The Rev. Dr. William “Bill” Alberts was forcibly retired from the United Methodist ministry in 1973 after performing a same-sex wedding. His subsequent lawsuit against church leaders and a former psychiatrist led to a landmark ruling protecting physician-patient confidentiality and providing legal remedy against anyone who induces a physician to breach confidentiality. Bill Alberts was born in 1926 into a working-class family in Williamsport, Pennsylvania with four brothers and two sisters. His father was a World War I veteran and active in the Veterans of Foreign Wars. He worked for a furniture company, but was injured and struggled to keep a steady job after that. He, at times, drank to excess. Bill’s mom tried hard during this Depression era to provide the basic needs for the large family, often needing to rely on public aid. The parents were busy trying to eke out a living and were not church-goers, although they sent the children to Sunday School.
Bill graduated from high school in 1944 having focused on an industrial course of study, machine shop. This seemed the best way to earn an income, particularly with the ever-expanding defense industry. He was also interested in sports and enrolled at Lock Haven State Teachers College to study physical education.
Bill got married and his quest for meaning led him to get involved in a local Methodist Church. As he reflected later, since he was raised in such a large family where he often felt lost, he responded positively to the social interactions and the attention he received at church. This led him to take on a call to ministry. In June 1949, as he was starting his junior year of college, he was assigned as student pastor of the Trout Run Methodist charge with four small, rural congregations. During this time his oldest daughter, Susan, was born.
While his call to ministry may have been sincere, Bill found himself ill-prepared for ministry. He had taken industrial classes in high school and his language skills were weak, so writing and delivering a weekly sermon were quite taxing. And he had developed a strong moralistic streak in response to his father’s drinking and his parents losing money gambling at the VFW post. So he challenged the owner of the local tavern and chastised the fire department for setting up slot machines to raise funds to purchase firefighting equipment.
Without a mentor or counselor to guide him, Bill was having to figure out ministry on his own. He did a lot of soul-searching and tried to do more listening to and understanding of persons and their situations—learning empathy. His ministry changed as he found persons responding positively to his more pastoral presence. This was a profound learning experience for Bill as he wrote in an article years later, “Before There Was Seminary, There Was Trout Run.”
Bill then enrolled in Westminster (now Wesley) Theological Seminary. When he took entrance exams he failed the English test. So he took a required course in English grammar, which he found very useful. He also found that the faculty were helpful in editing his term papers, not just grading them. His writing skills improved tremendously during these years. This set him on the path of becoming a proficient writer and journalist in his later years.
Also in seminary Bill was drawn to the study of the psychology of religion. He took several psychology-related courses that helped him get to a deeper understanding of himself and from that consciousness to be able to understand and respond to others. Bill graduated from seminary cum laude.
Following seminary he chose to pursue graduate studies and enrolled in the Ph.D. program at Boston University School of Theology in the fall of 1954. His advisor, Dr. Paul Johnson, saw his poor college grades and advised Bill to work on a Masters degree instead. Bill responded by excelling in his initial classes at B.U. which led Dr. Johnson to change his mind and support Bill for the doctorate. Bill received his doctorate in 1961.
Bill continued to pastor congregations through the years of his education. While in seminary, he served six rural Pennsylvania churches. His daughter Jeanne was born there. From 1954 to 1960 he was pastor of First UMC Somerville. Daughter Louann and son Jeff were born there. He then served Lafayette Street Methodist Church in Salem, Mass, from 1960 to 1965.
The tumultuous 1960s provided challenges for mainline churches in the U.S.; one of those challenges was how to minister to the changing city. The Southern New England Conference of the Methodist Church decided to reopen Old West Church, located in the Government Center area of Boston, in 1964 as an experimental showcase for urban ministry. The twin aims were to emphasize outstanding preaching and services to humanity. A gifted preacher, Wilbur Ziegler, was appointed there. In 1965, the Rev. Bill Alberts was appointed there to build the services to humanity. He was also expected to draw on his pastoral counseling expertise to develop a counseling center there.
Alberts, joined by William Hudson as co-pastor in 1968, developed bold ministries to the community over these years that became a model for other congregations and were sometimes quite controversial. They created a drop-in center for street youth. In November 1967, Clergy and Laity Concerned held an antiwar and draft card-burning service in the sanctuary. In the summer of 1968, thousands of so-called “hippies” camped out nearby on the Boston Commons. Bill did extensive street work with them and helped build lines of communication with city officials. He also wrote an article, “Boston City of Renewal or Repression,” published by the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine, presenting the issues and challenges facing the city administration and citizens in response to the presence of such a large number of young people.
In February 1970, Old West housed 130 members of the Venceremos Brigade who were traveling from Canada to Cuba to work on the sugar cane harvest there. This action cost the church its insurance. In May 1972, the church served as the headquarters for the People’s Coalition for Peace and Justice which organized nonviolent antiwar demonstrations at the nearby federal buildings.
During this time Old West also hosted numerous arts programs. Jazz celebrations happened on the weekends, many of them directed by noted musician and composer Mark Harvey. The Hub Theater Center took up residency at Old West and produced plays that spoke to the social issues of the day.
Alberts drew upon his writing skills to pen a number of articles about the ministries of Old West that were published in the Boston Globe Sunday magazine. This publicity served both to increase the visibility of the ministries of Old West while also raising concerns among other United Methodist congregations that Old West was too controversial and was threatening their traditions.
The diversity of urban persons coming to Old West included LGBTQ persons. Alberts performed a wedding for two women in 1970, a quiet affair that he did after getting the support of the church’s Pastor-Parish Relations Committee.
Bob Jones and Harry Freeman were members and leaders at Old West Church. They met and began a relationship while students at Boston University School of Theology. Bob and Harry asked Alberts to officiate at their wedding on April 7, 1973. The couple met with Bishop Edward Carroll a few days before the wedding to explain their plans and to try to minimize any backlash. Bishop Carroll told them, and subsequently wrote in a letter to Alberts, that a same-sex wedding was contrary to United Methodist policy and they should call this a “friendship” ceremony.
Photo by Cary Wolinsky © 1973
Over 200 persons attended the wedding. Music was composed for the day by Mark Harvey. Participants were invited to publicly witness to the significance and meaning of Bob and Harry’s commitment. A story with photographs was published in the Boston Globe the next day.
Two days after the wedding, Bishop Carroll and Alberts’ supervisor, District Superintendent John Barclay, met secretively with Alberts’ former psychiatrist to elicit his evaluation that Alberts was mentally unfit to be a pastor. Subsequently the bishop declared that, based upon the consultations of two unnamed psychiatrists, he could not appoint Alberts to serve as pastor of the church. Carroll’s decision was affirmed by the Conference Board of Ministry which met on May 16 and voted to put Alberts on disability leave for mental illness. Alberts provided contrary evaluations from two psychiatrists and one psychologist which were dismissed by the bishop and church leaders.
When the clergy of the Southern New England Conference convened on June 8, 1973, Bishop Carroll reported to them the eight “reasons” why Alberts could not be appointed as a pastor, most of them related to Alberts invoking the displeasure of the bishop and church leaders through his iconoclastic public actions. A motion by one of Alberts’ clergy colleagues to declare these “reasons” to be “charges” which would require a formal church trial and due process for the accused was ruled out of order by the bishop. A majority of the 600 clergypersons eventually voted to forcibly retire Alberts and remove him from United Methodist ministry.
Alberts was, of course, deeply shocked and dismayed by this harsh, condemnatory treatment by the church he had served. He was honored as the grand marshal of the Boston Gay Pride Parade on June 17, 1973 along with openly gay politician Barney Frank. Two weeks after his forced removal a clergy colleague revealed to Alberts that his former psychiatrist, Donald Devine, had been the source of the “consultation” upon which Bishop Carroll based his actions. In July 1973, Alberts held a press conference announcing that he would file suit against Devine and Bishop Carroll and other church leaders for breaching confidentiality. The suit was filed in March 1975.
As the lawsuit was slowly unfolding, lawyers for Bishop Carroll and District Superintendent John Barclay argued that they should be removed from the suit due to “separation of church and state.” In 1983, a judge dismissed the charges against the bishop and church leaders and this ruling went before the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Council. In June 1985, the Judicial Council issued a landmark ruling stating that church leaders were liable for damages resulting from inducing a psychiatrist to breach confidentiality. The William E. Alberts v. Donald T. Devine & Others case created new case law both protecting physician/patient confidentiality and holding liable not only the physician but anyone who induces the physician to breach confidentiality. Church leaders appealed the Judicial Court decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, which declined to take the case, so the legal precedent of Alberts’ case stands.
Alberts became pastor of The Community Church of Boston (Unitarian Universalist) in 1978. In 1982, he was received as a full minister in the Unitarian Universalist Association. In 1992, he became hospital chaplain at the Boston Medical Center where he served until his retirement in 2011. Starting in 2004, Alberts became a regular writer for Counterpunch, which gave him a platform to share his reflections on people of faith addressing racial injustices, economic inequality, U.S. imperialism and LGBTQ liberation. In October 2017, Rev. William “Bobby” McClain, a close colleague, invited him to preach in a United Methodist congregation for the first time, at Union UMC in Boston. In 2019, he was honored as a distinguished alum of Boston University School of Theology.
Alberts’ first marriage ended and he married Eva Young in 1975. Their daughter Amy was born in 1978. Bill and Eva enjoy their life together near Boston and spend as much time as they can with Bill’s seven grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.
(This biographical statement written by Mark Bowman from an interview with William Alberts and from Alberts’ book, The Minister Who Could Not Be “Preyed” Away, and edited by Alberts.)
Biography Date: August 2020
Bill Alberts wrote about his ministry, removal from Methodist ministry and the subsequent court case in The Minister Who Could Not Be "Preyed" Away, published in January 2020.