Vancouver
5 min

Wherever the spirit takes them

Brian Burke and Gary Paterson move west

HOW GAY IS THE UNITED CHURCH? Long before becoming its minister this summer, Brian Burke (right) had his eye on St John's United Church for its same-sex couple covenanting celebrations in the late '80s/early '90s. His friend Gary Paterson, soon to start ministering at nearby St Andrew's-Wesley United Church, hopes his congregation's choice of an openly gay minister will make gays and lesbians feel welcome. Credit: Jacques Gaudet

Brian Burke and Gary Paterson go back a long way, both in politics and as United Church ministers.



“Brian and I have known each other for 20-25 years,” Paterson begins. “We were both involved with the struggle within the United Church for justice for gay and lesbian people and he’s an NDPer to his core. His partner Bill, who Tim and I have known for decades, is an NDP politician; Brian and I have had many conversations about having spouses who are political and we are ministers.”



Both ministers have had decades-long relationships with high-profile members of government. Burke is legally married to Burnaby-Douglas MP Bill Siksay (who won Svend Robinson’s old seat in the last federal election). Paterson’s partner is Vancouver city councillor, and former NDP MLA, Tim Stevenson. Both Siksay and Stevenson also served in the church ministry.



Now Paterson and Bourke have something else in common: they’re both relocating to the West End for work.



Paterson has been at Ryerson United Church in Kerrisdale for 11 years. He will begin ministering at St Andrew’s-Wesley United Church, 1022 Nelson Street, on Feb 1, 2005. Burke moved to St John’s United Church, 1401 Comox Street, five months ago.



What the move means for Paterson is that, for the first time in a very long time, he’ll be able to walk to work. “That’s the trivial,” he laughs. What it really means is that “I’ll be ministering within the community where I actually live. That will be significant for me, to be able to see as I walk, as I shop or I get my hair cut, that this is the community. And when I walk along Davie, I’ll say, ‘Some of the people who are homeless, also my community.'”



Paterson wants St Andrew’s-Wesley to start partnering with organizations such as the Dr Peter Centre, Dusk To Dawn, Covenant House “and whoever’s working on crystal meth addiction. We need to be there,” he says.



Burke says he’s had his eye on St John’s United for some time. “Because I had some association with people who had been ministers there before,” he explains, and “I heard a little bit about what the people had gone through. During the time of the actual debate in the United Church around sexual orientation, two of the ministers there were very much identified on the anti-gay side,” he smiles.



The St John’s congregation has evolved since then, Burke notes. “In the ’80s, they had homophobic clergy there. Since then, they’ve had a chance to move on with other ministers who’ve done wonderful jobs of bringing them on board, of educating, of opening the discussion. St John’s United had already decided in the late ’80s/early ’90s that they would have covenanting celebrations for same-sex couples. And-even though it was not legally permitted-would have those entered not only in the church registry but in the government registry which we hold as a licensed congregation, with the assumption that it was going to be legal.



“Our assumption is that when people get married in a church nowadays, with all the other options available, they want to be married in a church and they want to have some sense that the Holy, the Eternal, as part of what they’re doing with each other. Nobody gets married in a church these days because their parents want them to,” he points out.



As for him, Burke says he and his partner haven’t considered getting married. “Bill has said he would not want to get married until he could feel pretty sure that he could go to virtually any United Church and make that request. That’s his own principled stand.



“For me, after 24 years together, I’m almost saying well, if they don’t know by now…” he laughs.



Burke sees himself staying at St John’s for a considerable time. “It’s a growing congregation. It’s got wonderful potential. The folks at St John’s have had a long history of being involved with the community,” he adds. “We have a very small congregation but a very active outreach.”



Burke recalls with pride his partner’s role in the United Church’s path to ordaining openly gay ministers. “Bill started out as a student for the ordered ministry and was one of the very first to actually announce publicly that he was gay. And thus [he] became one of the first casualties of the debate because the corner of Ontario he was in was a very conservative Conference.



“After sending him from one committee to another, only to have them all coming back saying, ‘Go ahead,’ the executive of the Conference decided that until the national church made a policy, no openly gay or lesbian person would be ordained or commissioned or settled or called or transferred anywhere within the boundaries of that Conference,” Burke explains.



It was that situation, he says, which threw the ball back into the church’s court “because the national church, up to that point, had been looking nervously around and saying, ‘Well, ordination is really up to the Conferences, they get to ordain people they think are fit for ministry.’ And at that point, they couldn’t say that anymore. A national policy was called for and the debate was unavoidable.”



That was in 1988 and the United Church hasn’t looked back since, Burke says. “Having dealt with the issue of ordination, the United Church was then able to revisit all its previous pronouncements in the areas of human sexuality and has completely rewritten the book as far as that entire topic is concerned.



“It was an amazing time to be in the church because I had a chance to see folks actually wrestling with life and death and faith issues, all bound up together,” he notes. “There was a lot of struggle but it left me with a chance to see a church that actually lived up to the talk of being there for transformation. I mean, all the churches say that, but it’s a real thing to see people actually giving themselves up and saying, ‘Well, we don’t know quite where the spirit is taking us on this one, but this is what we feel we have to do.’ And to their everlasting credit, they did it.”



Paterson notes that St Andrew’s-Wesley is not a gay congregation. “Calling me, as an openly-gay minister, was a challenging decision and there were some people caught by surprise and some quite anxious. I think there have been a couple of people who may have been quite upset and they may depart or they may change. You respect differences, but the congregation is saying, ‘We’re ready for a significant move.’



“For me, it’s how do you raise an unapologetic, progressive voice, a theological vision, a biblical interpretation that’s true to the tradition, and yet is just passionate about thinking? Christianity that engages with modern science, with new understandings of human nature, that connects?” Paterson muses.



“I think the United Church can serve that voice,” he says. “It’s one of our gifts, it’s what led us to be ordaining women in the ’30s and ordaining gay people in the late ’80s-to say this is who we are and we’re gonna keep struggling.”



Paterson hopes West End lesbians and gay men will see gay ministers as an invitation to go back to the United Church. “I see gay as being one really significant adjective that describes me, my life with Tim and our family, our marriage. It’s all just part of who I am, so perhaps it will send a signal to the gay and lesbian community. Let’s understand how we all join together and recognize there may be some particular needs within the gay or lesbian community that need to be addressed from the church’s point of view.



“The United Church has an engagement with its society,” he continues. “A Christian approach but one that sees with compassion and justice as the mandate.”



ST JOHN’S UNITED CHURCH.

604-685-9726.

St Andrew’s-Wesley Church.

604-683-4574.