Bill Silver (September 8, 1947- May 26, 2007) was the first openly gay candidate for the ministry of word and sacrament in the United Presbyterian Church in the USA (now the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)). When his application came to the Presbytery of New York City in 1975, the majority of its members were too timid to proceed and instead asked the General Assembly for “definitive guidance.” The final debate lasted well into the early morning hours. Supporters of Bill’s candidacy (including this author) argued that the Book of Order (the church’s constitution) didn’t mention homosexuality because it was immaterial and irrelevant, but were overruled. Thus began the 32-year battle over the role of lesbian and gay people in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), which continues unabated to this day.
In Presbyterian tradition, the 1976 General Assembly appointed a task force to study the issue for two years. Chris Glaser was the only openly gay person to serve on the task force. During the debate to set up the task force, folks kept saying that God has yet "more light" to break forth from the word, quoting John Robinson who sent the Puritans to Massachusetts in 1620.
The Task Force reported two years later that sexual orientation was irrelevant when considering gifts for ministry and requirements of ordination. But the General Assembly, which had not studied the issue, overruled the task force and adopted “definitive guidance” that “unrepentant self-avowed homosexuals” could not be ordained. The committee that presented this recommendation made it clear that this was guidance (as requested) and was not binding on presbyteries or congregations. Almost immediately the Stated Clerk of the General Assembly, William P. Thompson, declared it binding and mandatory, and a few years later the General Assembly concurred with Thompson. Thompson himself changed his mind years later and campaigned for full inclusion of lesbian and gay Presbyterians, including ordination.
Bill Silver became an active leader in the Presbyterian Gay Caucus, which began when David Sindt stood with a sign asking “is anyone else out there gay?” at the 1974 General Assembly. This Presbyterian Gay Caucus became Presbyterians for Gay Concerns, then Presbyterians for Lesbian & Gay Concerns, and later still More Light Presbyterians for LGBT Concerns (referring back to John Robinson’s “more light”).
Bill gave up on the Presbyterian Church after the 1982 General Assembly and devoted himself to his art. His original call to Central Presbyterian Church in Manhattan had been for an arts ministry. In 1995, he published an essay in Called Out: The Voices and Gifts of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgendered Presbyterians (edited by Jane Adams Spahr, Kathryn Poethig, Selisse Berry, and Melinda V. McLain. Gaithersburg, MD: Chi Rho Press). Bill wrote:
"The Silver family always went to church, Methodist first, since my maternal grandparents had been Methodist missionaries in China. Then, because there were so few Methodist churches in Western Pennsylvania, we became Presbyterians. My parents taught Sunday School and directed the Christian Education program. We all sang in the choir. My sister and brother and I were active in the youth fellowship and held various offices. Both my parents were ordained elders.
"But it was the exciting adventure of the Wycliff Bible Translators that first inspired my thoughts of Christian ministry in the ninth grade. Being a practical sort, however, I soon decided that I was not cut out for jungle life. A suburban ministry seemed a more likely future for me. What also inspired me were the young seminarians who led the youth fellowship groups. They were dedicated, attractive, and somehow very exciting. ...
"In seminary (Union in NYC), there were just too many good looking men around. My first year roommate was adorable. I was in love immediately. As the year progressed, he was not the only man who caught my eye. The story of Jonathan and David suddenly had a wholly new meaning to me – those guys were obviously in love with each other. ...
"Radicalized as I had now become, and with that sense of youthful infallibility, I decided to take on the bigotry of the Presbyterian church. David Sindt was organizing the Presbyterian Gay Caucus (PGC) and I became a charter member. Bill Johnson came to seminary to talk about his ordination in the United Church of Christ and to push for test cases in other denominations. I thought about it and decided I would make a good candidate. My credentials were all in order. So, without much consultation, I told my Candidates Committee that I was gay."
"I do not regret the time and effort over many years that I invested in the Presbyterian Church. I believe that many people’s lives were changed for the better and many hearts opened. Even years later I have heard from people who told me that just knowing there was an openly gay person requesting ordination helped them in their own personal struggle to come out, and from parents who said that our efforts helped them to love and accept their gay children as they were. Still, I also never regret leaving the church."
Bill pursued his career in graphic design and became quite successful. He was also an avid gardener and spent every summer on Fire Island, where he because a leader of the summer community in Cherry Grove, editing and publishing a popular monthly publication, Wild Cherry. He was also a lover of cats. He died of complications from AIDS.
(This bio statement written by James D. Anderson, with excerpts from Bill’s own “Called Out” essay. Photo by Michael Fisher.)
Biography Date: June, 2007
Presbyterian Church (USA) | Johnson, William Reagan | Sindt, David | More Light Presbyterians (formerly Presbyterians for LGBT Concerns) | Activist (religious institutions) | Ordination/clergy | New York | New York City | Silver, William (Bill)
“I was a friend of Bill Silver’s when I was a freshman at Ohio Wesleyan University (graduated class of 1970) and he was a sophomore. We dated for a while. I remember him as cute and funny. We laughed a lot. I met his parents once and as I recall they were very warm. I remember a car ride when we got stick candy from the local restaurant and his mother said “ Can you smell my Anise?” Bill and I just giggled away in the back seat. He sent me lovely hand-made cards and even red roses to my dorm room. I have a photo he gave me of himself signed with love. Eventually we just drifted apart and I never knew why.
It wasn’t until years later when I read about him in Time Magazine about his being refused ordination in the Presbyterian Church that I wondered if it was the same William Silver I had known in college. So I wrote to the church and somehow my letter made it to him. He wrote me a long letter back from the beach at Fire Island telling me all about his life. I was so happy to have it and hear from him.
I was so sorry to hear about his illness and death from the obituary in the New York Times. I started looking him up on the internet and read more of his life and community service. I am glad to know how influential he was as a pioneer in the movement for equal rights for the LGBTQ community. I feel honored to have known him so long ago and so glad he found love and support and his purpose in the world.
I would love to be able to read some of his writings about his life. I am so impressed they are archived at Yale University. He was an extraordinary, bright and talented person and friend to many.”
– as remembered by Carol (Mulligan) Bourne on November 18, 2020
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