5 min

Speaking out from the pulpit

Michael Forshaw's faith, his battles with AIDS and his search for the right church

Credit: David Ellingsen Photo

Looking out on a sunny afternoon from his room at St Paul’s Hospital, Reverend Michael Forshaw, honorary assistant at St Paul’s Anglican Church in Vancouver, says, “I feel really great. It’s like a sermon on Sunday.”

He is reacting to news that he will soon be receiving two new experimental AIDS drugs. Last spring, his physician, Dr Julio Montaner, made an application to Health Canada for the drugs for six of his patients who had exhausted all other AIDS treatments. Montaner believes that combining TMC 114 and TMC 125 is the best chance left to help them.

After initially being turned down, Montaner made additional requests to Ottawa, enquiries directly to the Minister of Health and local politicians, while Forshaw and others made public statements to the media urging the drugs’ release. The application was finally approved on Dec 20.

“I am not the excitable type, but inside I am pretty excited,” Forshaw confides. “It’s like waiting for the bus. We have waited since August and the medication has finally arrived, like the bus.

“Every day now really is an extra for me and there will be lots of extras with this new drug [treatment],” he hopes.

Since coming out in the media, he feels “a bit funny. I would presume it’s the Holy Spirit operating in my life because I really had no intention of doing anything. All of a sudden something sort of poked at me, and I said: ‘Bishop Michael [Ingham of the Anglican Church of Canada’s Diocese of New Westminster] do you have any problems about me going public?’ He said: ‘Not at all. You have my full support.’

“Two days later I had an appointment to see Julio. He said: ‘Would you like to be interviewed by The Sun and The Globe and Mail?’ I said: ‘I beat you to it; I have already asked the Bishop.’

Montaner gave him the phone numbers and Forshaw made a few calls. “Before I knew it CKNW was on the phone, and I was interviewed by them too. The next morning I was on the front page of The Vancouver Sun,” he chuckles.

These public announcements prompted primarily heartening responses, he notes. “From family and friends and people I don’t know, it has been positive.”

Except for one.

“I received a letter at the church and saw one bit of it. Markus [Dünzkofer, Rector at St Paul’s] said, ‘I’m not going to let you read that. It will upset you too much.’ He took it away and ripped it up.”

These days, Forshaw says his life is good, despite the ongoing challenges.

“I am in [the hospital today] because I have a thrush infection in my throat,” he explains. “I have to have this anti-fungal medication intravenously put into me every day, which can only be done in a hospital. My CD-4 cell count is at 90 now and [with the new medications] hopefully it will go up, and I won’t get these infections.”

CD-4 T-cells are white blood cells that coordinate the immune system’s response to certain microorganisms like viruses. Healthy, HIV-negative adults usually have a CD-4 count between 500 and 1,500.

Forshaw feels that his infection is a gift in a way.

“I didn’t originally see it as a gift. I thought, ‘Oh my god, I’m going to die. Life is over.'”

But in the seminary “we learned that any sickness can be salvific,” he continues. “You can turn it around and use it for good.

“I look on sex and love differently now. If I continued on the way I was, I would be wandering around stumbling drunk, boozing it up, just to get the courage to go out and cruise because my partner really didn’t want anything to do with sex.”

When asked about his own sexual experiences, Forshaw divulges: “Let’s say, I tried to lead a celibate life, but I needed the warmth of a human body. I had good friends. We never identified with each other that we were gay, but we knew it. We just palled around and had a great time.”

Forshaw says he has no anguish reconciling his sexuality and his faith. “In seminary the monsignor said that God was present in the Blessed Sacrament, in the bread and the wine. God was present in His Word, the Scriptures. However, God was also present in other people, in the beauty of creation, anything you can think of, because we believe in the Incarnation, that means that God is present in the sexual act as far as I’m concerned,” he explains.

Raised an Anglican, Forshaw, who was born in Vancouver 64 years ago, says he “always wanted to be a priest.”

In 1980, he joined the Roman Catholic Church, and remembers “one day I was talking to the priest who had received me about what I could do. He said, ‘I see no reason why you couldn’t be a priest.’

“I felt that [this] was the call,” he declares.

“I prayed about it, went on retreats, and before I knew it, was on a plane to Rome to seminary. I spent four years there coming home in the summers to work in a parish to gain experience. I was ordained a deacon in Rome, and a year later as a Roman Catholic priest in Vancouver.”

Once in the Catholic Church, however, he says he felt like “a phony. Saying to people: ‘You know the teaching of the Church. There is only one kind of sex and that is within the bounds of marriage.’ I am up in the pulpit espousing this business.”

As time passed, Forshaw grew more frustrated and disillusioned with his role. “I felt the Church was going backwards instead of forwards. The one reason I became a Catholic was I saw there was a lot of change. Pope John Paul II had other ideas I guess, and this archdiocese was very conservative.”

Forshaw left the Catholic Church in 1991.

“When I left the Catholic Church it was like God hitting me over the head with a two-by-four. As my therapist said, ‘You are in a bad marriage and the spirit that is Michael Forshaw is being totally squished out of you.’ I was just becoming another priest wearing a collar, putting on vestments, walking out… sort of like a sacramental machine.”

He returned to his upbringing and became an Anglican priest in the Archdiocese of New Westminster in 1999. “As I say to people who are searching for a church: ‘Go where you are most at home.’ I felt that I was returning home,” he reflects.

The Archdiocese of New Westminster is recognized within the global Anglican community for its leadership on same-sex issues. “We have a bishop who is, I would say, a prophet. I think Bishop Michael is interpreting the scriptures properly, and seeing that God is about inclusivity. That means everybody, not just a few. ”

Despite his new church’s international recognition, Forshaw acknowledges that gay issues are still contentious for many Anglicans. “Heavens, in Africa they think we are all on a one-way trip to a place of fire.”

“I think it’s wrong,” he says when asked about religious leaders who use the pulpit to speak out against homosexuals. “There are many other things that they should be up in the pulpit speaking about.”

Forshaw maintains that organized religion can have a place in contemporary gay and lesbian lives. “Even though your church isn’t supportive, you can go to places that are supportive like St Paul’s, or Christ Church Cathedral, or St James’, or St Margaret’s Cedar Cottage that are inclusive.

“I think gay people who are down on organized religion and the church should explore it a bit more,” he continues. “There have been some very bad priests and ministers and pastors who have done a lot of harm in the name of God. Try and put that aside and try and realize that God loves you.”

Forshaw still remembers the time he went to confession in Lourdes, “and the priest said to me, ‘All God expects of you if you fall is just to pick yourself up and try again.'”