RELIGION

A church divided

JOHN PIFER September 5 1988
RELIGION

A church divided

JOHN PIFER September 5 1988

A church divided

RELIGION

The United Church of Canada’s biennial council meetings almost always generate national controversy but rarely as much as the one at the University of Victoria last week. The key issue of whether to ordain homosexuals, which now threatens to divide the entire church, resulted in intense, political-style lobbying and often highly emotional debate throughout the nine-day session. Finally, the 388 delegates to the church’s highest court voted about 2 to 1 in favor of any worshippers— including self-avowed homosexuals—becoming full members of the church, making them eligible to be considered for the ministry. That decision will now face its most crucial test—scrutiny by the church’s 900,000 members across Canada. Said David Plain, 44, a student minister and member of the church’s native program from Christian Island,

Ont.: “Across Canada,

the church is divided. My own congregation probably will not appreciate this decision.” The stage was set for a stormy general council last March 5 when a 13-member church committee released Toward a Christian Understanding of Sexual Orientations, Lifestyles and Ministry. It recommended that sexual orientation should not be a barrier to participation in any aspect of church life. Since then, the United Church has received 1,813 petitions from congregations across Canada, the majority wanting either total rejection of the report or at least a rejection of accepting self-declared homosexuals as ministers. The 118-page report, commissioned after delegates to the 1984 general council in Morden, Man., left the issue unresolved, also sparked threats from people on both sides that they would leave the church.

A week before last week’s meeting— which also elected Toronto Pastor Sang Chul Lee as national moderator—a 24member committee reduced the March

report to an 11-point motion. Delegates picked their way through the new statement during several days of discussions and debate, including a seven-hour session, which ended at 1 a.m. on Aug. 24. Arguments centred not only on what the resolution would mean to homosexuals but how it would affect the United

Church, the largest Protestant denomination in Canada. Rev. James Somerville of Ottawa told delegates, “If we don’t offer the opportunity of having an anchor to cling to in this confusing world, then we as a church are in mortal jeopardy.” Countered Wayne Larstone of Selkirk, Man., a minister for 23 years: “The decisions here will help us to be an inclusive church, rather than exclusive and restrictive.” Other churches in Canada have debated the controversial subject, but generally less publicly. The Anglican Church of Canada said in 1979 that it expected a homosexual to be willing to remain celibate before it would ordain that person. The Roman Catholic Church remains steadfastly opposed to what its hierarchy terms “sinful” homosexual conduct. Spokesmen for the Presbyterian Church of Canada and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada said that their communities unofficially discourage the ordination of homosex-

uals. According to officials of the Canadian Baptist Federation, that church body has not yet formally discussed the issue. But those Protestant church organizations urge tolerance and understanding of homosexuals in society.

Marion Best of Naramata, B.C., who presided over the United Church sexual orientation committee, said that the ordination decision would leave some church members feeling “anxious, sad, disappointed and betrayed that the church has not given them a statement they fully understand.” However, some members of Community of Concern,

which holds that the homosexual “political movement” wants to blur the distinction between sexual orientation and practice, said that they were satisfied by the amendment that “all Christian people are called to a lifestyle patterned on obedience to Jesus Christ.” The key element in the final resolution: “All persons, regardless of their sexual orientation, who profess faith in Jesus Christ and obedience to him, are welcome to be or become full members of the church. All members of the church are eligible to be considered for ordered ministry.” Most church leaders and members of AFFIRM—a national group of homosexual church members—said that they do not expect great numbers of homosexuals to seek ordination because of the outcome of last week’s vote. They say that the response from churchgoers across Canada will determine whether homosexuals are truly accepted and that some of them will await that response before deciding to declare their sexual orientation. It is now up to the people in the pews to let them know whether they will be welcome.

JOHN PIFER in Victoria