Tag Archives: Metropolitan Community Church

Gays & The United Church Part 1

In preparation for a presentation at Knox United Church in May, the Calgary Gay History Project dove into learning about the struggles the United Church of Canada had in coming to terms with sexual orientation. The United Church through its history has been a leader in a number of progressive issues, where other Christian denominations have remained resistant to social change. Grappling with homosexuality proved a difficult and divisive challenge for the United Church, and there were several twists and turns in their journey.

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Knox United Church in Calgary Celebrated 10 Years as an Affirming Congregation in May 2017.

One of the first stirrings of the issue happened in 1965 with Pierre Berton’s publication of The Comfortable Pew: A Critical Look at Christianity and the Religious Establishment on the New Age. He brought up the issue of homosexuality and the church, noting the omission of homosexuality from clergy conversation and sermons. He described the homosexual then, as the modern equivalent of the leper. In Calgary, this idea made news when an Anglican Minister, inspired by the book, called for an embrace of homosexuals in his congregation.

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It also generated an article that year in the United Church Observer, the Church’s monthly magazine, which stated that homosexuals should be warmly welcomed by congregations and that some same-sex relationships be given a church blessing. The article generated a significant amount of alarm amongst the clergy.

This issue at the United Church simmered in the background for a decade. In the meantime, Canadian society was changing rapidly.  Decriminalization of homosexuality passed in Parliament in 1969. The gay-centred Metropolitan Community Church movement had begun and by 1977 there were congregations in six Canadian cities, including Calgary.

In the late 70s, a United Church task force on human sexuality was commissioned, headed by a Calgarian: Reverend Jim Hillson. Their finding was that “sexual expression is appropriate when it occurs in the context of a loving and committed relationship – for both heterosexuals and homosexuals.” A United Church Observer editorial shot down the finding and promised contention at the General Council – the Church’s highest court. And it was true.

In 1980, the 28th General Council convened in Halifax, Nova Scotia. The report debated at the meeting, In God’s Image… Male and Female was two years in the making. The 103-page document recommended considering the ordination of homosexuals.  It also suggested that sex outside the institution of marriage could be acceptable under certain circumstances.  One delegate called it: “the most dangerous and misleading document to come before the church in my lifetime.” Church headquarters also received hundreds of letters overwhelmingly opposed to the report, yet the majority of the General Council approved it – but only as a study document.

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The issue began to polarize the United Church and preoccupy the next few General Councils. Two internal lobbying groups organized: AFFIRM, a newly formed 200-member organization of homosexual congregants and clergy; and the Renewal Fellowship, a 3,000 member grouping of the Church’s conservative wing, founded in 1965, who vociferously argued against the ordination of homosexuals. An informal survey conducted by the Renewal Fellowship in British Columbia showed that 45% of church administrators would leave their church if a homosexual minister was assigned there.

A passionate debate was heard on the issue at the 30th General Council in 1984 held in Morden, Manitoba. There, the recommendation to allow the ordination of “self-declared” homosexuals was overwhelmingly rejected. Ironically, the Church suspected that 10% of its clergy were already homosexual whether or not they were out about it. Consequently, the Council also resolved to begin an extensive 4-year study on “the nature of sexual orientation and practice.”

Interestingly, the homosexual ordination vote failed to satisfy either lobby group. Reverend Morley Clarke, of the Renewal Fellowship, argued that the Council failed to ban homosexual ordination outright, allowing for non-declared homosexuals to serve. He explained: “There is going to be a lot of anger about this issue.  The church at the grassroots has spoken unequivocally on this issue. They have done everything in their power to say ‘no.'” Meanwhile, Reverend Eilert Frerichs, spokesman for AFFIRM and disappointed in the decision, called it a stalemate rather than a setback.  He said: “The decision closed the door to any potential witchhunts, and we were terrified that might happen.”

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Eilert Frerichs of AFFIRM from Maclean’s Magazine, May 28, 1984. Photo: Brian Willer

In Part 2, next week, we will explore what happened in 1988, when the 4-year study was concluded: arguably the most explosive year for the United Church in its history.

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Before Gay Marriage in YYC

The Metropolitan Community Church was founded by Reverend Troy Perry in Los Angeles in 1968 and the movement grew quickly, addressing a pent-up demand in the gay community for spiritual services. Within a decade there were congregations all over North America including six in Canada: Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver, Ottawa, Toronto, and Montreal.

The Calgary MCC Church began in September 1977, with the arrival of Reverend Lloyd Greenway from Toronto. Church services were initially held Sunday Evenings at the Unitarian Church on 16 Ave. NW. Then in June 1978, MCC Calgary services moved to the Backlot, a 150-seat theatre at the back of a gay bar named Myrt’s at the corner of 9th Ave. and 7th St. SW. Sunday morning services at the Backlot commenced at 11:30 and a typical congregation would have about 20 parishioners, swelling to 50 or more when a celebrated MCC minister came to town. Troy Perry himself led the Calgary Sunday morning service on February 18, 1979.

Reverend Greenway proved to be a polarizing figure in the Calgary community, known for both his personal charm and charisma, as well as his unorthodox personal life. However, he became a leading figure in the community and a go-to commentator regarding gay issues in Calgary media.

In July 1978, Reverend Greenway conducted Calgary’s first MCC Holy Union between Bruce Grant and Russ Raymond. The two young men gathered their friends and families at the Unitarian Church to witness their marriage-like ceremony – 27 years before same-sex marriage would be legal in Alberta.

The Calgary Gay History Project recently interviewed Russ about this landmark event. He explained that at the time they did not care about the legality of the service, rather they were very interested in making a spiritual connection as a couple. Russ added that he loved the excitement of that day.

Although their relationship lasted but two years, their Holy Union was groundbreaking in its day. Russ has donated his Holy Union Certificate and photos of that day to the Calgary Gay History Project Archives.  Thank you, Russ, for sharing your story with us!

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Calgary Chamber of Hostility

The Calgary Chamber of Commerce is one of the city’s oldest institutions – 125 years old this year!  In 1981, it was the regular meeting place of the Knights of the Round Table: a group that has met weekly in Calgary since 1925. The Knights promote learning through discourse, typically inviting a guest speaker of historical or contemporary interest, and then peppering the speaker with questions.

On September 15th, 1981, the questions got more aggressive than usual. The invited speaker was Reverend Lloyd Greenway, from the Metropolitan Community Church (MCC), a predominantly gay church and at that time one of seven MCC congregations in Canada. The pastor spoke to the approximately 70 gathered Knights about MCC but the questions afterwards turned hostile.

74-year old, local historian, James H. Gray, stood up and asked Greenway: “Do you sodomize?”  The stunned pastor delivered a clever rejoinder, “I’m a Calgarian, not a Sodomite.”  The undeterred Gray rephrased his question: “Do you do buggery?”

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Photo source: Nov 6, 1981 edition of the Alberta Report

The meeting chair determined that the questions were not out of order; Greenway was left dangling and the event came to an awkward end. Ed Wolf, who chaired the speakers’ committee and had invited Greenway, was incensed. A 25-year veteran of the club and prominent oil industry geologist, Wolf tendered his resignation one week later.

“Free speech was not well served by the unprecedented and hypocritical handling,” Wolf wrote in his letter to the Knights’ executive, demanding that they apology to Greenway. Wolf was a founding member of the Calgary Civil Liberties Association and the Unitarian Church of Calgary.  He likely first met Greenway there, as MCC services were hosted at the Unitarian Church, which is still located at 16th ave and 1st St. NW.

Greenway had come from MCC Toronto in 1977 to start MCC Calgary.  Back in Toronto many years later, Greenway became a subject of renowned Canadian filmmaker Allan King, in the 2003 documentary, Dying at Grace. The sad and highly praised film follows Greenway in his final days, suffering from inoperable brain cancer in the palliative care unit of the Toronto Grace Hospital.

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