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The writings of author, therapist, and priest Robert Warren Cromey.

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Location: San Francisco, California, United States

Friday, October 22, 2010

Clergy Taking a Stand

Clergy often fear involvement in social and political actions for justice, like participating in vigils, demonstrations, picket lines, protests, media conferences, signing petitions or writing letters to the editor. Clergy values usually support the ends of such events like peace, racial equality, LGBT rights, unions and workers. Some rightly fear their congregations or superiors like Bishops and judicatory supervisors will criticize them. Some fear they will be passed over for promotions, better jobs and bigger ministries. Some fear losing their jobs and fear they will have trouble supporting their families and themselves.

People are different. Some are more aggressive than others; some are more willing to take risks. Is it in their nature?

It is true that outspoken liberal and radical clergy seldom get elected Bishops or become deans of cathedrals or posh parishes. Clerics who speak out do not make good committee members, or patient planners or negotiators. But many liberal/radical clergy have done very well in churches and as teachers.

James A. Pike was elected Bishop of California in 1958 after publicly espousing very hot issues in those days: birth control, abortion rights, civil rights for African-Americans and a liberal theology. He was featured on radio and TV during the very conservative 1950s.

Malcolm Boyd was a freedom rider to the South in the 1960s, and gained national attention as an activist on social and political issues especially full freedom for African Americans. He made a career of writing, speaking and performing on college campuses, nightclubs. He assisted in parishes in Los Angeles.

John Spong had solid liberal credentials on all issues and was elected Bishop of Newark in the 1970s.

In the early 1960s a group of clergy founded and supported San Francisco’s Council on Religion and the Homosexual, an organization of clergy and lay people to study and understand the homosexual community, which was being harassed and persecuted in the City and Bay Area.

On January 1, 1965 hundreds of gays and lesbians attended a New Year’s Ball, a fundraiser for the Council on Religion and the Homosexual. Police invaded this private benefit event. They took flash photographs of partygoers in a blatant attempt at intimidating the guests as they entered California Hall on Polk Street to go to the ballroom. One woman and three lawyers were arrested for blocking the police from entering and two men were arrested for alleged lewd conduct. The ball continued without further interference.

When the San Francisco Police Department had heard about the ball, they attempted to force the rented hall's owners to cancel the event. Some of the leaders of the Council had met with the police to explain the purposes of the council and the ball with the idea of heading off any trouble. The police were more interested in the theology of the clergy, and, noticing wedding rings, asked if their wives knew of this event. After more discussion, we left the meeting feeling sure the ball would go on without interruption.

When police demanded entry into the hall, three CRH lawyers explained to them that under California law, the event was a private party and they could not enter unless they bought tickets. The lawyers were then arrested, as was a ticket-taker, on charges of obstructing an officer.

On January 3, 1965, seven clergy who were among the founders and supporters of CRH held a press conference ripping the police for their invasion of the private party.

Those participating in the press conference were The late Rev. Lewis Durham, program director of the Glide Foundation, Rev. Robert Warren Cromey of the Episcopal Diocese of California, Rev. Cecil Williams, Director of Glide’s Church and Community Ministry, Rev. Fred Bird, pastor of St. Johns Methodist Church, Rev. Charles Lewis, of the North Beach Lutheran Ministry, the late Rev. Dr. Clarence Caldwell, of the United Methodist Church, and Rev. Ted McIlvenna of the Glide Foundation.

There was a lot of media coverage after the conference on Radio, TV and in newspaper. Further articles and pictures of the clergy appeared. One person said, “Well, that’s the end of your career in the church.” Not so.

Here is what happened to the clergy involved in that controversial action and media conference.

Lewis Durham served the Glide Foundation and National Sex Forum until his death.

Cecil Williams has been in protests, arrested numerous times supporting the poor and the elderly. He served as pastor of Glide Memorial Methodist Church in San Francisco where he raised millions of dollars for the church’s ministry to the poor and disenfranchised.

Robert Warren Cromey had a private practice as a Marriage and Family Therapist and served as Rector of Trinity, SF for twenty years before retiring in 2002.

Fred Bird went into academics after moving from the Bay Area to Canada.

Charles Lewis became SF’s Night Minister for many years.

Clarence Caldwell served the United Methodist Church and then became a Marriage and Family Therapist until his death.

Ted McIlvenna left the active ministry of the United Methodist Church and founded the Institute for the Advanced Study of Human Sexuality in San Francisco where he worked until his retirement.

Taking a stand does not mean loss of income or employment.

Taking a stand on important issues in fact gives clergy credibility and stature. In some denominations clergy lead large and growing churches by taking a stand against LGBT people and against abortion. They take a stand, all right, but not one liberals and radicals care to espouse. Some churches like Glide, Trinity SF and All Saints, Pasadena flourished when they became noted for specific ministries and activities of a liberal bent.

Not taking a stand means many churches remain small and lack excitement and seem uncertain in where they are going and what they are trying to do in the society. We all want to preach the gospel of Jesus. Many offer spirituality and deepening worship. But tat is not enough. Making the spirituality a specific reality is what makes a church vibrant.

How many youth groups teach kids about peace and show how to become a conscientious objector?

How many parishes regularly invite LGBT people to come to classes to share their stories? How about creating dialogues with African-Americans, AA members, Muslims or Asians?

How many parishes adopt a veteran’s hospital to visit soldiers who have lost their limbs, their sight or their minds? Most of them will be in hospitals for the rest of their lives.

I saw a photo of St. Francis Lutheran Church members in the newspaper for walking together in the AIDS walk. How many churches walk en masse in he annual breast cancer fundraising walks, Gay Pride Parades or Memorial Day parades?

Many churches sponsor soup kitchens and food distribution programs but then how many stop and ask why are the people hungry or why do they need medical care and places to live?

Taking a stand means taking a risk, trying something new and creative in ministering to the people of God.


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