An interview with the Chair of the Search Committee
Iridesce: Let’s pray… Loving God, thank you for this time of sharing and listening. And thank you for the model we have in Christ who welcomes all voices and all perspectives into community, and into the hope that sharing brings. Amen.
Chair of the Committee: I want to talk you about a time at Whitehorse United Church in the early 1990s. We had had a long term minister for at least twenty years. We had had some conversation at the time about acceptance of gay and lesbian people, and about ordination. It was a time of alot of discussion in the church. We had a more conservative minister, I would say, so we were not clear where we were heading as a church. But his wife and I connected on this topic when we asked ourselves what we would do if we had a child who was gay or lesbian. For us the answer was very clear: we would love and accept them.
They eventually left and I became Chair of the Search Committee. We had an interm minister who was here for literally five minutes before the church burned down. It was a devastating experience.
The year of the interm ministry was mostly about rebuilding the church: both the building and searching for a new minister. We had a search committee who represented the whole gamut of this church: ex-military, ex-political, people very familiar and comfortable with gay and lesbian people. We were about 8 people.
There was alot of interest in our church! We had so many applications. One of these was from people who were open about being lesbians. I had conversations with them about how hard or how easy it would be for them since we as a church had never been clear about where we were. So we made a mutual decision not to proceed with their application. But they were very talented and I was very sad to tell them that I didn’t think we were ready for them yet. So we proceeded with the search.
Then one applicant emerged who was more appealing based on all our criteria, and that was Rob Oliphant. As the Chair, I had experience hiring people outside of the church in my professional life, but never within the church before. We had had incidents in the community where a couple of lesbians had been targetted by the Pentecostal church. Their house had been egged and bad things were said about them in the newspaper. One day, I was in the shower and it struck me that there was another piece of Rob that we hadn’t talked about. I was concerned. If our candidate was gay, how were we going to make this work?
So, I called Rob and said, “I know I’m not supposed to ask you this, but is it possible…?”
He replied, “How do you know…?”
And I said, “I just have a feeling.”
He said, “You’re right.”
How were we going to make this work? He and I spoke about it. I advised Rob to tell the search committee and then go where the Spirit leads us. To just trust. He was okay with this idea.
At that time we still had no church building. We were worshipping at the Anglican church and had our offices in an “upper room” in an office building. Rob and the search committee met together there and he told everyone that he was gay. I have to tell you, if I never believed in the Holy Spirit before, I believed that day because of what we experienced together. Here people who had previously been very public about not accepting gay and lesbian ministers… but in that room there was something about who Rob was, and what his call was, that EVERYONE came around.
There was one man, ex-military who said to Rob, “You must be meant to be a minister because this can’t have been easy for you.” There were many tears and a huge solidarity around Rob.
Now, another piece of the story is that Rob was at that time involved with a political party. We had members of our congregations, all men, who were involved in the same political party. They took it upon themselves to “look into him,” trying to find “dirt” to expose his sexuality. I had to speak to them and tell them to honour his privacy and steward protection for everybody.
Eventually we had to have a congregational meeting. There was so much talk and rumbling… small town, right? But we stood behind him. At the meeting some of the people were starting to ask question within “the letter of the law” but not in “the spirit of the law”, trying to reveal his sexuality in scandal. But the committee stood solid.
Then we learned that Rob had a partner, who turned out to be rather effeminate, a lovely man though. But a little outside of what we were used to at the time here in Whitehorse. We decided to go for it… and ended up being very beloved!
But at the time in 1993 we did lose some members quite publically, because, of course, some people did eventually “figure it out” [that the new minister was gay]. This was very ugly…
We had what we called “A Good Friday Interrogation”, that was terrible. People came to his office after the Good Friday service and tried to shame him and tell him he shouldn’t be there. They really nailed him. A few people were really, really awful to him. These people eventually left the church. There was some remorse that some of these people left, but more there was a feeling of standing behind our minister. A number of people—including a United Church candidate for ministry—left because they were not supportive of our church or Rob. They went to the Pentecostal church, which I guess was a better fit for who they were.
One thing that really worked for Rob is that he was an excellent preacher. Very skilled! And we hadn’t had such amazing preaching prior so it really spoke to us. And like many people who are oppressed they have to be bigger and better at everything.
One last piece, at that the United Church was asked to leave the local ministerial association. This was because of the Pentecostal influence. Ironically, the priest here at the time was also gay, but of course he was not “out”, but there was alot of support there.
After six years in ministry here, many people were very sad to see Rob go. Since then, there has been no question of welcoming gay and lesbian people. We definately see with our current minister Beverly Brazier, that many many people feel welcome here who self-identify as gay, lesbian or trans and if they don’t self-identify they know that they will be welcomed if they do come out. So that’s a good story. But it was a hard congregational story to get to this point. It was a big time in our church.
The reason I started by telling you about the church burning down is because I think this “rethinking” and “rebuilding” made it possible for us to do the work we needed to do to rethink who we could call as a minister. I’m not sure if the church hadn’t burned down if we would have called him. But we did. And we were so glad we did.
Iridesce: Thank you for your witness. Shall we pray to close?
Chair of the Committee: Thank you Creator for this sacred time together. Thank you for the chance to share heart-to-heart. Thank you for the work that Aaron is doing and for the journey of this Project. Amen.