- Go! Northfield-Dundas
- Submit Content
In 1970, the Episcopal General Convention authorized diaconal ordination for women, a non-sacerdotal role. Two years later, Bishop Paul Moore, Jr., of the Episcopal Diocese of New York, interviewed Ellen Marie Barrett, an early female candidate for ordination to the diaconate.
I asked her to sit down on the sofa across from the wing chair where I usually sit when someone comes to see me. Ellen is tall, with dark brown hair conservatively styled. She, like many tall people, stoops a little as she walks. Her most arresting feature is her eyes, which appear honest, deep, and welcoming … In conversation, she seems rather soft, until the discussion finds its way into an area of faith or conviction. Then you strike rock.
Though the progressive bishop was impressed with Barrett, he did not recommend her for ordination to the diaconate because she was an out lesbian. Barrett attended seminary. When she finished in 1975, she again asked Bishop Moore to approve her for ordination to the diaconate. He relented, and she was ordained a deacon in December, 1975 before a few church ladies, a few students, and her proud Southern mother. The ordination barely disturbed the church mice even though Barrett had been elected co-president of Integrity, an Episcopal LGBT advocacy group, at its inaugural national meeting earlier that year.
The following summer, the Episcopal General Convention went further; church canons were revised to allow women to be ordained to the priesthood, and many lined up for ordination when the policy would become effective in January, 1977. Deacon Barrett was among the hopeful women, but she and Bishop Moore weren’t prepared for the firestorm that awaited them. TV networks were there for her January ordination, which was a Time Magazine feature story.
The bishop and the lesbian priest were hounded mercilessly with calls, letters, and rejection. The last years of the decade of the seventies degenerated into the “height of homophobia” within the Episcopal Church. Barrett didn’t have a comfortable career and faced crushing depression. Eventually, she joined the Order of St. Benedict as Sister Bernadette.
In researching her story, I located her in the Diocese of Newark, and I asked her to comment. Months passed, and I heard nothing. Then, a long email arrived. With Sister Bernadette’s permission, the entire email appears as a poignant coda to the Episcopal section of my book.
Here’s a snippet:
Would I do it again? Knowing what I know now? That’s not a question that can possibly have an answer. Today is a very different time. I have no idea whether God would have moulded my combination of weakness, pig-headedness, and some talent into what another time would need. I was what I was, and I did what I did, in the context of a particular time and socio-political climate.
Am I still convinced it was the right thing to do? Yes. Done the right way by the right person? Who knows? It is what it is. And priesthood is as much a part of me as green eyes and once black hair turning white.
I am a priest forever. That’s all.
This is the fourth installment in the series Cast of characters countdown. I will continue to post biographical notes about the iconic pilgrims and prophets on the road to full inclusion who are featured prominently in Queer Clergy. Here’s the list of prior posts:
1968 Troy Perry (founder of the MCC)
1970 Robert Mary Clement (gay priest who marched in the first Gay Pride parade)
1970-72 William Johnson (first out gay man to be ordained by a traditional denomination)
The Christopher Street Liberation Day parade from Greenwich Village to Central Park on June 28, 1970 was peaceful. Though police turned their backs on the marchers, they honored their parade permit.
Across the nation in San Francisco, police were less respectful at a much smaller event that same day, consisting of a couple of hundred queers at a ”Gay In” at Golden Gate park; police arrested several of the participants. San Francisco was years away from its later reputation as an LGBT friendly city.
Five years earlier, on New Year’s eve 1965, San Francisco police had broken promises made to the clergy organizers of a ball sponsored by the Council on Religion and Homosexuality. When police attempted to crash the ball, the word went out to the clergy organizers: “Get down here and wear your collar.” Lutheran pastor Chuck Lewis kept flash bulbs popping, and his assistant, Jo Chadwick, stuffed his film negatives in her bra to prevent the police from confiscating the photos. At a later press conference, clergy offered the “cloak of the cloth” moral authority, and the eyes of the nation witnessed the reality of police harassment of the gay community.
Five months after the arrests at the “Gay In” at Golden Gate Park, another historic event would quietly unfold across the Bay. Sitting atop “Holy Hill,” the neo-Gothic structures of the Pacific School of Religion (PSR) stand in stately vigil over San Francisco Bay across from the Golden Gate bridge. The stone and timber halls of PSR had long witnessed Christian activism. Founded by Yankee congregationalists from the east in 1866, the seminary prided itself on a “courage born of rashness.”
Four hundred students and others attended a homosexuality symposium in the seminary dining hall on November 11, 1970. When someone made an incendiary comment about gays, a young seminarian found himself rising to speak. His spontaneous comment changed his life and the course of church history.
I am not a faggot, I am not a queer, I am not a fairy–but I am a practicing homosexual. And I can say that with joy–it is an affirmation which I make with pride.
Despite his impromptu “coming out” and over the objections of the seminary president, William R. Johnson continued in seminary and the Golden Gate Association of the United Church of Christ (UCC) ordained him to the ministry in June 1972 around the third anniversary of Stonewall. The UCC had accomplished another historic “first”—the first ordination of an out gay man by any traditional Christian denomination.
Thus began a distinguished career as the pastor to countless gay Christians, including many closeted clergy, and as the pan-denominational prophetic leader of the movement toward full inclusion. Rev. Johnson served as inspiration and strategist for the fledgling LGBT advocacy organizations that appeared in Protestant denominations during the 1970s, including as founder and first leader of what came to be known as the UCC Coalition. Later, he served for many years in the UCC home office.
Pastor Johnson has only recently retired. Elmhurst College, his alma mater, has honored him with an annual lecture series in his name. Pastor Johnson has also been a fact-checking source and supporter during my compilation of Queer Clergy: A History of Gay and Lesbian Ministry in American Protestantism.
He offers this endorsement of the book:
“I have always known that this historical overview of the religious LGBT movement was needed not only to tell our movement stories to the masses but to make same-gender loving people aware of a significant but often overlooked part of their own history. This is a significant work by justice ally Obie Holmen — a singular contribution toward the full inclusion of LGBT people within Christian community and society. Many will be surprised by the breadth and depth of the movement in the Church.”
On a June summer’s evening in 1969, a gay Catholic priest and his partner heard a disturbance a few blocks away from their Greenwich Village home. It seems a routine police raid on the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar, had gone awry, and the queers didn’t go quietly. Riots continued for the next couple of days, and the gay liberation movement was born.
A year later, the priest and his partner prepared to participate in a parade to celebrate the one-year anniversary of the Stonewall riots. A light beamed from the Oscar Wilde bookstore, and as if drawn by a beacon, a few faceless strangers shuffled out of the shadows to gather in awkward silence. By the time the sun first peeked over Brooklyn across the East River, a crowd of hundreds milled about the bookstore that had become the de facto headquarters for the audacious planners of Christopher Street Liberation Day to celebrate the first anniversary of Stonewall. At the time, they didn’t realize they would make history in the first Gay Pride march.
Father Robert Mary Clement, a priest associated with Old Catholicism, a non-Roman spinoff, donned his priestly garb, like he did every Sunday, while his partner prepared a placard and orange flyers that they would distribute at the parade. Father Clement’s presence in the parade garnered much attention, especially by the press and the picture-takers, second only to the drag queens; after all, he marched as an openly-gay priest, in collar and cassock, carrying the banner, “Gay People This Is Your Church.” Meanwhile, his partner distributed their colored fliers inviting queers to attend The Church of the Beloved Disciple.
A few weeks later, the tiny congregation of the Church of the Beloved Disciple paid more than they could afford to rent the spacious sanctuary of Holy Apostles Episcopal church in lower Manhattan, but as the time drew near for the Sunday afternoon service, it appeared that their invitation to the Christopher Street marchers would go unheeded. Father Clement peeked out from the sacristy fifteen minutes before the start and there was no one there, but then:
Two o’clock, we opened the side sacristy door for our procession. We couldn’t believe it. It wasn’t just that every seat in the church was filled, the aisles were packed. That church, which would hold maybe six hundred plus in a squeeze, had over eight hundred people in it, and we don’t know how many people were turned away that day who couldn’t get in.
Because we had all the Protestants, the Orthodox, the Catholics. And on top of it all, you had, the most incredible thing, we had Jewish people, a lot of them. Because they wanted a home. Even though it was Christian, people were seeking God, they were seeking a relationship to the divine, and they would come to us because everyone else had rejected or turned them away. They had nowhere to go. [emphasis added]
In the early years of the decade of the ‘70s, the Church of the Beloved Disciple would be a safe haven for gays and lesbians of lower Manhattan. Father Clement and his partner would later relocate to California where Father Clement became an archbishop for an independent Catholic group, and he has remained active in the interfaith LGBT movement on the west coast.
This brief biographical sketch is merely a snippet, and Father Clement’s story receives greater treatment in Queer Clergy: A History of Gay and Lesbian Ministry in American Protestantism.
Queer Clergy recounts the journey toward full LGBT inclusion in the church, and readers will encounter many pilgrims along the way. As we countdown to the release of the book (now looking like the end of November), I will provide brief biographical sketches of some of the wayfarers who criss-cross the pages of the book.
Troy Perry was born to a family of bootleggers in the Florida panhandle, and he exhibited a youthful bent toward preaching. Perry became a Baptist preacher at age 15, married a preacher’s daughter at age 19 with whom he fathered two children, and was assigned as pastor to a Pentecostal Church in Santa Ana, California at age 22. Six years later he attempted suicide after he had been defrocked and divorced, and then life got interesting.
In October 1968, 8 months before the Stonewall riots of Greenwich Village marked the birth of the gay liberation movement, Perry held a worship service in his Los Angeles home for members of his gay community. Twelve persons dared to show up. They sang. They read Scripture. They prayed. Perry preached. They shed tears as they shared bread and wine.
That was the first worship service of what became the Metropolitan Community Church (MCC) movement with hundreds of predominantly gay congregations popping up around the country and around the world in what would become the first welcoming church for gays and lesbians at a time that the rest of Christendom, including the mainline, Protestant denominations, remained hostile.
In the early years, the MCC survived several arsonist fires, including a horrendous tragedy in New Orleans that claimed the lives of 32 persons. By the time of Perry’s retirement in 2005, the MCC had grown to over 250 congregations in 26 countries with 43,000 members.
Of course, the book goes into greater detail.
Last week, I read my Queer Clergy manuscript for the umpteenth time. As I tell my wife, sometimes I really like it and other times I think it is fluff. This latest re-reading of the manuscript marked up by Pilgrim Press copy editor, Kris Firth, was positive. Perhaps it was her editorial feedback:
I applaud you on your scholarship, writing, and the scope of the material, but also on the excellent condition of the manuscript. It’s obvious that you have had editorial review prior to submission.
Actually, the MS hadn’t been edited previously, except by me, but I confess to nit-picking scrupulosity. In any case, her suggested edits are now in place, and the “page proofs” will be available for final review soon. Galley copies are in the hands of potential reviewers, and I wait, mindful of my days as a trial attorney, sucking in a long, deep breath as the jury shuffled out of the courtroom to begin deliberations.
I recently finished reading Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer. I recommend it highly to those who want to know more about cancer.
It’s a long and challenging read, but it’s worth it. The main thing I learned: cancer is a many-headed hydra. Each type of cancer is a different disease that requires a different type of treatment.
The rich, the well-connected, the privileged, and the powerful have given themselves the society that they deserve. The rest of us deserve better.
On November 22nd, all of the members of Norcoh met for their second programming meeting. These cards with simple but effective drawings helped express their hopes, dreams, and goals for the neighborhood.
The cohousing design discussion on November 5, 2009, was well-attended and lively conversation sprouted afterward. Attendees included ages from very young to retirement-age, which is a perfect match for our goals for our community.
In February, we will be offering a Community Ed course in four sessions for those who would like more information. Also, stay tuned to this blog for more opportunities to engage!