1988 became a defining moment in the life of United Churches within my Presbytery* let alone Canada, and the effects reverberated in several communities for decades to follow. In some congregations honest conversations on human sexuality finally began happening – if they were lucky – and some actually explored theological perspectives around issues which the United Church had been encouraging throughout the 1980’s.
As a person who worked closely with staff in various United Church courts in 1988 and again in 1994 onward, I saw a definite difference in the urban setting as contrasted with the rural. Specific congregations in the city were vocal about their angst toward General Council. My observation suggested that where the vocal cries were loudest were also where order of ministry people were known to be judgmental about church court systems, let alone gender identity, and “teamed” with the disgruntled lay people – often men – to lead the “crusade” against the United Church.
During this debacle (that is what it felt like in some locations!), there were two ministry personnel that stood out for me as having great integrity even though I could not agree with their conclusions. One was in a congregation that eventually joined the Covenanting Church system, but the minister who was in place at the time chose to take early retirement from the United Church and rejoin the Presbyterians. He would not denounce the United Church who provided his pay cheque and pension. In another congregation, a minister who is still at the same congregation, encouraged his very conservative congregation to explore using what avenues of dissent were open to them. He assisted in creating proposals to General Council that were quite virulent, and while none of the proposals got past the Presbytery stage, the congregation continues to be active within the United Church. And continues to write proposals!
I also witnessed urban lay people leave the United Church. One of my longest standing friends, and her family, left a congregation and official board work because they could not stand the level of discourse from other board members and the minister at the time against the United Church decision. Said friend happened to have a brother who was gay with a solid professional career. The tone that they heard coming from the local corporate body led them away from any sense of “Christian fellowship.” (Her mother did have a United Church funeral years later because this friend reached out). The pain was real for the family and the reason for leaving was not discussed in the congregation even though the leadership was fully aware of the cause.
I identified a difference between urban and rural communities around the issues of 1988. What was so evident in faith communities that were of the family size worshipping communities in particular (50 and under), was that there often was a sense of community embarrassment that “their” church had even raised the topic of homosexuality. Some faith communities were obviously fractured. Some remain to this day trying to rebuild. In other words, some congregations were put in the position of allowing 1988 to define them for decades to come.
I also saw the pain of a few ministers leaving ministry period, two because of the attitudes they encountered in the congregations that they were serving at the time (rural). I later saw the damage caused to the congregational units where ministry leadership fostered an atmosphere that included hatred and judgment. Years later, this style of leadership is not still in place BUT it did cloud community dynamics. It is my contention that in the majority of cases, when a healthy congregation is accepted in a community, the organization brings a value-added component to their community. When that system (congregation) is dysfunctional, it carries to the community attitudes, etc. In other words, IF a congregation brings an accepting attitude to their mission strategy, the value-added component can shift attitudes. And if not, they reinforce existing attitudes.
I have read files that have suggested that there was a downward trend in attendance in United Churches after 1988. What wasn’t measured in the same way at the same time was the significant increase and impact of secularization. Another trend not measured in the same way at the same time is the reality of immigration patterns since 1988. Intercultural ministries provide fresh reflection when it is demonstrated statistically that certain cultural streams are not aligned with the core values of being United Church.
In the meantime, I can claim to have observed pain on both sides of the debate, for laity, for ministry personnel. The pain went deep in certain cases depending on the trigger. Having said that, I cannot for the life of me conceive of a denomination that didn’t take the step forward of standing with the marginalized on this issue. Others denominations are now struggling to catch up to where the United Church has travelled but the reality is that society/culture has travelled since 1988. In speaking with generations of the buster level etc., it is evident that this is a non-issue for the majority of them. My data speaks primarily of Canada. It would be my observation that the United States has a different stance in parts of that country. The two coasts are different than the Midwest, e.g. Arizona.
Another observation I would offer in hindsight is that as a denomination, we did not excel in discipleship language, nor that of evangelism – in our style. I do regret this as I feel as some of the conversation in 1988 took place amongst people who were largely biblically illiterate. This contributed to uneven dialogue, but the reality is, we are still here!
It was stressful working in a presbytery office in 1988. It was stressful working in a conference office when a colleague provided another ‘firestorm’ of theological understandings. United Church members have chosen to be here and keep the doors open to their congregations. What 1988 did was create a climate of survival, or a climate of resilience. What remains to be seen is how they approach rearranging the chairs on the Titanic. Somewhere along the line the majority will have to affirm their core values of social justice combined with the unconditional love of our Creator… some people add in the name of Jesus. Supposedly, the New Curriculum was an issue for its day… and now we just hope we have a church school! 1988 is another step along the way in discerning where God is calling us for the sake of God’s world.
* Names and identifying details have been changed.