7 min

Gay United Church moderator speaks

Newly elected Gary Paterson discusses Israel, oil and the future of the church

Paterson survived six ballots to emerge victorious over Reverend John Young. Credit: Source:
Openly gay Reverend Gary Paterson of Vancouver was elected moderator of the United Church of Canada Aug 17 after six rounds of voting at the 41st General Council, held at Ottawa’s Carleton University. Paterson spoke with Xtra after his victory about faith, how he will bring the church into the future, and hot-button issues voting members contemplated this past week.

Xtra: Congratulations on your victory. What was your initial reaction when you realized you had won?

Gary Paterson: I was humbled by the responsibility and trust that this community of people have placed with me. I’m just so glad to be in partnership with them so that we do the work that faces us and needs to be done. I’m excited and scared at the same time.
Why was it important for you to seek this candidacy?
I have a passion for the United Church. I feel that the United Church offers a voice and a particular interpretation of the Christian tradition and faith that is important for not only the wider world but for the world itself. I know that we are facing many challenges, as are most mainline Protestant denominations. I felt that I might have something to contribute to what we’re going to be going through in the immediate future.
There were a record number of candidates vying for this position. Why do you think that was the case this year?
I think it was precisely because we recognize that these are very challenging times for our church, and people were willing to step up and say, If my gifts are suited for this moment, then I will be able to offer leadership. Really, what it represents is a huge love for the United Church coming from so many people. There were nominees that came all the way from Newfoundland and the Maritimes, Montreal, Ottawa, Ontario, Manitoba, Alberta and BC. Almost every province — not quite, but certainly every area.
What is your opinion on your fellow gay candidates, Reverend Boyle and Reverend Bonnar?
What was quite wonderful was that there were three openly gay and lesbian candidates among the 15. I think the real news story, at least within the United Church, is that it wasn’t an issue. I don’t think any of us made a big deal about it. In my biography I didn’t need to say I’m an openly gay person. I simply shared the information that I am partnered with Reverend Tim Stevenson and we’ve been committed to each other for 30 years. We celebrated our 30th anniversary on June 15.
Can you talk about the support you received from Tim during the electoral process?
Tim is my spouse. Tim is my right-hand person. Tim is the man I love. Tim is himself an ordained minister. He was the first openly gay minister to be ordained within the United Church. Last May we celebrated his 20th year of ordination. Tim is also a political person. He felt the call to go into politics after his work within the church. He’s presently a city councillor in Vancouver. I have gained an enormous amount of wisdom and insight from him. We hold the two worlds of politics and religion and church and state together and realize how they intertwine, even though in matters of faith one brings one’s personal understanding of life and its meanings to political decisions, and there’s a separation of church and state nevertheless, but the two are integrally linked.  
You’ve spoken about the whirlpool that is pulling in the church. Now that you have been elected, how will you pull the church away from this whirlpool?
It’s a poem by Margaret Avison. She writes, “for everyone the moment of the whirlpool comes and many in that moment will not face it.” Her image was that you cannot avoid it. The gift is you have to enter into it, and it will be tough going. If you don’t go you avoid the deadly, black rapids and all the challenge, but then you emerge into something new and something exciting and something full of life. If you are not willing to accept the challenge and go through a transformation, you spin endlessly and forever on the rim of suction you will not recognize. It’s a beautiful image of the pointlessness of just spinning around and around on the surface because you’re scared of what’s underneath. My dream for the church is that we go deep. I’ve said so many times that the heart of our faith is a story of crucifixion and resurrection. If the church is afraid of entering whirlpools or challenges or tough times, then we’re in real trouble. We are a community that believes that always with God is the promise of transformation to new life, even if we don’t know what it will look like on the other side.
As moderator, what steps will you take to engage the queer community?
I have a total commitment to open door, open heart and open minds. We are one of the key denominations across the globe that has said loudly and clearly that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender folk are welcome — welcome at the church, welcome at the table, welcome at leadership — and that we serve in many ways by example. I see my election as moderator being an openly gay person, at one level, not an issue within our church. Nevertheless, I think it does carry a symbolic statement. I know that there are many branches of the Christian world that would not see this as a cause for rejoicing. I’m hoping that, not only within Canada but around the globe, my election will raise opportunities for very serious conversations for dialogue with brother and sister Christians who may not share the same viewpoint. I do recognize that in Canada we live on some levels with much privilege. There is a commitment to recognize and to act with those around the world who are not so fortunate. What that would look like, I have no idea. Certainly it’s a concern in my heart.
Over the course of the 41st General Council, members have voted on several issues. Can you discuss the decision to ban products manufactured in Israeli settlements?
The community here, the General Council, is going to come to some final decisions this morning. We’ve acted on the details on the policy, but we have not adopted them all. We recognize that it is a very complex issue. We want to be seen as supporting at least two of the players in the complex situation. That is to say, we’ve made strong statements that the occupation of the West Bank is, in fact, illegal and that in the interest of peace and justice Israel needs to withdraw to the 1967 Green Line boarders and Palestine needs to have opportunity and the right to form and shape itself as a nation, one of the indigenous peoples. Simultaneously, we recognize that Israel has the right to exist; we stand by that with passion and commitment. We denounce all acts of aggression against the people of Israel, whether that be towards the state itself or the killing of Jewish tourists in Bulgaria, which happened recently. We want to uphold both sides. I know that the boycott is a very contentious issue and it is nuanced. Some people may interpret it as a boycott of Israeli products, and that’s simply not true. It’s simply a boycott of products produced in the settlements. It may sound like a subtle difference, but I think it’s crucial — recognizing that settlements by world law are illegal. They have placed citizens on occupied land, and therefore products that emerge from there, that are of economic benefit, should not be accepted. That doesn’t mean at all a boycott of Israel. It will be difficult because newspaper headlines will try to simplify the issue and say something like “United Church against Israel,” which is so far from the truth.
What is the church’s position on the Northern Gateway Pipeline?
I was working within the commission that made a statement: we are against that pipeline. We stand on three or four different reasons for our position. One, that Enbridge itself does not have a stellar reputation. There have been so many failures. One that hit the headlines recently was the break in the States. Even some American publications were saying the response was not good. The second is, of course, that we recognize the incredible wonder of the land through which that pipeline would pass, particularly the fragility of the Pacific coast. The proposal is to bring in tankers that are three times the size of Exxon Valdez. In 1989, that ship fell apart and spilled oil. The results are still lingering. Imagine what impact a ship three times the size of the Exxon Valdez would have on the coast of British Columbia. From an environmental-protection stance, we would be against it. Thirdly, we have heard loudly and clearly from aboriginal partners that all the work that needs to be done recognizing their land claims and territorial rights and their input on this project has not been appropriately heard. In fact, what we have heard is from a spiritual base and protection of the land they are against this pipeline. We feel it is very important to stand with our aboriginal neighbours and to make sure that their voice is heard. The fourth and final point would be one of caring for the overall environment of this most precious Earth. We keep wrestling with the impact of carbon emissions and climate change. It sure seems like things are changing and that many scientists are telling us we are close to a tipping point. The whole concept of shipping inordinate amounts of oil off to a superpower economy is at least questionable. I realize that that has implications for our own lifestyle and dependence on oil, but this is a moment for all of us to step back and ponder, what is it that we’re doing to the globe and what is an appropriate way for us to come together and say we need an economy and energy source that is sustainable? There’s nothing worse than thinking that we will bequeath to grandchildren, let alone ourselves, a globe that has been so, I could almost get choked up, almost destroyed.
What will these final days of the 41st General Council entail for you?

Today is a day of further business, and I suspect that it will be a long day. As with any meeting, things have happened that you haven’t anticipated. Tomorrow is our closing worship, where I am formally installed. In a practical way, I still have to write a sermon, but after tomorrow’s worship I will, in fact, be the moderator and need to accept this responsibility. It will be a time of prayer, saying, spirit be with me and help me.  

Read more about the 41st General Council moderator election.