Bill Johnson reflects on his historic ordination, 30 years later
June 25 is an historic date. So is June 27. On June 25, 1957, the United Church of Christ came into being, as a union of the Evangelical and Reformed Church and the Congregational Christian Churches. On June 27, 1969, the “Stonewall Rebellion” took place, when, for the first time, gays and lesbians resisted a police raid on a gay bar, the Stonewall Inn in New York City’s Greenwich Village, rather than meekly submitting to arrest.
So in 1972, when Bill Johnson was about to make some history of his own as the first “openly avowed homosexual person” in modern times to be ordained to Christian ministry, he selected Sunday, June 25: the UCC’s 15th anniversary and the weekend of the third anniversary of the event generally acknowledged as the beginning of the gay liberation movement.
Johnson did not set out to make church history and gay liberation history on the same occasion. He simply wanted to achieve a dream he had had since he was 17, and president of the youth fellowship at First Evangelical and Reformed Church in Houston. He wanted to be a minister.
A theological challenge
Although the Rev. William R. Johnson has never received a call to pastor a local church, today more than 100 openly gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender clergy serve as pastors of UCC congregations in urban, suburban and rural settings. Another 100 serve in other ministries. Within the UCC, the push for recognition and affirmation of homosexual persons came from what is now known as the Coalition for Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Transgender Concerns, which Johnson formed in 1972.
Looking back today, 30 years later, Johnson sees the Coalition as having been founded to make a theological challenge to the church.
“The Coalition challenged the United Church of Christ to honor our baptisms,” he says, “to recognize that we all are called into the church by God and welcomed through baptism. Many people don’t understand that the affirmation that the Coalition’s Open and Affirming Church Program is asking them to give to gay and lesbian people is preceded by God’s affirmation through baptism.”
Advances since 1972
The Coalition made its first appearance at a General Synod in 1973 in St. Louis, when it made the point that matters of concern to gay and lesbian persons in the UCC should never be discussed without openly gay and lesbian persons in the conversation. By 1981 the Coalition held its first National Gathering (see story on preceding page), in 1983 it introduced the idea of an Open and Affirming Church Program to Synod and in 1985 Synod delegates adopted the program.
Today 410 UCC churches have voted to become Open and Affirming, that is, to welcome and affirm as members and leaders all persons without discrimination because of sexual orientation.
In the mid-’80s UCC Parents of Lesbians and Gays emerged. “This is an invaluable service to parents who are discovering for the first time that they have gay and lesbian children,” says Johnson. “It’s another extension of the church’s ministry generated by the growing knowledge that people have about homosexuality and spirituality.” He also is proud of the Coalition’s youth and young adult outreach. “This is vitally important,” he says, “not only for the saving of lives but for leadership development and for enabling young people to integrate their spirituality and their sexuality into a meaningful whole.”
More to be done
Since 1988 Johnson has served on the UCC’s national staff, most of that time dealing with issues of education and advocacy about human sexuality and AIDS. This year, he became Executive Associate in the Office of the Executive Minister of Wider Church Ministries.
Despite the advances in understanding among UCC members since his historic ordination 30 years ago, Johnson still sees much work to be done. “We have to help people understand more about bisexuality and overcome the prejudices that we have about that,” he says, “and about transgender persons, who bring significant gifts to the church.”
“The future also has to involve the church’s advocacy for and commitment to equal marital rights for same-gender couples,” he says. “Surviving partners from legally married victims of 9/11 are getting at least $1.6 million. The surviving partners of gay and lesbian persons, no less grief stricken, will be lucky to get $10,000.” He also points to the issue of protecting the rights of children of same-gender couples.
“The struggle in the church is not about opening minds but about opening hearts,” he says. “The only way hearts really open is through personal interaction. And the only way personal interaction can happen is if people are willing to place themselves in relationship with someone who is different from themselves.”
“What I ache for in the church,” he says, “is for all people to be able to share the truth of their lives with some depth and some sense of safety. Because then we move into authentic Christian community, where everyone is valued and the love of God is expressed in and through our lives and mission together.”