Many Christian Churches are guardians of the status quo. Their altar is shaped by the status quo: the invisible controlling political, economic and legal forces that determine the nature and extent of their empathy and good deeds. The aim here is not to disregard the good works of these churches: their members’ devoted spiritual care for one another. Their specialized ministries to emotionally troubled, sick, poor and marginalized persons. Their embracing of grieving military families and wounded veterans. But their Christian outreach, while critical, is primarily of an individual nature—and politically circumscribed. They rarely challenge or threaten the political/corporate/legal power structures that create financial and educational inequalities, contribute to physical and emotional ill health, encourage hatred of the designated Other, and pursue the never-ending, corporations’-benefiting “war on terrorism”— which guarantees endless enemies.
Churches of the status quo are easily seduced by the imperialistic war-justifying belief in “American exceptionalism,” because that predatory exceptionalism reflects their own self-identity as unique recipients and evangelists of divinely revealed “Christian” truth. These churches provide the Invocations and Benedictions for those in power, rather than fulfil their traditional role of confronting political and corporate power with reality and moral truth. Once the conscience of the status quo, they are now guardians of its prevailing consensus. Many of these churches occupy the public square, but they serve as reflections of what is, more than as beacons of what ought to be. Sadly, the separation of the church and state has been turned into the subjugation of the church to the state—actually, into the servant of the state. So much so that their hierarchies join in censuring and silencing their own clergy who speak truth to power — including to their own power– and threaten their privileged status.
A personal example seeks to spotlight the churches of the status quo, and the loss to society of their prophetic witness. The aim is to challenge far more churches to regain their prophetic voices and presence as a humanizing and liberating force on behalf of politically, economically and legally oppressed people.
Last June, after over 40 years, my wife, Eva, and I had reason to be in the area, and visited Old West United Methodist Church, located at the foot of Beacon Hill and on the edge of Boston’s Government Center. I was forcibly retired from the United Methodist ministry while there, at age 46, having served as that church’s minister for eight years. My precipitating offense was performing, in the sanctuary, the same-sex marriage of Bob Jones and Harry Freeman, two members of the Church who had been theological students at Boston University School of Theology, where they met.
As we walked up the entranceway to Old West Church, a welcoming sign greeted us: “Radical Faith. Bold Hope. Lavish Love.” However, the “ministries” Old West Church publicizes appear to reveal a church long on “bold” declarations and short on “radical” involvements.
Such as its “Bible Study” twice a week, seeking to create a “covenant community,” by “participants read[ing] and discuss[ing] the Bible together, learning how to love God—and each other—better.” And “Beer and Bible” at The Kinsale, with “theology on tap every first Sunday evening of the month,” inviting people to “come and talk about theology, life, politics or anything else!”—and “root beer drinkers are also welcome.” Also, the “Community Garden,” which involves “partnering with Boston Food Forest Coalition . . . to plant and harvest food in urban areas”—including on Old West Church’s front lawn—“as a way to both feed people . . . and bring them together.” Then there’s “Project Thankfulness . . . a Thanksgiving Day outreach to those who are working or hungry on this holiday.” Finally, “Team Trivia . . . every other Wednesday at the Kinsale . . . [for a] wonderful time of food, fun and fellowship!”
Old West Church, a revolutionary war church, was re-opened in 1964, and in 1965 I was appointed by the Presiding Bishop, James K. Mathews, as co-minister. With a Ph.D. in Psychology and Pastoral Counseling from Boston University, I was given the responsibility to establish a pastoral counseling center and other “services to humanity.” The Southern New England Conference’s plan also was for the church to become known for great preaching in Boston. Thus Rev. Wilbur Ziegler, a renowned preacher in the Conference, was assigned as senior minister. The Conference’s Guidelines for re-opening the Church stated, “It was to be judged not by the number of members in service attendance, but by its services to humanity.” (Old West Church Study, 1965, page 9) The Conference got more than it bargained for.
After all these years, Eva and I entered Old West Church’s sanctuary, sat down on a tattered-cushioned pew and let that meaningful sight and past sink in. If those sanctuary walls could talk!
On November 16, 1967, 55 young men burned their draft cards in that sanctuary, during an anti-Vietnam war service sponsored by the Boston Committee of Religious Concern for Peace, with 300 persons in attendance. Rev. Ziegler was inside the sanctuary participating in the service, and I was outside monitoring the entranceway.
During the service, a mini riot occurred on the Church’s front steps. A “Polish Freedom Fighter,” carrying a big sign—“Priests, Rabbis and Ministers start fighting COMMUNISM: Don’t be duped by the REDS”—entered the Church and disrupted the service. As an anti-war person ushered him outside the door, he fell on the top of the steps which was icy. Refusing to get up and all the while holding his sign up, he began yelling that he was being beaten. His outburst led several construction workers, in front of the building observing the commotion, to charge up the church steps and attack the young man who was trying to remove the protester. Another person and I sought to protect the young man, and I was finally able to call the policeman on duty nearby who then intervened. That tumultuous scene on the church steps and the equally “ungodly sight” of draft cards being burned in the sanctuary were captured in newspaper photographs and story. (See, “Melee Outside Church . . . During Anti-War Protest,” The Boston Globe, Nov. 17, 1967)
Certain Conference ministers were offended by a United Methodist Church holding such a service and creating a melee on its doorstep—seen as bad publicity. And the trustees of Old West Church told Rev. Ziegler that they would resign en masse if such a service were held again.
Thus Rev. Ziegler, with my assistance, wrote an extensive statement, “Defends Old West Vietnam Meeting,” which appeared in the January 1968 issue of Zions Herald, the “New England Methodist Magazine.” Referring to the anti-war draft card-burning service, Rev. Ziegler ended the statement with, “Without a doubt this has been one of the most controversial and most difficult decisions of our ministry, but—Here we stand—we can do no other.”
The draft card-burning service hurt church attendance, which decreased. In June of 1968, Rev. Ziegler was appointed to a large church in the Conference; and Rev. William Hudson was appointed to share co-ministry duties with me at Old West Church. With Hudson on board, the sanctuary invited us to entertain more “most controversial and most difficult decisions.”
If those sanctuary walls could talk! On February 10, 1970, Old West Church’s sanctuary housed 130 members of the Venceremos Brigade on their way to Cuba to cut sugar cane. The mostly young men arrived in Boston on a rainy night; had no place to stay, and we sheltered them in the sanctuary. Rev. Hudson and I were guided by Jesus’ exhortation in Matthew 25: “I was a stranger, and you took me in.” We did not ask people who were stranded– or anyone else who needed help– what their political affiliation was before deciding to open the church’s doors to them. We were also guided by the sign that hung above the entranceway to Old West Church: “Any person of any race or creed is warmly welcome to this church.”
Here, again, Old West Church was in a controversial news story, with photographs, covering the Venceremos Brigade’s stay at the Church. The coverage included VB members filing out of the Church’s side door to buses taking them to ships going to Cuba. (See “300 Youths Leave Boston to Aid Cuba,” By Jim Droney and Gerald Jackson, Boston Herald Traveler, Feb. 11, 1970)
Shortly thereafter, Old West Church was again the object of considerable publicity: a group of Cuban exiles picketed in front of the Church, carrying signs denouncing the shelter we had provided for the Venceremos Brigade. Their photograph and signs were prominently displayed in a news story that began, “Some 50 Cuban exiles gathered in front of Old West Church, on Cambridge Street yesterday to denounce the aid given by the congregation to youths traveling to Cuba to cut sugar cane.” (“Cuban Exiles Score Church Aid to Youths,” By HT Staff Reporter, Boston Herald Traveler, March 2, 1970)
The criticism Old West Church received from certain Conference ministers led Rev. Hudson and me to write a statement for Zions Herald on why we housed the Venceremos Brigade. We ended it with, “If Jesus had been preoccupied with his image, none of us Christians would be observing Lent and Good Friday, nor celebrating Easter.” (“Statement in response to Christian members of the Cuban Exile Committee of Massachusetts picketing Old West Church on March 1, 1970,” March 1970) A few ministers called Hudson and me “troublemakers.”
Rev. Hudson and I also responded by holding an Open Forum on Cuba in the sanctuary, and inviting members of the Venceremos Brigade, recently returned from Cuba, and the Cuban Exile Committee to speak, and then to dialogue with each other and the audience. We hoped the exchange of views between the two differing groups would inform and create some mutual understanding among those present. The Open Forum on Cuba—and the earlier housing of the Venceremos Brigade– was approved and very much supported by Old West Church’s Council on Ministries (composed of twenty-some members of the Church).
If Old West Church’s sanctuary could talk about that Open Forum on Cuba! Fortunately, Rev. Landon Lindsay, director of the Conference’s Special Ministry in Human Relations, attended the Forum at the invitation of Rev. Hudson. Afterwards, Lindsay wrote a letter about the event to Bishop Mathews, which was intended to provide cover for Rev. Hudson and me with the Conference hierarchy—as Lindsay was a close, supportive friend to both of us. His letter began,
The church was filled, and with a very partial audience to the position of the Mass.
Cuban Exile Committee. Seated behind me were several veterans whose behavior
indicated they were there to disrupt the meeting, if they could. They came in with
rolled-up American flags, and I heard them say more than once, “If we catch those
kids (the ones of the Venceremos Brigade) outside, they’ll wish they never went to
Cuba. In addition, the Cuban exiles themselves were at times extremely rude during
the evening when Brigade members had the floor. I must say that the youth of the
Venceremos Brigade never manifested such rudeness, seemed willing to listen to the
Cuban exiles, did not engage in name-calling, and were intimidated more than once
with name-calling and threats.
Rev. Lindsay’s letter to Bishop Mathews continued:
Fortunately the Forum came off without incident. I credit this entirely to the skillful
leadership of both Bill Hudson and Bill Alberts and their colleagues.. Bill Alberts was
the moderator and himself came in for abuse, but never took it personally. His skillful
conduct of the Forum, which was more than once punctuated by almost hysterical
shouts by Cuban exile partisans, I am sure, saved the entire evening from tragic
abortion. Truly the evening did prove a Forum on Cuba for those who had really come
there to listen.
Rev. Lindsay’s concluding comment to Bishop Mathews reveals the political threat facing clergy in hierarchical denominations if they address controversial political issues:
Since you may be hearing about this, I thought I would indicate to you my attendance
last night and my observations. In the final analysis, I am most proud of my colleagues
and Old West, and never more than last evening as I saw them engaging in the
ministry of reconciliation.
March 5, 1970
If those sanctuary walls could talk! The Insurance Company of North America responded to the housing of the Venceremos Brigade and Cuban exiles’ picketing by cancelling Old West Church’s insurance. A group of 20 of us clergy, in turn, joined in picketing the insurance company. During our protest, I shared with the insurance company’s regional director all of Old West Church’s programs, most of which serve the community around the Church. His response: “To us, church means Sunday services and choir rehearsal during the week, and all these other activities have nothing to do with church.” His statement was similar to that of our agent: “The company is afraid a Bircher will throw a Molotov cocktail at your church. They crabbed about your having hippies in the church last summer.”
I responded by using the media to dramatize the influence of insurance companies over the mission of Christian churches. (See Alberts, “How Insurance Companies Repress Churches,” Boston Sunday Globe Magazine, Dec. 13, 1970. See also Alberts,” Insurance Cancellation and Church Repression,” Christian Advocate, for Methodist Pastors and Church Leaders, Feb. 18, 1971; and “Boston Church didn’t turn the other cheek when insurance was dropped,” By Susan Trausch, Business Insurance, June 21, 1971)
About those “hippies.” They were “something else” our “services to humanity” focused on. In 1968, thousands of these “flower children,” with long hair and beards, and other youths flocked to The Boston Common. The primary response of the City Government and police, under pressure from many nearby Beacon Hill residents, was to resort to a curfew, night sticks, and police dogs to sweep the Common and indiscriminately arrest countless youths—and deny their rights after arrest.
A ministerial colleague, Rev. Frank McGuire, and I did considerable street work in that violence-prone atmosphere. On more than one occasion, I personally intervened when police swooped down on a large group of youths and began clubbing them across the head with wooden batons. The threat of violence came not only from the police, but from so-called “straight” outsiders who showed up to target long-haired youths.
Thus a group of us street workers decided that two youths and I—with me dressed like a hippie– would sit together on The Boston Common—as such a fact-based experience could serve to dramatize to the larger community the complaints about violence and illegal arrests young people had been sharing with us. The three of us were soon arrested, shoved provocatively by police in the process, denied our right to remain silent and our right to a telephone call and a lawyer.
I reported our experience in an article called, “Boston: city of renewal or repression,” published in the Boston Sunday Globe Magazine. The article described the unlawful and abusive treatment of the hippies, the threat of violence that existed, and the humanizing attitudes called for by their presence. Since Boston was touting its urban renewal programs, I used the piece to question whether Boston was a city of renewal or repression, and concluded, “That depends on whether we are able to see the worth and promise of every human life, knowing that we share with every other person a common humanity.” (July 28, 1968) City hall, police representatives, churches, medical and self-help groups and Beacon Hill residents were already collaborating and providing coordinated services for the hippies, The Globe article helped to inform a broader audience and increase that effort.
If Old West Church’s sanctuary walls could talk! Its pews and floor were where 30 members of the People’s Coalition for Peace and Justice bedded down overnight in May of 1972—in preparation for a non-violent anti-Vietnam War demonstration the next day at the JFK federal building just down the street. Those in the sanctuary included several members of Old West Church, and five theological students from Boston University School of Theology, who were in field placement at the Church. The day of the protest, Old West Church served as a medical, legal and information center for the demonstrators—with certain members providing coffee and sandwiches. A few persons were injured in the protest, and 197 were arrested, including three women and myself from the Church. The protest was in response to the intensified air war waged by the United States in Indochina.
Old West Church’s involvement in the anti-war protest was another example of its Council on Ministries’ commitment to using the sanctuary to transform the status quo, rather than conform to it. Actually, that sanctuary inspired many “services to humanity.” Certain of those services were described in a Boston Globe story, which stated,
On a typical day you will find an opera group rehearsing in the sanctuary, while the
Hub Theatre Center sharpens its latest production in the basement theater. Tutorial
Programs for children of all age and race flow in and out of church rooms, the Mark
Harvey Resident Jazz Ensemble hones its repertoire for the next Sunday evening jazz
celebration. Bill Alberts puts his doctorate in psychology to work in his study with some
concerned parishioner or screwed-up youngster and outside several alcoholics sun
themselves because they know that the church people won’t call the police. . . . Weekends
there is an all-night drop-in center for young people on the street. They use the same
coffee urns and kitchen that feed the “Keenagers” every Monday at luncheon before the
elderly group meets for a weekly fellowship. . . . It’s a wild scene by the standards of
most Christians. . . .
Old West was named by the UMC as one of 20 parishes across the nation to participate
In the Board of Mission’s “Partnership in Mission” program. . . . The selection of Bill
Alberts and the Old West Church operation as a model for others will undoubtedly give
many Methodists fits! (“Pastor Alberts swings Hub’s Old West Church into peace
tempo,” By George M. Collins, Globe Staff, The Boston Globe, May 29, 1971)
If Old West Church’s sanctuary walls could talk! One of those alcoholics– in his 50s and cross-eyed, “sun[ning]” himself “outside” and somewhat under the influence– came inside and asked if he could play the piano, which was located near the altar. He sat down at the piano, and began to play a boogie woogie song. At first, he pounded on the keys and clumsily missed notes. But as he continued to play, his previous musical experience and accomplishments began to dominate the keyboard. And for 45 minutes, he turned that sanctuary into a concert hall.
Concerning those alcoholics hanging out on the church steps and sleeping on the lawn. We church staff– and certain others who used the building, like Hub Theatre Center director Rosann Weeks– established relationships of respect and trust with a number of them, which enabled us to help certain of them to enter—or re-enter– treatment programs. And in the process, we discovered the knowledge and gifts they possessed, like the gift of a jazz-like session the man performed on the piano in the sanctuary.
That sanctuary was often filled with music. On Sunday mornings, the renowned Fisk organ, called everyone to worship, accompanied congregational hymns and solos and provided concerts and cantatas. On Sunday evenings, jazz celebrations, with local jazz musicians, attracted more “humanity” into the sanctuary. This program grew out of a jazz coalition formed by Dr. Mark Harvey, then a field placement intern from Boston University School of Theology. A jazz musician, Mark is now celebrating over 40 years as musical director of the Aardvark Jazz Orchestra—its CD Evocations named by the New York City Jazz Record as one of the Best of 2012. (See “Jazz community honors Mark Harvey at Ryles,” By Mark Shanahan and Meredith Goldstein, The Boston Globe, Jan.30, 2013)
And in Old West Church’s basement, every Friday and Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon, the resident Hub Theatre Center performed—under the masterful direction of Rosann M. Weeks. Here’s what Boston’s most prominent theatre critics thought of HTC’s work:
Miss Weeks has directed the play with an expert eye for the visual values of her church
space. Her company is dedicated to their aim so proudly printed on the cover of their
Program: “Our aim is to present plays which show that man can be a determiner of life
rather than a victim.”
Samuel Hirsch, Herald-Traveler
Under Miss Weeks’ steadily perceptive direction, the level of performance is way above
Kevin Kelly, Boston Globe
They act with their youth, from their hearts, and Director Rosann M. Weeks has persuaded
them to act with simple sincerity and earnestness. This gives their acting a grace and
goodness which is very moving.
Eliot Norton, Record American
In an e-mail exchange recently, Mark Harvey stated about our time at Old West Church, “As the hippies would say, ‘that place was something else.’” He helped to make it so.
Old West Church’s “services to humanity” became recognized nationally by the Board of Missions of The United Methodist Church. That recognition was expressed in a February 2, 1970 letter to me from Rev. Paul A. Stauffer, Assistant General Secretary of the Board, who wrote,
I should like to make a brief statement with respect to our investment of $3,500 in
the program of Old West Church last year.
Confronted by a period of dis-ease among the laity and restiveness among the clergy,
many of us are asking deep and searching questions about the relevance of the church
in today’s world. Is it really capable of meeting the massive needs of a society struggling
to keep the rates of change within manageable units? Is it really abreast of the times or
is it imprisoned by the thought patterns, structures and styles of past generations?
Because we discovered Old West to be a lively and exciting center of innovative
ministries– a veritable oasis in an ecclesiastical desert—we not only arranged for
emergency funding but for the placement of a youth service team. Such placement
incidentally is made each summer at only ten or twelve of the most creative centers of
religious involvement throughout the nation. . . .
While Old West Church was “a veritable oasis in an ecclesiastical desert,” our “services to humanity” went too far—especially when we directly challenged our Southern New England Conference hierarchy to create an “oasis” of justice, rather than remain an “ecclesiastical desert.” Rev. William “Bobby” McClain, a close black ministerial colleague and pastor of Boston’s Union United Methodist Church, and I co-authored two articles on racial issues in the Conference, both published in the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine—with promotional post cards announcing the articles mailed by the Globe to every minister in the Conference.
The first article was “Missionaries in Black,” published October 18, 1970, which argued, unsuccessfully, on behalf of the Black Methodists for Church Renewal (BMCR), an organized affinity group in the Conference, who had requested that the Conference appropriate $500,000 a year for three years for black self-empowerment programs.
The second article, called “The White Churches Are Dying,” dealt with what Rev. McClain and I perceived as the “ecclesiastical desert” in Christian denominations: with cautious, compromising, organizational gear-greasing, Band-Aid applying leaders, who were elected and appointed because of their demonstrated ability to maintain the status quo, rather than serve as agents of change for the common good. McClain and I were also rash enough to use Jesus as our example, writing, “He did not merely die on behalf of the church, he died to show the church how to live—and to die—on behalf of human life.” (July 9, 1972) The articles offended certain Conferences superiors, ministers and lay persons.
The “ecclesiastical desert” in the Conference was exposed in 1971, when the Black Methodists for Church Renewal accused the all-white Bishop’s Cabinet of discrimination in the appointment of a white instead of a black minister to Boston’s Church of All Nations. The charge was actually leveled against Boston District Superintendent John Barclay, who was alleged to have manipulated the appointment process by ignoring black ministerial candidates for the position, and recommending to Bishop Mathews the appointment of a white minister.
At its 1972 session, the Conference passed a motion, presented by BMCR, that the United Methodist Church’s General Commission on Religion and Race investigate the allegation of discrimination and report back to a special session of the Conference. I played a key role in helping to bring about the investigation: being asked by Rev. Landon Lindsay, the Conference’s Human Relations Director, to lead a Conference-wide group of ministers and lay persons, who joined with BMCR in getting a majority of the Conference delegates to pass the motion for the investigation. I also taped that Conference session, and gave the tape to the General Commission’s investigating committee.
The investigation threatened the appointive power of the Bishop and his Cabinet of five District Superintendents, the liberal reputation of the Southern New England Conference, and the career of Superintendent Barclay. I believe these threats led the white-dominated ministers of United Methodism’s Northeastern Jurisdictional Conference to appoint, in 1972, a newly elected bishop, who was black, Rev. Edward G. Carroll, to replace out-going Bishop Matthews as presiding bishop of the Boston Area, which jurisdiction covers much of New England. What better way to whitewash an ongoing investigation of alleged racial discrimination than with a black leader—one who rose up through—and demonstrated the ability to accommodate in– the ranks of a white-controlled power structure. With the severe racial riots in American cities in the late 1960s, it was time for United Methodism to demonstrate its “racial inclusiveness.” Rev. Carroll was a fitting candidate for bishop—who proceeded not to disappoint.
Revealing here is that, at that time, Rev. Gilbert H. Caldwell, a black minister and former District Superintendent in the Southern New England Conference, was most qualified to be elected bishop. But his prophetic racial justice work as president of the Black Methodists for Church Renewal was too threatening. Thus certain white New England ministerial delegates to the Jurisdictional Conference (where bishops were elected) did not recommend him as a candidate— a fact based on personal knowledge.
If the Old West Church sanctuary walls could talk! They would say that the handwriting on their walls spelled doom for me. The triggering event was the April 1973 same-sex marriage I performed, in the sanctuary, for Bob Jones and Harry Freeman, two members of the Church who met while students at Boston University School of Theology. Performing their marriage, which was widely publicized, was the ammunition that Bishop Carroll and Boston District Superintendent Barclay and other Cabinet members used to bring about my forcible removal from Old West Church and the United Methodist ministry—which concentrated effort also served to divert attention from the investigation of alleged discrimination by the Conference hierarchy.
Bob and Harry’s marriage was one “service to humanity” disapproved of by The United Methodist Church, as its Book of Discipline states that “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching,“ and that marriage is defined as being between a man and a woman. Also, in 1973, The Book of Discipline stated, “We do not recommend marriage between two persons of the same sex.” Now it forbids United Methodist ministers from performing same-sex marriages.
Bob and Harry’s marriage ceremony, which they created, was beautiful! Music was performed by a chamber group from the Boston Symphony Orchestra, who created compositions for that occasion. Some 200 people were in attendance, including many Old West Church members, and people from the larger community. A public microphone was placed in front of the sanctuary, where people were invited to stand and say what Bob and Harry’s marriage meant to them. And, in the following Prayer of Confession which they wrote for the ceremony, Bob and Harry movingly expressed their struggles and love in an anti-gay Christian denomination and society:
I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat.
I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink.
I was naked and you left me exposed.
I was in prison and you didn’t care.
I was old and you denied me my dignity.
I was young and you feared me.
I cried for learning and you fed me rules.
I was a woman and you denied me my power.
I was a man and you denied me my tenderness.
I was a lover and you shamed me for my love.
I was a dream and you left me for another day.
Two days after Bob and Harry’s marriage, Bishop Carroll and Superintendent Barclay visited my former psychiatrist, Dr. Donald Devine, without my knowledge or permission, and obtained psychiatric allegations about my mental health. Carroll then proceeded to hold a press conference, in his office, at which he stated, “I told Dr. Alberts that . . . as chief pastor, based on competent consultation, he was not presently in a position to assume pastoral responsibilities anywhere” (pages 109 and 110 of my lawsuit’s RECORD APPENDIX, the official lawsuit document before the Massachusetts Supreme Court Justices) Carroll also made a similar allegation at a meeting of the Conference’s Board of Ministry: “Psychiatric evaluations from a doctor who has treated Alberts for long duration and concludes that he is ill, and needs extensive care.” (Ibid) Carroll and Barclay also shared Dr. Devine’s allegations about me, in confidence, with certain other Conference ministers, including my closest colleagues—which shows the power job-controlling ecclesiastical hierarchies have over the consciences of clergy.
Actually, Dr. Devine was most helpful in enabling me to deal with a writer’s block in completing my doctoral dissertation, and in dealing with marital issues—until his own morality regarding marriage led him to oppose my separation, which led me to terminate with him, telling him that he did not have my permission to confer with anyone about me.
By the time the Conference ministers met at their annual meeting, the psychiatric groundwork had been laid for my removal—in spite of my having obtained evaluations from two psychiatrists and a psychologist who reported that my mental health was sound. To some 600 ministerial and lay Conference delegates, Bishop Carroll presented eight “reasons” why he and his Cabinet of five District Superintendents had decided that I was “un-appointable.” In rote order, he listed the “reasons”:
One, Dr. Alberts’ public disclosure of confidences received while exercising his
Two, Dr. Alberts’ apparent unwillingness to offer himself without reservation to be
appointed and to serve as his superiors in office may direct.
Three, Dr. Alberts’ apparent inability to refrain from giving notoriety in the media to
matters, which in my judgment, involve personal, sensitive relationships.
Four, Dr. Alberts’ voluntary estrangement from his wife.
Five, Dr. Alberts’ need for a leave of absence for an extended period due to exhaustion.
Six, Dr. Alberts’ solemnization of an alleged marriage between two males contrary to my
expressed desire that this ceremony not be characterized as a marriage.
Seven, my perception, based on conversations with parishioners of Old West Church that
Dr. Alberts has lost the confidence of a substantial portion of his parish.
Eight, Dr. Alberts apparent inability to work with those who disagree with his point of view.
Bishop Carroll then said to the huge Conference gathering of ministers and lay persons, “In listing the foregoing, I do not imply any wrongdoing on Dr. Alberts’ part” (italics added).
My colleague, Rev. Wilbur Ziegler moved that the eight “reasons” for my forced retirement be turned into “charges” so that I could have a church trial. Bishop Carroll ruled his motion out of order, saying that the “reasons” were not “charges.”
This political maneuver was in keeping with The Book of Discipline’s requirement that granting a minister a church trial depended on charges being brought against him. Had I been granted such a trial, I would have had due process, and Bishop Carroll and Superintendent Barclay’s illegal invasion of my privacy– in the exercise of their “priestly function”– would have been exposed—including Carroll’s taping of their visit with Dr. Devine without Devine’s knowledge or permission.
A church trial would also have shown just how fabricated those eight “reasons” for my forcible retirement were. I was accused of violating one confidence not “confidences,” and that accusation was false. Sadly, that “reason” effectively undermined the eight years in which I providing pastoral counseling for many persons, a number of them members of other United Methodist Churches, referred to me by their ministers.
Concerning the other “reasons”: Bob and Harry wanted their relationship to be called a marriage, and I was guided by their “expressed desire,” not Bishop Carroll’s. In the face of the assassination of my character by my “superiors in office,” a solid majority of Old West Church’s Council on Ministries passed a motion calling for my reappointment to the Church.
At a church trial, evidence also would have been produced showing that—rather than giving “notoriety in the media to matters involve[ing] . . . personal , sensitive relationships”– my use of the media was valued within and beyond the Conference Like Warren Carberg, retired editor of the Conference’s own Zions Herald magazine who said to me in a letter, “You have that rare quality of communication . . . through the daily press. I often wondered why Bishop Mathews did not select you to succeed me. Had my opinion been solicited, I would have recommended you.” (Personal Communication, Sept. 9, 1971)
Had Bishop Carroll been required to defend his “reasons” for my removal, he would have been asked to explain why my marital separation was relevant, since he enabled his own, maritally separated, minister-brother to transfer into the Conference and appointed him to a local church. Also, the circumstances surrounding the leave of absence Old West Church granted me would have been cited, including the reason being that it was “well deserved and earned.”
Since a church trial was ruled “out of order,” I brought a lawsuit against Dr. Devine, Bishop Carroll and Superintendent Barclay. The lawsuit created a new case law that holds liable not only a doctor who betrays a patient’s confidence, but anyone who induces a doctor to breach a patient’s confidence. (See, William E. Alberts vs. Donald T. Devine & Others, 395 Mass. 59., 1985) The Others, of course, are Bishop Carroll and Superintendent Barclay. The case was finally settled out of court, with a substantial settlement— the amount of which the defendants required not to be disclosed.
Today, the right of privacy of clergy– from predatory status quo-defending ecclesiastic authorities– is protected in Massachusetts and, by precedent, elsewhere. For a detained description of the case, see “Easter Depends on Whistleblowers,” Counterpunch, March 29, 2013.
Some 25 years after my forced retirement, I received a letter from Rev. Oliver Drake, then retired, who played a key role in my removal. As Chair of the Conference Board of Ministry, he made the motion to the Conference’s ministerial delegates that I be forcibly retired, after Bishop Carroll decided that I was “unappointable.” Oliver’s letter stated,
. . . Throughout your ministry you have preached and lived the true spirit of Jesus. Unfortunately for the New England Conference it lost the last 25 of those years. Many times during those years I have asked myself if I could have done anything differently to have kept you in the Conference? I’m sure the Conference was the looser and you found a freedom in your ministry.
Christmas is a good time to tell you that I greatly value your friend [sic] of nearly 50 years. I ask your [sic] for any hurt I may have caused you when I was Chairman of The Board of Ministry.
May God richly bless you all the years left to you
Dec. 16, 1998
I responded to Rev. Drake’s letter this way:
Your note . . . is a beautiful affirmation of my ministry and of the freedom I have found these last 25 years that has enriched my ministry.
Oliver, regarding your often asking yourself, I don’t think there is anything you could have done differently as chairman of the Board of Ministry to have kept me in the Conference in 1973. You acted on the basis of information that was given to you and the Board. And throughout that painful period your repeated concern was to protect my Conference standing. There is nothing to forgive, Oliver. The fact that after 25 years you can affirm my ministry with such perceptive and loving words reveal the depth of your own freedom, honesty and caring.
Thank you, Oliver, for a most beautiful Christmas greeting that I shall always cherish. My ministry will always be enriched by my Methodist roots and history.
With abiding appreciation and love, Bill
Jan. 2, 1999
My unjust treatment is believed to reveal why a hierarchical denominational power structure can become an “ecclesiastical desert.” The fact that a Bishop and a District Superintendent could knowingly commit such an obvious crime and hypocrisy– in broad daylight, in front of an auditorium filled with ministers– reveals that you can’t have a hierarchy without a lowerarchy.
In The United Methodist Church, Bishops and District Superintendents control ministers’ appointments to churches and special ministries, and thus determine the progress of their careers. With such power, these “superiors in office” actually control ministers’ consciences—and thus the nature and extent of their social justice involvements. And since most Bishops and District Superintendents themselves have gotten to where they are by maintaining and advancing the institution’s status quo, it follows that, with their power over ministers’ appointments, they are the real determiners of the Church’s outreach—which is circumscribed by political/corporate powers. Many of these United Methodist leaders —with important exceptions—have demonstrated that their prayerful religious rhetoric is a far cry from the vision of nineteenth century preacher and abolitionist Theodore Parker, who said that the church should “lead public opinion, not follow it.”
In Bishop Carroll’s case, years later I learned that while my lawsuit against him was still active, a Massachusetts woman was reported to have sued him and the United Methodist Church for “not acting against a minister who abused her sexually,” and “settled the case out of court.” The woman, now 30, “charged that the church and Bishop Carroll had failed to remove [a minister] . . . even though they knew as early as the spring of 1977 that he had abused a 6-year old girl.” Carroll’s reported response: he “prayed for him, sent him into therapy, and within two years promoted him to district superintendent, according to testimony.” And “while in therapy,” the minister “molested a 12-year old girl, beginning in 1978.” (“Methodist Church, retired bishop, settle sex abuse case,” By Paul Langner, The Boston Globe, July 27, 1996)
The aim here is not to unnecessarily attack past adversaries, like Bishop Carroll. When he arrived in the Boston area, District Superintendents, certain ministers and Conference lay persons already had their fill of Old West Church and me, and were ready to pounce. And he accommodated them. The aim is to document how an ecclesiastical hierarchy, professing Christian beliefs, can control a lowerarchy and get away with abusing its authority– even to such an extreme.
Even more, the aim is to show that many ecclesiastical “superiors in office” are actually defenders of the political status quo. Like The United Methodist Church, creating a monument to the worst war criminal of the 21st century, in establishing the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum at Southern Methodist University. A prayerful president, who used “God’s gift of freedom to every man and woman in the world” to justify illegally, and unnecessarily, invading Iraq. The result: hundreds of thousands of civilians dead, horrible destruction of Iraq’s infrastructure, millions of refugees, and severe sectarian violence—and the deaths of several thousand Americans, the wounding of tens of thousands more, and the waste of our country’s resources.
The Western world is now reaping the whirlwind of ISIS, a brutal movement of revenge and domination, composed mostly of Sunni Arabs from Iraq and Syria, whose creation is primarily due to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. (See, “Don’t Blame Islam: Al Qaeda and ISIS are products of US and Saudi imperialism,” By David Mizner, Jacobin, Jan. 30, 2015)
Also, President Obama, recently stated that he is protecting the “security of the United States” by continuing the unjust, 14-years long war against Afghanistan– launched by President Bush. This continuing immoral war and waste is at the expense of the security of 65 million older American citizens, who will not receive a cost of living increase in their social security checks in 2016. These decisions appear to have elicited no visible outcry from churches of the status quo. And in another ecclesiastical level: the Roman Catholic Church’s cover up of the entrenched, widespread sexual abuse of children by priests, which is finally in the “Spotlight” thanks to The Boston Globe’s dogged investigation.
In his book, Death of the Liberal Class, former New York Times correspondent Chris Hedges documents the decline in influence of “liberal religious institutions” that once provided a check on the ‘power elite.” He writes, “The greatest sin of the liberal class . . . has been its enthusiastic collusion with the power elite to silence, blacklist and ban rebels . . . [in the] battle against the abuses of the corporate state.” (Page 15) He refers to the religious institutions:
The decline of the Catholic Church, traditional Protestant denominations and liberal Jewish synagogues, institutions that once had a place for radicals from Martin Luther King Jr. to Abraham Heschel to Dorothy Day to the Berrigans, was a body blow to the liberal class. These religious institutions, which purged radicals as ruthlessly as their secular counterparts, became as useless as the other pillars of the liberal establishment [which include the press, universities, the labor movement and the Democratic party. (page 162, Nation Books, New York, c. 2010, Chris Hedges)
Again, Christian churches perform much needed good works, which often go unnoticed. But the good works they engage in are circumscribed by the powers that be—their own hierarchical ecclesiastical powers and the political/business/legal/media powers around and beyond them.
Ironically, the church of “something else” in “an ecclesiastical desert” does not appear in Old West Church’s “History” that is described on its website. (See, www.oldwestchurch.org/history) There is merely a reference to the years that Rev. Wilbur Ziegler and I served as ministers of the Church. No mention of Mark Harvey’s jazz celebrations, Rosann Weeks” Hub Theatre Center performances, the Venceremos Brigade, the Hippies, the anti-Vietnam war demonstrations, the Church joining with St. Joseph’s Catholic Church nearby and neighborhood groups in the struggle to bring low income housing to the West End, the psychiatrically supervised tutoring program staffed by church members, and all the other programs that led Board of Missions leader Rev. Paul Stauffer to describe Old West as an “oasis in an ecclesiastical desert.”
Actually, the “History” of Old West Church does state that The Metropolitan Community Church of Boston began holding its services in the sanctuary. That, too, had its origins in the church of “something else.”
Old West Church’s website could have proudly announced that its sanctuary was one of the first United Methodist sanctuaries in the country in which a same-sex marriage was performed. But it didn’t. Not that the current leadership of Old West was responsible for making the church of “something else” disappear from history. The blotting out of that reality happened years ago.
If Old West Church’s sanctuary walls could talk! It was a rare Conference church, providing an innovative and prophetic model, where “services to humanity” became too experimental, inclusive and threatening to United Methodism’s status quo. It had to be brought under hierarchical control. Shortly after my forced retirement, a Boston Globe newspaper photo revealed a tell-tale sign on the front of Old West Church’s building: “NO LOITERING ON CHURCH PREMISES- Per Order Pres. of Trustees.” The caption underneath read: “SIGN OF CHANGE—‘loiterers’ no longer welcome at Boston’s Old West Church are reportedly the alcoholics the church long had encouraged to come for help. The sign was posted on the church’s main door last week.” (Ed Farrand photo)” (‘RELIGION,’ The Boston Globe, July 28, 1973) Today, Old West Church’s “radical faith, bold hope and lavish love” are taking hierarchically approved forms.
As Eva and I left Old West Church, and walked down its sidewalk leading to the street, we recalled a moving incident that, in 1973, Eva had observed on the Church’s front lawn. Shortly after I was forcible retired, the alcoholic who had played the piano in the Church’s sanctuary, took flowers from the public library down the street, dug a hole on the Church’s lawn with a broken whisky bottle, planted the flowers, and said, “These are for you, Reverend, and not all of those other punks!”
If Old West Church’s sanctuary walls could talk! They would reveal a church of “something else.” The kind of church that is very much needed today. A church whose steeple is the aspirations of all people. Whose altar is the common ground on which everyone walks. Whose cross the oppression from which any individual or group is seeking to liberate himself or herself or itself—with no proselytizing strings attached.