Queer money is keeping the lights on in the otherwise empty churches of Toronto
Spirituality is hot, whether it’s plotting your fate by the dawning of Aquarius or charting a course for your next life by channelling through past ones. And god knows, you can’t keep a gay man and a trend apart. So one Sunday morning, I stroll down the block and into my neighbourhood Anglican church. OK, I’m not that trendy.
Like everything else in Forest Hill, Grace Church on-the-Hill is big and showy. I admire its stained-glass windows from the latter days of the 19th century, and as my eye falls on the mere handful of parishioners out this morning, mostly elderly, I wonder just how many of them were here to see that glass installed. Even I was looking for something a little edgier.
Later, I phone the church to ask if attendance is usually so meagre and the attendees usually so… hmm … senior. “Well, what are you looking for,” scolds the elderly voice on the other end of the line, “a singles club?”
Grace on-the-Hill is representative of most of Toronto’s urban churches. The days of congregational growth at 10 per cent per annum are long past, not only for Anglicans, but for Presbyterians, Baptists and Roman Catholics, too. Yet for the few churches that have thrown open their doors to the gay and lesbian community, yesteryear’s growth is today’s reality.
“About 30 per cent of our new members this year are either gay or lesbian,” says Reverend Warren McDougall, one of the pastors at Toronto’s busiest United Church, Bloor Street. “But actual numbers are hard to come by because nobody here, or at any other church I know of, is asked to fill in a sexuality questionnaire.”
In 1988, the United Church of Canada examined its position on homosexuality and found it wanting. “Regardless of the objection from many of its parishes, the General Council of the United Church declared that all people are eligible to be members of the church, and all members of the church are eligible to be considered for ordination,” continues McDougall, one of the few openly gay clergy in the denomination. “My sense is that gay and lesbian people are just now beginning to trust the Church again after years and years of having no reason to.”
But even in this most liberal of denominations, its walk lags well behind its talk. In Toronto, five United churches have declared that they welcome gays and lesbians, explains McDougall. “The declaration to be affirming of gays and lesbians (going so far as to bless same-sex unions) follows a lengthy process of study, discussion and debate in the congregation.”
Admittedly, I’m impressed — that is, until I scan the phone book and count a total of 133 United churches in Metro alone. Five out of 133? All five are in do-as-you-please downtown T.O.
Still, according to McDougall, the United Church proudly holds up its gay-friendly five as an example for its other 128 Toronto churches to follow. Other mainstream Christian denominations, McDougall believes, would prefer to hide their flamers under a bushel.
Having just settled out of court the first of 350 lawsuits brought against it by native Canadians seeking compensation for sexual, physical and cultural abuse suffered in its residential schools, the Anglican Church of Canada is facing insolvency, and, inevitably, the sale of many of its assets. It’s therefore understandable that after a week of speaking to what seems like every answering machine throughout the diocese of Toronto and another week of stonewalling at the hands of its communications director, I’m still stuck at square one. But one last plea for an interview proves the charm, and a war-weary Jim Boyles, archdeacon of the Anglican Church of Canada, agrees to discuss the now relatively tame topic of homosexuals in church.
In 1998, the Anglican bishops of Canada reaffirmed their 1979 statement that gays and lesbians who are in relationships are not to be ordained, says Boyles, and neither will the Church permit the blessing of same-sex unions. Apparently you can be gay and a minister, but not the former below the neck.
Despite this hard-line position, queer Anglicans, like those in the United Church, are now finding acceptance of sorts in a select number of downtown parishes, though in all but one it’s on the Q.T.
“There is a renewed interest in spirituality, not just with gays and lesbians, but with everyone,” says the country’s only openly gay Anglican minister, Jim Ferry. “And in their longing for a community, Anglican queers are coming back to their spiritual roots and to genuine welcome, not just kindly tolerance.”
As the defiantly gay thorn in his denomination’s side, Ferry was stripped of his ministry in the early 90s for practising full-body gayness, yet he’s stayed faithful to the denomination and to Holy Trinity, the congregation claimed by Anglican queers.
“When you get right down to it, there is only one parish downtown that has declared itself at the vestry level as affirming of gays and lesbians, and that’s Holy Trinity,” says Ferry.
However, there are Anglican parishes with even larger numbers of queers, such as the Church of the Redeemer, in affluent Yorkville, where they account for as much as 40 per cent of the historic building’s 350-plus parishioners. There, gay membership continues to rise as membership elsewhere in Canada’s Anglican family zooms down.
“But gays and lesbians are now entering into the church in a different way than the way they left,” asserts Ferry, who is spearheading Holy Trinity’s Queer Holiness Conference, slated for December 2000 and expected to draw more than 200 of the world’s Anglicans.
“Gays are demanding more freedom and dignity, and are pushing the church to put into practice what is at the heart of Christ’s message — the all-inclusive love of God for humans without any conditions.”
According to Ferry, some gay Anglicans aren’t really putting their backs into the struggle.
“I attended the Church of the Redeemer for about four years after I was fired,” continues Ferry, “and I had to leave because we had all these gays and lesbians in the congregation, but it was still closety and hush-hush. They’d have a barbecue for Pride Day — a barbecue the rector would never attend.”
Remembering the question posed to me by the surly senior from my neighbourhood church, I ask Ferry whether some gays and lesbians return to the church not so much for doctrine as for dates. He hesitates not a moment. “Obviously, some of us are not satisfied with the stand-and-pose meeting places — gay bars and clubs — and we are looking for people who have common spiritual beliefs.”
But he says the majority are coming back to the church already paired up.
I ask Ferry if all those gays at Trinity haven’t chased away some of its straights. “Occasionally, we get some homophobic southerners staying next door at the Marriott stopping in. They’re warmly greeted, and then they’ll read the bulletin’s statement of welcome to gays and lesbians, see the gay flag, and by communion time they’ve either left or are declining to partake.”
At Riverdale’s Metropolitan Community Church (MCC), where the homos number in the hundreds, it would take a god-fearing Tennessean all of two seconds to sniff out something queer. In the quiet of its vestry, I chat with the Reverend Brent Hawkes, MCC’s incumbent for the last 23 years, and find that even a vestry in a gay church is a sullen affair — lots of dark wood and bad lighting. Hawkes tell me that MCC’s phenomenal growth, the envy of every other church in Metro, is becoming a bit of a problem.
“If we continue growing at this rate, then in two years’ time we’ll be turning people away,” says Hawkes. “In the last six months, we’ve grown 23 per cent. The capacity for this building is 600 people and we’re already averaging 475 at our 11 o’clock services.”
To forestall such a dilemma, MCC hopes to break ground on a new site in about five years and to erect a church that’s twice as big.
Although construction’s expected to cost upward of $20 million, the reverend sees it as the most cost-effective means of continuing the ministry. “We’ve no other choice. No other church larger than this one will ever become available.”
I say wait a while — the Anglicans may need to unload a cathedral or two. But in the meantime, MCC will bide its time and encourage its parishioners to beat the crowds by attending the 9:30 am service.
Like me, Hawkes was the product of a mixed-faith marriage and was raised Baptist, although I did double duty as an Anglican, too. A tough combo — as a kid, the Baptist half of me was convinced the Anglican half was going straight to hell for drinking wine every Sunday.
When our interview is finished, Hawkes invites me to experience MCC for myself, so the next Sunday I give Grace Church on-the-Hill a miss and, about 10 minutes late, slink into MCC and into one of its few empty seats.
The place is packed, which for any church on a warm, sunny day in August is amazing, but this being the weekend of the Leather Ball, and a good number of these folks having had no more than a couple of hours shut-eye, it’s miraculous.
My head darts around taking in all the faces around me who are, despite Hawkes’s best efforts and what he terms “MCC’s affirmative-action work,” largely those of middle-class whites. I return the smiles of a few eager men with ogling orbs. Vernon, dear boy, the cruising games have begun — and you’re fresh meat! Still, this is definitely not the Barn or any other gay nightclub with rows and rows of youthful exuberance. The majority of MCC men are (as were those at the other churches I visited with large gay memberships) what I’d call retirees from the gay scene. They’re not 20-or 30-something, not buff and not, therefore, high on the totem pole of even the kindest and gentlest of gay gathering places. But there are among them a few best described as the scene’s defectors rather than its pensioners. And for these brawny boys of 20 or 30, the room’s as much theirs as the Barn is, except here they’ll have to share with men whose bodies have ceased to be the temples they once were. As the service presses on, I note the same-sex couples holding hands in the pews and the male friends greeting one another with giddy grins and heartfelt hugs.
Yet every flock suffers some losses, and I speak with Chris Ambidge, a former member of MCC who’s now at the quietly gay-friendly Church of the Redeemer. “I went to MCC Christos (a small offshoot of the larger congregation) for several years. I was the envelope secretary for four of those years. But it was not 100-per-cent fabulous for me. It was not my culture in terms of the songs or the liturgy, and it was taking more energy out of me than it was giving.”
And, adds the Anglican who’s now active with the denomination’s gay lobby, Integrity, “I’m not sure I want my sexual orientation to be the focus of almost every church service, and at MCC that happens constantly.”
When MCC’s offering plate is passed to me I make a point of shaking it. It doesn’t jingle. The church’s annual budget is just under $1 million, every dollar the result of its congregational tithes. And while that same congregation bows heads in quiet meditation, I cock mine in contemplation of a very, very wicked question: how much longer before mainstream Christianity cans its “convictions” in favour of real gay inclusion and the gay bucks it will bring?
At about 12:15, the last hymn, Great Is Thy Faithfulness, is sung and Hawkes dismisses the fold. I make my way down to the parish hall for some refreshments and talk.
Brian Gazley’s been a member of the congregation since 1990 and, unlike Ambidge, isn’t about to forsake it any time soon, he tells me. But he does accept Ambidge’s criticism and agrees that Hawkes’s sermons were once a little heavy on the gay rah-rah-rah. “Back then a lot of people had had so much damage done to them by mainline churches that they needed nurturing.”
But Gazley insists, “The lessons today could be preached in any church. They’re about personal growth and spiritual life, and they’re truly challenging.”
I’m one of the last to leave MCC’s parish hall and the last to snatch a cookie from the tray before they’re sealed away for next Sunday. I realize there’s one major player in the organized religion game I’ve yet to hear from about the upturn in queer church-going — the Catholics.
I phone Dignity, the gay Catholic support group, and its treasurer, Al (last name withheld), fills me in on the gloomy details. Unlike their counterparts in the United, Anglican and even Presbyterian Churches, Catholic gays are quitting the denomination in droves. “Dignity used to draw 150 Catholic gays and lesbians once a month for a mass at a church in downtown Toronto (location withheld). Today we get no more than 10 or 15 people out to a service,” says Al. “People are frustrated by the lack of progress on gay issues and they’ve simply left. Many are now at MCC.”
I ask Al why Dignity doesn’t just say “uncle,” write the pope a nasty letter and cut out the lights. “The Catholic Church is four centuries behind in its approach to society, everybody knows that, but it’s my faith heritage and I like my faith heritage.”
That old Baptist part of me — the part that loves a fiery sermon, however rigid and unyielding — secretly smiles. Misery loves company.
WARREN McDOUGALL the gay Bloor Street United Church reverend:
1. At the present time, I don’t have a partner.
2. First, Vernon, it’s a clerical collar, and secondly I never wear one.
3. If I meet a member of my church in a gay bar, he’s the one that’s usually embarrassed, not me. JIM FERRY Anglican priest de-licensed for being gay:
1. I’ve been single for about three and a half years — celebrity is hard to live with.
2. Being a priest is no man-magnet.
3. I’ve grown older, and I don’t want to hang around the bars like an ash tray.
BRENT HAWKES of MCC:
1. John and I have been together 19 years.
2. If people see my collar and think I’m a Catholic, I get a negative reaction.
3. I live in a fishbowl.