It was anything but a normal service at the Metropolitan Church of Toronto on Sunday.
On Feb 1, 2016, the previous Monday, congregants learned that their pastor of 38 years, Brent Hawkes, had been criminally charged with gross indecency and indecent assault dating back almost four decades. This would be his first public appearance since the charges became public.
During the 11am service on Feb 7, the second of three that day, the pews were packed. Current and former elected officials from all three levels of governments were present: Liberal MP Bill Blair, former NDP MPs Olivia Chow and Craig Scott, NDP MPP Peter Tabuns and Toronto Councillor Paula Fletcher. Cameras lined the wings of the sanctuary.
But before the service even began, Hawkes walked out in his emerald-green vestments and briefly turned the pulpit into a press conference podium.
“I want to be clear. I am innocent of these accusations,” he said, reading from a prepared statement. “I have faith that will sustain me as well as faith in Canada’s justice system.”
But Hawkes was not willing to comment further, instead saying that his lawyers will give him voice.
“I really wish I could say more. But everything I have to say now will be said in court,” he said.
Anne Brayley, the chair of the board for MCC Toronto, also read her own prepared remarks.
“In our judicial system, people are innocent until proven otherwise,” she said to applause. “We support the man who has been an inspirational leader and rock of our church and our community for 38 years.”
After that, the media filed away and the service began in earnest.
Prayers were said and hymns were sung. Throughout, the congregation’s love and support for Hawkes was evident. The applause was loud after he spoke. The singing was passionate. Some could be seen wiping away tears.
Hawkes recalled previous times that the church had been at the centre of controversy.
“On January the 14, 2001, we faced threats,” Hawkes said, referencing the day he performed Canada’s first same-sex marriage. “So I had to dust off my bulletproof vest, had bodyguards. We faced amazing scrutiny by media.”
Kevin Bourassa and Joe Varnell, the couple that Hawkes wed in 2001, were present in the church. So was Alana Bridgewater, who sang on the day of that marriage service. She sang again this Sunday.
“I stand with Brent, I stand with this congregation. And I really, really, really mean that,” she said, before singing “Sound Over All Waters.”
At one point, Hawkes went off-script and urged his congregation to use “careful language.”
“We need to use careful words when we describe people we may be angry at,” he said. “Because you don’t know if there’s someone sitting near you who needs to speak up.”
“And as you say you love me, be gentle in the words you use to describe others so no one will feel intimidated,” he continued. “I would be horrified if part of the result of your love for me was to discourage people who may be near you or hear you who have things that they need to say about their workplaces or their relationships.”
Hawkes, and the other speakers, were also careful with their language. The specific allegations that Hawkes is facing were only ever alluded to.
“We pray for and are emotionally supportive of all people who are affected by this issue, as we have always stood up for the rights of individuals,” Brayley said.
After the anointing of the eucharist and the singing had come to an end, Hawkes got up to the pulpit one last time, obviously exhausted.
“We did it,” he said, as the service ended. He was given a standing ovation.