Tony is an gay activist and long-time active United Church member.
Iridesce: Why were you interested to speak with me today?
Tony: I wanted to share a story about a congregation and the small community I live in. This was a congregation in which half of the congregation—based on the decision that was made back in 1988—decided they could no longer remain in the United Church of Canada. The minister also left the denomination. They established their own congregation. For a time it flourished, and may still be flourishing.
We were fellowshipping with that congregation in 2012. I knew some people attending there. It was interesting to see that some of the individuals and families who we thought left over “1988” were returning to the United Church.
I sat and spoke with a number of individuals. Contrary to popular belief, they didn’t necessarily leave because of the 1988 decision to ordain gay and lesbian people… they left because they followed their minister. They liked his style of preaching and so they followed him.
Then more recently, when that minister retired, things changed for the congregation. When his preaching and leadership was no longer there, they found their way back. Some twenty-five years later.
Iridesce: It was because of the minister. But the minister left because of the 1988 decision? Which leads me to think that the minister had a very big influence over the congregation…
Iridesce: It is interesting to hear that people who left still felt that they had a home in the United Church, even 25 years later. To come back and be welcomed.
Tony: Oh yes. When [my husband] and I began fellowshipping with the United Church congregation that remained in our community, we wondered how safe it would be and if we would be welcomed. Our fears were quickly put aside. We were fully welcomed and embraced. Not only the congregation, but the minister at the time, she was openly in a same-sex relationship. There was no tension around that at all.
A congregation that had been so stern about the decision, and an issue that had split them, eventually called an “out” minister!
Iridesce: How do you think that came about?
Tony: I think that is a good question for members of the congregation. Some people may have been very opposed to gay and lesbians in the church during 1988, but at the time didn’t want to give up their church and their community. Over time, they may have had a change of heart.
Iridesce: That sounds like a story of the Spirit at work in the world…
Tony: Absolutely. There has been a transformation, no question about it.
[A moment of quiet.]
Iridesce: How about you tell me about your story?
Tony: Who me? [laughing]
Iridesce: Yes you! [laughing]
Tony: Okay. Well, I got my start in the Anglican church, where I was baptized. It wasn’t until I was married the first time, that I made the decision to join my wife at the United Church. I eventually became [an official] member because I was asked to become a member of the Session. I gave this decision alot of prayerful consideration.
This was around 1981-1982, in the years leading up to the 1988 decision. It was the time of those studies related to gay and lesbian topics. These studies were not very popular in my congregation at the time. It is important to realize that this congregation was ultra-conservative and evangelical. I hesitate to express it this way, but they were almost fundamentalist and perhaps had more in common with the neighboring Baptist congregation than what I thought would represent a United Church. During that time, I was becoming aware of my sexuality. Even though I was in a heterosexual marriage, I was starting to be honest with myself. It was difficult then to be on the Session and be part of talking through the studies that the church was providing. Some of the opinions expressed by those around me seemed to be very contrary to “the United Church” beliefs or views that I expected.
These were extremely difficult things to listen to, and feeling not being able to say what you truly felt even without outing yourself. The side opposing gay inclusion was so strong, if you disagreed you were attacked… verbally and emotionally. In that time you would have been named as evil, as doing the work of Satan. It was considered contrary to God’s will. It was an extremely judgmental attitude and tone. It quite simply was not a safe place to simply express an opinion.
In the late 1970s, it was a very different time. As time went on it became more apparent to me that I was a gay man. I should have known better, but I got married to a woman.
As time when on I realized that I could no longer live the lie. It became time for me to do something about it and to come out. As I was beginning to work through that, I had a devastating experience of being a victim of extortion. This hit the newspapers and my sexuality became public knowledge. Immediately I was “outed”.
Iridesce: You didn’t choose how and when…
Tony: …it happened to me. Some of the fall out from that wasn’t what I was expecting from a loving, caring and compassionate Christian community. Essentially my church became a very unsafe environment, and one that I had to leave. Not only that I had to leave, but my entire family had to leave.
Iridesce: What do you mean when you when you say you didn’t feel safe?
Tony: I was being judged. I felt totally alienated. When I went to church on Sunday morning no one would speak to me. I was totally ignored. If individuals were rarely engaging in conversation with me, I could feel the tension. I simply felt the rejection. Even my ex-wife was feeling much of the same type of response, because of course, she was expected to leave me.
How it made me feel was that I was being judged as if I was the perpetrator, instead of being recognized as the victim of extortion. It was very isolating.
At that time I chaired the Board of the United Church camp. As the extortion became known, I was called to a meeting by the then-Chair of Presbytery. The reason for the meeting was kept a secret from me until I arrived. At the meeting, they removed me as Chair of the Board of the church camp. The thought was that at a church camp there are children… and there was the supposition that gay men are pedophiles. I was never told that outright, but it was strongly implied to me that evening.
Through all of that I had no where to turn for pastoral care…
Iridesce: What about your own minister?
Tony: My own minister was one of the biggest problems. It was discovered that he was going throughout the community and he was talking even worse that they were. He was talking against me personally. There was a whole lot of this work going on. I was preparing to give up: give up on the church. I won’t go so far as to say that I had any thought or intent of harming myself, but I didn’t know where else to turn. And I didn’t know when it was going to end. I asked myself, “How can I control what feels like an uncontrollable situation?”
God bless a United Church minister who happened to be in the Presbytery at time who reached out.
Iridesce: Someone actively reached out…?
Tony: Yes, he was the only one who actively reached out to… me. He genuinely cared about what was happening, what I was going through, and what I needed. That call made a world of difference to me. In all of the turmoil his call was the only positive hope and light that I felt.
We talked for quite a while. I was really at the bottom and I didn’t know if I had much left. I remember he said, “I don’t want you to give up yet.” Yes. Then he said, “Before you walk away, I want you to check out Wilmot United Church in Fredericton. Just go. Sit there and see if there is anything there for you. See if you can find a home.”
Iridesce: What did you think about his suggestion?
Tony: At that point I was willing to take any suggestion. So I went and was open to the Spirit in that place. Wilmot has been phenomenal. They journeyed with me through my whole process of coming out. One of the ministers at that time, journeyed with me every step of the way...
It was phone calls, conversations, coffees. Being available. Knowing that I could tell her *anything*... and that I wouldn’t be judged. That was the first time in a very long time that I wasn’t being judged for who I am at my deepest core. It started feeling real, and I started feeling comfortable in my own skin and it felt so right.
Iridesce: Thank you so much for sharing. It has been an honour to sit with you today.
Tony: It’s my pleasure. Thank you.
(Shared with permission. Image credit: Wix stock photo.)