“Ask Andrew” is an annual opportunity for members of Knox to ask questions of faith and religion. Andrew answers them in the Sunday morning service, and now in this blog. Enjoy!
What was the transformative experience in your life that most influenced your views on the LGBTQ community?
This answer may be a bit disappointing: it’s like my sense of call to the ministry. I can’t report a mountain-top experience. Like many things in my life, this has been a journey.
I grew up in a very religious home where the tone was Evangelical. For this question the two most important things to know are:
1: I was taught to take the Bible literally in general, but with some exceptions. For example: my family were okay with the idea of evolution. They were prepared to accept that Adam and Eve were (probably) symbolic rather than literal people. Still, they encouraged me to learn the Bible thoroughly by reading and studying it every day, which I did.
2: I was taught that homosexuality was a sin, pure and simple. Men who chose to sleep with other men were defying God. It took me years to wonder why it wasn’t such an issue for two women to be together: that possibility wasn’t even discussed. This touches on a bias of straight men, doesn’t it? To think that male gay sex is disgusting, and female gay sex is the stuff of fantasy?
When I got to McGill, and began to study Koine Greek, the language of the New Testament, I had my Biblical Literalism shaken up thoroughly. Learning to read the Bible in the original languages forces you to consider which bits are original, which bits have been edited and tinkered with, and which bits are seriously culture bound. And learning any second language helps us learn that some words just don’t translate easily. Most of us learn French, a language that has no simple way to translate the English word “home.” Greek contains even stronger differences, and Hebrew and Aramaic are harder still.
I already knew that we didn’t obey a lot of the laws of Moses. For example, our family always welcomed pork into our diet, and I knew that modern medicine had much kinder ways to help lepers than Biblical law requires. The idea that things might progress was already obvious in limited ways. But my study of the Bible in seminary opened my eyes to the chance that things that might seem obvious might have other interpretations.
I had already encountered people who were openly questioning society’s assumptions about relationships between men and women. It wasn’t just “Gay and Straight” stuff, but all kinds of things. I was already open to some of this (Scandinavian culture as I’ve experienced it KNOWS that women run the world) but I was struggling with the parts that related to same-sex relationships.
At university, there was a club called Gay McGill. I ended up at the opening of one of their meetings by mistake, and as I finished my slice of pizza and left, it struck me that these were just ordinary people. There wasn’t anything flamboyant going on. More importantly, there didn’t appear to me to be anyone who deserved to burn in Hell.
At the same time as my thoughts about the Bible were being challenged, I started to learn what medical and social sciences had to say about gays and lesbians and, increasingly, those who didn’t fit into convenient categories: which was that sexual orientation appears to be hard-wired. This was not a “lifestyle choice” as I had been taught: it was something that you could identify at a very young age and could not change.
I had a Pentecostal friend who declared that before he met Christ he was a “raving homosexual” and that Christ had cured him. The trouble was that he was a very nice guy who had no real interest in girls and believed he had to abstain from guys.
I began to see this as a real problem. How could a loving God condemn gays to eternal torment for something they couldn’t change? How could God be that unjust? It became a serious issue of divine justice for me.
Eventually I was ordained. My views on this were still developing, but they weren’t an issue for my ordination: the Presbyterian Church simply didn’t ask about this issue at any point during the process.
It eventually became an issue. I was a commissioner to the General Assembly that voted on whether to accept openly gay people as ministers The Presbytery of Montreal had voted to ordain an openly gay student, and some members of that Presbytery had appealed the decision to General Assembly. I attended as a minister, my father was there from Montreal as a representative elder. We voted on opposite sides of the question, and we still “agree to disagree” to this day.
The decision went against ordaining gays, which is still the policy of the Presbyterian Church in Canada. I registered my dissent in the minutes (along with many others). After that, according to the rules of that church, I was expected to support the policy of the church, since I had cleared my conscience by registering my objection.
I was uncomfortable with this, and wrote an article in the London Free Press (this was back in the days when newspapers had enough money to pay for religious articles). Strictly speaking, this was a violation of my ordination vows: having had my chance to object formally, I should have towed the line. But it bothered me deeply.
Shortly after that I had a meeting with a man who had read the article and asked to talk to me. He was Anglican, but wanted to speak to any clergy person who was prepared to talk openly about this subject. He told me that he was gay, in a good relationship with his partner, and that he still got along well with his ex-wife and children, who had been very supportive since he came out of the closet.
He then told me that he was convinced that he was going to Hell, and that there was nothing he could do about it. He was sure that God hated him for being gay. His challenge to me was to convince him otherwise.
I did my best, but I failed. When he left my study, he was just as sad, just as convinced that he was damned as when I met him. I was terribly frustrated.
That was the real start of my switch to the United Church I was uncomfortable staying where I was.
About that time I became aware of a movement in the evangelical churches of the United States that was extremely hostile to the LGBTQ community (“LGBTQ” hadn’t been coined yet, but it would be soon). Some churches were hostile enough to openly declare that “God Hates Gays.”
That offended me deeply, especially since I had come out of the evangelical movement myself. At the time I thought it would fizzle into a fringe movement. I was wrong.
Over the years I have discovered how important it is to speak up for God: to fight any message preaching hatred in the name of God. To say that God hates someone feels to me to be the most Un-Christian thing someone could claim. It is still going on today.
In part, my understanding was affected by a couple in Chatham for whom I conducted a same sex marriage, my first and only so far. I expected it to seem strange, but it was a very loving experience: a real marriage, in every sense of the word.
My outrage at the Evangelical “God Hates Gays” movement, combined with my experience of real people wanting to get married and live their lives in a hostile society, motivated me to serve on the two Ottawa Presbytery committees that led Ottawa Presbytery to become an Affirming Ministry of the United Church. That means that the Presbytery is a self-declared welcoming safe space for members of the LGBTQ community. That process taught me a great deal, and I am still learning to this day.
We, here at Knox, had already had our debate about same sex-marriage. At the time, I’d been asked to perform such a marriage, and since we had no policy I had to refuse. I used that opportunity to ask the congregation to decide where it stood. I was very pleased to see the welcoming outcome, but I was even more pleased with the discussion itself. My assumptions that the young would be in favour and the older members would be opposed was seriously challenged, to my great delight!
And when the chance to be part of the Pride Parade came along I decided to attend. I have a previous blog post about what that was like. I encourage you to read it, it wasn’t a totally easy experience. In the several parades I’ve joined, I made a point to wear my clergy collar, which many of my colleagues didn’t. (I am pleased to note that in 2018, most of us were wearing our clergy identity openly).
Over the years being obvious clergy in a Pride Parade has made me the target of challenges: people who were prepared to walk with me and debate for blocks; and a few people who have shown open hostility to me. More importantly, though, I have become the recipient of the heartfelt thanks of so many people who have felt rejected and excluded by the church and maybe even by God; people who were just standing at the side of the road, watching the parade who felt moved to say that they appreciated seeing clergy supporting them in the parade. One man summed it up this year in these words: “thank you for being welcoming,” shouted out to the whole United Church contingent.
In the end, I think that’s the message that motivates me now: the love of God for all people; the welcome of God; and the chance to stand against a message of religious hatred that tarnishes the name “Christian” in so many people’s lives.
We can offer something so much better than that, and I believe that it truly reflects the message of Christ in this 21st century world.