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.
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:
1972: the Church's General Council commissioned a comprehensive study of human
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. |
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.
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.
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.
||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:|
that the church welcome "sexually active single adults, lesbian, gay and
bisexual people into all aspects of the life and ministry of the Church."
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
The resolution was subsequently amended to include:
"that all Christian people are called to a lifestyle patterned on obedience to
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
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
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."
2003-AUG: The 38th General Council decided "to call
upon the Government of Canada to recognize same-sex marriages in
marriage legislation." 5|
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:
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."
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
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:
||material to help groups design workshops on the inclusiveness issue
||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
The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above
essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.
Michael Riordon, "The First Stone: Homosexuality and the United Church,"
McClelland & Stewart, Toronto, (1990) Order
this book safely from Amazon.com online book store
Douglas Todd, "Churches Pledge to Make Gays an Issue at World Council Assembly,"
Religion News Service, 1998-NOV-12.
"Population by region, 1991 Census," Statistics Canada, at:
E.W. Lindner, "Yearbook of American & Canadian Churches, 2000."
"Same-Sex Marriage Legislation Offers a Win-Win Solution, Says The United
Church of Canada," 2005-FEB-01, United Church of Canada, at:
"United Church allows gay ministers," CBC Archives,
Marites N. Sison, "UCC elects gay moderator," Anglican Journal 2012-AUG-17, at: http://www.anglicanjournal.com/
Copyright © 1999 to 2012 by
Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Author: B.A. Robinson