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A sanctuary of their own

A Toronto congregation is providing space for two female priests to do what Catholics won’t allow: lead worship

By Luc Rinaldi

On first glance, the afternoon’s Catholic mass looks unremarkable. White stoles, chalice, the Book of the Gospels — they’re all there. But then, hidden in the routine refrains and familiar prayers of the mid-November service, hints of rebellion emerge. “Dear brothers” becomes “dear sisters,” a description of the Last Supper includes women and, most astonishingly, the three celebrants of the mass are female.

Perched behind an altar and flanked by a congregation of no more than 40, Bishop Marie Bouclin of Sudbury, Ont., asks Rev. Roberta Fuller and Rev. Catherine O’Connor to renew their priestly vows (they were ordained in 2011 and 2013, respectively) as she officially installs their small, months-old community, the Church of the Beatitudes. The renewal of vows — in fact, being ordained in the first place — is in clear defiance of the Roman Catholic Church, which only ordains men. It’s no wonder they’re not holding the service in a Catholic church.

Instead, they’re inside Emmanuel-Howard Park United, an 87-year-old church that sits in Toronto’s west end, sandwiched between two Catholic parishes. “It’s like no man’s land,” Fuller says. (“Emphasis on the man, too,” O’Connor quips.) Since last June, the congregation has provided a space for the pair’s controversial church to celebrate mass twice a month. “We are very small, but it’s growing,” Fuller says. “Rome was not built in a day.”

To Fuller and O’Connor, and to many others who might not otherwise have a place to call home, Emmanuel-Howard Park is the true definition of a sanctuary. When the women priests were searching for an open-minded, accepting space to practise their faith, the church and its pastor, Rev. Anne Hines, kept popping up.

Hines herself was drawn to Emmanuel-Howard Park for the same reasons. As a gay woman and the mother of a transgendered daughter, she identified with the church’s inclusivity (one stained glass window commemorates a late choir leader who was trans). “It was the way that this congregation seemed to ask, ‘What does love look like now?’” says Hines. “It was sort of breathtaking.”

To Hines, welcoming the Church of the Beatitudes is part of that inclusive mission, even though doing so has attracted criticism. In addition to being shunned by the official Catholic Church — “From our perspective, they are in no way affiliated with the Church,” an Archdiocese of Toronto spokesperson told the Toronto Star — Fuller and O’Connor have been ostracized by fellow Catholics and even family members. Hines, too, has fielded grievances from irritated Catholics and Protestants alike, and the decision has fractured Emmanuel-Howard Park’s once-budding relationship with its neighbouring Catholic churches, which, Hines says, has “been something of a sadness.” But, she adds, there was no question whether it was the right thing to do. “It’s in keeping with The United Church of Canada. It’s not the first time, by any means, that the church has done things that are unpopular because that’s what we thought God’s love looked like.”

Back at the afternoon mass, parishioner Rob Rose is among the participants. He isn’t a Catholic, but he’s seated in the front pew. The son of United Church missionaries, he left the church early in his life, unsure he belonged as a gay man without any strongly held beliefs. When he discovered Emmanuel-Howard Park a decade ago, he felt welcomed for who he was. He’s been a regular attendee at the Catholic services and sees his congregation’s partnership with the Church of the Beatitudes as a beacon of ecumenism. “Christians are pretty good at dividing themselves off from each other. Any time I see people trying to tear down the walls between Christian groups, I think that’s a good thing,” he says. “Christian unity is being born here.”

Luc Rinaldi is a journalist in Toronto.

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