Toronto Conference moving toward becoming an Affirming Conference

Focus of Annual Meeting of Toronto Conference 

For many years, annual meetings of Toronto Conference were adorned with an enormous rainbow cross. The cross, normally displayed at the now-closed Cliffcrest United Church, was a quilted construction with rainbow ribbons reaching out over the gathering area. It was a dramatic site and a powerful symbol of inclusion. At this time, its exact location is unknown.

While the rainbow cross was welcomed at Toronto Conference and members of the Conference were fiercely passionate about its presence and what it represented, the Conference itself has never been recognized as an Affirming body within the United Church. At this year's Annual Meeting, it hopes to change that. Toronto Conference will discuss a proposal that it become an Affirming Conference. To that end, it has created a Vision Statement and Plan of Action and has reached out for comments from its membership. 

West Hill's Journey

Many of you know that West Hill became an Affirming congregation in 2009. Each year, on the first Sunday in December, chosen because of its proximity to World AIDS day, we celebrate that anniversary. Over the course of our affirming history, we've had some remarkable speakers: George Smitherman, then an openly gay member of the Ontario legislature; Kathleen Wynne, then Ontario's Minister of Transportation; Kamal Al-Solaylee, author of the Canada Reads finalist Intolerable: Growing Up Gay in the Middle East; Francisco Alvarez, then Chair of Pride Toronto; Irene Miller, Chair of PFLAG Toronto; Deb Pearce, Broadcaster and Comedian; Dr. Spencer Harrison, artist and sponsor of Ontario's first Camp fYrefly; EJ Kwandibens, Indigenous gay man and cultural interpreter. We've been richly stimulated by the gifts and insights they have shared.

West Hill has welcomed individuals of diverse sexualities and gender identities into leadership positions as a matter of course over many years and most likely decades. Being recognized by Affirm United/S'affirmer Ensemble was expected by many to be a simple process. That wasn't the case for reasons that are most likely well outside the usual congregational challenges experienced in the Affirming process.

In most situations, the work of educating a congregation on the realities and rights of LGBTQ+ individuals is the focus of the Affirming process with difficult conversations taking place in which those opposed to full inclusion may express their views passionately. West Hill members were already aware of the realities and rights society has extended to LGBTQ+ individuals and were eager to be recognized as allies. What we hadn't expected was that some LGBTQ+ members of the congregation didn't want to be identified by their sexuality. At West Hill, they were just people like everyone else and they worried that an Affirming designation would erase the comfort they experienced with us. Similarly, others noted that West Hill's welcome extended to those who had mental health illnesses or who were socio-economically marginalized because there were no statements or prejudices that excluded them. Concerns were raised that if we identified one particular group for inclusion, we might intimate the exclusion of those in other groups. It was a vibrat conversation.

In the end, we were deeply moved by the documentary film For the Bible Tells Me So which places the responsibility for homophobia squarely in the hands of religious organizations and institutions. Sensitive to all the concerns raised, we created a statement of inclusion that honoured the requirements set out by Affirm United/S'affirmer Ensemble while addressing other areas in which church has traditionally fallen short. We continue to walk that path toward inclusion, finding its widest point to be the place of non-exclusion actively seeking to discover ways to refuse to exclude and things we do better.

Toronto Conference's Vision Statement

The following is the Vision Statement currently being circulated for comments by Toronto Conference.

Striving to be faithful followers of Jesus in our time and place, Toronto Conference will continue to remove barriers to participation in the life and work of the Conference and society, committing itself to be open to the Spirit in others. Resisting all forms of oppression, we welcome and celebrate all expressions of sexual orientation, gender identity, and those who are marginalized.

Gretta has submitted the following response to the Vision Statement.

As in any commentary on the life and teachings of Jesus, it is important to clarify "what" Jesus is being invoked. There are many who would say that the inclusion of sexually active LGBTQ+ in any aspects of church life would be entirely counter to the biblical God Jesus was seeking to illuminate in the community of his time. See, for example, the current controversy over Princeton's "snub" of evangelical Tim Keller. For that reason, the introductory statement is problematically vague. 

When speaking about Jesus, I find it important to add a clarifying aside that might look something like this: "Jesus, who I understand to have been a man who poured his life out to bring about justice across the full spectrum of community of his time, ... ". I believe it is important for Toronto Conference, in doing this work and elsewhere, to be boldly specific about how it chooses to define Jesus and what it bases that definition upon. How have we circumscribed the gospel narratives to create the composite Jesus we preach which is, most definitely, not the Jesus preached by others? Why do we consider that valid?

I am always uncomfortable about welcoming and celebrating all forms of anything and resisted, in one endeavour, the phrase in relation to "spiritual expression", some forms of which - like genital mutilation or the shrouding of women - are offensive to me. There are also forms of the expression of any sexual orientation that are deeply offensive to me and, I expect, other members of the Conference such as practiced paedophilia, non-consensual sadomasichism, etc. What one considers their personal sexual expression does not need to be welcomed and celebrated by all. Would the Conference consider adding a qualifier such as "life-enhancing" or something like that which might trim back the wide open "all forms" which I am fairly certain is not really what we want to say? For me, "Resisting all forms of oppression" requires that we resist including "all forms of sexual expression...." in the statement.

Toronto Conference's Plan of Action

The Plan of Action has several sections including "Removing barriers to participation in the life and work of the Conference;" "Removing barriers to participation in society;" "Being open to the Spirit in others;" "Welcoming and celebrating all expressions of sexual orientation and gender identity;" and "Welcoming and celebrating those who are marginalized." You can read the complete plans for each of these endeavours here

Gretta replied extensively to the plan. The following is her submission.

Removing barriers to participation in the life and work of the Conference

Over the course of our history, we have been inclusive in many ways. Unfortunately, we are only ever able to extend inclusivity to those groups we see. Over the course of human history and the history of the UCC, whole segments of society have been invisible to us and we have moved toward removing barriers only as "scales have fallen from our eyes." Barriers to women, to divorced individuals and divorced clergy, to non-whites, to indigenous peoples, to LGBTQ+ individuals. 

Removing barriers to participation in the life and work of the Conference means creating visibility. There are many ways this can happen and I believe many congregations would enthusiastically pursue this element of the work. 

Visibility, however, is not enough. This past Tuesday, in Toronto Southeast Presbytery, we discussed the transfer and settlement remit and it was noted that clergy with disabilities were often able to get their start in productive and meaningful ministries because of the T&S process. Concern was raised that those who have disabilities may be at a disadvantage.

Which raises the question about our record as an equal rights employer. 

The United Church of Canada is a charitable religious organization. That gives it certain rights, one of which is the right to discriminate based on religious beliefs. That right is exercised by congregations who do not wish to employ LGBTQ+ clergy or staff. Their right to do so is defended by The United Church of Canada. While we would be extremely uncomfortable defending the right of a congregation to discriminate against individuals with disabilities, we routinely allow congregations to discriminate against clergy and staff based on sexuality and gender identity.

Does becoming an affirming conference mean that we will no longer allow congregations to choose to discriminate based on sexuality and gender identity? Would we require all congregations, against the Basis of Union, to allow their clergy to perform same-sex marriage ceremonies in accordance with secular law? How is our defense of congregations who do not allow their clergy to perform same-sex marriages any different than the practices of other denominations who discriminate in ways we would consider inappropriate - refusing to ordain women, for instance? Are we prepared to support clergy in their pursuit of justice should they be discriminated against based on sexuality and gender? Would that require changes to the Basis of Union? Would it be perceived to undermine our right to discriminate in other areas of our religious practice? Would the Effective Leadership process of matching congregations effectively provide guidance and mitigate situations in which discrimination might arise? How would it be monitored? How would LGBTQ+ applicants be provided support throughout the process? Would we provide financial support to clergy seeking employment justice through the courts? 

If becoming an Affirming Conference does not extend justice to our LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters throughout all levels of our ministry, it will appear to be symbolic at most and protective of discriminatory attitudes and practices at worst. I note that these comments are also pertinent to the final point in the section "Welcoming and celebrating those who are marginalized: Identify, challenge, and/or eliminate barriers in hiring or ministry development process.

In order to implement a process of employment that was consistent with Canadian law and that did not allow congregations to discriminate based on sexuality or gender identity, it would be important that the Conference no longer rely upon external organizations such as Affirm United/S'affirmer Ensemble to do the education of congregations. As clergy are required to upgrade their skills and sensitivities related to race and sexual improprieties, so must congregations be required to upgrade their skills and sensitivities related to sexuality and gender identity. If that is not required, then the Conference will not be able to meet its commitment to remove barriers to participation in the life and work of the Conference as those pertain to congregations within it.

Hold Conference events and meetings in locations that are accessible

I am unclear as to what this means. If we are referring to accessibility in terms of gender and sexual diversity, it would mean, I think, congregating in affirming congregations. Doing so, however, would have the adverse effect of allowing discriminating congregations to remain comfortable unengaged in a very serious way. I believe an affirming Conference should engage all its congregations in activities that build and encourage awareness and acceptance. 

Engage guest speakers/preachers at events to reflect diversity

Again, I'm not really clear on what this means. Are you suggesting that guest speakers will be asked to include reference to sexual and gender diversity in their program? Or are you suggesting that the Conference engage speakers from diverse sexual and gender identity populations? 

Additionaly, I believe it is discriminatory to only invite LGBTQ+ speakers and preachers when we are addressing gender and sexuality issues just as it is discriminatory to invite women speakers and preachers only when addressing feminist or women's issues. LGBTQ+ leaders practice in many fields; to assume they can only speak to LGBTQ+ issues is to ghettoize them. 

Monitor diversity in its nominations procedures

This is extremely difficult. Sexuality and gender identity are invisible. And they are or should be entirely incidental to leadership skills and character traits required for ministry. Asking people to declare their sexuality is inherently discriminatory. That said, heterocentrism is alive and well in the church and in society and we must work to move away from it. 

In order to monitor diversity, language related to the disclosure of minority status, whether race, ethnicity, economic status, age, ability, sexuality, gender identity, etc., must be at through an invitation to self-disclosure. To assure this, nominations documents may ask if an individual wishes to identify with any particular minority group with a list of possibilities provided. 
The Conference included the opportunity for further comments. Because the conversation is one about removing barriers to participation, Gretta also submitted the following reflection on that work as it continues at West Hill. 

When barriers to participation have become visible, West Hill United has historically sought to remove them in whatever ways it has been able to do so. In the 1980s, this included a massive renovation to overcome physical barriers to participation. In the 1990s, gender-exclusive language was explored and rejected to overcome perceived barriers to participation. In the early 2000s, the theistic language that prejudiced the church toward certain doctrinal beliefs not held by most of the congregation, was identified as a barrier to progressives and those otherwise excluded from participation in United Church communities. Over the course of some years, it was removed and replaced with values-based language sharing the same vision of ministry but without the barriers traditional language posed. Although lesbian, gay, and trans individuals had long participated in leadership at West Hill (and very likely unidentified individuals of other sexual orientations and gender identities), West Hill became an Affirming ministry in 2009. In 2013, in recognition of the discrimination against those professing no religious beliefs both internationally and within our own communities, we actively embraced those who identified as "atheist." 

We have been deeply saddened that this most recent decision, one we knew to be marginal, and which as been seen as provocative by many, has not been recognized as the work of making yet another demographic visible and so invite us to find ways to remove barriers to that demographic's participation in The United Church of Canada. 

It is our hope that the conversation at Toronto Conference will be deep and rich and that the considerations of all participants are met with respect. At the conclusion of the meeting, we'll make sure we update you on the decision and how the statements were further developed.