On a June summer’s evening in 1969, a gay Catholic priest and his partner heard a disturbance a few blocks away from their Greenwich Village home. It seems a routine police raid on the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar, had gone awry, and the queers didn’t go quietly. Riots continued for the next couple of days, and the gay liberation movement was born.
A year later, the priest and his partner prepared to participate in a parade to celebrate the one-year anniversary of the Stonewall riots. A light beamed from the Oscar Wilde bookstore, and as if drawn by a beacon, a few faceless strangers shuffled out of the shadows to gather in awkward silence. By the time the sun first peeked over Brooklyn across the East River, a crowd of hundreds milled about the bookstore that had become the de facto headquarters for the audacious planners of Christopher Street Liberation Day to celebrate the first anniversary of Stonewall. At the time, they didn’t realize they would make history in the first Gay Pride march.
Father Robert Mary Clement, a priest associated with Old Catholicism, a non-Roman spinoff, donned his priestly garb, like he did every Sunday, while his partner prepared a placard and orange flyers that they would distribute at the parade. Father Clement’s presence in the parade garnered much attention, especially by the press and the picture-takers, second only to the drag queens; after all, he marched as an openly-gay priest, in collar and cassock, carrying the banner, “Gay People This Is Your Church.” Meanwhile, his partner distributed their colored fliers inviting queers to attend The Church of the Beloved Disciple.
A few weeks later, the tiny congregation of the Church of the Beloved Disciple paid more than they could afford to rent the spacious sanctuary of Holy Apostles Episcopal church in lower Manhattan, but as the time drew near for the Sunday afternoon service, it appeared that their invitation to the Christopher Street marchers would go unheeded. Father Clement peeked out from the sacristy fifteen minutes before the start and there was no one there, but then:
Two o’clock, we opened the side sacristy door for our procession. We couldn’t believe it. It wasn’t just that every seat in the church was filled, the aisles were packed. That church, which would hold maybe six hundred plus in a squeeze, had over eight hundred people in it, and we don’t know how many people were turned away that day who couldn’t get in.
Because we had all the Protestants, the Orthodox, the Catholics. And on top of it all, you had, the most incredible thing, we had Jewish people, a lot of them. Because they wanted a home. Even though it was Christian, people were seeking God, they were seeking a relationship to the divine, and they would come to us because everyone else had rejected or turned them away. They had nowhere to go. [emphasis added]
In the early years of the decade of the ‘70s, the Church of the Beloved Disciple would be a safe haven for gays and lesbians of lower Manhattan. Father Clement and his partner would later relocate to California where Father Clement became an archbishop for an independent Catholic group, and he has remained active in the interfaith LGBT movement on the west coast.
Where to buy the book
Print copies are available from Amazon, the publisher, Barnes and Noble, Cokesbury, or an autographed copy straight from me. Amazon offers it in digital, eBook format for Kindle, and Barnes and Noble offers it for Nook. For iPad or other Apple users, you may order through the iTunes bookstore. Search on RW Holmen.
This post is part of the series Cast of characters, which are biographical snippets and summaries of the stories of the iconic pilgrims and prophets on the road to full inclusion who are featured prominently in Queer Clergy. As with all these posts, this is merely a summary of the full story, which is woven into an overarching narrative in the book. Here’s the full list of these posts:
1968 Troy Perry (founder of the MCC)
1970 Robert Mary Clement (gay priest who marched in the first Gay Pride parade)
1972 William Johnson (first out gay man to be ordained by a traditional denomination)
1974 James Siefkes (Lutheran pastor behind the formation of Lutherans Concerned)
1974 David Bailey Sindt (founder of More Light Presbyterians)
1975 Steve Webster (organized the first gathering of gay Methodists)
1975 Dr. Louie Clay (founder of Episcopal Integrity)
1976 Chris Glaser (longtime Presbyterian activist)
1977 Ellen Marie Barrett (first out lesbian ordained to the Episcopal priesthood)
1978 Loey Powell (early UCC lesbian pastor and activist)
1980 Mark Bowman (founder and leader of RMN and editor of Open Hands Magazine)
1982 Melvin Wheatley (Methodist bishop and straight ally)
1987 Ann B. Day (Led the UCC ONA for twenty years)
1990 Jeff Johnson, Ruth Frost, Phyllis Zillhart (Extraordinarily ordained Lutherans)
1990 John Shelby Spong (leading straight ally in the Episcopal House of Bishops)
1992 Janie Spahr (Presbyterian leader of “That All May Freely Serve”)
1994 Ross Merkel (defrocked Lutheran allowed to remain on call with a “wink-and-a-nod” from his bishop)
1996 Walter Righter (Episcopal Bishop whose heresy trial opened the door for queer clergy)
2000 Jimmy Creech, Greg Dell, Joseph Sprague, and Jack Tuell (Methodist trials to punish clergy who performed covenant services for same-gender couples)
2001 Anita Hill (extraordinarily ordained Lutheran)
2003 Gene Robinson (gay bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire)
2004 Karen Dammann and Beth Stroud (Methodist clergy put on trial for being lesbians)
2007 Bradley Schmeling and Darin Easler (defrocked Lutheran clergy who were the first to be reinstated)
2011 Scott Anderson (first gay Presbyterian to be ordained following policy change)
2011 Amy DeLong (out, partnered Methodist minister on trial)
2012 R. Guy Erwin (gay professor elected as ELCA bishop)