Background: This important story outlines the experiences of a minister newly ordained just before the 1988 period. This minister recounts struggles and hardships they faced during this time including death threats and intimidation. As their community struggled with the 1988 vote, this story recounts moments of grace and deep faith as the minister worked to serve, support and journey with their community.
Topics in this story:
Risks and Remembering the Vote
Refusing to Study the MMHS document
Terrifying level of homophobia
Death threats & Seeking Support
The "Do Not Hire" List
Photo: Creative Commons.
FROM THE BEGINNING
Iridesce: Can you start from the beginning?
It was August of 1988, when the vote was taking place. We had had a terrible time in our own church, pastoral charge, and Presbytery. Feelings were raw. At that time, it never crossed my mind that General Council would say yes. In my mind and in my heart I was preparing to do pastoral care for the people who were going to hear, yet again, no.
Iridesce: What were the risks at that time?
This was a very small rural town where people were terrified to be "out". No one was out. The risk of coming out was simply too awful. You would totally be shunned. You could lose your job. People wouldn't say that was why, but that would be why. Your family would be disgraced. Our conversations as a church around gay and lesbian ordination had increased that impression for people. It was so bad for many people who were gay if they had a chance to get out, they did. They moved to the city, and often they never came back. I spoke in favour of the motion, trying to add balance to the conversation, and soon received death threats. So even if someone came out and was openly gay; I couldn't even imagine.
A number of members of the community came to me after I spoke publicly. They thanked me for speaking out, for sharing new perspectives on being gay or lesbian in our churches. They also acknowledged to me that I was taking a lot of flack. They wished they could stand up with me, but said they simply couldn't because they had to keep living in the town and feared being ostracized. So I was doing a lot of pastoral care to people in this kind of situation. Because of the social dynamics around the vote, I was assuming that General Council would say no, and that this would be one more step on the road to liberation that would come who-knows-when.
The week that General Council was meeting (and, remember, this was before live-streaming and email!) the vote was on our minds as we were running a vacation bible school. I remember when I heard the news. I was in the main hall sitting on the floor and helping a young child to tie her shoes. One of the matriarchs of the community, a woman who had been quietly supportive of the vote, was sitting on a chair next to me. Someone came over and said, "They voted yes." It was like the world went, "WHAT?!" I remember what I did. I got on my knees and put my head on her lap and I said, "What are we going to do now?" I thought, "This church is going to be dead. Everyone is going to leave. So many people had left already just because we had been talking about gay ordination." I wondered, "Did we push to hard?" Not one of us said a word.
Following the decision, the pastoral care was very different from what I had geared myself up to do. I had thought I would be gathering people or meeting people privately for encouragement. But now? It was a difficult situation because many people in the church were so steaming mad at; me! Simply for inviting us to talk about it!
Iridesce: What was that moment about, when the world felt to change?
Well at first, I couldn't believe it! But then almost immediately I was filled with fear for the community. They were self-supporting and there were a handful of main people who were threatening to leave. This would have closed the church. I was concerned about the pastoral care needs that would be awaiting me. It had been so hard to do pastoral care prior to the decision because people had been so threatening and angry. And now? We would have to live with this. I wondered, how could I be the pastor now; and can I be. I had been the pastor of this charge for four years and we had a good relationship until this issue [of gay and lesbian ordination]. And through the discussions we still did. So, I did not want it to be said that I left because of the difficulty over the decision. So I was stubborn and told myself I would not leave and have it be said that I was driven away over this issue. So I had to ask myself how to stay and be authentic in my role and my call to do genuine ministry.
In the months and years to come we worked it out…
Iridesce: What do you mean by that? How did you work it out?
Love. And lots of pots of tea. Checking in. Asking people to talk. I kept being myself. I was never a one-issue person. They respected the ministry I did. I didn't stay quiet about that issue, but there was also no longer a need to speak publicly about it. The rest of the summer was all about being very real with people: can we live together when we disagree profoundly about some things.
With the kids that year, we sponsored a public speaking contest. The theme was "How do we live together when we disagree with each other". We talked a lot about family life and church life, because the kids were feeling the tension too. One thing I know is that if you are good to people's kids; well, it goes a long way to helping people understand that you care about them and their families too.
We used to do musicals, I taught Sunday school, I worked with a lot of kids. I had good credibility with families. I gave special attention and care in my treatment of kids and their families. I felt a lot of respect around my work with kids.
Iridesce: When you were having your pastoral moments with people, was that about your relationship with that person as their minister? Or was it about helping them heal and reconcile with the decision?
I think my main concern at that time was healing their relationship with me as their minister. I would say, "If you need to go or leave the church because of the decision, then let us bless you on your way." I wanted to do a service to recognize the people who genuinely could not stand with us or worship with us anymore. The service would have been about respecting that and blessing people on their way;
Iridesce: How did that go?
Oh, it didn't! [laughing]
Iridesce: Too much love, Reverend!! [laughing] So, you were looking to heal relationships…
My goal was to help us honour each other. People in that area were not used to sitting and talking things out. My experience, especially of the men, was that were used to yelling and walking out. Yes, my goal was to rebuild relationships and my pastoral relationships. Maybe, looking back, maybe that was a bit selfish. Maybe they needed to rebuild their relationship with the church too.
There was one guy who was very angry during this time. After church one day he was in line to shake my hand. Instead he chose to hit me. In the moment, he tried to portray it as a "hey, how ya doing" tap, but it was much too hard to be misunderstood. It brought tears to my eyes it hurt so much. I think he didn't know how else to tell me that he was mad at me. This was his church; and there were feelings throughout the church that everything was falling apart and that somehow this was all my fault. As the minister, I had brought this conversation into our church. I did nothing about that punch. He was an Elder and on the Session. I didn't know what to do, it was not my finest moment.
Photo: Creative Commons.
OFFERING & REFUSING TO STUDY THE MMHS DOCUMENT
When I first moved to that place, I also attended General Council in Morden. That was in the early 1980s. We did the study called "Sexuality: Gift and Promise". When I arrived at my settlement charge on the Gaspé Coast, that was also the 200 year anniversary of the settling of the British Loyalists. It was a big celebration. As part of it, one local man who had done well for himself in music and had grown up there, came home to do a piano concert, as part of the celebration. This man was also gay. Well, the best piano in town, a grand piano, was at the Brethren Church. However, the Brethren told this gay musician that they "didn't want his fingers on their piano". So, my church, the United Church, extended the invitation for the man to perform at our church. Because of this moment, this invitation to this gay man, I thought that the topic of gay and lesbian ordination wouldn't be an issue in our church. I was wrong.
Then came the fall of 1987. In September we gathered, and I brought my ideas for the fall curriculum —including all youth events, worship focuses, and the MMHS gender/sexuality study from the national church. As we were coming up to the decision, the United Church had produced study material, called MMHS [Ministry, Membership and Human Sexuality]. I thought it was a great opportunity for us to learn. So I thought we would study the document, and that we would all appreciate having learned something new about gender and sexuality. Ha, was I wrong again!
The Elders said, "We are not doing that." I replied, "We are not even studying it?" They said, and I quote, "No. You are not allowed to study it". I again asked in disbelief, "Not even allowed to study it!?"
Now, this meeting was taking place in my home. Four of the Elders of the Session yelled at me. One of them yelled, "Your husband would be so ashamed!" before he stormed out.
The treasurer, bless her heart, went after him and asked, "Not allowed to study? What am I allowed to study then?"
He replied, "Anything but that."
That was the level that we were starting from.
Iridesce: Did it seem that they had gotten together previously to make a unified response to the idea of studying the MMHS document? Or was this a spontaneous reaction? What was going on?
I know that one of them had a son who was gay, and they were terrified to acknowledge that. The whole culture there was that gay topics were the big taboo. This was completely off limits. We could study anything but that. I was left baffled. I asked the same thing: "Why not?"
Iridesce: So… why not?
To study it maybe they thought it would encourage them to think about it. And question. Many of these men were military or ex-military. And in the military in that generation there was a culture of extreme homophobia. Perhaps it's unfair to attribute it to the military. I would like to understand it all better. I thought that this was the way to be able to say no. We could study it and we could write our conclusions and say no.
Photo: Creative Commons.
JUNIOR CHOIR PIANIST
We used to have a Junior Choir, and I spent a lot of time with the woman who played the piano. She was a woman who took great care to mind her p's and q's. I did an interview on the provincial morning show. They were interested in doing a debate on this issue, and I spoke in the position for the decision. After this interview, I received three of the death threats that I received. I really didn't anticipate that response. I told the piano player that I wanted to shelter her from this kind of negative attention, and offered to do our future musical planning over the phone. She sat up straight and said in solidarity, "Indeed not. We will go to the local promenade and show everyone that I am your friend and that we are in this together". I think it cost her a lot to say that and to ally herself with me. I really appreciated and admired her for that. It was a beautiful moment of grace.
Photo: Creative Commons.
Iridesce: You mentioned that you received death threats. How did you respond to that?
One of them I knew. I knew who he was. He would send me pages and pages about how I was destroying the church. He said, "Watch your back. I hope you lock your doors because you never know when I am going to show up". He lived across from the church, so I would have to pass his house to get to church. He thought it would bother me to cut his grass every Sunday morning, and put signs on his lawn against things he knew I was supporting.
The day of the General Council vote this man gave me a special surprise. To help you picture him: he was a very large man, and top heavy like a wrestler. He had a large mustache. Well this day of the vote, he was standing out at the end of his driveway in a full length pink sequin dress. In protest of the General Council decision!
The other death threats were anonymous, and some were over the phone. "You and your kind deserve to die," they said things like that. "What you really need is a roll in the hay with me". There were two more letters that said, "Lock your doors. You better check your garage before you drive in because you never know who might be hiding there". That was the tone of them.
Iridesce: They were meant to put fear and terror in you.
Yes, that's right. I lived alone. Everyone knew where I lived.
Iridesce: How did you feel when you received those threats?
I felt afraid. For some of them, I didn't know who was sending the death threats. The way the manse was set up was that there was only one way out if I was upstairs. I remember thinking through how I would escape if someone broke in the front door. I was really afraid. A couple of times I slept in a room other than my bedroom. I brought the phone into the room and prepared with my friend. We had a plan that if I was to call her in the middle of the night that she would then call the police for me. I was afraid enough to make a plan. I kept a rolling pin for self-defense near my bed. I got angry too that people were trying to make me live in fear.
Iridesce: How did this affect the way you were serving your community?
I think at that time it was kind of like abuse. It was so frequent that it became normalized. By that time I was so used to being called down in public and being dismissed; that I started not even to notice it.
Iridesce: Did you ever talk about this with your church, M&P committee or Presbytery for a listening ear?
No, I never did. I don't know if you've heard this from others but my experience of Presbytery at the time was that a totally changed in the way we gathered. Suddenly we would meet, do the bare minimum of what needed to be done, and then we went home. We were all isolating ourselves from each other. I had had friends in Presbytery and now I was discovering that they were on the other side of the issue. Previously we could disagree about many thingS and still go out for a beer, but this issue was different. We were so exhausted and we never knew what was coming next. We did not embody that support for one another, we simply didn't have the resources for that.
Iridesce: Were there any supports that you had at the time; as a working clergy person? Was there any sense that the church made a big decision and that there were supports put in place for this?
I am sure that if I had gone to the Conference Ministry Person that they would have been there for me. But I didn't. I didn't want to expose myself. I was just treading water. A small group of us created a support for churches if they needed someone to go in and help their churches deal with all this. I don't remember anything else. My support came from allies within the congregation who were righteously angry for me.
Photo: Creative Commons.
THE "DO NOT HIRE" LIST
Iridesce: Can you tell me again about "the list"?
As the 1988 General Council was drawing near, every congregation had the right to send petitions through Presbytery to General Council. At every meeting of Presbytery there were tons of proposals telling General Council not to vote for gay and lesbian ordination. Every congregation was sending them. Each of these petitions was voted on, and they were standing votes, so everyone knew how you voted. Soon a list was created of clergy who were voting in support of the proposal. This list was compiled and distributed to search committees, to tell them not to call us [employ us] for ministry work in their churches. It was a kind of "Do Not Hire" list. I have to say that I never actually saw that list. We were told it existed.
I felt, as did my colleagues, that there was a high possibility that I would never be called to a church every again. That is what I thought. Today, 30 years later, it is hard to image. I was afraid enough about this that I looked into who I would support myself if my career in ministry was to be over. I investigated a 10 month course and arranged financial decisions so that I could do this. I had the application forms on my desk. I never went beyond that;
During the spring of 1988, before General Council, it must have been Holy Week. We were at a Conference-led stewardship event, which was relevant because people were leaving, and our churches had no money. People were talking about "the list", the do not hire list. We talked about how we were tempted at that time to simply be quiet. To coast through and talk about love and flowers and fluffy bunnies. We were asking ourselves; how much are we ready to risk? Eric Fullerton, was on Conference staff at the time, God bless him, was leading this event. In a reflection to us all he asked us something in relation to the list and our struggles around "the issue" that I'll never forget. He asked, "Are you going to wash your hands? Or are you going to wash feet?" There have been moments in my life that have crystallized things for me, and this was one of those moments. It was a powerful moment.
Iridesce: Wow, what a faith statement to make.
Absolutely. I don't like controversy. I'm a conflict avoider. There are some colleagues I know who love a good fight, and that's fine, but that's not me. But at the same time, I'm a minister. This is what I signed up for. To wash feet. It was very powerful. God bless him, Eric Fullerton.
Photo: Creative Commons.
Iridesce: So, this project is called Iridesce: The Living Apology Project. Living Apology is part of the name. Do you think the church has something to apologize for? Or a living apology to make?
Iridesce: What for?
I think the church needs to apologize —and I need to apologize— because I think we lost our witness. For a time we were so traumatized by what happened in 1988. I think we let our voice be silenced on other political issues because we didn't want any other controversy.
We made the decision in 1988 but I wonder how well we actually walked with other people. I thought, we've made this decision to be welcoming but what if people believe us and vulnerably come into our churches; and then we don't follow through? And I think that has happened.
I'm here now, [at this particular church], but all of the other churches I have served in my life, I have led them through the discussion about gay and lesbian marriage, and each one of them has said no. Keep in mind I was ordained in 1984. So, for the past 30 years since our welcoming decision none of my churches (except this last one) has been okay with gay and lesbian marriage. That really says something. Because of our congregational approach, support for gay and lesbian people has been spotty.
I think of people going into ministry at that time. For example, Tim Stevenson, who was the first openly gay person to be ordained. We've been ordaining gay and lesbian people, but I wonder, are there United Churches that will call you? People are getting the education and the degree, they are passing through Presbytery and Conference, but are there churches that will call you? We needed to make the decision we did; but were we messing with people's lives by setting up a false expectation? To think that we are welcome when we really weren't or aren't.
Iridesce: So you think that may be where an apology may reside, that we set an expectation of welcome that we have not fulfilled?
Yeah, I do.
Iridesce: We've been spending time together over the last couple of days. And one thing I've been noticing about you, is that you tend to put your congregation first, before yourself. So I want to ask you a tough question that you may have trouble answering. You seem to have had a really difficult and challenging time through the 1988 period. If the church was going to give an apology to 'you', what would you want the church to say sorry for, to you?
I don't want to minimize what I went through, but I have colleagues who went though way more than I did. But I wonder what kind of minister I would have been if this hadn't been one of my first experiences of ministry. Did this clip my wings? Did this prevent me from speaking out on other areas of social justice, for fear of death threats, violence and anger? I know it affected my level of trust. I know I give myself a lot to my people, but even now, I never know when the axes are coming for my back. There is a level of self-protection that I've carried with me from that time.
The most painful things that happened were things like being yelled at by an Elder. I care for that person as their pastor and they felt that they could treat me like dirt. The Church in a general way needs to hold itself to a high level of behaviour in a general way.
Iridesce: Hearing all this, I wish the church had checked in or supported you...
Should someone have? Then who? I really feel like a bunch of us from that time, I feel we need an exit interview. I hope in our church we will learn and honour these stories.
Iridesce: Me too. I hope you know how important you are. That your comfort and safety and having solidarity with you is important. And it's important that you feel that from your church. Because you are important. I wonder if we as a church have acted in a way that loved you, and heard you, and had presence with you, and honoured you for the work that you do. Have we been there for you?
Thank you for saying that. That is not a natural way for me to think.
Iridesce: We are so grateful for what you have done. And as I say that every cell in my body feels gratitude for what you have done for our faith and us and our communities.
I know in that time that I did some of my best work. I really tried to embody the love of God in a very tough situation.
Iridesce: What you did was GOOD. So good. And good is enough.
Identifying details have been omitted. The Iridesce project wishes to thank this minister of our church for their generous contribution of this reflection to the work of this
project. (Shared with permission. All images: Creative Commons.)