The Myths That Shape Us
Bri-anne Swan is a CCS graduate who recently completed her Masters thesis at St. Andrew’s College exploring the United Church of Canada’s Membership, Ministry, and Human Sexuality Statement.
In United Church circles, one only needs to say this year for most people to understand that we are talking about the 32nd General Council and the vote to accept what is known as the Membership, Ministry, and Human Sexuality (MMHS) Statement:
- That all persons, regardless of their sexual orientation, who profess faith in Jesus Christ and obedience to him, are welcome to be, or to become, full members of the United Church of Canada.
a) That all members of the United Church of Canada are eligible to be considered for ordered ministry.
b) That all Christian people are called to a lifestyle based on obedience to Jesus Christ.
c) That all congregations, presbyteries and conferences covenant to work out the implications of sexual orientation and lifestyles in light on the Holy Scriptures, according to their responsibilities as stated in the manual.
Recently, I completed a thesis as partial fulfillment of the conjoint Masters of Theological Studies degree offered through St. Andrew’s College and the Centre for Christian Studies. In this thesis I explored how the United Church of Canada came to find itself voting on the MMHS Statement at the 32nd General Council, as well the ramifications of “the decision” in the years afterwards. This was done through the lens of Marcella Althaus-Reid’s critique of Latin American Liberation Theologies (LALTs). Althaus-Reid was an Argentinian queer liberation theologian who criticized the co-opting of the liberation theology movement by the North Atlantic academy, claiming liberation theology had been made “safe” in the interest of being accessible to American and European students and book publishers. In addition, Althaus-Reid saw liberation theologians of her time speaking of “the poor” as a mythic group, presented as decent, hardworking and asexual, drawn together in heterosexual unions out of utilitarian need. She lamented LALTs not wrestling with the actual sexual realities of “the poor”.
While there is little doubt that the 32nd General Council and its adoption of the MMHS Statement was a defining moment in the history of the United Church of Canada, I suggest that this came at a great cost, and that cost was disproportionally carried by queer members — particularly queer clergy.
Even today, there is often hesitancy to critically engage with this era of United Church history. Those who identify as allies are happy to find themselves on the right side of the story. Those within queer communities, especially those who lived through the conversations leading up to the 32nd General Council, often hesitate to articulate the 1988 decision as anything other than a courageous and ground-breaking win for the church.
However, “the decision” came about only after assuring the safety of dominant United Church culture. Language describing queer members resembled the language used at the height of the AIDS crisis. Just as one cannot contract HIV from sitting on the same toilet seat as infected person, documents presented for study to GC32 commissioners insisted that congregants would not become gay simply by being in the presence of a queer preacher. Children would not grow up gay from exposure to a gay youth group leader. There was no discussion of how engaging with queer clergy might be a gift, perhaps even a partial means through which to more fully understand one’s complex sexuality.
In addition, homosexual United Church members were consistently presented as being capable of long term, stable, monogamous relationships. This is true, of course. However, is this the only gauge of healthy and holy relationships? Particularly in the context of the 1980s, where legal marriage was not accessible to those in same-sex partnerships, and only 10% of Canadians stated they “approved” of homosexuality (according to a 1987 national poll from Environics Analytics), it seems strange to measure the legitimacy of relationships against a standard that society (and the church) had actively worked against for queer communities. I suggest, presenting the most heteronormative version of homosexual relationships possible was used to make the dominant United Church culture feel safe enough to vote in favour of the MMHS Statement — which only reaffirmed the Basis of Union. Every candidate still needed to be affirmed by their congregation, presbytery and conference. Any one of those courts of the church could deny a queer candidate.
In the immediate aftermath of the decision, an enormous amount of time and resources were spent in trying to mitigate a split within the church and placate those within groups such as the Community of Concern through meetings and attempts at dialogue. However, I found no evidence of the same resources being utilized in support of gay clergy, many of whom found themselves in positions where they were being “outed” or asked to assist their congregations in expressing dissent over “the decision”. This was a dangerous time, with threats of violence towards queer communities and the newly elected Moderator. The safety and wellbeing of gay clergy and candidates was secondary to maintaining unity and working with those who felt angry and betrayed by the church.
Yet, in not so many years after the 1988 decision, the United Church, which had spent decades blocking the ordination of queer clergy, started to use its “openness” and “inclusivity” as marketing points within a crowded Canadian denominational landscape—a means to differentiate “us” from “them”, despite the fact that very few United Churches, even by the late 1990s, would hire an openly gay minister.
As I researched and worked on this thesis, I found myself at times very angry. I was angry for my friends who were present through the 1988 decision and what they had to endure to be accepted by the church they loved. I was angry at how the original recommendations to Sessional Committee 8, which were far more robust and affirming, were simplified into a single statement that provided other courts within the church the “out” they needed to continue with the status quo if they wished to (although, by GC33, a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy was accepted by commissioners). I was angry that the United Church uses queer inclusion as a marketing strategy to attract new members or make ourselves feel good that we are not “like those other hateful Christians”, and yet large Affirming churches in major urban centres still usually hire self-identifying cis-straight clergy. I was angry that in every timeline the United Church publishes outlining its involvement with queer inclusion, anti-racism, and Right Relationship with Indigenous peoples, the timelines only list when the church finally got it right, not all the times before when people were excluded until the dominant church culture felt safe enough to open the doors a little bit more. Perhaps this is the cost of working towards justice? But if so, I believe that cost needs to be named and acknowledged.
And so, I am reminded, as a diaconal minister committed to seeking justice and resisting evil—within society, within the church, and within myself—that the stories we tell have power, and sometimes those stories shift into powerful myths that are part of creating our own self-identity. Without negating the power of the 1988 decision, and all the important strides that have come since, I am hopeful that, moving forward, I will always be wondering and questioning “What was the cost for this decision…
…and who ultimately bore it?”