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."
The United Church of Christ was a minority of one 30 years ago when the Rev. William R. Johnson became the first openly gay man ordained to Christian ministry.
The ordination was controversial. Critics wondered if the UCC was taking a risk that endangered its relationship with other churches. Some feared the church would be drummed out of the ecumenical movement if it continued to ordain gays and lesbians.
But that never happened. Instead, a number of Protestant, Anglican and Old Catholic churches have moved in the same direction, including nine of the UCC's partners in the World Alliance of Reformed churches.
The trend started with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in the Netherlands, which decided soon after Johnson's ordination that lesbians and gays could serve openly as pastors. Since then, the practice has spread to 25 other churches—among them the oldest Protestant churches in Europe.
Sexual orientation is no longer a barrier to ordination in the Evangelical Church of the Union (EKU), the German ancestor of the UCC's Evangelical tradition. Its territory includes the capital city of the Protestant Reformation—Luther's Wittenberg. Homosexuals also can be ordained in the Reformed churches of Germany and Switzerland, the forebears of the UCC's Reformed tradition. The city once known as the "Reformed Rome"—John Calvin's Geneva—is no longer hostile territory for lesbians and gays called to Christian ministry.
Most of the historic Lutheran and Reformed churches in Germany and northern Europe now welcome homosexuals into ordained ministry.
Europe heads the list with 19 churches where homosexuals can be legally ordained. But several denominations in Africa, North America and the Pacific are also joining the trend, including the Anglican church in South Africa formerly led by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the United Church of Canada, the Episcopal Church in the U.S. and the Uniting Church in Australia.
Besides these Protestant and Anglican churches, at least three of Europe's "Old Catholic" churches permit the ordination of gays and lesbians. These are churches in the Roman Catholic tradition that broke with the Vatican in the 19th century.
Many churches have adopted uniform policies that expressly permit homosexuals to serve as priests or ministers. In others, the policy is either neutral or implicit, leaving the decision to a regional or local authority.
Practices are not consistent from church to church, but in all of them church leaders have either ordained openly homosexual candidates for ministry or signaled their willingness to do so.
The issue deeply divides some of the churches where lesbians and gays have been ordained. Open conflict has broken out in the Anglican Communion. The church's international conference of bishops in 1998 rejected "homosexual practice" as "incompatible with Scripture," but defeated a resolution condemning bishops who "knowingly ordain" gays and lesbians. Some Anglican bishops in Asia and Africa, despairing at the trend towards greater acceptance of homosexuals in the Episcopal Church, have threatened to break relations with U.S. bishops. Other churches have lost members and even entire congregations who feel they cannot coexist with openly gay clergy.
But in most churches, the trend is to recognize a diversity of practice—to "agree to disagree." In these churches there is continued debate, but homosexuality is no longer considered a church-dividing issue.
Many Protestant churches are still sorting out unresolved issues, with the result that policies are sometimes ambiguous or contradictory. Celibacy, for example, is generally not required by those German churches that ordain homosexuals, but some forbid gay pastors to live with their life partners in parish housing. That policy, critics say, has the unintended effect of splitting monogamous couples from each other, and sends mixed messages to the gay community about the church's commitment to lifelong fidelity as the ideal for human relationships. While the trend is towards inclusion of lesbians and gays in the ordained ministry, acceptance of homosexual pastors in Germany is often a quiet affair, not a confident proclamation that a consensus exists on the morality of same-gender relationships.
The 26 churches have a total membership of nearly 57 million.
Andy Lang is managing editor of the United Church of Christ website.
|Churches where homosexuals can legally be ordained
Anglican: Church of the Province of Southern Africa*, Episcopal Church (USA)*, Scottish Episcopal Church*; Baptist: Alliance of Baptists (USA)*; Christian: Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)*; Lutheran: Church of Denmark*, Church of Norway, Church of Sweden*, Evangelical Church of the Augsburg Confession (Austria), Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland*, Evangelical Lutheran Church in the Kingdom of the Netherlands, United Evangelical Lutheran Church of Germany*; Old Catholic: Old Catholic Church of Austria, Old Catholic Church in the Netherlands*, Old Catholic Diocese of Germany*; Reformed and United: Evangelical Church of the Helvetic Confession (Austria), Evangelical Church of the Union (Germany)*, Evangelical Reformed Church (Germany)*, Evangelical Reformed Churches of Switzerland*, Evangelical Waldensian Church (Italy)*, Netherlands Reformed Church, Reformed Churches in the Netherlands, Remonstrant Brotherhood (Netherlands), Uniting Church in Australia*, United Church of Canada, United Church of Christ (USA)*, United Protestant Church of Belgium*
* These churches have no explicit churchwide policy permitting or prohibiting ordination of gays and lesbians. The decision is left to regional or local bodies, some of which are willing to ordain homosexual candidates. In some churches this amounts to a churchwide practice, since no ordaining bodies discriminate against homosexual candidates for ministry.
In Germany, a majority of Lutheran, United and Reformed Landeskirchen (regional churches) permit the ordination of homosexuals without requiring celibacy. In the United Protestant Church in Belgium, homosexuals generally can be ordained in Dutch, but not in French, congregations. The General Synod of the Church of Norway, voted in 1997 to oppose the ordination of homosexuals living with a partner, but four of the eleven Norwegian bishops have declared that this policy is not binding in their dioceses. The issue is still in dispute. There is no churchwide policy in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland, and at least one bishop has declared his willingness to ordain homosexuals. Other Finnish bishops have said they will do so only if the ordinand commits to lifelong celibacy.