Unitarians open ministry to homosexuals

21 March 2023

The General Assembly passed a resolution on ‘Open Ministry – Gay Rights’ which confirmed Unitarian ministry was open to all regardless of sex, race, colour or sexual orientation. The resolution was proposed by members of Golders Green church and the Unitarian Women’s League, after a gay man was turned down for ministry training on the basis of his sexuality. 

During the passionate debate at the General Assembly’s Annual Meetings in 1977, prominent minister Rev. Arthur Vallance (1902-90) (pictured alonside his wife Rev. Elspeth Vallance) – a married man with children – stood up and outed himself, demonstrating to the delegates that homosexuals were already among them, serving as their ministers. After the debate, several other prominent Unitarians also “came out” as gay.

The same year, a second resolution on ‘Homosexuality’ declared: “abhorrence of discrimination solely on the basis of sexual orientation” and pledged to “to bring liberalising pressures to bear on those public bodies where discrimination against the homosexual still persists”.

Ann Peart, interviewed February 2023:
“There were two resolutions on homosexuality that year (1977), one a general one asking for a more liberal approach and the other one was specifically directed to the ministry. It asked that our ministry be open to people regardless of sex, race, or sexual orientation. The resolution was proposed by Golders Green. It was the espousal of the cause by the Women’s League which helped enormously. I have vague memories of a late-night meeting to discuss some of the issues, two retired male ministers came out as gay and had a very sympathetic reception on the whole. The resolution was passed unanimously, and although there was some hostility – letters to The Inquirer and so on – it became firm Unitarian General Assembly policy.”

Jeff Gould, interviewed February 2023:
We were the first denomination in this country to openly welcome people who were gay or lesbian to train for our ministry, I think that’s a huge point of honour that we should always remember. I had done a great deal of research to find out where different denominations stand on homosexuality because I didn’t want to get into a situation where I would have to lie or to conceal something about myself and then have to leave. I found out that there had been a series of motions passed at the Annual Meetings. The most important was probably in 1977, saying that the General Assembly affirmed the welcoming of students to the ministry who were openly gay and lesbian, that there was no bar to people being trained on the basis of their sexual orientation. I found it amazing, extremely welcoming, I didn’t feel that there was any barrier – but still I never said the word, I just spoke very honestly about my background.”

Derek McAuley, interviewed February, 2023:
We need to have an awareness of the struggles within our movement, with the General Assembly on several occasions addressing the issue of LGBT rights and equality. One can look back through the series of resolutions, on gradual acceptance both opening ministry to people regardless of their background or identity, expressing our abhorrence at discrimination against individuals on the basis of sexual orientation – which drew on long standing Unitarian/ Free Christian views on equality – and then an acceptance of an equal age of consent in 1984, wanting the repeal of clause 28 of the Local Government Act and then calling for the equal acceptance of gay people in all walks of life.

That stream of [GA] resolutions over time was very radical if you compare that to the mainstream Christian denominations and other faith groups.

If one looks back at those struggles, those [GA] resolutions were not passed without a lot of detailed argument – having to convince the movement that LGBT rights are totally within the mainstream Unitarian views and entirely in line with those. If you go back to the 1960s you can find the traces – where Unitarian ministers were talking about the possibility of acceptance of LGBT relationships. In the 70s, the blessings by a few – not many- ministers of gay relationships.

We have to remember the pioneers like Keith Gilley and Dudley Cave and others within Golders Green. Compare that to the situation today where right across the movement LGBT people are accepted in the main.”