Gays & The United Church Part 2

On March 4th, 1988 the United Church of Canada’s four-year study on “the nature of sexual orientation and practice” was complete. The 13-member research committee released an 118-page report called: Toward a Christian Understanding of Sexual Orientations, Lifestyle and Ministry. Its key recommendation: sexual orientation should not be a barrier to participation in any aspect of church life. A dramatic backdrop for this report was ever increasing AIDS-related deaths in Canada. The plague had been spreading exponentially in the 1980s, particularly in Canada’s largest cities.

A new grassroots lobby group sprang up called the Community of Concern to fight the report’s recommendations. In Calgary, like other parts of Canada, church leaders gathered to debate and discuss. On March 29th, 1988, at St. Matthew’s United Church in Calgary, Reverend David Cook moderated a meeting in reaction to the report in advance of the church’s Alberta and North West Conference.

The mood was mostly contrarian. At both the Calgary gathering, and then at the regional meeting in Camrose that May, petitions were brought forward rejecting the report and voicing strident opposition. In particular, the Alberta and North West Conference was concerned about individuals and families who were considering leaving the church if the report was accepted. By the time of the 32nd General Council meeting in Victoria in August 1988, the Church had received 1,813 petitions from across Canada rejecting the report.

In advance of the General Council, a special committee of 24 members was convened to digest the report and make recommendations. Marion Best, who chaired the committee recalled in an interview that when they began there were only two members who supported the report, and five opposed: the rest were open to listening. On day two of the deliberations, the committee members arrived at the classroom they were meeting in and found homophobic slurs written all over the blackboard. Best described that moment as a critical turning point; after six days of grueling debate and soul searching the members decided to recommend the report unanimously.

That unanimous decision was a powerful symbol at the General Council itself.  Yet for nine days at the University of Victoria, delegates lobbied and debated the divisive report. The culmination was a seven-hour session ending at 1 a.m. on August 24th, when the final vote happened. The 388 delegates voted 2:1 in favour of any worshippers – including self-declared homosexuals – to become full members of the church, which also meant that gays would be eligible for the ministry.

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Landmark vote at the 1988 General Council.  Photo: John Colville in Maclean’s Magazine, September 5, 1988.

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Watch: “United Church allows gay ministers” online at CBC Digital Archives

There was fallout. In September 1988, Lethbridge First United Church, at a congressional meeting, voted 4:1 to break away from the United Church due to the General Council decision.  Reverend Stan Errett, Minister of St. David’s United and chair of the Calgary Presbytery, said: “I don’t think it is going to have any impact on us; we’re in relatively good shape. There’s lots of distress and lots of concern, but people [in Calgary] are not about to run away.”

Calgary’s Hillhurst United Church was not pleased with the decision.  Their Reverend Robert Nagus said: “It’s wrong. It’s an error in judgment. It’s an attempt to sanctify sin. But the way to fight this thing is to stay within the church, get a referendum and change the policy.”

One hour north of Calgary, the Cremona United Church draped its signpost in sackcloth and ashes as a symbol of mourning. In Blackfalds, near Red Deer, United Church members erected a large sign on the church grounds reading: “THIS CHURCH IS OPPOSED TO ORDAINING HOMOSEXUALS.”

Dissent was increasing all across the country, led predominantly by the Community of Concern movement. Calgary started its own chapter of the anti-gay lobby group in October. By November, Hillhurst United, had publicly declared it was withholding funds to the national church and encouraged other congregations to join them. Later that month, three other churches: Forest Lawn, Southminister, and Southwood United had filed their opposition to the national executive regarding homosexual ordination.

As the heat spread, the United Church General Council Executive met for five days at the end of November in Toronto to decide how to move forward. The emergency meeting was precipitated by demands for a binding referendum on the issue by 1,000 Community of Concern members, who assembled in Etobicoke. They told the Executive: “We’re in for the long haul.”

The Executive declined to put the issue to a grassroots vote, as many wanted, but did reopen the issue asking congregations to discuss it among themselves, and in their regional conference, to bring their concerns to the 1990 General Council meeting, where policy could be changed.

Their willingness to entertain a reversal on gay ordination greatly reduced the turmoil and inflammation in the United Church community. Reverend Errett said: “I think it’s a good consultative process. From now on we’re going to take seriously what the congregations are saying. I think it will avert what people fear is a national denomination splitting down the middle and people going in all different directions.”

Madeline Wood, Chair of the Calgary Community of Concern chapter, conceded that the new move was “somewhat reasonable,” although she worried that the General Council commissioners could ignore the will of concerned congregations a second time.

Wood’s worries were prescient. At the 1990 General Council held in London, Ontario, the issue was debated and again came to a vote. This time, the result was 4:1 in favour of gay ordination, reaffirming the 1988 decision, and clearly foreshadowing the trajectory of the debate. Despite traditionalists fomenting fears of a new exodus from the church, the large split never took place. In the end, the estimate of those who left was about 25,000 people, around 3% of the United Church’s constituency.



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