In conversation with Rev. Jack Spencer
Robyn of Iridesce: I’m with Rev. Jack Spencer at Berwick Camp. Thank you Jack, for taking the time to share this story.
Jack began by reviewing his role as the President of Maritime Conference and chairing the Annual Meeting of the Conference in 1988.
AS PRESIDENT OF CONFERENCE IN 1988
Within the presbyteries I think the debate [of gay and lesbian membership and ministry] was waiting for Conference to meet. Once the affirmative vote of ’88 came in, people became more active. As Conference approached, I recall Henry (Rev. Henry T., Executive Secretary) saying one day, I don’t know what we’re going to do. We have over 200 petitions and the bulk of them are on "The Issue."
“The Issue,” was, I guess, what we were all calling it at the time. And he said, the people really need to see the petitions. Of course, this was before overhead projection. He said to me finally, I really believe we need to print them all, for each of the approximately 600 to 700 delegates. But the Conference Office couldn’t handle it—I never saw the printing bill, but you could imagine. Looking back there might have been other ways. But Henry was very concerned that a petition from X Congregation needed to be seen, or at least we make every effort to make them available to every delegate.
When they brought the petitions in, I remember Henry standing up and looking at me and saying, "Mr. President, I checked back and I think the most petitions we’ve ever had in a Conference Annual Meeting has been about 17. However, it just took 17 people to carry all of the petitions in..." because there were boxes and boxes [of petitions].
AS CONGREGATIONAL MINISTER (Part A)
Returning home from General Council in 1988 was interesting. I was coming to the church a morning or so after, and this car was driving by and fella stopped and jumped out of the car and ran over. His family were active in the church but he wasn’t. I knew him, he was a good friend. He jumped over and he said, “Jack, whatever I can do to support you. I know it’s going to be a rough time. Let me know. I can help.”
It was great. And then, about a day or so later, again, I was at the church and one of the active men came over and said, “Jack, if you want to walk, we’ll walk behind you.” In other words, if I wanted to leave the church, they were ready to come behind me. I made the comment, I said, "I don’t want anyone making their decision on account of what I do." I thought, there are the two extremes, right here! And actually, they lived across the street from one another.
I wasn’t sure myself. I grew up in the 1950s. I knew what was right. I knew what was wrong. It was black and white. This shade of gray stuff wasn’t around at that point in time… One of the things I realized a couple of years later after having some conversations with people… the night our Session was voting there was four elders who had homosexuals in their family. A brother. A daughter. A son. Two brothers. Of course, at that point, I don’t know if any were out at the time. But if they were, they weren’t living in Kensington. Obviously, those elders knew. I just kept running over in my thoughts, what was going on in their minds at the time? Or maybe they were in the same space and saying, its wrong, my daughter’s this way but its still wrong. We really need to know who’s in this room before we have this kind of discussion. Because if we had gotten up and said “X, Y, Z and C have homosexuals in their family, I’m absolutely sure the tone in the room would’ve been different. … Of course, that’s become so very true ever since…
AS COMMISSIONER TO GENERAL COUNCIL MEETING 1988
As Commissioner, that was a real struggle for me. I’d finished my term as President of Conference and felt that part of my responsibility was to represent some of those views that I’d heard over the years. It was very interesting to watch that debate in the General Council in Victoria. I was ready to approve a motion that all people be eligible to be interviewed for ministry, all members. I was struggling with putting the words "regardless of sexuality" in there. I thought that was singling out a group. The argument was that was inclusive, but I thought, no, that’s singling out. I think we were debating the removal of these words at the time. When Clarke got up, he told a story about a boy in Cape Breton, struggling with homosexuality. In the end, the crux of it was, the boy committed suicide, he felt there was no space for him. I remember the floor of General Council was still and listening...
I remember more people were coming to the mic and I thought, they seem to be speaking in favor to “regardless of sexuality”, and I thought that’s interesting. There was a Commissioner next to me from Newfoundland, he was in a similar place to me. I leaned over to him and said, "Its strange the way these voices are going. It’s interesting." He said, "The majority are silent." Well, we had quite a shock when the vote went through!!! The majority had not been silent! The majority were the ones [who voted yes to gay and lesbian membership and ministry]!
That really shook me. I thought, how can I go back? How have I represented? Several of the speakers were Maritime Conference people, who were respected in the Conference too. I thought, gee, this was weird, what’s going on here? I remember walking out. The vote happened late at night. I remember being upset and thinking I couldn’t stay for worship. I had to get my head around it. I just quietly slipped out. I asked someone later what happened – they just had a quick closing up and a benediction. That was it. I remember walking around campus to get my head sorted out, thinking, maybe I just need to back home, and away from this General Council stuff, and go back and just being a congregational minister... and just struggle.
I had lots of discussions… I remember being on the bus one day and someone saying, "Even if—I don’t believe it—but even if homosexuality is a sin, why are we picking on that [sin]? Why are we interviewing gamblers… adulterers or whatever? Why is this the one we pick on?"
There were different phrases that kept sticking with me. I remember speaking with several anti-voices about their future in the church…
AS CONGREGATIONAL MINISTER (Part B)
Anyway, as I came back home from General Council 1988—still struggling, but glad I had been there—so I could speak to my congregation. We were blessed in that I had been there. I guess I’ve always sort of conciliatory. I kept thinking, okay, this is still my church. I was very thankful I’d been in Kensington for 10 years. It wasn’t my new charge. We had built a relationship. I thought, this is still my congregation, these are still my people. I remember looking at the ads in the paper and saying, well, you can’t do that job and you can’t do that job, (laughing) and finally thinking, I guess this is where I’m going to be.
As time went on, I became more appreciative of the courage of that meeting. What I was pleased about, I was able to say to anyone who said, "Boy, they brainwashed those Commissioners": No, they didn’t. There was no brainwashing. I said, what we have to remember is that we elect commissioners not to be our delegates. We believe they are people who have discerning minds and can listen to the Spirit when they make a decision on an issue.
Robyn: How do you think we’re doing now?... conversation about the church and same sex marriage, about pastoral charges now choosing to call LGTBQ+ ministers…
It's very different today. My granddaughter came out as gay last year. She never talked about it. She announced it on Facebook. I was so glad that I had been through all of this in the church and could just embrace her. Fortunately, I was able to convey my love and support to her, and at the same time, I said “I’m still trying to grapple with this. Help me. And I’m going to say some wrong things probably, but you know that we love you.” And I think of that, and think "wow", if none of this had happened in the church in 1988 and I was dealing with this now for the first time, where would I be? Well, I know where I’d be: strong in my love for her. What it must have been like for those people who were homosexual or who had homosexual members in their families at that time, who had no safety? But she could come out in 2018 in all safety on Facebook, of all places. In that sense, I’m so glad the church prepared Donna and I for that.
And now I think, it all sorted out for me a bit—and I don’t want to be too judgemental here—whose faith was really touching their hearts and whose faith was very real but was based on law.
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Shared with permission, transcript of interview with Rev. Jack Spencer and Robyn (of Iridesce: The Living Apology Project).
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Images: by wix.