Where were you in 1988 and what part did you have in your church? (choir member, elder, member of the congregation…)
I was at a church in the Montreal Presbytery, and I was a member of the choir. I also became an Intended Candidate that year – I left the following year to attend seminary.
How long had you been there?
I had attended my home congregation for about seven years.
Say a bit about your general experience of church at that time.
My experience of church at that time – until the great debates began – was wholly positive. I had come to the United Church with my mother as a youngish teen when she left the Catholic Church, and immediately found its emphasis on social justice, its flexibility in doctrine, and its left-leaning values to be far more comfortable than my previous experience in the Catholic parish. I was deep in the midst of teenaged questioning, not in the least interested in Sunday School, but was welcomed into the choir. Wonderful experience of fellowship, and it also meant I was listening each week to the service and I had the opportunity to figure out what I believed and what that might mean for me. Many in the congregation were engaged in significant justice work in Guatemala at that time – their example and their experiences had an enormous impact on me. It was a very positive time.
Please describe at least two stories from that time that you would call positive or hopeful.
Frankly, I don’t have any memories of that time (in relation to that debate) that were either positive or hopeful.
Please describe at least two of your worst memories from that time
My single worst memory of that time was arriving at the church hall for the first congregational meeting about “the issue”. It had not occurred to me that it would BE an issue. After all, this was the United Church! Naturally everyone would be in support of this decision! So I went and sat at a table with the folks I knew best in the congregation – both choir members and those who had been on many trips down to Guatemala and had been active in supporting refugee families coming to our city – and had not a worry in the world. Surely this would be a short and positive meeting! And then I was stunned and frankly horrified by what I heard from them and others. It felt as though the United Church I thought I knew had disappeared. I had truly believed the rhetoric about justice – and it felt as though I’d been kicked in the gut.
My other worst memory is not so much a memory as it is a retroactive sense of regret and shame when I think about that time. I was too young, too unsure of myself, and too fearful of conflict to adequately stand up for justice in that situation. Although I did question and push in many congregational meetings about it, I know that I also erred on the side of concession on many occasions. I just wasn’t confident enough, and I greatly regret it.
How would you say your own faith has been affected by 1988?
I think that 1988, or at least the few years following, probably sharpened my faith – overlaid it with a sort of ‘take no prisoners’ unwillingness to allow for fine words belied by unjust actions. Of course it’s possible that the issues of 1988 simply crystallized or intensified what would have happened with greater maturity anyway, but nevertheless it definitely proved to be a decisive element in clarifying for me what exactly God’s call to justice and right-relationship means on the ground.
How would you say we as a denomination have been affected by 1988?
Looking back, I think it was a daring move and a positive one. It was difficult for me then, and continues so now, to regret the departure of those who were unwilling to broaden their minds to overcome their discomfort and/or prejudice. I was proud of the decision in 1988 and I still am. We forced a discussion before others were ready, and I think contributed significantly to bending the arc of history closer to justice for Canadian society as a whole.
At the same time, however, the battles of 1988 left behind one legacy that I think has not served us well – a legacy of fearfulness of conflict. My experience in the church in the 25 years since 1988 has been one in which I’ve been increasingly discouraged by both congregational and denominational lassitude in making hard decisions and demanding tough action, both of ourselves and others. Instead, we seem to have retreated into a state of permanent pastoral care, in which being soothing and kind-hearted has taken the place of being prophetic or provocative, and I think it has diminished us as a denomination.
Identifying details have been change.