Interview with a minister at Rendezvous
What inspired you to talk to me today?
PIX: I think the project is a great project! I wasn’t in the United Church in 1988. I’ve only heard stories about that. And, my story doesn’t have great hurts or violence. I just live in a little community in Prince Edward Island. I was called to a two-point country pastoral charge who knew about my relationship with my female partner.
Before ministry, I was a school teacher and didn’t really think there was much of a problem with being a lesbian school teacher. Everyone knew I lived with a woman and nobody thought much about it. But then I asked for a discernment committee because I was thinking about going into ministry… a long ago call had been rekindled.
So, I was back in the United Church at this time. It was 1998 or ’99, and I just thought the United Church was the best thing that ever was! I had left it, and came back and thought it was a fantastic place. But all of a sudden, going into discernment, it’s like there was this different part of the United Church. I really felt strongly that I couldn’t come out. Not that I had been “out and out” as a teacher, it just didn’t seem to be an issue there. Now, in the church, it seemed to be an issue.
We have to go through a lot of committees when we are in discernment and going into ministry. For each committee I was about to meet, I got to know who was in each committee and I would talk to my partner (who was in ministry) to ask, “Who would be a safe person to tell?” I wanted to tell someone because it felt like it would be less than honest if nobody knew. Even though they can’t ask you that question directly, I just felt that it wouldn’t be honest. So when I figured out who would be the safe person, I would contact them and tell them. I’d say, “If you feel the committee needs to know that, then I’m leaving that with you.” Nobody ever shared with the committee! But, I felt like they were there supporting me, and made me feel like I was being honest.
I went to school at AST [Atlantic School of Theology], and after my first year I thought I couldn’t continue because I was being much less than honest. I felt like I couldn’t tell people who my partner was (Heather MacDougall), who my family was… and it felt less than authentic. Here we were in ministry, talking about being authentic and allowing the Spirit to be in us and work in us, creating relationships with people. Yet here I was, with the most important relationship in my life, and I was holding back.
Fortunately, there was a prof there at that time, Shelley Davis Finson, who became a mentor and friend. She died a few years ago. She had been on this journey I was on. She gave me wisdom and support that helped me understand the process more and to stay with it. I continued my studies, finding friends whom I could trust. But there was always this overlay that it was something to hide.
Then I was ordained and settled and was away from PEI for 7 years. Quebec gave a gift of openness ….not so much in the congregations, but in the society. When it was time to come back to the Maritimes… I wasn’t sure about acceptance. That’s when Heather and I got married! Since I’ve been back, no one has ever asked me if I’m married. There were churches that didn’t choose me – I suspect my orientation might have influenced some of those decisions. I’m so thankful that my orientation didn’t stop the people who have called me to join them now.
The Maritime Conference became an Affirming Conference two years ago. We went through a three-year process. There was some interesting debate in Prince Edward Island and some fears that we would be waving the rainbow flags in our churches. But it passed as a quiet moment. The celebration was so low key. It was slipped in prior to an executive meeting. This told me that there was fear that it was still going to be an issue in our Conference.
We recently had our first Affirming church, Trinity United, in Charlottetown. Heather and I were invited in to talk to their planning team, to be part of a congregational conversation, and be on a panel to help people be better allies. We were delighted to be part of that. We feel like we can follow the modelling of my professor Shelley and her partner - continuing to speak and be present.
We’ve made a lot of progress since ’88, but we still have a long way to go. That’s why I’m keen to talk and I’m really supportive of your project. At the church where I am now, people say, “We are so affirming because we have you!” I reply, “Yes, you are affirming. But you are not capital-A Affirming.” There are other people who sit a little differently when I talk about it, there is that edge, their discomfort about gay and lesbian people.
IRIDESCE: What do you think that discomfort is about?
PIX: Difference. When I visit members of my congregation, there are people who introduce their families up on their walls. They feel free to name the same-sex relationships. That’s in the privacy of their homes. But there is an old entrenched idea that “this is the church, and these are the things we talk about…and don’t talk about” Nobody is overt, but people are smart enough and polite enough in PEI to know that it’s best not to be overt about being uncomfortable with gay and lesbian people.
(Photo: Wix stock photo).
IRIDESCE: Before you talked about how you haven’t had fear, hurts or violence that made your life hard. But what about feelings of invisibility or being erased as a lesbian minister?
PIX: I think when I went back to school, I felt that a big part of my life was invisible. Not myself, but a big part of me. That was hurtful. I felt that I was being dishonest- I was not used to living that way.. For my church to facilitate this dishonesty was hurtful. I think one of the biggest gifts I bring to my ministry is an honesty. I cry easily in joys and sorrows. [She laughs as she begins tearing up]. Some people go around holding themselves in so tight because they are afraid of expressing anything, but I don’t think that is the best way to be.
We still have a long way to go. Because we have a big and wide church, in almost every issue there are people who think that things are just perfect, but we have pockets that aren’t happy.
These days I feel like people are trying to get their churches on the Affirming Ministries list, but how will they live into that? It’s like you said last night when you were introducing Iridesce, you said, “We have welcoming policies, but we have to have affirming practices.” It’s not good enough to simply put the plaque up on the wall…
IRIDESCE: It’s like any commitment ceremony, right? Like being married. The wedding ceremony isn’t enough, it takes work everyday. Now we can look back and see that we have really grown together. How would a congregation do that in their Affirming commitment?
PIX: There is still a lot of fear. People think that if we become an Affirming Conference that people will leave the church! So, I think they have to be challenged, for one, and look at why our church is so fragile. Are there other issues? Many people, even young adults returning to the church, they want to keep the church the way they remember it when they were in Sunday school. So there is a lot of spiritual growing to do.
Becoming Affirming isn’t the end of the conversations and ponderings….for our Conference or individual congregations. Questions get bounced from one group to another. It will be interesting to see how a new structure might facilitate action in different ways. It all comes down to each of us doing our part; Becoming more aware and joining together to stand with and support each other.
IRIDESCE: I am hearing similar things from other people too, that action needs to come from the bottom up, and not just directed from the top down. It inspires me to put on a jacket of courage as Iridesce prepares to go into congregations to have those difficult conversations where there is a lot of work to be done.
PIX: Bottom up is always great, but we need planters to put the seeds in the ground. We need leaders for that. If anyone asks me and Heather for help with LGBTQ inclusion in the church, we say yes. That’s our sense of personal responsibility.
IRIDESCE: I’ll join your seed planting team! [laughing]
PIX: I always like people to make their own decisions. If you say no to something, hear yourself say no. In the first congregation where I was settled, they said no to same-gender marriage. We had four weeks of visitors and conversation about it, but they said no. Everyone thought I would leave, but I didn’t. One thing I always preach is that we have to learn how to be community in diversity. So walking out the first time it doesn’t go my way… well, I didn’t think that would be a very good example. At my leaving, three years later, one member of my congregation wrote me a letter that was beautiful and conveyed his transformation on the issue. I had to have a box of Kleenex for that one!
IRIDESCE: I am so grateful for what you and Heather have done for us all… thank you so much.
PIX: I look forward to seeing what comes out of all of your chats.
IRIDESCE: Thank you for talking to me, I am honoured and very grateful for your time.
(Shared with permission and gratitude.)