Farnham said. "And, of course, the church is still fighting that one, whether they can bless same-gender couples. That whole issue of human sexuality is dividing the church right now, and I don't know where that's going to end. I feel for our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters because they really are discriminated against in the church of Christ."

Memorial has had a literal open-door policy. After he arrived, Farnham decided he would keep the church doors open all day.

In the mid-1980s, he added glass doors. "Symbolically, it allows us to see the world," he said.

"We had some theft, loss of crosses and things. But, more importantly, it became a place where people could go for prayer and quiet, and often sleep," Farnham said.

Farnham is ready to embrace new challenges, but he isn't sure what he'll do. "A lot of it revolves around helping the city in some way, and that's not clear yet," he said.

His congregation at Memorial, which misses him terribly, is taking its time selecting a successor. The process might take as long as two years.

"It's the loss of a loved one, and it's a hole. It's an emotional hole, and it's an administrative hole," Hull said. "I would say we've been in a grieving process. And we're moving toward coming to grips with that."

Pub Date: 6/11/98

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad