The Gay Red Herring

One of the big news stories before Christmas 2013 was the United Methodist church’s defrocking of Rev. Frank Schaefer for officiating at his son’s marriage. His son is gay, as is the man he married. This week’s blog entry is about a different Methodist minister who was removed from the church in 1973 on similar grounds. While in Boston I interviewed Rev. William E. Alberts two days before the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference Board of Ordained Ministry announced its decision to defrock Schaefer.

Alberts was not actually defrocked; his bishop deemed him “unappointable” and was subsequently forced to retire after he officiated the marriage of Harry Freeman and Bob Jones, who I’ll write about next week. According to Alberts, however, his removal from the church had nothing to do with having officiated a gay marriage. It was a red herring directing attention away from the deeper problem of racism within the Southern New England Methodist conference.

In 1964, Boston’s renovated Old West Methodist Church was re-opened, with a grand vision to establish it as the voice of Methodism in Boston. Alberts was brought on board as co-minister with special responsibility to develop experimental programs that provided “services to humanity.” As Martin Luther King called for racial justice and Lyndon Johnston called for a War on Poverty, so followed the churches — at least on the surface.

Rev. Alberts earned a PhD from Boston University in psychology and pastoral counselling in 1961 while serving at Lafayette St. United Methodist Church in Salem, Massachusetts when he was handpicked for the position at Old West. When he took up his new post he quickly forged connections with diverse community members: the Cambridge Street church became home to music groups and a theatre company, and a refuge for hippies, activists, radicals and Cuban relief workers. The experience not only changed the community, it also changed Alberts.

Angered by police violence against the so-called hippies who flocked to Boston in 1968, Alberts dressed like a hippie and was arrested on the Boston Common with two young men. “I used the denial of our rights, upon arrest, to dramatize in a Boston Globe story the mistreatment by police of the thousands of hippies who had flocked to the Boston Common. “In 1971 I was arrested with several other anti-Vietnam War demonstrators at a sing-in in the Cambridge Draft Board office and did 8 days at the Billerica House of Correction; and the Boston Globe published my daily diary ;about that jail experience.”

According to Alberts, however, in the eyes of his superiors his most controversial action was to stand with his African American brethren in support of the fight against racism within the church.

In 1969, the New England Black Methodists for Church Renewal (BMCR) requested the conference allocate $500,000 a year for three years for black economic and community development programs. This request was inspired by James Forman’s delivery of the Black Manifesto at the Riverside Church in New York City, one of the most prominent white Protestant churches in America. The Manifesto demanded half a billion dollars be given “reparations” from American Christian churches and Jewish synagogues. The funds would be used to establish a farming cooperative, four publishing houses, four black television networks, a research centre for training in communications, a grant to the National Welfare Rights Organization, an International Black Appeal, a black Anti-Defamation League, and a black university. The BMCR was more modest — requesting, not demanding, for example — but they were equally steadfast in their commitment to achieving racial justice through and in their church and community.

In a 1970 Boston Globe account of the meeting Alberts, who is of white heritage, and colleague Rev. William B. McClain, who is of African American heritage, described how after the proposal was advanced, “a white racist Christian mind set surfaced.” Eventually some funds were granted, but it was a fraction of the original request.

Two years later, when a black pastor was passed over in favour of a white pastor for promotion to a church with a predominantly African American congregation, the BMCR requested a formal investigation into the possibility that racism was a factor in the decision-making process. Once again, Alberts was a vocal supporter who stood with McClain and other BCMR members.

As Alberts sees it, the gay marriage he officiated in April 1973 provided the excuse his superiors needed to get rid of him. The bishop demanded that he not perform the ceremony, but Alberts ignored the warning.

Interestingly, the gay marriage issue did not provide the traction the bishop needed and he resorted to even more sordid tactics to achieve his goal, but that story will have to wait for the book. (So, too, will the twist to this entire affair: the bishop who deemed Alberts “unappointable” was African American.)

Alberts’ story reveals something that is becoming increasingly evident in my research. In the mid-1960s, those with authority within organized religion were open to permitting exploration of new ideas about social change and social justice circulating at the time, including the call to embrace homosexuals in Christian community. It quickly became evident, however, that, if taken on board, these ideas would demand radical change, not moderate reform. After a brief period of openness and experimentation, many of the mainline churches made a hasty retreat and retrenched behind their vestments.

crossposted to fromoutlawstoinlaws.dreamwidth.org, a community for sharing and discussing same-sex marriage before 1980.

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