It was Bill's request for ordination that eventually led to the 1978 "Definitive Guidance" decision. Here is the story by James D. Anderson in an important article,
"The Lesbian and Gay Liberation Movement in the Churches in the United States, 1969-1993." Here is an excerpt:
When Bill Silver became the first openly-gay, happily-homosexual candidate for the ministry in the former United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., that denomination didn't know what to do with him. The issue was not addressed in the Book of Order, the part of our constitution that addresses qualifications for ordained office.
So a timid and fearful Presbytery of New York City, where Bill Silver was "under care" as a candidate for the ministry, overtured the general assembly for "definitive guidance" on this matter.
The 1976 General Assembly didn't know what to do either, so they set up a task force to study homosexuality. Two years later, the majority of that task force declared that homosexuality, per se, was no bar to ordination to the offices of the Presbyterian Church: deacon, elder, and minister.
"May a self-affirming, practicing homosexual Christian be ordained? We believe so, if the person manifests such gifts as are required for ordination. For some homosexual Christians growth toward mature Christian living may imply accepting celibacy; for some it may imply accomplishing reorientation to heterosexuality; however, for others it may imply remaining open to or attaining full companionship and partnership with a person of the same sex. Spiritual maturity or the absence thereof is an attribute pertaining not to any class of people but only to individual persons. Thus, it must be distinctively identified and separately evaluated in each individual candidate for ordination as the church, led by the Sprit and guided by God's Word, seeks to discern and verify that particular candidate's gifts for ministry" [4, p. D-172].
But this recommendation was entirely too much for the 1978 General Assembly. Instead they declared homosexuality to be sin -- "We conclude that homosexuality is not God's wish for humanity" -- and that therefore, "unrepentant homosexual practice does not accord with the requirements for ordination" [5, p. 58, 61]. These conclusions were based not on fact or knowledge, but belief: "it appears that what is really important is not what homosexuality is but what we believe about it" [5, p. 58].
A key phrase in this 1978 policy was "persons . . . who affirm their own homosexual identity and practice," or "self-affirming, practicing homosexual persons" [5, p. 61]. It is clear that it was not homosexuality per se that was the problem, but the affirmation of homosexuality. Candidates who lie, who stay in the closet (as they had for centuries), and especially those who hated their homosexuality (and therefore themselves) were quite OK and could be ordained, and they continue to be ordained.
The new policy was aimed as much at discouraging honesty, integrity, and openness as it was at opposing and denigrating homosexuality. Good Presbyterian folk just wanted the problem to go away. "Why do you have to talk about it?" they kept asking. (Read More!)
The Task Force had the right answer in 1976, as task forces generally do, time and time again. They realized what the 1978 General Assembly would not, that
Spiritual maturity or the absence thereof is an attribute pertaining not to any class of people but only to individual persons. Thus, it must be distinctively identified and separately evaluated in each individual candidate for ordination as the church, led by the Sprit and guided by God's Word, seeks to discern and verify that particular candidate's gifts for ministry.And yet our denomination continues its policy of prejudice by category. The last Task Force succeeded in encouraging the denomination to open the door a little bit, allowing candidates to declare a scruple. Heather Reichgott writes about this in "The End of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell'?"
Maybe the door will be opened wide enough for some candidates.
But it wasn't wide enough for Bill Silver. Rest in Peace.