Just before the 213th General Assembly convened June 9 in Louisville, Bill Hawley — a presbytery executive for the last three years in upstate New York — announced he was gay and resigned his job. Although he had been an ordained Presbyterian minister for 18 years, Hawley felt that the only way he could stay in the ministry, in a denomination that forbids the ordination of non-celibate gays and lesbians, was to deny in public who he was in private.
“It had gotten to the point where I could not do that any longer,” Hawley said in an interview. “It was something that was building for a long time. I had just gotten to the point where I could no longer take the stress of living in the closet.”
For Hawley, keeping the secret meant not feeling safe. He couldn’t tell his family or the people he worked with about an important part of his own identity, and he couldn’t tell his gay friends about his work as a minister. Because he couldn’t confide in people, he couldn’t ask for their support. He felt he should speak out about his denomination’s policy, but couldn’t without risking his career. He felt increasingly isolated.
“Last year’s Assembly nearly killed me,” Hawley said, remembering having to listen to “people’s hateful, ignorant remarks about homosexuality or sexual orientation. I don’t think there’s anybody — maybe there’s a few people — who will choose” to be gay or lesbian. But for most people, “the struggles, the challenges, of being gay or lesbian are difficult enough that no one would choose it. You either are or you aren’t.”
Ironically, just days after Hawley made his announcement and quit, the 213th General Assembly voted to recommend ending the denomination’s ban on ordaining gays and lesbians — a proposed change in the church’s Constitution that the denomination’s 173 presbyteries now will be asked to vote up or down. Some have asked Hawley if he wished he’d waited, given there’s a chance the policy may now change.
He says he couldn’t — he literally felt he was being torn apart. Now he feels free to tell his story — to speak to the presbyteries about “the pain and the struggle” of homosexuals who feel called to ministry, and don’t feel welcome to serve.
Hawley, 42, said he didn’t realize he was gay when he chose to enter the ministry. He figured that out about six years ago, but said, “I should have known a long time before.”
Although he could have tried both to come out and to keep his job — the Constitution forbids the ordination of people who are not married and not celibate, and Hawley is not currently involved in a relationship — Hawley chose, as a matter of “personal integrity and honesty,” to set aside his ordination as well.
Hawley said he has felt called to serve the church in ministry since he was a young man studying at the University of Scranton, a Jesuit school. Instead of dropping out of church in college, as many young people do, he became deeply involved in both Catholic and Presbyterian congregations — doubling his time in church, essentially — and was accepted at Princeton Seminary while still a junior in college.
“There were affirmations of my ministry all along the way,” Hawley said, as he received his first call to parish work directly out of seminary, and then became more involved over the years in presbytery work in Kiskiminetas and Hudson River presbyteries, finally being named executive presbyter of Genesee Valley Presbytery three years ago.
According to Hawley, Genesee Valley is theologically diverse. It includes both More Light congregations, which advocate the full inclusion of gays and lesbians in church life, and conservative churches where many believe that the Bible forbids the ordination of homosexuals.
After he resigned, Hawley said, his blood pressure dropped dramatically. “I’ve gotten a lot of letters of support and encouragement,” he said, “and a lot of them have come from conservatives, who are very clear their position has not changed, yet they are grateful for my integrity, they’re thankful for my ministry,” and they wish him well as he moves into other work.
Hawley is grateful for the kind words of those who disagree with him. He knows that several gay commissioners spoke out at this year’s General Assembly, and he hopes for healing for those within the PC(USA) who are homosexual and still in the closet.
Hawley said he doesn’t know what kind of work he’ll do next. He’s looking for a job, perhaps in accounting or non-profit consulting. Whatever happens, “I can be who I am now,” he said. If the church changes its Constitution, he’ll consider returning to the ministry.