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Cause for celebration?

It's been 20 years since the United Church's decision to admit gays and lesbians into ministry. But the anniversary is a non-event for young people.

By David Wilson

During the annual meeting of Maritime Conference in Sackville, N.B., this spring, I chanced upon a group of young United Church musicians chatting with an older delegate. It was a perfect time to act on a hunch.

“Can any of you tell me why this summer is significant for The United Church of Canada?” I asked. Blank stares all around. I tried again. “It’s the 20th anniversary of something.” More stares. The older person flashed me a knowing smile. I cut to the chase. “It’s the 20th anniversary of the United Church’s decision to admit self-declared, practising gays and lesbians into the ordered ministry.”

“That was 20 years ago?” asked one of the musicians. “I was four years old then.” Does it figure into your understanding of the church? “I know it happened but I never think about it.” Do others your age? “Hardly anyone.”

Hunch confirmed. The 1988 decision and the turmoil that attended it may loom large in the collective memory of those of us who are old enough to have been there, but for the generation born as the drama was unfolding, it barely registers. On one hand, that’s unfortunate. The 1988 decision was a watershed moment for the United Church. An understanding of the past always helps when you’re setting a course for the future — or trying to make sense of the present. Listen closely and you’ll hear the aftershocks of 1988 still rumbling from time to time.

On the other hand, the ambivalence of young people toward the anniversary may simply mean that the ideals of 1988 are the reality of today — that young people who have grown up under the United Church’s inclusive policy on sexuality and ministry take it as a given that any qualified person who discerns a call to ministry should be allowed to become a minister. For them, The Issue has become a non-issue. Those who campaigned for that policy a generation ago should celebrate, not lament, the fact that 1988 is greeted with a shrug a generation later. It’s a dream fulfilled.

As Larry Krotz points out in his column this month, young people today are not the same as young people a generation or two ago. In the United Church this means that youth are less likely to embrace ideologies or attach labels to themselves or others. They seem to come hard-wired with a strong sense of justice, a passion for the planet and deep convictions about what it means to live in a truly inclusive community of faith. They will need to draw on all of those instincts as they confront the formidable challenges that lie ahead of them, both globally and closer to home.

The United Church’s policy on sexuality and ministry is hardly a cure-all for the world’s ills, or even for the ills of the United Church itself. But as young United Church people engage those problems — and believe me, they will — future historians will correctly point to 1988 as a turning point in the journey of the church that helped to shape them. And they will also correctly observe that the most important legacy of 1988 is not division, but hope.

As in years past, this issue of the magazine combines both July and August. When we resume monthly publishing in September, watch for stories on North Ireland’s troubled generation, and outstanding young people in the United Church. Beyond September: praying outside the box; the changing world food balance; giving church a second chance. 
Author's photo
David Wilson is the editor-publisher of The Observer.
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