6 min

Antigay Anglican activists target lesbian priest

Ottawa parish has large number of queers

UNORIGINAL SIN. Rev Linda Privitera (left) with her partner in marriage Melissa Haussman at Privitera's May 18 graduation from Episcopal Divinity School in Boston, Mass.

Canada’s reputation among queers in other countries is often that of a gay-positive and progressive nation. So it shocked and saddened one lesbian priest who came here from the United States to find that she was cast to the outer margins of her church.

After 13 years together, Rev Linda Privitera, 59, married her partner, Melissa Haussman in 2004 in Boston Massachusetts. Last November, they moved to Ottawa. Haussman, 46, teaches at Carleton. Privitera landed a gig filling in for Reverend Canon Garth Bulmer at St John the Evangelist church on Elgin St.

Bulmer has been Reverend Canon at St John’s for more than 15 years. In that time he’s seen huge changes in the social attitudes toward gay people in the church — particularly in urban congregations. In his parish, sexual orientation is a non-issue. The homophobia is not coming from his parish grassroots.

In Massachusetts, like Canada, same-sex marriage is legal. So it’s understandable that the couple expected the same treatment here.

Not so.

Whereas the US equivalent of the Anglican church has recognized gay couples and even same-sex marriage, The Anglican Church of Canada is rejecting Privitera’s church work.

In February, seven members of the Anglican Diocese in Ottawa published a letter online. It was a public statement disagreeing with Ottawa Bishop Peter Coffin’s decision to allow a lesbian priest to lead the congregation at St John’s — a congregation with a large queer component and located in the gay village — even in a temporary position.

“The Lambeth Conference, 1998, reaffirmed historic, Biblical teaching on what it means to be a sexual being and a Christian, which is faithfulness in heterosexual marriage and abstinence in singleness,” the letter said.

It also claimed that Privitera was in an “open same-gendered relationship” and that the Bishop and other local church leaders knew this. And it suggested her hiring puts at risk the church’s relationship to the worldwide Anglican Communion.

“Get real!” responds Ron Chaplin. In 1993, he was told that he was HIV-positive and went to St John’s to plan his funeral. “I was told I had three to six months to live,” says Chaplin, who is healthy and in good spirits today.

He became very active in the church. The congregation was very good to him while he was sick, he remembers. If he wasn’t in church on a Sunday, his phone would ring and people asked what they could do to lend a hand.

“It’s always been a progressive parish,” says Chaplin. He’s been very involved in his parish, and served for three years on the Diocesan task force on the implications of blessing same-sex unions. This group had a modest mandate — simply to start a dialogue over the issue. “We just wanted to break the silence. Horrible things happen to people in those places of silence and shame.”

Some people claim the Bible says homosexuality is wrong and sinful, but that’s a bogus argument, says Chaplin.

“You don’t have to have a PhD to understand what the bible says but you have to read it,” says Chaplin. “I say, read the Bible’s stories from start to finish and they’ll make sense. It just curls my hair that people use it to condemn outsiders.”

Bulmer is also supportive of same-sex issues within the church.

“It boils down to a justice and human rights issue, and to me that trumps whether or not the whole church agrees,” says Bulmer.

In contrast to many Protestant churches, which operate congregation by congregation, the Anglican Church has always operated based on consensus. When the whole structure reaches an agreement, the solution is instituted in every church.

Gay issues are being fought vigorously by some in the church, particularly African bishops. One of these is Nigerian Archbishop Peter Akinola, who is pushing to have homosexuality criminalized in his home country. And Akinola’s influence is growing in the international Anglican community, along with the influence of the religious right in the United States. Many of the US conservatives lobbying the Anglican church are not even members. But they are closely aligned with the Republican Party.

“You see these people, they go to Africa, they go to Malaysia,” says Chaplin. “They are all there with their money and power and influence and they brief other bishops on what their policies should be.”

The biggest supporter and ongoing cause of society’s homophobia continues to be the church, says Chaplin.

Next spring in Winnipeg, members of the Anglican Church of Canada will be asked to “affirm the authority and jurisdiction of any diocesan synod, with the concurrence of its bishop, to authorize the blessing of committed same sex unions.” A year later, Anglican bishops from around the world will converge for an international meeting with the Archbishop of Canterbury. On the agenda: whether gays are welcome in the church. The issue threatens to split the Anglican movement into two separate churches — one liberal, the other conservative — around the world.

A consensus seems a long way from the reality of today’s worldwide Anglican community. Even getting a consensus in Canada will be difficult as people warn that a liberal outcome could hasten a permanent schism.

Meanwhile, a lesbian priest on temporary assignment in Ottawa — though she admits she’d like to stay — has become the target of Anglican conservative activists trying to make a point.

Privitera is more saddened than angered by her situation, although her frustration is clear.

She has considered moving to other denominations that are more progressive, most notably the United Church of Canada. “But there’s a reason I am a priest rather than a minister,” Privitera says. “I fit with the denomination that I am in. I agree with [other churches] about a lot of things, but I know where I belong.” Her particular gifts have shaped her as a priest. Some might say she’s being stubborn, but she wants to be true to herself. “Besides, I’ve been a priest for 19 years, so to step into another denomination; the reality is that I would have to start at the bottom. And I’m 59.”

Privitera is the mother of three daughters, Christine, Laura and Eileen, who are 32, 34 and 35 respectively. She is three times a grandmother and says her extended family has a very open household.

She had hoped to bring some unique gifts to a Canadian con-gregation. They include the insight she’s gained as a mixed-media visual artist. “I’ve been doing quirky stuff lately,” she says. Abstract drawings are an important outlet for her. She teaches workshops on how spirituality can be reflected in art, and they have been very well received both here and in the US.

Privitera also uses body maps in her work — an intense healing exercise first done by HIV-positive women in South Africa.

“You lie down on a piece of paper or canvas and paint yourself. What we end up with is a life-size story of you that shows things other people can’t see, but have a very real and powerful effect on your life.

“One woman who did her body map has had two mastectomies, has had arthritis in her neck and in her joints, and she’s a diabetic. None of those things are really visible. But when you make a body map they become visible. One woman wanted to draw the Great Wall of China around her tumor.”

Privitera says art keeps her balanced. At her church in Boston, during the 40 days of Lent, she hung hand-dyed panels of silk over the interior of the church –creating a sort of Easter sunrise. She also hung body maps, and another art project that centred on the AIDS pandemic. And the church hung a Martin Luther King Jr banner.

“It was all about African American history and what happens to a dream deferred,” says Privitera. “These are the gifts that I wanted to bring here. We did things like that all the time.”

Privitera studied at Yale, and graduated from Episcopal Divinity School this past June. She comes highly recommended from Boston’s Episcopal Church (the US branch of the Anglican movement), where she was a rector in charge of a happy and grateful congregation.

She didn’t come here expecting special treatment of any kind and a position in the Anglican diocese was not guaranteed, but she did expect to be a candidate for a position.

“I didn’t expect to be the subject of discussion,” says Privitera. “I wanted another place to be myself and that’s been very hard to do.”

Her exclusion would be a loss for the Anglican Church, says Bulmer.

He wishes that the Canadian church would just move ahead with its own approach to same-sex issues. There’s no point being influenced by other countries because a worldwide consensus is impossible, he says.

“I think we should just go ahead and be faithful, follow our basic convictions about this and let the chips fall where they may,” says Bulmer. “If it means there is a falling off of certain parts of the church, then we’ll just have to live with that for the time being.”

Meanwhile, Privitera finds herself cast in the role of a gay activist within a church in a country that was not her own.

Her critics say things like, “all you have to do is Google her and you’ll see that she’s an activist for gay rights.” But Privitera asserts she is more than that. She has been an activist, yes, but humanitarian is a more accurate word, she says. She has worked on behalf of other groups too, including women who have been raped or victims of domestic violence, as well as African-Americans during the civil rights movement in 1964. Her priesthood has consistently been about standing up for what’s right, and being proud of her own homosexuality is just one facet of that.

“I resist being put in such a small container,” she says, clearly agitated. “My whole life is not summed up in whatever Google brings up.”