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Photo by Merle Robillard

Interview with Rev. Brent Hawkes

The minister of Toronto’s Metropolitan Community Church presided over the state funeral for Jack Layton last summer. He recently spoke to The Observer.

By Ken Gallinger

Suppose I’ve never heard of Metropolitan Community Church. What do I need to know?

A MCC was founded in 1968 in California. Troy Perry was a Pentecostal minister, kicked out of his church because he was gay. He felt the call of God to start a church that would be predominantly gay and lesbian . . . a safe place for them to worship. The church had a focus on three things: spirituality, community and social justice. People from Toronto heard about it, wrote a letter to L.A. and said, “We want a church like that.” So the congregation was born. We now have over 200 churches in over 20 countries; Toronto is the largest.

Q Your website describes Metropolitan Community Church as “an essential, life-affirming link in the chain of gay and lesbian identity.” To what extent is that still the tie that binds?

A Most MCC churches are 95 percent gay or lesbian. In Toronto, we say we have a special ministry but not an exclusive ministry. We come out of the gay and lesbian community, but we have heterosexual members and staff.

Q Many United Churches trumpet their inclusive or “affirming” ministries. You’re not the only game in town anymore. Does that change things?

A Even though the United Church has a wonderful record, you can still go to many congregations that aren’t affirming. About 50 percent of our members are former Roman Catholics, and we haven’t seen any progress there — in fact, the Catholic Church is going backwards. We also get people from evangelical backgrounds.

Q Have many of your members bailed on other churches?

A Yes, for a variety of reasons. Many were kicked out, and many were bored out.

Q Kicked out because they were gay, and bored out because those churches were like every other church?

A That’s right. I have to be careful when I say this, because I sound judgmental. But while there are more inclusive churches, most are boring. Many of our people left when they were teenagers and came back in their 30s or 40s. So if churches are going to grow, they have to reach out to adults who’ve given up.

Q You’ve had success with that. You’re meeting in a former United Church building, sold off as redundant. There’s no parking anywhere. The building is, forgive me, downright shabby. Yet 500-plus people cram in here every Sunday. What are you doing right?

A A lot of things. When young people were asked what they think of church, 91 percent said the first word they think of is “anti-homosexual.” Then “boring,” “judgmental,” “too political.” Fundamentalism has hijacked Christianity, but the United Church has become basically silent — we never hear anything from them anymore on social justice issues. As churches decline, the first thing they do is lay off social justice staff — youth workers, gay workers, poverty workers. So the church becomes less and less visible.

It’s also a leadership issue. The United Church made a terrible mistake a few years ago in de-emphasizing the role of clergy. It was a huge mistake in terms of leadership in congregations, and in [the church’s] presence in the world. I wear my collar and my rainbow cross wherever I go. When my partner and I walk around the city, we hold hands. When people see a collar and two men holding hands, we have created a presence in the community. People come up and talk, ask questions and so on. But where are the United Church clergy? They are invisible, and their role in the local congregation is no longer leadership. It’s this thing called “enabling”!

Church growth is all about leadership; when you study churches that are growing, regardless of denomination, the number-one factor is the visionary leadership of their senior pastor. That’s where the United Church is failing.

Q Your website says, “There are many paths to God, and one of them is Christianity.” Don’t you want to say something stronger than “one of them is Christianity”?

A No! Absolutely not!

Q Come on, Brent. Are all paths equal?

A We didn’t say that. We say there are many paths, and we’re not comparing them. There’s no need to play the game of “We’re better than you are.” There are areas where Christianity can rightfully hold its head high. In other areas it can’t. Some other paths are honourable. We say, “Pick a path. Go deep on that path. Respect the other paths and try to learn from them.” People want individual growth, and they want a community with some traditions. But they don’t want dogma. We’re growing because we’re an umbrella under which different people can wrestle with questions together.

Q Nowhere, in any of your material, is there a word about sin or redemption. Nowhere are people told Jesus died for their sins.

A No. And I don’t believe it. The concept of an angry God needing Jesus to die so He could feel good about people again — what kind of a God is that?

Q But, Brent, it’s in the Bible.

A Yeah, the Bible also says you’re supposed to bash babies’ heads against a tree. Jesus is our Saviour — but that means someone who turns us toward God. Jesus is our teacher, guide and example. But Christianity is not the “religion about Jesus.” It’s the religion Jesus taught about. Jesus never intended to start a religion. He would be horrified that we’ve made Christianity about him — rather than about what he taught.

Q I want to ask about your Sunday worship. I see, for example, on your website that you audition lay readers. What if someone is not a gifted reader? Can’t they read?

A Not on Sunday morning. They get to do other things. I don’t play the piano on Sunday because I’m a lousy pianist. Everyone has different gifts, and people should do what they’re good at.

Q Isn’t there a danger some people will feel excluded because of that approach?

A The biggest problem with exclusion in liturgy is the hymns. When you force people to sing, and they get to a line like “I have decided to follow Jesus” — well, maybe they haven’t. How do they opt out? We have a lot of work to do with our hymns to catch them up to our theology. But in general, our music is dynamic, exciting, wonderful! One theologian said, “It’s more important what people feel when they leave church than what they think.” If they feel good, they’ll come back, and over time gather up their theology. Less than five percent of North Americans buy classical music, yet most church music programs are based on the classical European style. Again: boring. Our guideline here is diversity in music — as in everything else.

Q Where do we find “vision” for growing the church into the future?

A Again, leadership. I imagine myself carrying a basket, going around and gathering up the vision. I go to church growth conferences, and it’s me, the fundamentalists, a couple of evangelical Anglicans — no United Church folk anywhere. Church growth is about how you welcome people, integrate people, value people.

After Jack Layton’s service, I received hundreds of e-mails. Many said, “I didn’t realize there was a church like this.” The church, at its best, challenges people to think broadly, be more forgiving, be more engaged in society. I’m aching for more of that kind of church for the people of Canada. I believe, absolutely, that the Christian message is good news — and I want people to have the option of choosing that.

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