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The UCC and gay ordination: thirty-eight years and counting

I have been and will continue to be a cheerleader for my beloved ELCA, and I will defend with pride her courageous decision last summer to include our LGBT brothers and sisters in ordained ministry and to offer blessing of their relationships.  I have also blogged extensively about the parallel Episcopal efforts to include “all the baptized in all the sacraments.”  But, there is one denomination that we sometimes overlook and take for granted; the United Church of Christ (UCC) was the original pioneer in recognizing gay clergy over a generation ago.  I have friends in my local UCC congregation, and their attitude towards the new ELCA policy is “what took you so long.”

With a hat tip to the blog Straight not Narrow—Presenting Jesus beyond the Walls, I offer the following YouTube video that remembers the ordination of William (Bill) R. Johnson, the first openly gay person to be ordained to the Christian ministry … on June 25, 1972. The whole movie takes about twenty minutes and is broken into two parts for YouTube.  They’re worth the time.

Cross posted at Spirit of a Liberal.


11 Responses

  1. Obie, thanks for the reminder of the significance of the UCC’s prophetic stand on gay rights issues. I have long seen it as rooted in the UCC’s historical roots.

    The UCC combines (among other groups) the Congregationalist tradition of New England and the German Brethren traditions in the Midwest. Both were staunchly anti-slavery, and the Congregationalists who went to the Midwest in the period before the Civil War worked hard, for the most part, in the abolition movement.

    So I think it’s no accident that those parts of Iowa dominated by these religious traditions have led the way now in welcoming gay rights in the Midwest. Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead offers an interesting fictional snapshot of the Congregationalist contribution to the struggle against slavery in Iowa–and when I read that novel, I think of the strong parallel today to the issue of gay liberation.

    • I think Lutherans can take a bit of credit for Bill’s 1972 ordination. Part of the UCC’s ecclesial DNA is Lutheran: one of our antecedent traditions was the German Evangelical Synod in North America — which like the other “united” churches in Germany (Prussia, Baden, elsewhere) affirmed both the Lutheran and Reformed symbols of faith. That’s why Luther’s Small Catechism is on our website. 🙂

      This was an early expression of inclusion in the irenic spirit of Melanchthon, and should be counted as one of the influences that shaped the UCC’s openness to LGBT Christians.

  2. You’re right to remind us of this, and also to point to history. We tend to forget that in the bigger struggle for gay inclusion, while still having a long way to go, is by now fairly well established. There’s the important example of the UCC, and the strong progress last year in the ELCA and the Episcopalians (as well as the Swedish Lutherans). I’ve been fascinated also by the progress in the Presbyterians, who have begun ordaining ministers who were refused ordination decades ago.

    The striking thing about all of these is that unlike the Catholic church, decisions are taken by real people , living real lives, with some experience of real sexuality – not by celibate ivory tower theologians and bureaucrats in Rome. The decision making process also ensures that all voices are heard: they become “listening churches” in fact, not just on paper. Listening creates understanding, and out of it comes progress.

    • Terence,

      “The decision-making process also ensures that all voices are heard…” can be both a good and a bad thing.

      The decision-making process in Congress, taken by real people, living real lives, with some experience in real war, resulted in America invading Iraq. At the same time, the ivory tower theologians and bureaucrats in Rome, who had no experience in war, decried the war as unjust and evil.

      Congress was a listening body in fact, and not just on paper. But their listening did not create understanding nor progress. Their actions merely reflected the whims of the majority at that time, and not the principled approach of country founded upon the inalienable rights bestowed upon us by the Creator.

      Understanding is important on both sides of the gay clergy issue. I applaud the ECLA for trying to arrive at an understanding of human sexuality that attempts to incorporate the more classical understanding of human sexuality as being life-giving with the newer developments of understanding which include life-sustaining without dividing the concerns into pro and con positions.

      I think that it is both unfortunate and disingenuous that some hail the ECLA decision as a victory. It is unfortunate because the victory signifies not a gain in understanding, but a defeat of others. It is disingenuous because the ECLA did not make a decision to include GLBT members in the clergy. It merely opened up the possibility of gay and lesbian clergy under some fairly strict criteria which includes secular and congregational approval.

      What I enjoyed most about the ECLA document, as I studied it, was that it presented both the “classical” and the “progressive” viewpoints in a sincere effort to create an understanding. In the end, it presented the gay marriage and gay clergy issue as having four valid interpretations, and left it up to the congregations to decided which interpretation it wished to live by.

      • David, please accept my apologies for this delay in replying. I have not studied the ECLA decision as you have, but I do not see it at as victory for one “side” over the other, which would indeed be sad. I see it more as a victory for the importance of accepting that there can be different valid interpretations – which is exactly the way you describe it.

        It is also undeniably true that listening, like democracy in general, can easily lead to some unfortunate results, as it did in the Iraq, and as it has so often been used to victimize minority groups – gays and lesbians today, racial or religious minorities in the past. But overall, it usually leads to sense, and also has ethical value in itself. It was the procedure adopted by the Apostles, who shared all things in common and took took decisions collegially, and for the early church, who chose their ministers and bishops from among themselves. The modern top-down papacy has developed as a natural process in which those with a little power gradually took unto themselves a little more, until they were entrenched and impregnable.

        The well-known aphorism “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” was originally coined with explicit reference to the church in the 19th Century. How very true it is.

      • Terence,

        In the process of listening the ECLA concluded that the “classical” interpretation of sexuality had as much validity as the newer, and more “progressive” interpretations.

        It seems to me that much of the contributions at this website are so overtly anti-Vatican that it is clouding the listening process. At least the Vatican has responded with argument, and reasoned debate to the viewpoints of the progressives.

        I am willing to concede that the Vatican could be wrong on sexual ethics. But, I am not going to do so just because they have the power to write the Catechism. Something more cogent, and consistent on the philosophy and the theology could persuade me. All this anti-Vatican talk just makes me think that the philosophy and theology isn’t deep enough to stand on its own.

        That said, Mr. Lindsey and I had an extensive online discussion which has helped me understand that there may be other ways of approaching sexual ethics, especially the issue of monogamous, committed, loving relationships that are oriented towards a person’s natural sexual orientation.

        • David, on the ECLA, I agree with you completely.
          In the Vatican, I disagree completely. I am entirely unaware that the Vatican has responded to progressives with argument and debate Instead, they have consistently responded to progressive clerics by removing their opportunities to teach, and in some cases even to write. So far from listening to non-clerics, they have entirely failed in the intentions of Vatican II to listen to the voices of the haithful, and simply have no structures in place for us to make our views known. On matters of sexuality, they have never provided any reasoned argument, but simply repeated their own established views – even in the face of their own appointed experts, as on birth control.

  3. Terence,

    The Vatican’s views are often distorted; sometimes, I think the distortion is intentional.

    In spite of what has been said here, the Vatican does NOT teach that homosexuals are disordered. I have had this discussion with Mr. Holman on his blog, and with Mr. Lindsey on this blog.

    The Vatican’s argument, which is clearly laid out in the Catechism, and which is consistently maintained by the Church officials, is that homosexual BEHAVIOR is disordered. Within the context that the Church speaks, there can be little doubt about the accuracy of the statement. Homosexual behavior is not, and cannot be life-giving in the same way that heterosexual relationships can be.

    Similarly, within the context that the ECLA speaks, there can be little doubt that it is possible to hold four inconsistent views of committed and loving homosexual relationships. Homosexual relationships can be legitimately viewed as satifsying the purpose of sexual relationships as God intended, or can be an abomination before God.

    In the future, I have no doubt that the Catholic Church will take a less principled approach to homosexual relationships, in much the same way that she has reacted to adultery and divorce. One would be well-advised to heed the Catechism’s (and Gospel’s) warnings regarding these matters.

    • David, the Vatican position is very clearly stated: neither “homosexuals”, nor their actions are said to be disordered. It is the condition that is disordered. For a person who is gay or lesbian, the distinction between their “condition”, whatever that is, and themselves as a class, is not easily discerned.

      On “principled”, I rather wish they would move more in that direction. If one goes into the historical development of the teaching, reading for instance the reputable scholars John Boswell and Mark Jordan on the subject, it becomes clear that it was NOT principled, but developed (very slowly, over time) as a response to popular prejudice. The religious arguments were used in the beginning as a cover to justify opposition and prejudice against minorities of all kinds: it did not lead to that opposition.

      On the Catechism, we would all do well to remember that Church teaching clearly differentiates between different orders of teaching: some which are held to be crucial to the faith, some less so. he catechism does not differentiate between these orders of teaching . In fact, the teaching on these matters of sexuality is only a third order teaching, which means that contrary to popular opinion, these matters are NOT one which we are absolutley required to accept – even if we agree that Church teaching has some kind of legislative status, which I do not.

      On the Gospel’s views on same-sex relationships, they contain not a single word against them, and a great deal in support. Indeed, there is a great deal instead that is clearly opposed to the modern idea of “traditional” family values, and in support of queer values. For example, consider Jesus’ own (adult) family of choice – his friends Martha, Mary and Lazarus – hardly a typical Jewish family; His advice to disciples to leave their families behind to follow Him; his declaration that “eunuchs” (which may well have included all sexual minorities) were welcome in the kingdom of heaven; his willingness to go to the home of the Roman centurion to heal the “beloved boy” – in the historical context, this was probably a sexual relationship; and above all, his entire ministry was based on inclusion and embracing the outsider.

    • We’ve had that discussion, you’re right, Mr. Ludescher.

      And as I’ve pointed out to you, you’re simply mistaken when you say that the Vatican does NOT teach that homosexuals are disordered.

      I quoted to you both the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the 1986 pastoral letter of the current pope writing as head of the CDF, each of which explicitly states that the inclination and “condition” of those who are homosexual is “objectively disordered.”

      I understand the political need that drives the attempt of some Catholics today to try to downplay the position stated unambiguously and clearly in those two documents. But surely, if we believe we’re defending the truth, we don’t need to resort to stating what is untrue, in order to defend the truth?

      When we take that tack, it seems to me we’re really admitting that the position we’re defending can’t stand on its own.

      • As a Clinical Psychologist, I question a “disorder” that is not diagnosable. Certainly not “treatable” – indeed to try and treat it would be unethical for us professionals.

        And objective? Where’s the research proving it’s a disorder?

        And I see no evidence of the Vatican trying to clear up mistakes here. The Vatican operates on “assertions” – not facts. They simply believe than “argue” via assertions. And then they use a term like “objectively” without any factual back-up.

        It’s institutional bigotry!

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