In August, the Metropolitan Community Church of Toronto’s Reverend Brent Hawkes celebrated the 35th anniversary of his ministry at the church. Xtra’s David Seitz recently chatted with Hawkes about everything from theology and trans rights to Grindr and gardening.
You and MCCT played a central role in the struggle for same-sex marriage, but you’ve always been working on a range of issues and have stressed the importance of not becoming a “single-issue” church. What are the main post-marriage challenges for the LGBTQ community?
First, we have to ground the gains that we’ve made in education, because there are significant portions of the Canadian population that don’t support the LGBT community. That’s one of the things that, to their credit, Egale is focusing on. How do we educate teachers? Judges? Police? The RCMP? We’re pretty solid in terms of public opinion, the courts and the laws, but we should not take for granted the gains we’ve made.
Secondly, the obvious one is transgender rights. Transgender people are where we [non-trans lesbian, gay, bisexual people] were 40 years ago, in terms of lack of human rights legislation and supports. Although it’s passed in Ontario, it’s not passed federally or in other provinces.
Thirdly, there are segments of the population that continue to be vulnerable in Canada. We know that bullying in schools is one, but also seniors. Many retirement homes are still pretty conservative, and many of us who are living our lives out don’t want to go back into the closet or faces challenges if we retire to seniors facilities.
Finally, internationally. If you look at Earth from a satellite, you see no boundaries. In a sense, we are all one together on this one planet, and so we share a responsibility for the human rights of GLBT people in other places around the world.
It’s an interesting point we’re at as a community, because to some extent the gay community is kind of artificially held together by the threat to our rights. As that threat to our rights declines, the community naturally dissipates. So, for instance, you see more gay Conservatives than you would even 10 years ago. Also, bars tended to be where gay people, particularly gay men, congregated for cruising and social purposes. The bars are under stress nowadays, because Grindr is doing what the bars used to do. How we connect, how we communicate, how we build the community is shifting. So if we’re going to continue to have some kind of an identity as a gay community, we’re going to have to do it differently.
You’ve talked about MCCT practising a “best-guess theology.” What’s that, and how does it differ from the other Christian perspectives out there?
Over the centuries, in trying to answer some of these big questions, many faith communities have overstated their ability to proclaim truth. If you have a faith community — and Christianity is not the only one that does this — that says, “these are the pat answers to everything,” and people can’t stay and doubt or differ, they leave.
We’re much better served by being honest. It’s okay if we give it our best guess. If somehow we could get fundamentalists to admit they’re also giving it their best guess, it would lower the tension, because it gives people permission to disagree.
In the last 10 years, we’ve seen the largest exodus ever from the Christian church in North America — partly because of boredom musically and liturgically, but also because people are searching, and they’re not finding what they’re searching for in faith communities. Public opinion polls say people are searching for an approach that recognizes their individuality and gives them awe and gratitude.
But the Christian church is abysmal. When they asked young people who don’t go to church, “What do you think when you think of the Christian church?” 93 percent said the first thing that came to mind was “anti-gay.” After that were things like “judgmental,” “boring,” “intolerant.” They were all negative words down to 16 percent of the people surveyed.
What I hope MCC, ironically, is able to do is to birth a new movement of vibrant, inclusive, progressive churches that respond to that hunger for spirituality and individuality. We need to balance social justice with spirituality, to balance tradition with innovation, and to stay relevant and contemporary.
Often as activists we find ourselves constantly challenging injustices to the point of burnout. Your ministry also emphasizes healing and affirmation. How have you maintained your own self-care?
Sometimes working in the GLBT community can be challenging. There are a lot of bruised people, and the deepest hurts don’t always come from the religious right, but from what happens within our own communities or organizations.
So I try to really focus on the good things that are happening, on where I can make a difference. A phrase I learned years ago that really hit me is “Your contribution in life is more determined by what you get done through others than what you do yourself.” I try to work by calling people together and supporting people to do things. Collectively, more gets done if my role is to equip rather than to do. I’m fortunate to have around me extremely talented people who are much more expert in certain areas than I could ever be.
Also, I have three dogs that I love, and for the last 30 years, I’ve constantly had dogs in my life. My partner, John, and I have been together for 31 years, and that stability has certainly been helpful. I get a lot of positive feedback, so I absolutely know where I’m supposed to be.
What has surprised you most over the course of your ministry so far?
How fast gay marriage came. I never thought we would see that in my lifetime.
Also, how much I’ve changed in my theology. I was raised a very strict fundamentalist Baptist, so I came from a very conservative place theologically. I’m still a Christian, but I would define that a bit differently than I used to. I really believe that the issue is not which path you choose.
After Jack Layton’s funeral, a reporter wrote, “Brent Hawkes is probably the most recognized and respected clergy person in Canada.” How in hell did this happen? [laughs] In the early days we were dismissed as not a real church, not really being Christian. Now, many denominations are coming and looking to learn from us — it’s unbelievably ironic.
And, how many heterosexual people are coming to MCC. How excited they are to make this church home. I always thought there’d be some straight people in the congregation; I didn’t think it’d be in these numbers.
You’re often in the public eye. What might people not know about you?
I’d love to be a gardener, but I kill almost every plant I try to grow. I love watching hostas come up in the spring and gathering the seeds of the morning glory in the fall and planting them again in the spring.
I’m a fanatic about exercise. It’s not only out of vanity; it’s also just for me to stay healthy.
There’s a rumour out there that I’ve retired or that I’m going to be retiring very shortly. The church has put together a really good succession plan when the day comes. But I’d like to put to rest the rumour that I’m about to retire. I believe I have many good years left.