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Remembering the impacts around 1988 for my church, my family and myself

What church were you at in 1988?

In 1988, I was at my home church, Trinity United in Wallaceburg, Ontario, and was also the year I started at Emmanuel College. When the decision [of gay and lesbian membership and ministery in the United Church] was made, I was working at a summer camp, at camp Kenesserie, which is a United Church Camp. I can remember so clearly walking down the Kenesserie Road with my colleague from Dresden United Church, who had been really worried about the vote. I kept saying “there is no way they are going to pass this” to comfort him, although I wanted it to be passed. But as he approached he said, “Did you know they passed the vote? Now you can be a minister and be a gay or lesbian!”

I wanted to cry with excitement but I knew he was struggling with it so I just kept saying, really?? really!! I felt this overwhelming emotion and shock. I was so excited and kept having to temper it. I am not sure if he was on the other side of the issue but his church was one of the churches that had made a strong stance against it. They would be leaving the UCC if this decision moved forward.

Most of the churches that left the United Church in the London Conference were in my Presbytery, my friend’s church being one of them. When I say they left, I mean they split. The remnant of the split that remained was often so small. Dresden United was a good example of this, their remnant was very small. My friend’s family stayed on for a little while but they ended up starting a little tiny sub-church. The bulk of the congregation moved and built another church close by.

My minister at the time was very supportive of the 1988 decision however, but we had an Associate Minister who was not. What some of the people knew, and I knew, was that the Minister had two children who were gay—one a lesbian and one a gay man.

At church, we had a lot of meetings and many conversations. I remember my mom and dad going to Presbytery meetings about sexuality in general. They would come home and tell me about how people talked about how comfortable they were with nakedness—really great conversations about sexuality! My dad was in favour of the decision and my mom was just worried that it would split the church. But I remember that my minister was very careful not to be biased when he led anything in the congregation.

autumn leaves on the grass on a sunny afternoon

Say a bit about your general experience of pastoral ministry at that time.

[When I was in theology school] I remember feeling scared about the educational process and questions coming up about sexual orientation because it was so big a thing, especially in Kent presbytery. I also remember feeling scared about openly declaring how I stood [on the issue] knowing that my presbytery was falling apart. Churches were leaving left-right and centre. So I remember going into the Education & Students interviews back in the day knowing that the guy who was the chair of the interview did not agree with the decision. He was one of the people who went as a representative to General Council and he did not agree with the decision and was very vocal about this. He was on the interview team and I remember treading very lightly, especially in the early days. I finally decided that I was just going to say that this was the best decision our church could have ever made and that it was the right decision. I remember him treating me completely differently after I said that. I was his golden child, he thought the world of me until he found out that I was in support of the decision. I didn’t think my candidacy was at risk because there were some really great people down there that had been on E&S. But I did feel scared because where I was socially located (in Kent Presbytery) was exploding with people leaving the United Church and I know that a lot of the people against the decision were on these committees and so I felt nervous. Had I been in a different presbytery I probably wouldn’t have been as timid.

warm autumn leaves on the ground

Please describe at least two stories from that time that you would call positive or hopeful, if any.

I guess the positive experiences were in part as I said my mom and dad coming back and talking about the conversations—it opened up the topic of sexuality around our dinner table. And so, kind of an interesting story that is unrelated to the church, but related, is that my cousin was diagnosed with AIDS, my gay cousin, around the same time as this was happening. Because our family had had such open conversations about sexuality it just transferred into a visit with my Aunt. She came down to visit and we talked about how our church was supportive. By then we knew our minister’s children were gay and we talked about it. I feel like being able to say that opened a door for her. She could say what was really happening… we knew my cousin was sick but she had told everybody it was cancer—and then she told us, our family, that he had AIDS and I think her knowing (she was also a strong United Church member in Manitoba) helped her to know that it was safe to talk about it. We also felt bad because we felt she needed support out West, we are in Ontario, and she felt like she couldn’t tell anyone there.

I remember a few years after 1988—91 or 92—my Uncle who lives really close to her in Manitoba came to visit us. We got talking about the effects of 1988—how it affected our church. And he said, “I don’t know what the big deal is, my minister is gay and it is no big deal.” He just came right out and said it—all the while my Aunt thinking that nobody would understand. Here he is, her brother, who lives 15-20 minutes away from her and he says that his minister is gay!

Also my minster’s son and daughter became good friends of mine as I was going through school and because of that decision in 1988 I invited him—he also ended up having AIDS—to a service at Emmanuel. So my cousin died in ’89 or ’90—and I was already friends with my minister’s kids. I said, “Listen come to chapel, come to Emmanuel College—you know the United Church is inclusive—you are totally welcome.” He was starting to display signs of AIDS and he came to a Eucharist on a Wednesday. I felt so grateful that he knew he was welcome. Keep in mind that while all of this was happening in 1988, the AIDS crisis was becoming really powerful thing. Church was important to him. So it was healing for him to be able to attend.

dark blue berries in an autumn foliage environment

Sad story, along with this…

his Uncle had been a member of the Community of Concern and was a spokesperson against the ordination of homosexuals. So my minister, whose son is dying of AIDS, didn’t tell his brother that his son was dying of AIDS because he knew he was such a vocal member of the Community of Concern. In preparation for his son’s funeral in 1991, my minister felt he had to tell his brother. He went into his office and said, “I have to tell you something that I have been holding from you.” He said, “Paul has AIDS.” The Uncle said, “Why did you wait so long to tell me. I should have been visiting him.” The Uncle lost it and sobbed and sobbed. My minister said, “Because I know you are opposed to “the issue” [of gay and lesbian membership and minister]. His brother said, “It is not an ‘issue’. It is Paul, my nephew. I love him.” That moment was such a powerful moment for him. He did go see him before he died. He felt devastated that because he had made such a strong stand against gay and lesbian membership and ministry, important information had been withheld about somebody he loved.

The other thing that was sad about that time was, my minister who had two gay children lead many workshops and conversations in an unbiased way. People were speaking out about this being wrong and evil. My dad wrote for a local paper, he was always submitting articles and editorials about sexuality: that it is who we are and we should not condemn. He wrote that “We will look back on this time like we did about slavery and all of these things.” But the associate minister got up at one of these meetings and he said, “I need to say that the God of Jesus Christ is calling me to say that this is wrong.” So my minister was trying to be so unbiased and his ministry partner basically sabotaged him by getting up and saying that. My parents never forgave him for that. They felt he compromised the minister and that he put his own needs before that of the congregation. As someone providing leadership he should have set aside his personal views.

The other negative experience occurred when I was settled in a church where 90% of the congregation had left, and most people had left by 1991. Nobody had actually believed the vote would pass. I remember being at Kenesserie Camp where we had a presbytery meeting and they talked about what had happened at General Council. The delegates from Kent presbytery went thinking that they were going to vote NO; however, even the delegates from Kent who went to vote no… voted yes, all but one. Coming back to the presbytery was very difficult. I remember people sharing experiences, saying that it was so clear that the Spirit was telling them that they had to vote in favour. It was like a conversion experience for people. They said that in that moment-in-time it was like the Holy Spirit just showed up for people. I remember people coming back and sharing this vulnerable experience of voting in favour. And then someone got up and said, “If you went here would you just change your mind, if you went there would you just change your mind… you betrayed us!” The person who spoke out was a very powerful in our presbytery.

autumn leaves on the ground

How would you say your pastoral identity and practice have been affected by 1988?

It was very tricky to come into ministry right around that time. Especially as someone who was so supportive of the decision, and coming into congregations where there was so much pain. In Victoria Avenue where I was settled it was very painful. Families were split over it, people lost best friends, one friend going with the new church. Big groups left and people stayed behind. There was a lot of pain around that. I am sure it was the same as our Church Union in 1925: people lost relationships. All of those breakdowns and the very clear “us vs. them” stuff. Everything was based on whether you were pro or against… so it was really tricky to enter into pastoral ministry. Even some people who stayed weren’t super in favour. Some people stayed because of the building and the church. Even though they were not in favour—I still pastored to my congregation. Later, we had a gay intern—actually years later and even then I was still navigating these conversations with people in my pastoral care.

When I was in a rural church several years after 1988, probably 1998, maybe even later. We had a gay intern and the chair of the Joint Board was gay and everybody loved him but they didn’t know he was gay. He led a great process in preparation of her coming because she wanted the Board to know she was a lesbian and had a partner. Everyone was great through the process although after some people called me and said, I think I might have to stop attending or put my membership on hold while the student is here. The really painful moment was when I said to them, “Listen, you get to choose what you get to choose, but I expect you to treat everybody who walks through this door as a child of God, whether they are an intern or a congregation member. That is our call as Christians.” One of the woman took that to heart and she invited the intern over for dinner and coffee and the intern became very close to her. At the end of the year the intern wanted to know who the people were who had a problem with her being gay. I hesitated and did reveal who the woman was. She wept. But I said, “Doesn’t that say a lot about you and this woman. She transcended her personal beliefs about an issue because of how she felt about you.”

How would you say we as a denomination have been affected by 1988?

I think that we lost a lot of people over the decision and it was the right decision to make. I think we can stand on justice issues and people of other denominations have followed. I think this is the classic United Church story where we ordain women and gays and lesbians, and trans people. We lead the way. We get lots of slings and arrows and then twenty-some years later even evangelical churches are looking at this and are rethinking their policies. Some of their documents look very similar to the documents that we saw leading up to 1988. As a denomination we have led the way. We have suffered. Not just because of 1988, but it was the tipping point. The inerrancy of scripture fell around that time too and people who were not willing to give that up. It was falling away and making room for a movement toward trusting the Spirit. That is why people can no longer buy-in to the bible as every word as literal truth. I am still proud that, in my work as a psychotherapist, I can say “that church right there has a gay minister who is married to a woman.” People are still shocked because they don’t know that there is a denomination that does that. I feel proud to be able to say that.

From, Sue Browning

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Shared with permission. Images: wix.

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