A NEW VIEW OF CONGREGATIONAL OPINION ABOUT ORDAINING HOMOSEXUALS
Robert H. Blackburn
Here is a summary and new assessment of the responses written, by United Church of Canada congregations across the country in 1988 and 1989, to the idea of practising homosexuals being accepted as ministers. The General Council of the Church recognized in 1990 that its members are "not of one mind as regards the issue" and that "further struggle, dialogue and prayer are necessary". (l) An assessment of the strength of differing views is therefore in order and may be helpful to Church leaders and to people in or out of the pews. It involves a careful look at some facts that have not been seen before, at least not in public.
A report called "Toward a Christian Understanding of Sexual Orientations, Lifestyles and Ministry" (for convenience labelled SOLM) was given wide circulation some time before the General Council met in Victoria in August 1988. The General Council meets every two years and is the highest court of the United Church; congregations report to presbyteries that report to conferences that report of the General Council. The SOLM report proposed, among other things, that self-declared homosexuals be eligible for ordination into the ministry, and that the Church develop liturgies to bless homosexual unions. The committee responsible for considering the report, and presenting it to the Victoria meeting, gave "full consideration to SOLM and approximately 1800 petitions" relating to it. (2) Only 29 of those petitions were published in the proceedings of the General Council (3) and that selection of 29 presented a balance of views for and against SOLM, though a member of the committee recalls that the overwhelming majority were against it.
According to the published proceedings, the committee presented the General Council "with a statistical analysis of petitions and alternate recommendations to those contained in the Report... for discussion and feedback". (4) The statistical analysis, according to an official at the General Council Office, was part of an oral presentation and does not exist on paper, but the petitions themselves are there. Since the bulk of them must have played a role in the Council's decision to label SOLM as an "historic document", I thought they should be worth some study, and have been allowed to see them.
By my count I saw 1,760 petitions. The great majority were from multiple-point pastoral charges or single congregations; 51 came from conferences and presbyteries, and 129 from individuals or groups reinforcing or opposing what their congregations had said. About one percent were ambiguous, but the main thrust of the others was clearly for or against the ordination of practising homosexuals and/or a liturgy to bless their union. Nearly 94% advised the General Council not to adopt the SOLM document.
Over 74% varied from "oppose" to "unequivocally, categorically and with finality reject". Others asked for a "remit", a binding referendum addressed to all congregations, to decide the matter. Some asked for it to be delayed, deferred, or tabled for a period of years or indefinitely, or for a moratorium to be declared. Some asked for the report to be filed, or to be received as information only. Some asked for further study and/or revision. Petitions for the General Council to affirm or adopt SOLM were only 5.34% of the total, and nearly half of them came from individuals or groups. The numbers are these:
TABLE 1: Petitions to the 32nd General Council, 1988, re SOLM
|call for remit||86||--||5||91||5.17|
|file/receive as information only||59||8||2||69||3.92|
|not to affirm||1,524||81||42||1,647||93.58|
The "alternate recommendations" of its committee led the Council at that same Victoria meeting not to reject SOLM but to receive it as an "historic document" and to adopt a somewhat different statement called Membership, Ministry and Human Sexuality (now referred to as MMHS). MMHS omitted some things that had caused opposition to SOLM, for instance the recommendation to create liturgies to celebrate homosexual unions, and it drew on a number of previous papers. But "the issue" still remained, wrapped in new verbiage but still to be read as a declaration that the highest court of the United Church of Canada was strongly in sympathy with self-declared and practising homosexuals, and ready to ordain them and accept them as ministers.
During and after its meeting at Victoria in August 1988, the General Council Executive was under considerable pressure to submit this issue to a remit. Instead, the Executive invited all congregations to send in their comments on the MMHS statement. It did not prescribe the form of response, but the Sub-Executive approved a "collation" or summary sheet to be filled out and stapled to each response in the respective conference offices before the responses were sent along to headquarters.
If the collective import of the responses had been strongly in favor of MMHS, presumably that would have been announced and given publicity. In fact, however, there was never any official mention of it except in the report of the committee that reviewed the file and made a recommendation to the next General Council, in London, in August 1990. That report says that there were 1,250 responses from congregations, and that "while they are not susceptible of reliable statistical analysis, certainly the preponderant view is one of opposition to the MMHS statement". (5)
During the Council's session in London, a group of delegates outside
the committee insisted on seeing the files of responses., and over a period
of days went through them, working under difficult circumstances and pressure
of time. They counted 1,255 responses and produced an analysis that brought
the word "preponderant" into clear focus. They found that:
876 responses (69.8%) were opposed to MMHS,
84............ (6.69%) were for MMHS,
295........... (23.51%) were mixed responses.
They were not, however, permitted to announce these findings to the General Council before it voted and reaffirmed the MMHS statement.
On discovering that those responses are now lodged in 15 boxes (6) in the United Church Archives at Victoria University, where they can be studied in a more leisurely fashion, I decided have a close look at them, as a Church member satisfying my own curiosity and hoping that the labor would prove to be useful.
I found that a few responses had been sent directly to the General Council office in Toronto, but most had been forwarded through presbytery and conference offices and carried the colored collation sheet. I found that there were indeed some difficulties in statistical analysis, partly because of the various forms of reply. Some consisted of a straightforward letter or memorandum on behalf of a congregation or its session or official board, stating that it would or would not accept a practising homosexual as minister. Others used questionnaire forms issued by their presbyteries, most of them with wording lifted from clauses in the MMHS statement, though the questionnaires were not accepted by all to whom they were sent. Concerning one of them, a congregation wrote "The questionnaire is poorly designed. The questions are made up of leading statements, and often contain more than one statement per question. The combination of these leading questions and the scale which is set up for the responses leaves the interpretation in the hands of the researcher." Concerning another, a congregation wrote "The whole exercise seems like a bit of a brainwash."
Other responses were on a variety of questionnaire forms drawn up by congregations themselves. Some included large batches of questionnaires filled out by individual members, with or without a congregational summary. Some were minutes of congregational meetings, or cogent essays on such things as church organization without specific reference to MMHS. Some were calls for clear definition of terms before response was possible, some said they had made their views known previously and saw no point in stirring the pot or opening the can again. Some were not from congregations but rather from presbyteries, or United Church Women's groups, or individuals.
It was evident that some conference offices had found it difficult to interpret many of these assorted messages and assess them individually on the official collation sheets. They labelled as "support" or "qualified support" some responses that agreed with parts of MMHS but also made statements such as "We will not allow declared homosexuals as role models in the Order of Ministry, and will not accept a practising homosexual as a minister in our congregation. Having studied the issue twice, we will not study it again." It was clear that for the sake of consistency I had to read all the responses, and could not depend on the collation sheets.
So as not to be mixing apples and oranges, I decided to count only those
responses based on congregations, paying careful attention to the number
of congregations involved in responses that came from multiple-point charges.
And to take account only of those parts of a response having to do with
the ordaining/commissioning of practising homosexuals. My findings are
summarized as follows:
In Table 2, below, Column 1 shows a total of 1,869 congregations who singly or jointly initiated 1,262 responses.
Column 2 shows the number that accepted or approved- some approving out of conviction, some trusting to the screening procedures established in the Manual, some just tired of thinking about it (108, or 5.78%).
Column 3 shows the number that accepted with qualification- some disliking the idea but thinking they could live with it, some agreeing as long as the present screening procedure is in place, some bowing to the wisdom of General Council but "still nervous and uncomfortable with the whole issue" (70, or 3.75%).
Column 4 shows the number who opposed with qualification- might change their minds in future if persuaded by good scientific evidence or theological argument (31, or 1.66%).
Column 5 shows the number that strongly opposed ordination of practising homosexuals (1,405, or 75.17%).
Column 6 shows the number of mixed replies- congregations that had fewer than three-quarters of their members on either side of the issue, did not wish to raise the issue again as it would lead to further polarization and loss of members, found the MMHS statement in need of clearer definition, and so on (255, 13.64%).
TABLE 2: Congregational responses to MMHS before August 1990
|Newfoundland and Labrador||186||-||1||-||182||3|
|Montreal and Ottawa||109||7||8||4||84||6|
|Bay of Quinte||144||10||5||2||114||13|
|Manitoba and Northwestern Ontario||97||16||3||2||54||22|
|Alberta and Northwest||148||3||2||3||127||13|
These responses came from 1,869 congregations, nearly half of all those in the United Church, and this is an unusually high rate of response to a questionnaire. It has been suggested by some that those who did not respond must have been content with the MMHS statement, but that is like suggesting that abstentions of qualified voters at election time should be counted as votes in favor of the government. As one congregation wrote, "It is a complete misreading of the situation to assume that silence is assent."
The numbers in my findings are higher than those in the only other analysis that has been published, the one produced by the group of people who did the quick count during the General Council meeting in London, because I have been able to take time to distinguish between pastoral charges and the larger number of congregations involved in the responses. They show that congregations across the country have shown a very high degree of concern about this issue, and that for every congregation in favor of practising homosexuals being ordained as ministers, there are about thirteen strongly against it. Surely leaders and decision-makers should take account of this fact, and be guided it, if they wish the United Church to of Canada to survive.
(1) Record of Proceedings, 33rd General Council, United Church of Canada,
(2) Report of Sessional Committee #10, 33rd General Council, August 17, 1990, first sentence of part 1.1
(3) Record of Proceedings, 32nd General Council, p.757-86
(4) Idem p.95
(5) Report of Sessional Committee #10, last sentence of part 1.3A
(6) Accession 91.030C