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Poet, preacher, pioneer

Rt. Rev. Gary Paterson brings a keen intellect and a passion for words to his new role as the United Church's elected spiritual leader. And by the way, he's gay.

By David Wilson

Election day had come and gone, and it needed to be said. So the morning after commissioners chose Rt. Rev. Gary Paterson of Vancouver as The United Church of Canada’s 41st moderator, Rev. barb janes of Winnipeg rose to make a personal statement to the General Council.

Mounting a small stage at the centre of the meeting hall, janes clicked on a hand-held microphone. “We stand on the shoulders of giants,” she said. By electing Paterson on the strength of his gifts, with little or no mention of the fact that he is openly gay, the General Council had made history. “I want to remember and acknowledge the wilderness years, and the many who risked so much to bring us to this glorious day of celebration,” said janes, a lesbian and longtime crusader for sexual inclusiveness. “We have done something that no other mainline church has done, and we need to celebrate that.”

Commissioners had been noticeably restrained about the historic vote — as if the gravity of what they had done hadn’t fully sunk in. Janes’s words seemed to help them grasp it, and they clambered to their feet in a standing ovation.

In electing Paterson from a record field of 15 nominees, commissioners chose a new leader with a razor-sharp intellect, formidable preaching skills and a passion for the United Church that runs deep. The fact that he is the first openly gay leader of a mainline Christian denomination seems an afterthought — for him and for the commissioners who elected him. Many did not know he was gay until after the final ballot result was announced.

But if an afterthought, it’s an important one. In many ways, Paterson personifies the United Church’s journey from the painful divisions of the 1980s and early ’90s to the present, when most congregations welcome openly gay and lesbian members and ministers without hesitation. In the mid-1980s, Paterson served on the committee that authored the United Church’s first report on ministry and sexual orientation. He stood alongside his partner, now spouse, Rev. Tim Stevenson as Stevenson became the first openly gay minister to be ordained in the church following the General Council’s 1988 decision to open the order of ministry to people of all sexual orientations. Paterson was one of three openly gay or lesbian ministers on the 2012 General Council’s slate of moderator nominees. Paterson has come full circle, and so, it seems, has the church.

His election was especially poignant for former moderator Marion Best. Instrumental in steering the 1988 decision through a minefield of bitter opposition, Best has known Paterson for 36 years. She was also a part of Stevenson’s ordination ceremony 20 years ago. Reflecting on the difference between then and now, she remarked, “One of the things I appreciated was someone who said to me, ‘I never even thought about Gary being gay. I just thought about who he is and what he brings.’”

Best continued, “It was very moving to think we have moved that far, and I truly hope that the whole church has moved that far too.”

For his part, Paterson is determined not to make his sexual orientation the focus of his term. “Other people may try to make it the centrepiece . . . but to me it’s something so matter-of-fact,” he told reporters after his election. “I will never not answer questions, but I will never be the one to say, ‘Oh, by the way, I’m an openly gay moderator or an openly gay person.’”

Born into a military family in northern Canada 62 years ago, Paterson did not set out to become a minister, much less the United Church’s elected spiritual leader. His first love was words. Paterson holds an MA in English literature from Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., and was a sessional English instructor at the University of British Columbia. He describes himself as a “closet poet.” It’s rare for Paterson to deliver a sermon that doesn’t include poetry, recited from memory.

Prof. John Hulcoop, who taught Paterson honours English poetry at UBC in the 1970s, remembers the new moderator as smart but quiet. “I felt there was a lot going on in his head,” says Hulcoop, 82. “I couldn’t really say I got to know him. He didn’t make himself available in the way that other students did.” He wonders now whether Paterson was struggling with his identity. Like Hulcoop, Paterson came out later in life, after a first marriage that produced three daughters, Zoe, Emily and Kate, now all in their 30s.

Supported by a Rockefeller Scholarship, Paterson began his divinity studies in the United States and completed them at the Vancouver School of Theology in 1977. Marion Best got to know him during his internship at the United Church’s Naramata Centre in B.C.’s Okanagan Valley. Paterson’s electrifying nomination speech at General Council came as no surprise to her. “He has always been an eloquent speaker — as if it just flows from him.”

Paterson’s first pulpit was just up the road from Naramata in Winfield, B.C. In 1979, he returned to Vancouver and has been there ever since, serving on the staff of B.C. Conference and in four pastoral charges, including First United, the well-known church mission in Vancouver’s impoverished Downtown Eastside. Daughter Zoe now works there as a development and communications officer, occupying her father’s old office. She and her sisters spent many hours at First United while they were growing up.

“We’d go there with him,” she recalls, “and do our homework at the side of the room while everyone else was doing Bible study. He’d bring a big vat of chili or chickpea stew. He believed in feeding the spirit as much as feeding the body — he always said that’s what this community needs.”

Since 2005, Paterson has been the senior minister at St. Andrew’s-Wesley United, a cathedral-like church in downtown Vancouver. Under his leadership, the congregation has grown from about 100 worshippers to 300 today. An occasional visitor on Sundays is retired Anglican bishop James Cruickshank, who taught Paterson at VST and became a close friend when he served as dean of nearby Christ Church Cathedral. “He has this wonderful combination of informality and friendliness,” says Cruickshank of Paterson, “that he brings into a solid, but not traditional, dignified, high-quality United Church worship style. It’s birthed out of the building-up of community, informality and humour. And his ability to deliver biblical sermons is outstanding.”

The new moderator’s first sermon as the elected leader of the United Church was vintage Paterson — erudite, funny, serious, passionate and delivered without notes. Seated below the small raised stage that barb janes had spoken from the day before, Tim Stevenson brushed away tears, no doubt struck by the history his spouse was making, by the struggles and sacrifice it had taken to get there, and by the inescapable fact that their life together was about to change. After General Council, the Paterson-Stevenson clan gathered for a celebration weekend on Mayne Island near Vancouver. Then the new moderator was off and running.

“It’s going to be tough,” says Stevenson, now a Vancouver city councillor. “I don’t really know what I’m in for until I get an idea of what his schedule is going to be. But we’ll Skype and talk every day on the phone. We’re very, very strong supporters of each other. We have been for 30 years.”

— With files from Pieta Woolley

Author's photo
David Wilson is the editor-publisher of The Observer.
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