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Denominations and homosexuality

The United Church of
Canada and Homosexuality

The United Church of Canada (UCC) is the largest Protestant denomination in Canada  In 1991, about 3.1 million Canadians identified themselves with the UCC. 3 By 2012, membership had shrunk to 2.8 million adherents and members, even though the population of canada had increased over the interval.

This is the most liberal of the larger Protestant denominations in Canada. It is exceeded in size only by the Roman Catholic church. It was formed in 1925 by a merger of most congregations of the Association of Congregational Churches in Canada, the Methodist Church and the Presbyterian Church in Canada. Some Presbyterian congregations remained part of a separate mainline religious organization. Some methodists did not join the union but formed the evangelical Free Methodists. From its birth, it has had to accommodate a diversity of theological beliefs. It has had a history of tackling publicly the really tough social issues. Some cynics might say that they have a continual urge to shoot themselves in the foot, or to form a circular firing squad. It can be argued that they lose membership whenever they enter into one of these debates. But they have also gained members, partly because of the respect that Canadians have for the Church's courage, openness, and inclusiveness. Less courageous liberal and mainline denominations often follow where the United Church has led.

In the mid-1930, the hot topic was the ordination of women, a controversy that they had inherited from their founding churches. The debates were fierce. The liberals within the congregation quoted scriptures that showed that there should be no differentiation between male and female in Christianity. The conservatives quoted other scriptures about women keeping quiet in church, and not taking positions of leadership. There was fear that the debates would split the church. Centuries of tradition were cited. Tempers ran high. Finally, formal sexism in the church came to an end when Lydia Gruchy was ordained as their first female minister in 1936. The church survived and grew.

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A half century later, the entire sequence was repeated. Quotations from the Bible were cited; fears of a split in the church arose once again. This time, the topic was homosexuality. The General Council of the United Church of Canada in 1988-AUG decided to stop barring openly gay or lesbian people from the ministry.

We describe events leading up to the 1988 decision in some detail, because a similar sequence it is likely to be repeated in other religious organizations in the future:
bullet 1972: the Church's General Council commissioned a comprehensive study of human sexuality

bullet 1980: a task force on sexuality presented its report In God's Image...Male and Female. It concluded: ..."there is no reason in principle why mature, self-accepting homosexuals, any more than mature, self-accepting heterosexuals, should not be ordained or commissioned.". The General Council called for more study.

An openly lesbian candidate applied for ordination to the Hamilton [ON] Conference, but was turned down because of her sexual orientation. The Hamilton Conference later asked the United Church to specifically bar homosexuals from the ministry.

bullet 1982: Representatives of homosexual groups across Canada formed Affirm, a mutual support group of United Church homosexual members.

The Church established a task group to study sexual orientation and the ministry. They received input from the newly created Affirm group. They also listened to the United Church Renewal Fellowship (UCRF) a conservative group which was formed in 1966 to promote a return to traditional values within the church.

bullet 1984: Their task group's report, Sexual Orientation and the Eligibility for the Order of Ministry was issued. Section E, Recommendation 7.1.2 recommended:

"That in and of itself, sexual orientation should not be a factor determining membership in the Order of Ministry of the United Church of Canada"

Response from the church membership (to judge by letters to the editor of their official publication The United Church Observer) was over 85% negative. The UCRF prepared an article Healing for the Homosexual, Healing for the Church which argued that the solution to "The Issue" was to convert homosexuals to heterosexuality.

At the General Council of 1984, a motion was presented to recognize two members of Affirm as non-voting, corresponding members. It was narrowly defeated. This triggered the creation of a new group within the United Church Friends of Affirm. Council decided to postpone a decision on "The Issue" until a subsequent meeting (1986 or 1988). The National Coordinating Group for the Programme of Study and Dialogue on Sexual Orientations, Lifestyles and Ministry was created.

bullet 1988: Many hundreds of local discussion groups had debated "The Issue". About 90% of their reports were opposed to ordaining non-heterosexuals. The National Coordinating Group... issued its final report in early 1988. They deviated from the clear message sent by the local groups by recommending:

bullet that the church welcome "sexually active single adults, lesbian, gay and bisexual people into all aspects of the life and ministry of the Church."

bullet that the church "develop liturgies celebrating their covenantal relationships." Same-sex marriages were still 17 years in their future.

The reaction by members and their congregations was explosive. A conservative Community of Concern was organized to oppose the report; they issued a Declaration of Dissent. A poll taken by the Church revealed that only 28% of the membership favored the admission of active homosexuals into the ministry.

At the General Council, two members of Affirm and one member from the Community of Concern (COC) were elected as non-voting corresponding members (delegates). A group of Christian, anti-homosexual fundamentalists from the United States crashed the meeting and attempted to disrupt proceedings. They were gently ejected. Their open display of hatred for gays and lesbians may well have changed many delegates' minds in favor of homosexual ordination; it is impossible to tell. After much heated debate and maneuvering, Council passed a resolution with approximately a 3:1 vote:

"A) That all persons, regardless of their sexual orientation, who profess Jesus Christ and obedience to Him, are welcome to be or become full member of the Church. B) All members of the Church are eligible to be considered for the Ordered Ministry."

A strange event had happened. The majority of delegates had come to the Council with a bias against ordaining homosexuals, but with an open mind. They heard the heart wrenching testimonies of devout gay and lesbian church members. Many delegates probably met an openly homosexual person for the first time in their life. They debated little else among themselves. They searched their souls and prayed to learn God's will. And most changed their mind!

The resolution was subsequently amended to include:

"that all Christian people are called to a lifestyle patterned on obedience to Jesus Christ."

Another resolution was passed that called for more discussion and examination of "The Issue" and to urge the church to fight discrimination against homosexuals both in and beyond the church.

The CBC Archives contain TV news coverage of the events of 1988-AUG-24. 6


Status in 1998: In common with most liberal Christian churches in Canada, membership within the United Church has been continuously decreasing for 3 decades. Active churchgoing has also declined in the country generally. Polls show that only about 20% of the adult population say that they regularly attend church. The reality of the situation is probably a great deal worse, because close monitoring of some counties in the U.S. and Canada have indicated that twice as many people who say that they attend church regularly than actually so so.

It is difficult to determine how much of the decline after 1988 was due to "The Issue". Some congregations have left the United Church; others have split. The Community of Concern, Church Alive, The National Association of Covenanting Congregations and the United Church Renewal Fellowship have criticized the headquarters staff for ram-rodding radical legislation through council and for stifling freedom of speech. These conclusions are difficult to support: Of the almost 400 voting delegates to the 1988 Council, half were clergy and half laity; only 5 were from the Church headquarters. No minister seems to have lost his/her position by speaking out against the decision.

Many subsequent Councils have passed' all left the resolution intact. An openly gay candidate for the ministry has been ordained. The four conservative renewal groups listed continued to hold national Faithfulness Today meetings. In 1990, they attracted 700 participants; in 1994, there were 400. In 1996, about 225 people attended.


1998-NOV: The World Council of Churches (WCC) represents over 300 Protestant, Anglican and Orthodox denominations with a total membership of about 400 million Christians. They meet every 7 years. During 1998-DEC, the Council met in Zimbabwe. Considerable tension was experienced at the meeting over homosexuality. 2 More details.

bullet 2000-AUG: "The 37th General Council affirmed that human sexual orientations, whether heterosexual or homosexual, are a gift from God and part of the marvelous diversity of creation." 5

bullet 2003-AUG: The 38th General Council decided "to call upon the Government of Canada to recognize same-sex marriages in marriage legislation." 5

bullet 2005-FEB-01: The United Church of Canada congratulated the government of Canada on its proposed same-sex marriage (SSM) law which the Church called a "win-win solution in the same-sex marriage debate." Rev. Dr. Jim Sinclair, General Secretary of the General Council, said: "Marriage will be enhanced, not diminished, religious freedom will be protected, not threatened, and Canadian society will be strengthened, not weakened, as a result of this legislation."

Jackie Harper, as Church's program staff for Family Ministries, said:

"A significant, unique contribution that the United Church brings to this debate is the denomination's own experience of making same-sex marriage ceremonies available to its members and, at the same time, respecting the right of those within the denomination who are opposed to such services...Religious marriage is not, and cannot be, affected by the proposed legislation. All faith communities in Canada, whatever their views on same-sex marriage, have the absolute right to determine for themselves who will be eligible for religious marriage within their communities. This includes the right to determine whether the community will offer religious marriages to interfaith couples, to divorced couples, or to couples who are not members of the community." 5

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Human Rights Legislation

Since 1977, the United Church has been publicly urging the Canadian Federal Government to amend Canada's human rights laws to extend equal protection against discrimination to gays and lesbians. In 1996, both the United and Anglican Churches supported the legislation proposed by the Government to do this. The four United Church renewal organizations urged that the human rights legislation be amended to define sexual orientation to mean "sexual attraction and inclination, but not any kind of sexual behaviour". This would mean that a gay or lesbian person could not be fired from their job by a mean-spirited employer because of their sexual orientation; but they could be fired if they fell in love and entered into a committed relationship with another person. The government ignored the efforts by the United Church's renewal groups and by many Evangelical religious organizations. In mid-1996, the legislation was passed by an overwhelming percentage of Members of Parliament in a free vote (i.e. a vote where the MPs could vote according to the conscience without regard to the position of their party).

In 1997-Fall, the United Church joined with the Canadian Jewish Congress to support Delwin Vriend, 31. He was a teacher in King's University College of Edmonton, a Christian college in Alberta, Canada. In 1991, he revealed that he was gay and was fired. When the Alberta human rights commission refused to hear his case, he launched a lawsuit intended to force such groups to hear cases based on sexual orientation and identity. The case was heard by Canada's Supreme Court on 1997-NOV-4. At the time, of Canada's 10 provinces, all but 3 (Alberta, Newfoundland and Prince Edward Island) include sexual orientation as a protected class (along with religion, race, gender, etc.) in their civil rights legislation. These three provinces are generally regarded as the most religiously conservative in the country. The latter two were planning to revise their legislation to protect persons of all sexual orientations. But Alberta had no such plans. The Supreme Court ruled in 1998 that the provinces could not exclude lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual (LGBT) persons from human rights legislation.

Recognition of Covenanting Services

The United Church has made available to individual congregations a printed resource called "Together in Faith." It invites congregations to consider becoming an inclusive faith community - one which welcomes persons of all sexual orientations. Included in that resource are:
bullet material to help groups design workshops on the inclusiveness issue

bullet sample liturgies for covenanting services for gays and lesbians

As in marriages of heterosexual couples, individual ministers frequently create custom covenanting services to match the couple's unique needs. The denomination does not restrict the service to a specific format. Some congregations and their ministers decide to make covenanting services available to gay and lesbian couples; others do not.

United Church of Canada elects a gay moderator:

The Rev. Dr. Gary Paterson (1949-) has been a UCC minister for over 35 years. He describes himself as a "passionate preacher" and a "closet poet." He is also openly either bisexual or gay. He is married to the Rev. Tim Stevenson, Vancouver BC city councillor, who has been his partner for 30 years. He has three adult daughters from his first marriage.

At the UCC's 41st General Council meeting in Ottawa, ON, he was elected Moderator of the United Church of Canada. He was selected out of a roster of 15 nominees and was elected on the sixth ballot. At a news conference after his election, he referred to his sexual orientation, saying:

"What some denominations or some parts of the world see as a huge dilemma and a problem has not, within our immediate community, been seen in that way at all,"

The Anglican Journal, a publication of the Anglican Church of Canada, reported Moderator Patterson's election, writing:

"... he said, he did not intend to make sexuality the focus of his job, but rather re-energizing the church amidst uncertainties about its future. The UCC has 2.8 million adherents, according to Statistics Canada and church figures, making it the largest Protestant denomination in Canada.

;I would see trying to enable the church to look realistically at what’s happening and not be frightened,' he told the press conference. 'We will find a way through. We will be changed and we will be faithful, and God will be with us.'

In a mission statement distributed to delegates, Paterson said the United Church has 'arrived at a whirlpool' due to factors ranging from growing secularism, a distrust of institutions, the 'brokenness' of church, and abuses at the Indian residential schools. The church is sometimes unsure or too afraid to respond, he said. And yet it must 'let go and enter the whirlpool.'

The challenge for the church is 'to live into this moment; not to get overwhelmed; not to get paralyzed; but to be people of hope'." 7

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Michael Riordon, "The First Stone: Homosexuality and the United Church,"  McClelland & Stewart, Toronto, (1990)  Order this book safely from online book store
  2. Douglas Todd, "Churches Pledge to Make Gays an Issue at World Council Assembly," Religion News Service, 1998-NOV-12.
  3. "Population by region, 1991 Census," Statistics Canada, at:
  4. E.W. Lindner, "Yearbook of American & Canadian Churches, 2000."
  5. "Same-Sex Marriage Legislation Offers a Win-Win Solution, Says The United Church of Canada," 2005-FEB-01, United Church of Canada, at:
  6. "United Church allows gay ministers," CBC Archives, 1988-AUG-24, at:
  7. Marites N. Sison, "UCC elects gay moderator," Anglican Journal 2012-AUG-17, at:

Copyright 1999 to 2012 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2012-AUG-17
Author: B.A. Robinson

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