After a full ‘Year of Conversation’ on the subject, the Gower Street United Church has made the decision to perform same-sex marriage ceremonies at the church. This makes it the first church in the city—and one of the only churches in the province—to make the decision since the province decreed same-sex marriage legal in 2004.
by Sarah Smellie
“How did you ever find out about this?” asks Reverend Kate Crawford, of the Gower Street United Church, as she welcomes me in through her front door, past the neat piles of progressive books about Christian spirituality, and presses a cup of tea into my hands. “We’ve been keeping it quiet,” she says. “We don’t advertise to heterosexual couples that we do marriages so why would we advertise to the gay community?”
That’s right. As of this spring the Gower Street United Church is performing same-sex marriages, to use the terminology of the Canadian government. It is now the only church on the Avalon that does so (The United Church in Lab City has been performing same sex marriages since 2004, and the United Church in Corner Brook is now on board as well).
Same-sex marriage has been legal in Newfoundland and Labrador since December 21st, 2004. As victorious as that may be, same-sex couples of faith who wish to be married in their—or any—church still face huge obstacles, as religious denominations are free to deny them if they so choose. The United Church of Canada, though publicly supportive of same sex marriages since 2003, allows each individual church to determine whether or not they will perform such marriages. When Rev. Crawford, a single mom of two teenage girls (both of whom, she tells me, are quite supportive of the church’s decision) and her colleague, Reverend Marion Davis, a single mother of three, arrived at Gower in the summer of 2005, the church was just beginning to explore the issue.
“In the fall, the Worship and Sacraments Committe, the group responsible for marriages, came to us and said this is what they wanted on the agenda for the year,” Rev. Crawford tells me. Conversations, questions and plans between the board and the committee began, and in the spring of 2007, the Worship and Sacraments Committee directed the discussion and education efforts at the congregation itself. “We had a whole year of conversation, called the Year of Conversation on same-sex marriage,” she says. The year included workshops, special sermons and the Washroom Walls Project, where people of the congregation were invited to inscribe their opinions anonymously on large sheets of paper in the church’s bathrooms.Special care was taken to navigate the issue gently and openly.
“We tried very hard not to tell people what we thought. I preached about three biblical texts, called ‘clobber texts’ because they’re often used to clobber gay people; one in Romans, where Paul speaks about ‘unnatural lust’, one in Genesis and one in Corinthians. My intent was to give people an alternative interpretation, not to say ‘this is the right interpretation.’ People must have sat there thinking ‘There she is, going on about sex again,'” she laughs, shaking her head.
The Year of Conversation ended this spring, at which point the church voted in favour of same-sex marriages with an overwhelming majority. Even the few who dissented did so in peace and understanding. “I personally feel that we have made a decision which is loving in its desire to be welcoming to all people and I’m very proud of the community for that,” she smiles.
Though there hasn’t been a same-sex wedding at the church yet, Rev. Crawford says that several couples approached her about it in the last year before the decision.
“We had to tell them to wait until our process was over. It was really heartbreaking to say ‘not yet.’ ”
Gower Street United member Gemma Schlamp-Hickey, who is the past president of Égale, is now the president of PFLAG, and who was instrumental in bringing about the legalization of same-sex marriage in this province, was one of the first to approach the church about the possibility of marrying her same-sex partner.
“It was difficult,” she says. “It wasn’t as if we had to wait because of renovations or something, it was because we were lesbians.”
Gemma and her partner decided to marry outside the church. “I commend them, even though it was hurtful,” she says. “but someone had to go through that hurt to get to where we all are now. [The decision] is a huge step forward, a very courageous step. Hopefully it will have a domino effect.”
Reverend Kate Crawford is also hopeful. “I want [same-sex marriage] to become second nature. In five years we don’t want to be known for this, we want to be known for our work in the community and for our outreach and for our welcoming.”
“After all,” she says. “We’re not in the marriage business, we’re in the gospel business.”