Forty years ago, every major religious denomination (and the vast majority of the minor ones) offered only condemnation to out gay men and lesbians. Recognizing one of us as a leader in the religious community was almost literally unimaginable. All that changed on June 25, 1972, when the United Church of Christ (UCC) ordained William Reagan Johnson of San Carlos, California. Having come out publicly two years earlier, Johnson’s ordination shocked many in the UCC and across the religious spectrum.
The following short film A Position Of Faith was produced in 1973, after Rev. Johnson’s ordination. It’s a fantastic historical record of the familiar objections to his worth as a minister and as a human being, and of the uncertainty of the vote. Also, flute music and “rap sessions.”
Also in 1973, Rev. W. Evan Golder, now Editor Emeritus of United Church News, wrote a resource paper for the UCC about Johnson’s ordination. You can read the first 16 pages of that report here, with thanks to the LGBT Religious Archives Network. In it he wrote this sentence, which should be repeated verbatim in every single conversation about religious LGBT people:
Perhaps now persons may be judged by the whole context of their lives rather than prejudged by one stereotyped impression.
The “whole context” of Rev. Johnson’s life unmistakably reaffirms the 1972 decision. Among other achievements, Johnson founded the UCC Coalition for LGBT Concerns, helped establish the AIDS National Interfaith Network, and worked with lesbian rights trailblazer Phyllis Lyon to organize the first meeting of what would become the San Francisco chapter of PFLAG.
Happy anniversary, UCC! Here’s hoping it won’t be another 40 years before my own Methodist Church and the rest of Christendom follows your lead!
[photo credit: Elliot Owen for the Bay Area Reporter]