RELIGION

Sexual orientation and the pulpit

MARY McIVER May 30 1988
RELIGION

Sexual orientation and the pulpit

MARY McIVER May 30 1988

Sexual orientation and the pulpit

RELIGION

It dropped like a bomb—and the resulting explosion rattled the establishment. On March 4, after four years of study, a 13-member United Church committee released a 118-page report called Toward a Christian Understanding of Sexual Orientations, Lifestyle and Ministry. Its key recommendation: that sexual orientation should not be a barrier to participation in any aspect of church life. If the report is ratified at an August meeting of the 32nd general council, the church’s highest court, it will clear the way for men and women who engage in homosexual relationships to be ordained as ministers. But the outcome has grown increasingly uncertain in the wake of the storm of controversy that followed the report’s release.

Said church moderator Anne Squire, 67: “It is difficult to find a neutral person. It touches the emotions of people at a deep level.”

The report has not only created major dissension among clergy and laity in the church but it has also set off waves of protest among outsiders who are concerned that it will set precedents that other churches might follow. Still, some United Church historians say they do not anticipate that the current crisis will divide the church. Since it was formed in 1925, the 900,000-member church—the largest Protestant denomination in Canada—has enjoyed a reputation for tolerance, open-mindedness and a willingness to grapple with sensitive social issues. Indeed, several previous studies have dealt with sexual orientation, and the church’s current practice is to condone homosexuality under certain circumstances. “Sexual orientation has never been a barrier to the ministry,” acknowledged Squire, who is married and a grandmother. “The question is not even supposed to be asked. There are homosexual ministers—practising or not—in the church. Some we know, some we don’t.” Commissioned in 1984 by the 30th general council to afford the church an

opportunity to continue studying sexual orientation issues, the report was written by a committee of clergy and laity which included two homosexuals and one lesbian. Among its more controversial statements: “We acknowledge that heterosexual, gay and lesbi-

an adults can engage in sexual behavior within a committed relationship with the intention of permanence that is morally responsible.” The report concludes that barring homosexuals from the ministry who are in a “just, loving, health-giving” relationship would be discriminatory—and it calls for the council to “affirm that sexual orientation in and of itself is not a barrier to the life and ministry of the church, including the order of ministry.”

Among the report’s advocates are homosexual clergy who say that they would welcome the opportunity to be open about their sexuality.

Others support the recommendation on the grounds that the ordination of acknowledged homosexuals is an inevitable development. The dissenters include individuals who are outraged by practices that they regard either as a

sin or an aberration, and highly organized groups—including many ministers—who present coolly reasoned theological arguments and rally support by holding meetings and distributing petitions. Said Squire: “I was prepared for dissent, but I was not

prepared for the degree to which it has been organized and orchestrated.”

One of the largest and most vocal of those groups is the newly formed Community of Concern, composed of hundreds of United Church ministers and members from across the country. Many of its members say that they accept homosexuals in the clergy as long as they are not sexually active. Said Ross Williams, minister of the Westminster United Church in Regina: “I have many friends in clergy who are nonpractising homosexuals and who do a magnificent job of ministering.” Another group of clergy and laity, the United Church Renewal Fellowship—founded in 1965 out of concern for the direction of the church—has taken issue with what it perceives to be the report’s premise that homosexuality is natural. John

Tweedie, minister of Echo Place United Church in Brantford, Ont., and the organization’s executive director, says instead that homosexuality is a learned behavior—and, as such, can be changed. Indeed, John Howard, a minister of Collier Street United Church in Barrie, Ont., and a task force member who wrote one of the report’s two dissenting opinions, said that he bears witness to the wisdom of that solution. “I was struggling with homosexual tendencies for 20 years,” Howard told Maclean’s. “But with the help of two people in my congregation, I experienced a gradual healing and change.”

At the grassroots level, said Squire, “people seem to feel that being a homosexual is all right^-as long as you don’t practise it.” The dissension, she added, occurs over questions of lifestyle. “People hear stories about young boys being led astray—and they are horrified. But we would no more ordain a pedophile than we would a rapist.” Still, many church members view their ministers as role models, Squire said. And she added that, as a result, when ministers engage in what is otherwise viewed as acceptable social behavior, “people see that as a decline of moral standards.”

The congregation of the Warman United Church in Warman, a community of 2,455 about 25 km north of Saskatoon, is one notable exception. In March minister Sally Boyle publicly declared that she is a lesbian. At first, some members of the congregation protested —but eventually most of them rallied to her support. Said Boyle: “It really is overwhelmingly amazing. The congregation has taken a major political step in accepting me.”

As church members debated the issue this month at annual meetings of its 12 regional conferences of clergy and lay church leaders, many of them—torn between compassion and conscience—said that they found it a painful and awkward exercise. But Squire, although deeply worried that an irreparable schism might develop, said that in the long run the controversy might be good for the church. Declared Squire: “At least people are talking—about theological and moral issues, and about sexuality, an issue that has traditionally been taboo.” Added Squire: “I think the church is being tested by fire. It could be burned to ashes—but it could be strengthened and tempered like steel.” Encouraged by the way the church has weathered past crises, Squire added that she holds strong hopes for a positive outcome.

MARY McIVER

DALE EISLER

ROBERT ABATE

SUSAN SOUCOUP

in Fredericton