Internal Conflict: 25 years of LGBT Advocacy in the United Church

By Krista McCracken

Though the government of Canada legalized same-sex marriage in 2005, marriage remains a contested point of debate within many Canadian religious denominations.  Since the 1980s Christian denominations across Canada have debated and developed policies around human sexuality, marriage, and ordination.

Currently, the Catholic Church and the Presbyterian Church in Canada do not condone gay marriage or the blessing of same-sex unions.  Both the Presbyterian Church and the Anglican Church of Canada will allow gay or lesbian individuals to be ordained in the church, providing the individuals are celibate and not ‘practicing’ their sexuality. In the Anglican Church blessings for same-sex couples (not marriage) can be performed in 10 Anglican dioceses across Canada and the Anglican Church of Canada is slated to vote on same-sex marriage in 2016. [i]   These denominations are still struggling with policies relating to sexuality and have made very little movement to change their positions based on the 2005 legalization of same-sex marriage in Canada.

Conversely, this August the United Church of Canada (UCC) will mark the 25 anniversary of the flagship decision to allow gay and lesbian candidates be ordained.  This decision was the first of its kind by a mainstream Christian denomination in the world. The UCC’s consistent support for same-sex relationships and equality has contributed to the UCC being seen as a ‘one-issue church’ or the ‘gay church’ by outside commentators.  Considering the current position of the other major Christian denominations on same-sex relationships the UCC’s early advocacy, acceptance, and support of LGBT rights was ground breaking.

As early as 1984, the UCC affirmed an “acceptance of all human beings as persons made in the image of God, regardless of their sexual orientation.”  This statement followed by the 1988 decision to allow gay and lesbian people to be ordained caused substantial upheaval within the UCC governance and parishioners.  Thousands of members across the country left the UCC as a result of this decision.

Despite this internal upheaval throughout the 1990s the UCC worked to produce educational material for clergy and parishioners relating to sexual orientation.  The UCC also played a substantial role in advocating for the equality of heterosexual and same-sex relationships.  In 1999, the UCC appeared before the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights in support of Bill C-23, Modernization of Benefits and Obligations.  This legal support was followed by the UCC general council adopting the policy to work toward the civil recognition of same-sex partnerships.  This decision made in 2000, resulted in some UCC congregations recording the services of same-sex couples in their marriage registers and forwarding these registrations to provincial governments for licensing.

UCC advocacy continued as support for the recognition of same-sex rights grew throughout Canada.  From 2000-2005 the UCC submitted numerous papers to the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights and repeatedly appealed to the Canadian government to change existing marriage legislation.  Since the legalization of same-sex marriage the UCC has continued to support equality amongst its members.  In 2012 Rev. Gary Paterson was elected as the moderator of the United Church, making him the first openly gay leader of a major Christian denomination in Canada.

Just looking at the history of the general council of the UCC paints a picture of a church that is very pro-gay rights and has been a forerunner in advocating for LGBT rights.  However, this is not the complete picture of the UCC or representative of many individual congregations.  Congregations have retained the power to make their own decisions about marriage.  It has been left up to individual ministers and congregations to decide if they want to allow same-sex marriages in their sanctuaries.  A procedure was put in place that allows a clergy member who does not want to perform a same-sex marriage to decline, however the policy also indicates that any congregation or minister who declines should make an attempt to locate another UCC minister who would be willing to perform the service.

Further unease with sexual orientation within the UCC at large can also be seen by looking at the membership in Affirm United/S’affirmer Ensemble, a support and justice group relating to sexual orientation equality.  Affirm developed during the lead up to the 1988 decision to allow ordination of people of all sexual orientations.  Since that time Affirm has helped LGBT clergy and parishioners find welcome UCC congregations.  Affirm established a set of criteria for LGBT friendly churches to meet and those churches which meet this criteria are designated as Affirming.

Despite the acceptance of all sexual orientations by the UCC governing body, only 80 UCC congregations, three regional ministries, four retreat centres, and four colleges have been officially designated as Affirming.   As of December 2011, the UCC had 3,132 local congregations, which means the number of Affirming congregations make up less than one percent of the UCC congregations.  The belief that all UCC congregations are welcoming of all sexual orientations is a bit of a misnomer, as there are many congregations who are still divided on the issue of LGBT marriage and equality.

The UCC’s history of advocacy, social engagement and ground-breaking policies is inspiring.  But, this history is also fraught with internal controversy and resistance.  The UCC general council was on the forefront of the LGBT rights movement and its actions often reflect developments within the larger Canadian LGBT rights movement.  Yet, many individual churches and UCC members are still divided on the issue of same-sex marriage and equality.

Krista McCracken is a Researcher/Curator at Algoma University’s Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre.  She is a co-editor at Activehistory.ca


[i] The Presbyterian Church in Canada’s policies on same-sex relationships are found in: “Social Action Handbook”, 4th edition, Life and Mission Agency, Presbyterian Church in Canada, 2013.  The Anglican Church of Canada’s position can be found in the “General Synod resolutions related to issues of sexuality.

 

8 thoughts on “Internal Conflict: 25 years of LGBT Advocacy in the United Church

  1. Bruce Douville

    I don’t believe that it is the rule across the board that gay or lesbian Anglicans must be celibate to enter the priesthood. The Anglican Church of Canada consists of 29 dioceses across the country, and while some dioceses are open to gay clergy and gay marriage, others are not. In other words, a great deal depends on the diocese.

    As for the United Church of Canada, I’m inclined to believe that the number of LGBT-positive churches is much larger than those who have officially opted to identify as “Affirming.” For example, here in northern Ontario, I know of a gay couple that were married in a small rural United Church. And I know that a large UCC congregation in my city financially supports a United Church summer camp program for LGBT youth. In other ways, I have witnessed United Church support for the LGBT community here. Yet none of these congregations are specifically designated “Affirming.” This may be due to a lack of unanimity on the matter within congregations, But it’s also possible that many congregations have not sought “Affirming” designation simply because they feel it would be superfluous, given the very public pro-LGBT stance of the denomination — re-affirmed again and again since 1988.

  2. Krista McCracken

    Thank you for the thoughtful comment 
    Bruce. I only looked at the high level policies in this post but you’re right that there is a lot of variation within the Anglican and UCC at large.  

    In the interest of full disclosure, I’m actually a member of the small rural United Church you mentioned. This small church has been one of the most welcoming churches I’ve ever attended, even though it isn’t “Affirming”. So the Affirming designation definitely isn’t everything.

  3. Bruce Douville

    Thanks, Krista.

    Your post is very timely, for several reasons. Among them (as a friend of mine who teaches in the Faculty of Education at Nipissing just pointed out): North Bay will be hosting the annual summer conference and AGM of Affirm United from August 2 to 5.

    As well, I’ve been reading Kevin N. Flatt’s new book, After Evangelicalism: The Sixties and the United Church of Canada (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s Press, 2013), which looks at the shift in the denomination’s theology, and in its moral and social vision, that took place in the 1960s. While the author writes from a conservative viewpoint, it’s nonetheless a fairly good analysis of a crisis point in the church’s history. While 1988 was a real crossing of the Rubicon for the United Church, it seems to me that the shifts of the 1960s really laid the groundwork for that. (But then, I’m kind of biased, since I’m a scholar of Canadian religion in the sixties.)

    Cheers,

    Bruce

  4. Patti Kmiec

    This is a great topic to discuss. I feel that (at least in popular conversation) the role of the United Church of Canada often gets entirely left out of the history of gay rights in Canada, and it’s place in queer history is certainly significant.

    However, I am a bit concerned with the labelling of the UCC’s efforts and activism as part of “LGBT” movements. For example, the UCC did not ordain any trans* people until very recently (if i am not mistaken, only about 3 years ago). I think it is important for people who explore queer histories to be sensitive to the multiple experiences and identities- and to be sure not to conflate issues of sexual orientation (same sex marriage, gay rights) with issues of gender identity

  5. Sarah Shepherd

    My understanding (I could be wrong!) is that becoming an Affirming church means going through a specific and substantial discernment process that takes time and energy. It requires more than formally passing a motion or unofficially being welcoming, so not all welcoming churches take that route.

  6. Krista McCracken

    Patti -Thank you for your comment. You’re right that UCC’s ordination of trans* people didn’t occur until much more recently. I should have been more clear to delineate the role of the UCC in the two separate issues.

    Sarah – Your understanding is correct. The Affirming process is very specific and requires churches do engage in very specific reflective actions. It’s been note elsewhere that one of the major ‘hurdles’ in the Affirming process is that Affirming churches are required to have a public community celebration to become Affirming — which often many congregations are not comfortable with.

  7. Matt

    Good article. I was compelled to write a response because of my vantage point. As child of UCC parents and grandparents, I have very strong memories of the church, debates on same sex relations ect.
    At our west Toronto UCC church, I rememeber attending the great debate on homosexuality. I believe it was 85 or 86. It was battle between progressives and the last of evangelicals. My parents were pushing for our church and diocese to openly support the LGBT community. The meeting was held in the basement in the Sunday school room. I remember there was prayer before the meeting, some bibles were even cross referenced and an older gentleman walked out before the meeting ended. Ultimately our church supported gay rights by the late 1980s. By the time Canada’s first gay couple married, I had left the united church and joined the metropolitan church in Toronto (used to be called the gay church) where my mom and I witnessed Canada’s first gay marriage. Things came full circle!

    Like Patti: I feel that all the accolades that UCC gets for being a progressive church don’t reveal what is really going on inside the church. Yes. It is a progressive church – but ask many of the aboriginal victims from the UCC run residential schools, they will tell you how the church lied, hid evidence on the issue up until the early 2000s. My mom and I subsequently left the UCC after my mom was sexually assaulted by a UCC minister in 1990. My Mom launched one of the first sexual assault charges against the church and the minister. Inquires were held, lawsuits and counter lawsuits were launched. My parents ended splitting up, declaring bankruptcy, and the minister was never punished. He was allowed to continue preaching. The church moved him around and tried to hid him. He eventually was shuttled out to eastern Ontario in a rural church before dying in 2006. Point is the church is just as bad as the Anglicans or the Catholic branch.

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