With the widespread press attention to the gay and lesbian bishops in the Episcopalian church, the ECLA decision last year to recognize openly gay and lesbian clergy in committed and faithful relationships, and this summer’s decision (not yet ratified) by the Presbyterian Church of the USA to do the same, it is too easy to overlook the fact that gay and lesbian clergy have been around for a long time – right from the start of ordained ministry. Of the earliest years, I have written before, but I am now finding numerous reports of openly gay or lesbian clergy in modern times, going back a lot further than I had recognised. (The earliest clear example I have found so far is of Rev. Phebe Ann Coffin Hanaford, who was ordained a Quaker minister in 1869.) The problem is not that there were not gay or lesbian clergy, but getting them recognised. Recognition, however, is important, and achieving it has been a major problem, with many courageous men and women making stands, suffering persecution, and securing a series of breakthroughs along the way.
In the Presbyterian Church, one of these pioneers has been Rev Jane Spahr, who was in the news this week for her appearance in a church court for conducting same sex marriages in California in 2008, during the few months when they were fully legal in California law- but not sanctioned by the church’s own regulations. I will come back to the weddings, and the trial, later. First, I want to go back a little further.