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The legacy of ’88

Like it or not, the great sexuality debate was the most significant turning point in the church’s history

By David Wilson

The spring of 1988 was hot and dry in Alberta. Smoke from forest fires raging in the northern part of the province turned the sky above the pleasant Prairie town of Camrose an eerie shade of orange.

You might have thought the smoke was billowing from the gymnasium at Camrose Lutheran College. Inside, 450 exhausted people at the annual meeting of Alberta and Northwest Conference were debating an issue that was shaking The United Church of Canada to the core: whether its General Council, meeting in Victoria that summer, should open the church’s ordered ministry to self-declared gays and lesbians.

The atmosphere in the gymnasium was incendiary. Tempers flared and accusations flew. I had only recently joined the staff of this magazine, and frankly I was shocked to see people who called themselves followers of Jesus Christ behaving so badly. It was hardly a comfort to learn from colleagues that the same bitter divisions were happening elsewhere in the United Church.

The years I have worked for this magazine have roughly matched the years the United Church has lived with the aftermath of the great sexuality debate of 1988 and the groundbreaking decisions of that summer’s General Council. A lot of the reporting I have done or overseen has related in one way or another to the legacy of The Issue. The exodus of thousands of members after 1988 accelerated a decline in numbers and finances that continues to plague the church to this day. The uproar left a church that was worn out, timid and inward-looking. At the same time, 1988 started a conversation that transcended sexuality issues, asking members to think about the kind of United Church they wanted in years to come: A church that drew boundaries around itself? Or a genuinely inclusive church committed to breaking down barriers inside and outside its sanctuaries?

In hindsight, it’s now clear that 1988 was a revolution waiting to happen, a case of the church catching up to changes that were taking place in society anyway. The abhorrent law that made homosexuality a crime in Canada had been stricken from the books two decades earlier. The gay rights movement here and elsewhere was well established and making gains on many fronts. Most politicians were coming around to the idea that the freedom to express one’s sexual orientation was not a moral issue but a fundamental human right. The policies and practices that made it possible for the courts of the United Church to reject would-be ministers who were openly lesbian or gay were increasingly out of step with the times. Moreover, they were out of step with the United Church’s own ethos: How could a church with a long history of preaching inclusivity exert any kind of moral authority when it practised discrimination within its own ranks?

In the end, the United Church decided to be true to itself. Today, 25 years later, gay and lesbian ministers are, for the most part, comfortably integrated into the life of the church, doing what ministers have always done: leading, inspiring, teaching, comforting. Last summer, the United Church elected its 41st moderator, and it barely mattered that he is gay. What was unthinkable in the turmoil of 1988 is normal 25 years later.

That’s why we’re examining the legacy of 1988 this month. Whether you regard the great sexuality debate as the worst of times or the United Church’s finest hour, there is no disputing that it was the most significant turning point in the church’s history. Revisiting 1988 may bring back difficult memories for some, but we can’t pretend it didn’t happen. The United Church today is living proof that it did.
Author's photo
David Wilson is the editor-publisher of The Observer.
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