CANADA

The United Church confronts an activist

A dismissal hearing uncovers bitter

CHRIS WOOD September 16 1996
CANADA

The United Church confronts an activist

A dismissal hearing uncovers bitter

CHRIS WOOD September 16 1996

The United Church confronts an activist

CANADA

A dismissal hearing uncovers bitter

Outside floor-to-ceiling windows, the heavens wept, drenching late-summer foliage. Inside the borrowed church hall, a dozen people took places at pale wooden tables arranged to resemble a criminal courtroom. A tribunal of two women and a man sat at one end, their backs to an accordion-style divider. Four people grouped in pairs at a table facing them might have been the prosecution and defence. To one side, a stenographer held her fingers poised over a shorthand machine and an empty chair waited for the first witness. But instead of a bailiff’s cry of “All rise,” Rev. Molly Williams opened proceedings with an invocation to “God, our mother and father,” before leading the room in the Lord’s Prayer. That prayer concludes, significantly, with an entreaty to “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

Forgiveness, in fact, was not in much evidence at last week’s extraordinary hearing in Vancouver. In a step seldom taken before in its history, and unprecedented in British Columbia, a panel established by the United Church of Canada heard testimony aimed at determining whether one of its own ministers, 40-year-old Kevin Annett, should be

stripped of his ordination. In proceedings repeatedly characterized by rancor and recrimination, a lawyer representing the Presbytery of Comox-Nanaimo, a church subdivision responsible for central Vancouver Island, portrayed Annett as an unstable maverick who had deeply alienated his last flock, at St. Andrew’s United Church in Port Alberni, 65 km northwest of Nanaimo. Annett, who was represented at the hearing by his mother, a retired businesswoman, cast himself in a very different role: as the innocent victim of persecution by a church that had lost its moral bearings. The dispute placed the United Church, widely regarded as among the country’s most progressive denominations, in the unfamiliar position of appearing ready to eject a minister from its ranks for being too liberal.

Outside the hearing-room, Annett offered a stunning explanation for what he described as his “wrongful dismissal.” He accused the United Church of trying to silence his criticism of its role in running residential schools, including one in Port Alberni, where for decades young natives were subjected to sexual and physical abuse. “The church,” charged Annett, “was complicit in that evil. I think they knew that a minister who was

pro-native on this stuff was going to be an embarrassment.” Church officials dismissed any link between Annett’s status and his activism on native issues as “totally false.”

By all accounts, Annett’s tenure in Port Alberni began, in July, 1992, with both hope and promise. “He was quite refreshing,” recalls Marlene Cook, a St. Andrew’s parishioner for four decades who was church treasurer at the time. Struck by the extent of poverty in the lovely but rugged region—which relies heavily on forestry—Annett persuaded his congregation to open a food bank. And he encouraged the area’s economically marginalized native residents to come to Sunday services. Attendance blossomed from about 40 people to as many as 120 in some weeks.

But the idealistic young minister’s social activism soon became a sore point with some of his congregation. As Annett, ordained in 1990, saw it, “There was this layer of privileged white people who worked in the mill, and all around them there was a sea of poverty and unspoken wrongs.” Attempting to unearth what he calls a “deep apartheid” in the community, Annett invited former residential school students into the pulpit to recount their experiences of abuse. His own sermons frequent>_ ly focused on his congregation’s g responsibilities to the poor.

£ To many listeners, Annett’s ex! hortations grated. “Most of the time he was scolding us,” recalls Cook. “I left feeling that I should feel guilty for my hard work and my effort and my honesty and integrity.” At the same time, Cook adds, Annett devoted little energy to the more traditional pastoral duties of care and assistance to a largely elderly congregation. Within two years of Annett’s arrival, says another member of the church, former Port Alberni mayor Fred Bishop, “there was growing dissatisfaction with Kevin’s ministry.” In late 1994, the split widened, and on Jan. 8, 1995, Annett submitted his resignation to the church board, which accepted it.

The following month, the RCMP launched an investigation into complaints of abuse of native youngsters at the United Church-run school at Port Alberni, which closed in 1973, and at a dozen other residential schools run by the United and Roman Catholic churches in British Columbia from the late 19th century until as recently as 1984. Last November, at Annett’s urging, at least one former resident of the Port Alberni school told police her account of violence at the institution between 1945 and 1949. “I was sexually abused there,” said Harriet Nahanee, who now lives in North Vancouver. “I witnessed a murder there.” Annett’s relations with his superiors at the

Comox-Nanaimo Presbytery, meanwhile, grew increasingly strained. Rather than allow Annett to serve out the six-month notice that he had given to St. Andrew’s on Jan. 8, presbytery officials two weeks later relieved him of his duties. Later, they directed him to take more training in pastoral relations—and undergo a psychiatric evaluation—before he could take up another posting. Those requirements, particularly the psychiatric aspect, incensed Annett, who refused to comply. To church officials, that was further evidence of Annett’s pastoral shortcomings.

The now-unemployed minister’s rhetorical attacks on his own church escalated. In a public statement last Jan. 1, Annett wrote: “The horror of the United Church residential school in Port Alberni involved the rape and murder of native children. The United Church has perpetrated a similar wrong upon my family and I by wrongfully dismissing me from my pulpit.” He added: “Those church officials who have done this are so immersed in their own wrongs, lies and fears that they appear incapable of acknowledging the damage.”

By last spring, the Comox-Nanaimo Presbytery had concluded there was no hope that Annett would ever accept its conditions for continued employment. On March 21, the agency recommended that Annett be removed from the church’s list of ministers—setting the stage for last week’s hearing. There, presbytery lawyer Iain Benson told the hearing: “The question before this panel is Rev. Kevin Annetfs fitness for the ministry.” After five days of evidence, he added: “There are very serious concerns about [his] mental balance.”

But others are closer to Annetfs view. In Port Alberni, Métis congregant Krista Lynn seized her last opportunity to speak from St. Andrews’s pulpit, early in 1995, to declare: “You’re crucifying Kevin because he did what the Lord commanded.” And fellow United Church minister Rev. Bruce Gunn last week described Annetfs Port Alberni ministry as “exemplary.” Added Gunn: “Kevin has a very deep commitment to the social gospel. That has been a big part of United Church history. Obviously, people in his congregation were not committed to that.”

At least Fred Bishop and Marlene Cook, among Annetfs former parishioners, would give Gunn a fight on that point. But with hearings continuing this week, it is up to Williams and her panel to decide whether Annetfs beliefs represent simple zeal for long-standing United Church tradition—or a more intolerant and troubling zealotry.

CHRIS WOOD in Vancouver

CHRIS WOOD