The intersection of religion and identity can be potent, or even combustible, mix. For one Greenwich Village church and its congregation, in the late 1970s they came to a head in not just the spiritual but the real world realm in a way that made history.
In June of 1978, the the Washington Square United Methodist Church’s Reverend, Paul Abels, became America’s first openly gay ordained minister within a major Christian denomination. This was part of this congregation’s desire to serve as a catalyst for political action, civil rights, and social justice efforts, seeking to repair relationships with people it believed the United Methodist Church had long excluded.
The Washington Square United Methodist church was constructed in 1859 by Architect Gamaliel King in a hybrid Romanesque/Gothic-Revival style. Rebellious from the beginning, the church was built without visible means of support in its galleries, nave, and aisles, and many believed it would collapse. Despite these predictions, the church is still standing nearly two centuries later, and is now part of the Greenwich Village Historic District.
When Reverend Paul Abels took the reins of the Methodist congregation in 1973, the church had already made quite the reputation for itself. Dubbed the “Peace Church,” its leadership maintained an outspoken campaign against war in Vietnam, and harbored draft dodgers and A.W.O.L. pacifists from federal arrest. Washington Square Methodist also acted as a community cultural center, providing concerts by indie, jazz, and alternative musicians in its sanctuary and art installations. It was also one of the first churches to accept homosexual and transgender parishoners into its congregation. Under Abel’s leadership, the church launched a massive $1.5 million fundraising campaign ($9.8 million today) to restore the church’s architecture, and he launched new outreach ministries supporting the local community in Greenwich Village. Many of Abel’s ministries aided the neighborhood’s growing populations of LGBTQIA+ people. Abel provided the church’s meeting spaces for local activists (such as the Redstockings, the Gay Liberation Front, and the Harvey Milk High School) to discuss current and controversial issues, like preventing the spread of STDs/STIs, promoting a women’s right to safe abortions and contraception, and protecting the mental health of queer-identifying children. Protesting laws forbidding marriage between same-sex couples, Reverend Abels also performed “covenant ceremonies” for these couples, placing him in hot-water with other leadership within the United Methodist Church.
When Rev. Abels cam out as gay in 1977, he was immediately asked to take an indefinite leave of absence by Bishop W. Ralph Ward. Reverend Abels was not the first member of the Methodist clergy that had come out as homosexual, and he represented the beginning of a larger wave of queer clergy members who advocated for greater acceptance and autonomy within the United Methodist Church (UMC), which the denomination still struggles with today leading to multiple schisms. Standing up for other gay clergy, Rev. Abels refused his bishop’s request, elevating a complaint with the UMC’s New York Conference. In the months that followed, the church’s members submitted hundreds of letters in support of Abels to Rev. David Houston, the chairman of the ministerial board. On June 18th, 1978, the NY Conference announced in the New York Times that Rev. Abels was “performing a fantastic Christian ministry” and reinstated him as the congregation’s ordained minister.
After being reinstated, Abel continued his progressive ministries, providing reparations to racial minorities and helping to found the New York City Gay Men’s Chorus (whose first rehearsal was held in the church’s sanctuary in 1979). Rev. Abels also opened his parish house to the Black and Latina lesbian group Salsa Soul Sisters, who used the church as a headquarters between October 1976 and May 1987. Founded in 1974 as part of the Gay Activist Alliance, the group is seen as America’s oldest Black lesbian organization, and it sought to provide a safe community spaces outside of bars for queer women of color to socialize. The group also provided social and literary resources to educate its members about topics like racism and parenting.
Unfortunately, the United Methodist Church announced a controversial decision at their 1984 General Conference to prohibit the ordination and appointment of “self-avowed, practicing homosexuals,” forcing Reverend Abels into an early retirement. After Rev. Abels stepped down, the church’s ministries and partners started looking for a new home that was unaffiliated with the Methodist church’s conflicted stance against LGBTQ clergy and members. The Salsa Sisters and Harvey Milk High School joined the newly formed LGBT Center, which had recently established itself in Manhattan’s old P.S.184 in 1983. The congregation merged with two others to officially form the Church of the Village, a house of worship with a mission to build a “progressive and radically inclusive community that is committed to dismantling racism, sexism, and all forms of oppression.” In 2004, the Washington Square United Methodist Church was sold to real-estate developers and was converted into private condominiums.
A preservationist himself, Reverend Abels and his partner Thom Hunt retired to Rensselaerville in Upstate New York to restore the Catalpa House and open their historic home as a bed-and-breakfast. After dedicating the rest of his life to helping other gay clergy members achieve success and acceptance, Rev. Abels tragically died from complications related to AIDS on March 12th, 1992 at the age of 54. Twenty-five years after Rev. Abel’s death, the United Methodist Church issued a formal apology in 2017 admitting “a terrible injustice” done to the dedicated and faithful pastor and recognizing the untold damage their “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy did to LGBTQIA+ clergy and laity. Rev. Abel’s own New York Conference “expressed deep remorse for the harm done and pain experienced by Rev. Paul Abels and his companion Thomas Hunt,” asking for God’s forgiveness and theirs.
The Washington Square Methodist Church and its brave congregation represent a long line of community members within our neighborhoods dedicated to social justice and political advocacy. If you’d like to learn more about other sites of influence, explore our Civil Rights and Social Justice Map. And, don’t forget to check-out other sites important specifically to LGBTQIA+ Rights by completing our 2022 Pride Tour on Urban Archive.
Further Reading and Sources Referenced:
- “United Methodists Vote to Allow Homosexual Minister to Keep Job” int eh New York Times, 1978
- The LGBT Historic Site’s Project entry about the Washington Square United Methodist Church and Parish House
- “Homosexual Life on View Here Tomorrow” in the New York Times,
- “AWOL Pacifist Gives Up at Church” in the New York Times, 1968
- “Church Steps Back 80 Year at Fete” in the New York Times, 1941
- Bruce Lambert’s “The Rev. Paul Abels Dies at 54; Gay Pastor Lead ‘Peace’ Church” in the New York Times, 1992
More Resources to Explore:
- “The Redstockings: ‘Rapping’ for Reproductive Rights in Greenwich Village” on our Blog, Off the Grid
- “Vasant Rai: Guru of Gaga-Rock” on our Blog, Off the Grid
- “The Church of the Village: Remembering Injustice Against Gay Clery Event” on our Blog, Off the Grid
- Our Civil Rights and Social Justice History Map
- Our East Village Building Blocks LGBTQ+ Tour
- Village Preservation’s 2022 Village Pride Tour via Urban Archive