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Topics In the News
United Church of Canada Elects Gay Leader
Posted by: Claude J. Summers on 08/17/12
Last updated on: 08/17/12
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Reverend Gary Paterson.

On April 16, 2012, Reverend Gary Paterson was elected leader of Canada's largest Protestant denomination, the United Church of Canada. After six ballots and almost eight hours of voting, Paterson was confirmed as Moderator. He is thought to be the first openly gay head of a mainstream Christian denomination.

As Don Butler reports in the Ottawa Citizen, Paterson emerged from a field of fifteen candidates. After he received a majority of the votes on the sixth ballot, the commissioners of the 41st General Council greeted the announcement with cheers and a prolonged standing ovation. It was then moved and enthusiastically supported that the vote for Paterson be made unanimous.

The Moderator is the presiding officer at meetings of the church's General Council and executive committee, and is viewed as the denomination's principal spokesperson. On Saturday, Paterson will be formally installed in the role for a three-year term.

Paterson has served as minister of three Vancouver churches: First United, in the city's Downtown Eastside; Ryerson United, a large suburban congregation; and St. Andrew's-Wesley, a cathedral-like church in Vancouver's downtown, where he currently presides.

Paterson is married to Tim Stevenson, who was the first openly gay minister ordained in the United Church and who currently serves on the Vancouver City Council. They have been partners for thirty years. After the election results were announced, Stevenson joined Paterson on the dias and the two embraced as attendees cheered and applauded.

The United Church of Canada, which came into being in 1925 through a merger of four previously independent denominations, has been instrumental in the increased acceptance of glbtq rights, including same-sex marriage, in Canada.

In the last few decades, the Church's stance on homosexuality has evolved from condemnation to acceptance. From considering homosexuality sinful, it has moved to celebrating it as a gift of God. This stance is sharply divergent from the conservative--sometimes blatantly homophobic--positions of most evangelical denominations in the United States and Canada.

The United Church is a significant presence in all parts of Canada except rural Quebec. Some 3 million Canadians--about 10% of the population--now identify the United Church as their religious affiliation, though the Church reports only 700,000 confirmed members, and regular attendees of United Church services number only 250,000. Historically, the United Church membership has been as high as 25% of Canadians.

The Church has been influential beyond its numbers. Although it has never been the "state church of Canada," its founding was recognized and legitimated by an Act of Parliament and it has been widely appreciated as a uniquely Canadian institution. Many prominent Canadians, from renowned Prime Minister Lester Pearson to acclaimed literary critic Northrop Frye, have been members of the United Church.

The United Church was the first mainstream Church in Canada to allow the ordination of gay ministers. In 1988, the church's General Council declared that everyone who professes faith in Jesus Christ, regardless of sexual orientation, was welcome in the Church, and all members are "eligible to be considered for ordered ministry."

The culmination of the Church's embrace of homosexuals came in 2000, when the General Council affirmed that human sexual orientations--homosexual no less than heterosexual--are "a gift of God and part of the marvelous diversity of creation."

In 2000, the General Council also resolved to work toward the civil recognition of same-sex partnerships. In response, many congregations began to record the commitment ceremonies of same-sex couples in their marriage registers and to forward these registrations to provincial governments for licensing.

During the national debate on making same-sex marriage legal throughout Canada, officials of the United Church lobbied in favor of the legislation, vigorously countering the claims of evangelical and Roman Catholic Churches that same-sex marriage was "unChristian."

At a news conference following his election, Paterson said that he was heartened that his sexuality had been a non-issue with those who voted for the new Moderator. "What some denominations or some parts of the world see as a huge dilemma or problem has not, within our immediate community here, been seen that way at all."

He added that having an openly gay person as Moderator may be helpful to many young people "who may still be struggling with their orientation being able to look up and see role models," though he acknowledged that for some denominations, his election "will be problematic. . . . I think we need to be in dialogue, that my very presence will in some ways force the issue."

Paterson takes office at a difficult time for the United Church, which, like many mainstream denominations, is dealing with a steep decline in membership, aging congregations and ministers, and an accelerating financial crisis.

At his news conference, Paterson addressed the Church's difficulties. "I've heard from so many individuals that they're worried or they're feeling a lack of hope," he said. "The role of the moderator is someone who can bring inspiration and hope. We will find our way through. We will be changed and we will be faithful."

In the video below, Reverend Gary Paterson speaks with the press after his election as Moderator of the United Church of Canada.

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