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In 1973 Harry Freeman married Bob Jones at Boston’s Old West Methodist Church. Having a Christian ceremony was important to them. They had both been students in seminary school, and although they chose not to pursue careers with the Church, they remained deeply committed to God, the Christian faith, and to the development of spiritual life on earth.

The night before their wedding the Bishop of the New England Conference warned them that if they proceeded with their ceremony they put Reverend William Alberts' career at risk. Alberts was the minister at Old West and, as we saw in the last post, he was deeply committed to a wide range of progressive social issues. He also was not easily intimidated. Just as he believed in openly fighting racism within the Church, he believed in the right of same-sex couples to marry. The wedding proceeded as planned.

Reproduced with the permission of the photographer

Well, not exactly. Many friends and even some family were invited to attend, but no one expected to walk into a church full to overflowing. Everyday Bostonians turned out to show their support for them as a couple and for the rights and dignity of lesbians and gays in general. Harry knows this because at one point in the ceremony they held an “open mic” session during which folks were invited to come up and talk about why they were there and what the day meant to them.

Of all the people to speak, there were two groups that Harry remembers most. The first were members of the local chapter of the National Organization of Women, the first and most influential national body to emerge from the 1960s women’s movement. These women’s presence is particularly significant because at that time NOW’s leadership was working hard to keep lesbians from having any kind of visible presence in the organization. NOW president Betty Friedan had in 1969 described lesbians in the organization as a “lavender menace.”

Rita Mae Brown, in Lavender Me... Digital ID: 1582297. New York Public Library
[click through to visit NYPL.org]

Issues of special concern to lesbians were not permitted on NOW’s official agenda until 1971. The women who went to support Harry and Bob stood up to say that their wedding was precisely the kind of thing NOW should be supporting.

The other memorable group to stand and speak was a typical-looking young, white, heterosexual couple with young children in tow. Unknown to Harry or Bob, they came simply to show their support for the newlyweds, and to stand in solidarity with the fight against prejudice toward lesbians and gays.

Not a single word of protest was breathed that day, despite the major media coverage leading up to the event. The “religious right” had not yet mobilized. That would come later.

I learned these details from Harry Freeman-Jones in a recent phone interview. I rely heavily on oral history to uncover the undocumented past, but luckily for us the entire ceremony was recorded by Boston’s local NPR radio affiliate. Hopefully I’ll soon be able to hear the voices of everyone who spoke that day. Hopefully. Who knows if the tape has been preserved?
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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 [community profile] fromoutlawstoinlaws

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