The moderator-elect of The United Church of Canada will be the first openly gay leader of a mainline Christian denomination in Canada or anywhere else, but Rev. Gary Paterson is playing down the history-making side of his election, saying he’d rather focus on the practical and spiritual challenges facing the church today.
Paterson told reporters that his sexual orientation “is something to me that seems so matter-of-fact. I will never not answer questions, but I will never be the one to say, ‘Oh, by the way, I’m an openly gay moderator or openly gay person.’
“I sure hope it is not made a central issue of my being made moderator, because I think there are huge issues we are called to address.”
Paterson was elected from a record field of 15 nominees on day six of the United Church’s General Council meeting in Ottawa. It took six rounds of voting for commissioners to decide who will lead Canada’s largest Protestant denomination for the next three years. Rev. John Young, a professor of church history at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., was on the final ballot with Paterson.
Paterson, 62, is the minister at St. Andrew’s-Wesley United in Vancouver. He has also served at Ryerson United in Vancouver, at the First United mission in the city’s impoverished Downtown Eastside and on the staff of the United Church’s British Columbia Conference. In addition to his divinity degree, he holds an MA in English from Queen’s University and has taught English at the University of British Columbia. A self-described “closet poet,” he recited a long passage of poetry by e.e. cummings during his acceptance address to General Council commissioners.
In an energetic nomination speech three days earlier, Paterson told commissioners, “Our church is in trouble, and we know it. . . . We are already living in Babylon.” He called on the church to strengthen its prophetic ministries and to collectively explore what being the United Church means in a time of diminishing membership and resources, and in a culture that is increasingly secular — even if it means putting some regular church activities on hold for a few weeks while members discuss issues and options.
Paterson made no mention of the fact that he is gay in his nomination speech. The only hint of his orientation in the biographical material handed out to commissioners was a line stating that he is married to Rev. Tim Stevenson, his partner for 30 years. Stevenson, now a Vancouver city councillor, is a trailblazer in his own right. In 1992, he became the first openly gay minister to be ordained by The United Church of Canada. Commissioners gave the couple a standing ovation when Stevenson joined Paterson on stage after the final election result was announced.
Later, with Stevenson at his side, Paterson told reporters that he believes the big news about his election is the fact that his orientation was “a non-issue” for commissioners. “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.”
Likely a more pressing problem for Paterson after he is formally installed as the United Church’s 41st moderator will be the church’s strained relations with Jewish Canadians in the wake of the General Council’s move toward adopting a report that calls for a boycott of items produced in Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank. Paterson said he had discussed the report with several rabbis in Vancouver before leaving for General Council and admitted, “I will not be well received by most of them” when he returns. “I’m hoping there will still be opportunities for dialogue. It may need to be restarted with some willingness to go a second step . . . but I think if you read what’s actually in the report rather than the headlines, you’ll see there’s a deep commitment that we’ve always had to Israel and the Jewish people.”
Moderator-elect Rev. Gary Paterson of Vancouver acknowledges a standing ovation from commissioners at the United Church’s 41st General Council meeting in Ottawa. Photo by Mike Milne
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