In my own voice
I am a proud product of Hamilton Ontario: steel town, Tiger Cats, McMaster University. I was ordained in 1973 in Sudbury Ontario. I spent my ordination parish in the rough tough mining town of Grande Cache, Alberta. I moved on to a completely different place, Kelowna B.C. and then moved to Abbotsford, BC. During those first 11 years of ministry, I was aware of the church’s wrestling with values, particularly around marriage and sexuality. In the mining town there were probably very few people who had a good word to say for anyone with a different sexual orientation, but then again, no one was ‘out’, so much of the focus in that community was in making a lot of money and enjoying the beautiful scenery of that place. And there was a sense that the somewhat isolated nature of the small town made it easy to forget the mainstream. Many of the church folk in that small community came from Newfoundland and the Maritimes and brought with them a very conservative understanding of faith and social values. But the issue was still below the radar.... In Kelowna, I was aware that sexual orientation was starting to be a subject that some folk discussed, but still, it was only simmering on a back burner.
When I moved to Abbotsford, however, in the summer of 1985, it was apparent to me that the pot had been pushed onto a front burner and that it was heating up. In the spring of 1988, motions were passed in our congregation that condemned the direction being pursued by progressives in the area of who could or could not be ordained. In the fall of 1988 there was a public meeting called by ‘concerned people’ in Gladwin Heights United Church and urged on by their friends in the community to discuss ‘the issue’. The decision at the General Council gathering in Victoria broke everything open....A pastor from another pastoral charge chaired the meeting, which was short on process and long on acrimony. I was shocked by the mean-spiritedness, the colossal ignorance about the ‘gay’ community and lack of compassion shown by some of those who spoke. Most of the small New Church Development congregation came to the meeting. Some of these folk were decidedly ‘dug in’ about the evils of non-traditional relationships. Some of these folk said things that I still remember: words that were cruel, ill-informed and violent. Others, not necessarily from our congregation came from the precincts of that buckle on the bible belt and said truly destructive things. In the days following the meeting, I could scarcely put one foot in front of the other: I was like someone who had been run over by a truck.....There were some folk in the congregation who spoke in favour of the Victoria decision, but they were drowned out by a chorus of complaints and anger. The local ministerial shunned me as well as progressives from our congregation. Folk from numerous evangelical churches roasted me and the United Church of Canada in local media. It was a very difficult time. The minister of the downtown United Church, his family and mine became close friends and offered much mutual support.
I longed for support from Fraser Presbytery but found precious little support. I looked for support from BC Conference but was greeted mostly with silence. I did form a small support group and attempted to ride it out.....A week long event at Naramata Centre, designed to give support to clergy who were in stressful circumstances helped a lot.
The Board of that church was surprisingly supportive of me and the direction being taken by the National Church. Within the breadth of the congregation, however, there were forces and farces afoot that were truly alarming. I publicly sided with the progressives of the local and the National church. It was at this point that I realized that my time in that congregation was over. I left Abbotsford in 1989 and found solace in a team ministry in southern Ontario. There, in that place, I flew beneath the radar for five years.
In 1994, I accepted a call to St. Albert United Church, a large congregation on the edge of Edmonton. Over the next fifteen years I ministered to that congregation. Our church board decided to pursue the Affirming Ministry route and found rich resources in two process/academics from the U of A. Over a two year period, the congregation went through a very good process and, in the end, voted 93% in favour of being not an Affirming Congregation but an Inclusive Congregation where all were truly welcomed regardless of sexual orientation. Included in that statement was an unconditional support for clergy who were in same sex relationships. A few years later, I retired and left St. Albert. The person who was called to that ministry was a man in a same sex marriage with another man. So even in Alberta, miracles were possible! But the congregation’s decision were not without dark overtones: I was pilloried in the local newspaper and in the Edmonton Journal for my stance. I received hateful mail and threatening phone calls. A small group within the congregation let me know in no uncertain terms that they hated me and wished me ill. It was a very difficult time. And yet, almost all of the congregation supported the decision and the farewell was lovely and heart-felt. And we drove away into retirement with a sense of vindication.
I retired and my wife and I moved to Vancouver Island, thinking that ‘the issue’ would never be on our radar again.....but I was wrong, the local minister of our United Church and its Board asked me to chair an Affirming Committee. So for two years, with the helpful wisdom and guidance of Affirm United, we progressed to the point where Comox United Church decided overwhelmingly to declare itself an Affirming congregation. And Affirming it still is and then some! There were some local letters to the editor that criticized us, but there were never any threatening phone calls or angry parishioners. And the congregation has strengthened its embrace of diversity and affirmation.
....So, what have I learned in all of this? I have learned that the church can be a cruel place sometimes. I have learned that Presbyteries and Conferences can be shockingly remiss in the area of giving support to its order of ministry folk. I have learned the fear of locking up a church on a dark night and wondering if someone was waiting for me to cause me or my family harm. I have learned what it is like fly under the radar and heal and feel safe, sort of....
I have learned to to trust a good process, pastor a congregation to follow the process and put it all on the line with the final vote. I have learned to find folk outside the church to confide in. I have learned that there are always a few wise souls who can give support. I have come to view this much-reduced UCC as perhaps a “Godsend”: we have shed those folk who wanted to lock us forever in a punitive and primitive theology and have enlarged our vision and drawn the circle wider. A lot of very exciting things are happening in the UCC, even though we seem to be losing one pastoral charge every seven days......Important discussions are happening around theology that show promise. New expressions of ministry are incubating!...
I guess if I had any wishes for the UCC it would be that it could soon wrap up its prolonged discussions about ‘structure’, make a decision and move on.....And I would hope that the ‘moving on’ part would include spending time creating a system that would be more truly supportive of its Order of Ministry Folk. I would hope that this newly-minted UCC would have more time to reflect, in a progressive way, upon Progressive Theology. I think, for example, that people like the Rev. Gretta Vosper have a place in our denomination: they ask important questions and call us to the task of deep thinking and a broad embrace.....a deeper understanding of who Jesus was and is to us....a nuanced understanding of “God”....a deeper commitment to utterly radical love and to the joy of loving others deeply with integrity.
I think, finally, that the very appearance of “Iridesce: The Living Apology Project” is a sign that the UCC is attempting to learn from its past and to be a more loving, compassionate and embracing kind of denomination. Surely this is good news!
I am, finally, grateful to Iridesce: The Living Apology Project and others who are encouraging this dialogue, this moving forward. And in my prayerful heart I hold you all as we move forward with courage, faith and love.
May the blessings of God go with you all!
[Shared with permission of Scott.]