Canadian Armed Forces chaplain responds pastorally to all God's people
Captain John Niles was at St Andrew’s Seminary in Saskatoon in 1988. The topic of sexual orientation and the church took up a huge amount of discussion and students were very divided. Growing up Niles had a close friend who was a male prostitute and another who was trans. One of these friends died of AIDS and Niles was filled with anger and grief. As a result, he entered seminary against this lifestyle (as it was considered at the time). He started seminary with 23 classmates and only 3 of those 23 graduated. Some left the denomination; others went on to other UCC seminaries, some left ministry all together.
Niles’ first settlement was a two-point rural charge outside of Ottawa and not long after he moved to a larger conservative parish in the city. When he arrived, the church was split. The church was decimated and angry and the congregation didn’t want to hear any more about “the issue” (as gay and lesbian membership and ministry was referred to then). His congregation wanted independence from the structures of the national church. He said, “It was in this congregation that my anger and grief turned. I walked away the from the vitriol, division and politics in the larger church and turned to the work of ministry. I dropped out of local conservative groups.”
The congregation he served took seriously the polity of the church and this helped. The polity offered congregations choice. This gave opportunity to focus on people and not politics. Niles felt he could get back to the work of ministry and care for the people. When parishioners want to marry, adopt, and need support we support them because we take care of the person.
He said, “We ask how are we walking in the way of Christ? I don’t think Christ would turn anyone away.”
His role in this congregation was one of healing and repair. It was a painful time for everyone.
He said, “We were all struggling with what was right and wrong.”
The congregation grew naturally and along with this came an increased LGBT presence. Niles’ role and call was to minister to the people of his congregation. “My theology continued to be conservative, but this led me to offer care to all of people in my congregation,” which included marriage.
Niles recalled a Presbytery meeting around this same time. He doesn’t remember what the issue was, but he remembers a time when he stood up against a contentious motion and another minister got up to speak. That minister was Sylvia Dunstan.
He said, “People were expecting her to stand up in opposition to what I said, and she did not. Here we were, the two people on opposite ends of the theological spectrum standing side-by-side in agreement. People were so angry! They could not understand how we could agree.”
Niles held, and still holds, a conservative theology. People assumed (and continue to assume) that he is something that he was not. He and Sylvia maintained a long and close friendship that lasted until Sylvia died in 1993. Somehow Sylvia understood.
“She got me,” Niles continues, “To be scrutinized for my early connection to the Community of Concern and my conservative theology despite the work and role that I played as a military chaplain.”
Wing Cpt. Niles continues to the see role as chaplain as one of responding and serving the people in his midst. People come to him as chaplain. He is often the first person an individual has told ever, or since they have joined the military. At CFB Borden his work with LGBTQ2S+ began long before it was policy or mandated in 2017. Work began on the base in 2014-2015 as a pastoral response to the needs of the people. It was a response to isolation and lack of community which was particularly unique at CFB Borden because it is a training base and people stay short term. Nile’s has built bridges within the CFB Borden community as well as with the communities that surround the base.
CFB Borden under the leadership of Niles has developed a supportive community on the base and has built bridges between communities that surround the base. Niles laid the groundwork that will soon become part of a national initiative on every base across Canada.
Niles ended our conversation by stating the following:
“Affirm United was started in response to the Community of Concern and eventually became a longstanding entity. Once you do the work of Affirm what does it mean? Once we have been through the process, been through everything that the church has been through on this issue the real work begins and this work is not done. This new life will require nurture, feeding, caring, love and everything else that fosters growth. Lack of love results in failure to thrive.”
Transcribed from an interview with Barb M., Iridesce Regional Facilitator. Shared with permission of Cpt. Niles.