Murray has story-Sunnybrook United Church minister Linda Ervin in the sanctuary.

Churches move towards inclusivity

In stark contrast to the notion held by some that homosexuality has no place in religion, some local churches have been doing their part to tack towards inclusivity.

In stark contrast to the notion held by some that homosexuality has no place in religion, some local churches have been doing their part to tack towards inclusivity.

Biblical interpretation has been central to the United Church of Canada’s beliefs of inclusiveness, regardless of race, disability and sexuality.

When churches across the country rallied against the Civil Marriage Act, which made same-sex marriage legal in Canada, the United Church embraced it.

Since 1988, the United Church has allowed openly gay people to become reverends. More recently, they started the Affirming Ministry program, which allows churches to openly promote the universality of their acceptance of homosexuality.

Lacombe’s St. Andrew’s United Church became the first church in Central Alberta to become part of the Affirming Ministry program.

But, without the label, local churches have made efforts to open their doors as well.

Rev. Linda Ervin, lead minister for Sunnybrook United Church in Red Deer, has performed a same-sex marriage, not in her church, but she said she had no resistance from her congregation to do so.

“There was no problem and I don’t think there would be a problem to do a wedding in the sanctuary,” said Ervin.

Rev. Jeff Rock, lead minister for Gaetz United Church in Red Deer, said the faith side of their interpretation looks at context as well as content when it comes to scripture.

“The United Church of Canada takes scripture very seriously, but not necessarily literally,” said Rock.

Rock said some denominations would cite Leviticus to point to the very specific wording regarding homosexuality.

“Leviticus was a morality code written 3,000 plus years ago,” said Rock.

“You have a Bedouin nomadic people settling into communities for the first time who wrote this morality code. Women menstruate once a month, therefore that’s the impure time for them.

“Most animals have non-cloven feet, but pigs have cloven feet therefore they’re the abnormal ones. Most fish have scales; some things in the water are shellfish so they are abnormal and we probably shouldn’t eat them.

“We’ve grown in our sense of God over our 3,000 plus years.”

This understanding involves more of a contextual-based look at what the Bible does say.

“Sometimes it’s very easy to go to the Bible as a how-to manual,” said Rock.

“It’s a lot more difficult to sit there and wrestle with questions and say ‘That is their context, this is our context, what does that mean?’ It’s not the easy route, but we feel it is very much the just route.”

This line of reasoning is in stark contrast to other churches, denominations and religions who have taken a literal approach to the interpretation of elements of scripture.

“We can use scripture in a lot of ways to harm one another, but I think the essence of God is that we are to love one another. Respect and honour each other,” said Ervin.

“That’s what I believe and that’s how I’ve been about my ministry.”

When the federal government passed legislation making same-sex marriage legal in 2006, the congregation at Gaetz United chose to allow those types of marriage to take place at the church.

Recently, the United Church nationally chose to make an effort to be more accepting of transgender people, another step in the inclusiveness tenet that has defined the church.

“Currently there are three transgender ministers in the United Church of Canada,” said Rock.

“We’ve changed the wording on our policies to include discrimination against trans-people as being unacceptable.”

Decisions like these are done at the national level, but are made in consultation with the member churches.

By design, the United Church has a bottom-up foundation where the ministry takes its direction from the congregation.

This is what led St. Andrew’s in Lacombe to become an Affirming Ministry. Sunnybrook came close to blazing this trail in Central Alberta, but Lacombe became the first in the region.

“The council just wasn’t ready and you have to have your governing board ready to do that,” said Ervin. “There are a lot of people who are very supportive, but we aren’t an affirming ministry and don’t put up the rainbow flag.”

The discussions surrounding becoming an affirming ministry took place prior to Ervin’s arrival. Rev. Paul Mullen, her predecessor, had made some strides on the affirming path.

“In that time, they weren’t ready to make the decision even when Paul was providing that great leadership. The ideas, perceptions and fears were all acknowledged and I think overcome,” said Ervin. “There is a level of comfort and there is a level of awareness.”

Ervin said there are a few gay people within her congregation.

This year, the United Church of Canada general council, a denomination-wide gathering, elected their first openly gay man, Gary Paterson, as their moderator, the presiding leader of the church.

“Some people didn’t realize Gary was gay until he asked his partner to join him on stage and then up goes Tim,” said Ervin. “People went ‘Oh, we just elected a gay moderator, isn’t that great.’ ”

But the United Church wasn’t always accepting of gays and lesbians.

Ervin was on the general council in 1990 when there were numerous petitions to rescind the 1988 motion on inclusion.

“There was no lobbying, there was conversation. Talking and talking this through,” said Ervin.

“What I do recall is all of us coming to one mind that we need to maintain the decision of 1988 and to move forward.”

Although there was a national decision to be accepting of gays and lesbians, there still has to be acceptance at the congregational level.

“So many gays and lesbians have been battered by various religious groups, and the United Church is not an exception,” said Ervin. “My ministry has always been about hospitality and welcome.”

mcrawford@bprda.wpengine.com

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