My partner and I grew up in the Roman Catholic Church and made a conscious decision to join the United Church in the wake of the 1988 decision. In 1995 just weeks after Trinity-St. Paul’s United Church (TSP) became an Affirming congregation we started attending worship service. A year later we held our covenanting service at TSP surrounded by friends, family, and colleagues. Members of the congregation were on hand – both to celebrate with us and to act as bouncers in case there was trouble. One of my uncles, a United Church member, refused to attend and wrote me a letter saying he just was not prepared to have us marry in “his” church. We’re a tight knit family and that hurt.
I had been trained in Catholic theology but felt, as an out lesbian, that there were no ministry opportunities for me within Catholicism. Imagine my surprise when TSP congregation members started to talk to me about a call to ministry! My discernment committee included a lesbian minister so that I was under no illusions when, in 2000, I started seminary training at Emmanuel College.
I went through the candidacy process as an “out lesbian” a decision that my partner and I made together. For the most part we were strongly supported by both the faculty and staff of Emmanuel College as well as members of the presbytery Education & Students’ Committee. I was nervous when I was sent to the Maritimes as an “out” intern not knowing how safe it would be in New Brunswick. While I experienced homophobia in my first presbytery meeting, most church people were quite supportive. We joked that I was a unicorn – something people couldn’t quite believe they were seeing!
I was settled in Saskatchewan Conference in a three-point pastoral charge. In the three years we lived there we had only one homophobic incident and the aggressor was not a United Church member. Furthermore, we experienced clear support from the congregations, the conference staff, and the RCMP. Sometimes you hear disparaging comments from rural communities, however, I was treated with respect and kindness.
In the ensuing years I served rural, urban, and indigenous communities of faith – none of them Affirming congregations. There have been a few cases of homophobia by individuals but as a rule the church has been a safe place. I am very clear that I stand on the shoulders of giants – many of whom paved the way so that it was possible for my ministry to be out and proud.
I now am blessed to pastor Glebe-St. James United Church in Ottawa – an Affirming Congregation. After five years I can say that there is a difference in serving an Affirming congregation – there is a level of attentiveness that isn’t necessary anymore.
Oh, and my uncle? He eventually came around, but it took years. I treasure one experience with him following my presiding at a family funeral. He came up to me after the service, gave me a big hug, and said, “You’re doing what God intended you to do.” Shortly afterward, he welcomed my partner and I for dinner and the rift was healed.
By Teresa Bernet Cole
Shared with permission. Image by Wix.