First Out Gay Minister Is Ordained

William R. Johnson became the first out gay person to be ordained as a minister by a mainstream Christian denomination, the United Church of Christ in San Francisco.

Summary of Event

The Christian church has long struggled with acceptance and tolerance of gay, lesbian, and bisexual Christians. In the twentieth century, as homosexuality came to be seen as a sexual orientation and not merely one’s participation in homosexual acts, the church had been challenged to determine the appropriate role of gay, lesbian, and bisexual Christians in the life of congregations. This was particularly difficult since the Bible does not explicitly address the issue of sexual orientation or the existence of gays, lesbians, and bisexuals. Perhaps nowhere did the issue become more complicated for the church than in the matter of whether to ordain out gay, lesbian, and bisexual persons to the ministry or to the priesthood of the Roman Catholic Church. [kw]First Out Gay Minister Is Ordained (June 25, 1972)
[kw]Out Gay Minister Is Ordained, First (June 25, 1972)
[kw]Gay Minister Is Ordained, First Out (June 25, 1972)
[kw]Minister Is Ordained, First Out Gay (June 25, 1972)
Religion;gay and lesbian ministers
Christian church;and gay and lesbian clergy[gay and lesbian clergy]
[c]Religion;June 25, 1972: First Out Gay Minister Is Ordained[0900]
Johnson, William R.

No doubt, there have been ordained homosexual ministers and priests since the beginning of Christianity. However, these persons have been forced to be silent publicly about their sexual orientation. In some liberal traditions out of the mainstream, there were a few ministers who became public about being gay, lesbian, or bisexual after their ordinations. One of the earliest ministers to do so was the Reverend James Stoll, Stoll, James who came out as gay while serving as a Unitarian Universalist minister in 1969. However, it is the Reverend William R. (Bill) Johnson who holds the distinction of being the first out gay person to be ordained by a mainline Christian denomination.

As a seminarian, Johnson came out publicly at the Pacific School of Religion on November 11, 1970, during a public forum on homosexuality and the church. Word of Johnson’s affirmed sexual orientation spread quickly to members and congregations of the United Church of Christ United Church of Christ, and first ordained gay minister (UCC), Church of Christ, United, and first ordained gay minister including to the local church where Johnson was working in a paid position as a Sunday school teacher as part of his training. The pastor of the church subsequently telephoned Johnson to inform him that it was no longer possible for him to be on the church’s staff.

Having lost the income from this job, Johnson faced the threat of being unable to finish his seminary education. Genevieve Macliver was an elderly member of the Community UCC in San Carlos, California, where Johnson had served as a youth minister and as an interim associate minister earlier in his seminary years. Macliver believed that Johnson’s sexual orientation should not prohibit him from becoming ordained. She arranged for a scholarship that enabled Johnson to continue his seminary education. In part because of this assistance, Johnson was able to continue his studies and complete his master of divinity degree in 1971.

The Reverend Henry Hayden, Hayden, Henry pastor of the Community UCC in San Carlos during this era, also played a critical role in Johnson’s journey to ordination. Hayden’s pastoral leadership enabled the Community UCC congregation to remain resolutely supportive of Johnson and to weather the criticism it was receiving from within the UCC and beyond.

The Ecclesiastical Council of the Golden Gate Association, a grouping of UCC congregations of the Northern California and Nevada Conference, held an official meeting on April 30, 1972, to determine whether it was appropriate to ordain Johnson. In the course of the discussion and debate, no one questioned Johnson’s qualifications for the ministry in personal terms. The meeting, in effect, became a forum to determine whether or not it was appropriate to ordain out gays and lesbians at all. In addition to moral concerns about homosexuality, there had been a real fear that Johnson’s ordination would endanger the UCC’s relationship with other Christian churches. A majority vote was required for Johnson’s ordination. Of the ninety-six persons present and eligible to vote, sixty-two voted yes for ordination and thirty-four voted no.

On June 25, 1972, Johnson was ordained by the Golden Gate Association, and Bonnie Ploeger, moderator of the Golden Gate Association, presided. The ordination sermon was delivered by the Reverend Dr. James Clark Brown, who was the pastor of the First Congregational Church of San Francisco. The Reverend L. William Eichhorn gave the charge to the minister at the ordination ceremony, stating,

I charge you, Bill Johnson, to remember, to continue to choose life means to choose authenticity—to somehow be authentic to both the United Church of Christ and that communion and your gay brothers and sisters, who you have already been loyal and faithful to. So, Bill Johnson, I charge you to choose life.


Johnson’s ordination and leadership had an immediate impact within the UCC. He would soon found the UCC Gay Caucus in 1972 (which became the UCC Coalition for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Concerns) and served as its national coordinator from 1972 to 1977. In 1983, this coalition introduced to the UCC Synod the concept of the Open and Affirming Church Program, which the Synod adopted in 1985. When a congregation votes to be “open and affirming,” they are declaring publicly that gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people are welcome in the life and ministry of the church. More than four hundred UCC congregations are open and affirming.

In 1991, the General Synod of the UCC declared that it “boldly affirms, celebrates and embraces the gifts of ministry of lesbian, gay and bisexual persons.” In 1999, the UCC created an endowed scholarship fund for out GLBT seminarians studying to become UCC parish ministers. In April, 2000, this fund was named the William R. Johnson Scholarship Fund. In 2004, more than two hundred out GLBT persons had been serving as ordained UCC ministers.

The impact of Johnson’s ordination also spread beyond the UCC to the broader community of faith. In addition to the UCC, Reform Judaism Judaism, and gays and lesbians and the Unitarian Universalist Association have numerous policies that are supportive of lesbian, gay, and bisexual clergy, some of which date back two or even three decades. The Episcopal Church has officially deemed that sexual relations are appropriate only in the context of a heterosexual marriage, but each diocese is able to decide for itself on the controversial issue of ordination. On January 10, 1977, the Episcopal Diocese of New York made Reverend Ellen Marie Barrett Barrett, Ellen Marie the first out lesbian to be ordained as a minister (priest) by a mainline Christian denomination.

Europeans have been the most responsive to the idea of ordination for out GLBT persons, and more than twenty different Christian denominations in Europe allow GLBT individuals to become ordained. Today, most mainline religious denominations in the United States still prohibit sexually active lesbians, gays, and bisexuals from ordination, but they will often allow ordination if they are committed to celibacy. Religion;gay and lesbian ministers
Christian church;and gay and lesbian clergy[gay and lesbian clergy]

Further Reading

  • Gomes, Peter J. The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart. San Francisco, Calif.: HarperSanFrancisco, 2002.
  • Johnson, William R. “Protestantism and Gay and Lesbian Freedom.” In Positively Gay: New Approaches to Gay and Lesbian Life, edited by Betty Berzon and Frank Barney. Berkeley, Calif.: Celestial Arts, 2001.
  • McNeill, John J. The Church and the Homosexual. Boston: Beacon Press, 1993.
  • Rhodes, Mike. A Position of Faith. Rhodes Films, 1973. Documentary film on the ordination of the Reverend William R. Johnson.
  • Righter, Walter C. A Pilgrim’s Way: The Personal Story of the Episcopal Bishop Charged with Heresy for Ordaining a Gay Man Who Was in a Committed Relationship. New York: Random House, 1998.
  • White, Mel. Stranger at the Gate: To Be Gay and Christian in America. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994.
  • Wink, Walter, ed. Homosexuality and Christian Faith: Questions of Conscience for the Churches. Minneapolis, Minn.: Augsburg Fortress, 1999.

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March 7, 2004: Robinson Becomes First Out Gay Bishop in Christian History

November 29, 2005: Roman Catholic Church Bans Gay Seminarians