I was working at The Observer at the time...
Interview Rev. David Allen (retired)
What church were you at in 1988?
I would have been I would been working at the UCObserver at that time.
How long had you been there?
I had been at the Observer for 5 years and I left there at the end of 1988.
Say a bit about your general experience of in the church at that time.
Part of my work with the Observer was to promote sales but another part of my work was as a part-time staff writer. In both those capacities I ended up going to the 1988 General Council in Victoria. For much of 87-88 I was assigned to the anti-gay beat so I got to go to Community of Concern meetings and interview people who thought the church was heading in the wrong direction, and all that kind of stuff.
Please describe at least two stories from that time that you would call positive or hopeful, if any.
One of the things I remember most was being at the General Council Meeting in Victoria. There was a lot of media coverage. Being a part of the media at the time, I found myself (surprisingly) getting into conversations with other reporters and helping them to fill in some of the gaps that they had. Not only did they not know the United Church, they also didn’t know much of our history. How did we all of a sudden come to this point of making this big decision? A couple of times I remember it was really helpful to go back over our churches history, going back to 1936 when we ordained the first woman and then after that the various studies that we had done on ministry. None of that showed up in the report so I could help the reporters to understand that what we were doing in 1988 was really part of a long continuum of activity in the church.
At the time I was in the beginning stages of coming out myself and so even though I didn’t come out until 1990 I was struggling within the whole issue personally just as much as the church was as a denomination. It was pretty personal.
Please describe at least two stories from that time that were positive (if any) or negative (if any).
Well, given the fact that I had been assigned to the anti-gay beat, it was personally difficult—given what I was struggling with, even though no one else knew, or very, very few people knew—but hardest part was going to meetings or reading stuff that people had written that was so absolutely hateful.
I remember being at one meeting where people were literally screaming and one of the persons who was really coming down hard even on the Community of Concern. Saying that they hadn’t gone far enough and they weren’t trying hard enough. And then unfortunately there were rumors about this guy looking after young men, it was just a bizarre and hateful time.
I would attend presbytery and conference meetings and see the debates going on the floor. Because I was, at that point, in a reporting role I obviously wasn’t participating but was observing all these things that were going on.
How would you say your pastoral identity and practice have been affected by 1988?
Well most of my ministry was in the administrative part of the church. I was a pastor for 6 years then spent that time with the Observer for almost 5. I then spent the rest of my time in Toronto Conference and doing General Council work. So in terms of being in a congregation that wasn’t an issue. But being at the Conference I was able to, when I finally did come out, council to gay and lesbian ministers, we didn’t talk about transgender in those days. I was able to reach out to them. The thing that struck me was the amount of fear that they had. And I say “they’ because when I came out I was in a really very safe place. I was working for the bureaucracy of the church, where it was pretty safe to come out. Whereas for ministers in congregations, it was totally different. I remember saying, “well why we don’t get together” and people were so afraid of being seen together as a group. We ended up meeting in a place where hopefully no one would see us and wouldn’t begin putting all the pieces together, asking why these people are together? So there was a lot of fear.
How would you say we as a denomination have been affected by 1988?
It was been quite remarkable about how fast things have changed. We have had this long continuum of the ordaining the first woman, and then eventually women being allowed to be ordained and married, and then all of the ministry studies, but really we have moved a long way in a very short amount of time. 1988 is just a little over 30 years ago now and when I see the now the number of openly gay and lesbian and transgender ministers it just couldn’t have been… I don’t think anyone had contemplated how quickly it this could have happened.
How has the 1988 decision affected your sense of home in the church?
It was easy to find a home in the church. At the time when Affirm started and later the Affirming ministries program came along, there were no guarantees that when you walked in a church you would have any kind of a warm welcome. And that is probably true in many churches, but for the United Church the chances of being welcomed and people not batting an eye are pretty good these days.
What were the benefits of the Affirm process in a place where you already felt affirming?
Two examples of the process: One of them is through Toronto Conference I became executive secretary there in 1995 and two or three years later we as an executive had a conversation (probably around 1998) about whether we should start into the Affirming process. The executive was really clear that they didn’t think that the time was right. Part of what was being expresses was the fear of the divisiveness of 1988 and they didn’t want to reopen that wound and so it wasn’t until about 2015 or 2016… so a long, long time after that-that we decided why don’t we consider this again and at this time there was virtually no resistance at all. The big question was, why would we bother? Then a year later when we started the process at Windermere the same thing came up. Why would we bother having these conversations because we are already affirming anyway? It shows the gaps between 1988 and the fears and where we are in 2019.
Was the Affirm process at Windmere transformative or rubber stamping?
It was a combination. We are a very small congregation. If we get 40 on a Sunday morning that is a big Sunday for us. If we get 45 or 50 that is huge. Usually we have about 25 on a Sunday. We had the initial conversation at our congregational meeting and virtually everyone was there. Some were puzzled, some were "sure can do this". Over the year we had 5 or 6 different discussion times and good attendance coming out on a Sunday before worship for discussion.
My impression is that the people who did not show up for the conversations were in the camp of “well we already are so what is the point.” They stayed away because they did agree. When we had the conversations though what I noticed was that there were one or two or 3 people who were affected very deeply by the some of the conversations that were taking place—in part because some of the content was new, but also the content was sometimes disturbing, and sometimes it was because the stories were deeply personal. Such as a mother being deeply moved because her son had been part of the congregation and had not felt welcome: she was moved because we were going through this process for virtually everybody, everybody would be welcome.
There were very few people who did not want us to go through the process. Our vote was unanimous and almost everyone, 44 people voted. One member did resist the process and the content and she did not participate, we have not seen her back. This is somewhat disheartening.
As a congregation we greatly benefitted from the work that I and others had done at Toronto Conference. We had a good understanding of what needed to go into an action plan. We shamelessly looked and borrowed from all sorts of congregations and other conferences and said, “wow, that looks like a good idea, we could do that.”
One thing that generated a lot of excitement was an idea that came from another United Church. They set up a scholarship through the local school and so our action plan is to offer a scholarship to a chosen child in the school who has been doing work around inclusion. We are still going through the paperwork but plan to award scholarship for the first time in 2020. Hoping that our activity as a congregation will rub off in the community when the award is given.
From, Rev. David Allen
Windemere United Church
November 11, 2019
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Shared with permission. Images: Wix.