Virginia West Davidson, a diminutive and feisty mother of four who became a towering figure in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) for her tireless advocacy of full inclusion of gay, lesbian bisexual and transgendered members in the life of the church, died Oct. 19 at her home in Rochester, N.Y. She was 93.
A native of Rochester — she and her two sisters were known as “the three West women” — Davidson was an active part of Downtown United Presbyterian Church her entire life. After graduating from Wellesley College in Massachusetts, she returned to Rochester to work for Kodak. During World War II she traveled to London to help the International Red Cross set up recuperation centers for tired and wounded soldiers.
Back in Rochester, she married Samuel B. Davidson and soon became active in Genesee Valley Presbytery serving on many committees and eventually as moderator. In 1974 she was elected commissioner to General Assembly, where she was tapped by Moderator Robert C. Lamar to serve as his vice-moderator.
In 1976, Davidson was asked by General Assembly Moderator Thelma Adair to chair the denomination’s “Task Force on Homosexuality and the Church.” That work led her to enroll in Colgate Rochester Divinity School at the age of 62. She said she “had become weary over those two years of people waving their gold embossed swords on their red Bibles in her face.” Though her studies were interrupted by the serious illness of her husband, Davidson eventually completed her Th.M degree. Her dissertation was entitled “Ministry as a Partnership Affair.”
Davidson rose to further national prominence in the PC(USA) in the 1990s after Downtown Church’s call to “self-affirming, practicing” lesbian the Rev. Jane Spahr to serve as co-pastor was invalidated by the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission.
Davidson chaired the pastor nominating committee that called Spahr, and she responded to its rejection by leading the congregation’s effort to invited Spahr to serve in an uninstalled capacity as “evangelist” and by helping found “That All May Freely Serve” — a national organization devoted to opening doors for gay, lesbian, bixexual and transgendered Presbyterians to serve in any and all leadership capacities, including ordained office.
For nearly 20 years she was Spahr’s nearly constant traveling companion, speaking out in churches, governing bodies and gatherings throughout the denomination. Davidson said, “Janie and I are the ‘Thelma and Louise’ of the Presbyterian Church, but we’ve never gone over the cliff!”
“Many of us had the privilege of hearing Ginny and Janie speak,” recalled Micheal J. Adee, executive director and field organizer for the More Light Network, a group of fully-inclusive PC(USA) congregations. “I still remember the weekend they came to Mount Auburn Presbyterian Church, Cincinnati. Ginny and Janie inspired all of us to dare to live into and share God's wildly inclusive love for all.”
During those years Davidson was honored countless times, including the PC(USA)’s Women of Faith Award; the Witherspoon Society’s Witherspoon Award for her advocacy for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people; the More Light Award for her work as co-moderator for advocacy of the More Light Network; the Distinguished Alumna Award at Colgate Rochester Divinity School; and Rochester’s Interfaith Advocacy Award for Justice and Peace. Ginny was a founding member of the national organization Voices of Sophia as well as founding member of Uncommon Women of the Downtown United Presbyterian Church.
“We love you, Ginny Davidson,” Spahr said in comments to the Presbyterian News Service. “You have been there when we wondered ‘Did anyone understand?.’ There you were loving us into who you knew we could be. We send you with great love and thank you for your faithfulness and witness.”
Virginia West Davidson was predeceased by Samuel Davidson and her two sisters, EJ and Janet. She is survived by four children — James, John, Eleanor (Nell) and Peter; and six grandchildren.
A memorial service will be held Oct. 24 at Downtown United Presbyterian Church in Rochester.