A striking feature of LGBT Church history, is how after a long period of invisibility, in the years following Stonewall, gay clergy followed other gay men and lesbians in coming out of their closets. Facing the prospect of so much more hostile reaction than those in some other professions, and with housing as well as income and career at stake, these people were embarking on acts of rare courage. In doing so, they were simply bearing witnessing to the truth of their lives, and its integration into their faith. In doing so, they can truly be regarded as modern martyrs. Paul Abels was one of the first. Like many others, he ultimately lost his career through his prophetic witness, and was forced to rebuild a new one outside of the church.
The fruits of his martyrdom though, live on. Many more gay (and later, lesbian) clergy were forced out of ministry or refused ordination on the grounds of orientation or gender identity. However, even in the beginning, they were able to gather some supporters who contested this injustice. Over time, these supporters grew in number, until we reached the current position where several mainstream Protestant denominations have accepted the value of including openly gay, lesbian or trans clergy, and others denominations are at least conducting serious discussions around LGBT ordination and even church recognition of same sex unions. Thanks to the early sacrifices of Paul Abel and others like him, the struggle for queer inclusion in church has become a broad –based and growing movement.
Paul was the pastor of the Washington Square United Methodist Church in New York City from 1973 to 1984, and was the first openly gay minister with a congregation in a major Christian denomination in America. This congregation in Greenwich Village was locally known as the Peace Church for its opposition to the Vietnam War and for its large gay and lesbian membership.
In 1973 Paul was appointed pastor of Washington Square United Methodist Church. While at Washington Square, he initiated a $1.5 million restoration campaign, planned the church’s 125th anniversary, and worked with the many community groups housed in the building, including the Harvey Milk School, a parent-run day care center, and many lesbian/gay support and social groups.
On Sunday, November 27, 1977, Abels was featured in a New York Times article entitled “Minister Sponsors Homosexual Rituals.” The article told about four “covenant services” that Paul had performed in recent months. And in the article Paul identifies himself as a “homosexual.”
Controversy arose throughout the denomination with many critics calling for his removal. Bishop Ralph Ward asked Paul to take a leave of absence. Paul refused and his appointment was upheld by vote of the New York Annual Conference. The bishop then appealed to the Judicial Council, highest court in United Methodism, which ruled in 1979 that Abels was in “good standing” and in “effective relation” and could remain as pastor at Washington Square.