Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Ordination of Rev. Bill Johnson: Behind the 40th Anniversary of the Coalition for LGBT Concerns

Earlier this week, I wrote about the 40th anniversary of the United Church of Christ's Coalition for LGBT Concerns. One of the significant events that eventually led to the creation of the UCC Gay Caucus (which would eventually change its name to the Coalition for LGBT Concerns) was the ordination of Rev. Bill Johnson in 1972. Johnson is the first openly gay person ordained in modern times by a mainline Christian church.

Check out these two clips to get some background on this particular story:

I wrote about Rev. Johnson's ordination on my old Beliefnet blog. Here is what I wrote at the time:
I posted a question (on a UCC discussion board) asking about the ordination requirement of having a call to a local parish. I asked for clarification. Do you have to be a parish minister in order to be ordained in the UCC? Can you go through the training, serve in some other form of ministry, and become ordained in the UCC? (In a nutshell, I was informed by a couple different folks that you do indeed need to be called to serve as a minister or similar type of ministry program – like a chaplaincy – before becoming ordained or at the very least can be ordained “pending a call”.)

One of the discussion participants referred me to an article about Rev. Bill Johnson’s ordination from the San Francisco Sunday Examiner & Chronicle... After reading the article, I was left with a couple observations:
This advisory committee interviewed him twice, found his credentials in order, and found him "well qualified in all aspects of training, theology, experience, etc." Nevertheless, the (Church and Ministry) Committee decided in May 1971 by a split vote of 4-3 not to recommend him for ordination.
The Association set up a "Credentials Committee" to review Bill Johnson's qualifications. Association Moderator Bonnie Ploeger, a professional parlimentarian, encouraged his action out of her concern to keep the whole procedure so ecclesiastically sound that no matter what the outcome, the process could not be faulted. This five member committee met for three hours, conversing with Bill Johnson and listening to his paper.

Afterwards they issued a statement affirming Bill Johnson and his current ministry, but voting to recommend against his ordination by a split vote of 3-2
In an article that goes into great detail describing Bill's stylish suit and plump cheeks, as well as several other details that don't actually tell the story but flesh it out, I'm left wondering why these committees find him qualified or his ministry affirmed, but his ordination denied?

Did it basically come down to this phrase?:
"I remain open to God's guidance. Anyone who knows me knows that I'm deeply committed to the parish church," Johnson replied, leaving unsaid what everyone was thinking -- what parish church would call him to be their pastor?
Obviously, there are parish ministers in the UCC who were gay at that time. They just hid it during ordination. Rev. Robert Wood was mentioned earlier in the sexual license chronology. I'm sure that there were more active gay ministers than just him.

What was the reason for his initial ordination rejection?

The question-and-answer part of his ordination reminded me of Gene Robinson’s installation as Bishop within the Episcopal Church of the USA. Check out these questions:
“If we ordain this man, won’t it attract more homosexuals to the church?”

“As a homosexual minister, how would you relate to prostitutes?”

“Wouldn’t you be a negative example to young people?”

“How would you get along without a ‘ministers wife’?”

“Would you be willing to forego the personal pleasures of homosexuality in order to accept ordination?”
I can’t imagine any candidate in the UCC ever being asked if they would be willing to forego the "personal pleasures" of heterosexuality in exchange for their ordination. But that’s the joy of living in a heterosexist society, I guess.

Ultimately, Rev. Johnson was ordained by a vote of 2-1.
After his ordination, Rev. Johnson helped found the organization that would become the Coalition for LGBT Concerns. According to his bio, he spent many years teaching, coordinating the Coalition for LGBT Concerns, advocating for GLBT inclusion within the United Church of Christ, and serving other administrative roles within the national UCC denomination, but it's unclear to me whether or not he ever did lead a church congregation.

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