Rev. F. Lyman `Barney' Farnham

[ Age 74 ] The former rector of a Bolton Hill Episcopal church advocated racial and gender acceptance and loved the city.

"In so many ways, Barney stood for breaking down barriers," one of his successors said.

August 30, 2007|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,Sun reporter

The Rev. F. Lyman "Barney" Farnham, the former rector of a Bolton Hill Episcopal congregation who preached racial and gender acceptance and was an advocate for city living, died of cancer yesterday at his home near Oriole Park at Camden Yards. He was 74.

"Barney was a significant and effective force in the urban ministry," said Bishop-in-charge John L. Rabb of the Maryland Diocese. "He was a real leader in the diocese and was personally a deeply spiritual and prayerful man."

For 29 years, Father Farnham headed Bolton Street's Memorial Episcopal Church, making it "synonymous with urban ministry," according to a 1998 Sun article.

"In so many ways, Barney stood for breaking down barriers," said the Rev. Martha Macgill, the church's current rector. "He was an institution in Bolton Hill. He had a way of enfolding you in his grand personality."

Born in Syracuse, N.Y., Father Farnham earned a Bachelor of Arts degree at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., and received his religious education at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass. He was ordained a priest in 1962 and served a congregation in Horseheads, N.Y.

In 1968, the rector of the Bolton Hill Episcopal church had resigned abruptly. The congregation was aging, and the church had only $75 in the bank.

"If it hadn't have been for Barney, Memorial Church would have closed long ago," said Richard J. Roszel III, who recruited Father Farnham to the post. "The first thing he did was to wake up the place. In time, he put it on the map. He was a remarkable guy."

Father Farnham, who moved to Baltimore with his wife and children, soon instituted liturgical changes that were considered revolutionary in the late 1960s, including 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, a Sun report said.

Some saw him as a rabble-rouser from the moment he walked through the front door in 1969. In an interview with The Evening Sun shortly after he arrived, he called his new neighborhood "a white island" and insisted, "We must face and attract a wider community. ... Black and white people must just talk to each other more."

The sentiment did not sit well initially.

"I had a lot of encouragement to go back to Yankee land," he said in a Sun interview. "People told me to `Go home, Yankee,' in some rather nasty unsigned letters. 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. A lot of people didn't like that, and I lost some parishioners. But we survived that."

In 1977, he hired a female priest to be his assistant.

"He wouldn't lock the front door of the church," said the Rev. Phebe L. McPherson, whom he hired and who went on to be the rector of Epiphany Episcopal Church in Odenton. "Barney loved Baltimore City. You couldn't have lunch with him without him trying to talk you into moving into the city."

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

In 1992, his church was the site of a ceremony that blessed the union of two lesbians. Father 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," Father Farnham told a Sun reporter. "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."

As he prepared to retire, Father Farnham, who had lived for many years in the Bolton Hill rectory, bought a falling-down 1840s Ridgely's Delight home that had been occupied by two dozen cats. He had it renovated, and he and his wife lived in it. He also found the house convenient to Orioles and Ravens games.

He remained an assisting priest at the St. James Episcopal congregation in West Baltimore's Lafayette Square.

Funeral services will be held at 11 a.m. Monday at Memorial Episcopal Church, Bolton Street and Lafayette Avenue.

Survivors include his wife of 47 years, the former Suzanne Gipson; three sons, Whitney Farnham of Unadilla, N.Y., Austin Farnham of Severna Park and Brent Farnham of Atlanta; a daughter, Wendy Schon of Madison, Conn.; a sister, Jo-An Howe of Coronado, Calif.; and 10 grandchildren.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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