Priest retires from ‘ministry of the edge’

By on February 1, 2008

Canon Garth Bulmer spoke in favour of same-sex blessings at General Synod 2007.

About 14 years ago, his health declining due to HIV, Ron Chaplin decided to return after many years of absence to St. John the Evangelist, a downtown church located on Ottawa’s busy Elgin Street.

“My expectations were modest. I was looking for a place to die … I was seeking a place from which to be buried,” recalled Mr. Chaplin. “What I found was not what I expected. What I found at St. John’s was new life.”

Among those who welcomed him was the rector, Canon Garth Bulmer, by then two years into the job. “Garth Bulmer encouraged me, and indeed all the laity, to exercise (our) ministry. He was our tireless cheerleader,” said Mr. Chaplin. “We were encouraged and cajoled at all times to ask questions, to seek new perspectives, to not be afraid to challenge injustice or unfairness, and at all times to engage honestly and openly with each other in an attitude of prayer and mutual respect. Under his guidance, I found new roles to play in the community, and new purpose in life.”

Last December, Mr. Bulmer retired from his post, ending 16 years of ministry at St. John’s, which, according to his diocesan bishop, John Chapman, have been marked with advocacy for “justice, reconciliation and outreach to the marginalized.”

Elsewhere in the church, Mr. Bulmer is known for his persistence in asking General Synod to approve a motion that would allow dioceses to approve the blessing of same-sex unions. (His perseverance succeeded in his diocese, where last October the synod approved a motion that he and Mr. Chaplin put forward, asking the bishop to allow clergy “whose conscience permits” to perform same-sex blessings.)

A native of Milden, Sask., which he describes as “a little village of 400 people,” Mr. Bulmer credits his parents for his interest in “the ministry of the edge.” He recalls that his parents “were always very compassionate and sympathetic towards people who were in any kind of difficulty.” His parents, his Anglican upbringing, and his growing up in the prairies had a “big impact” on his social values. “There was just this whole culture of community and social responsibility which was pervasive in Saskatchewan in the ’50s and ’60s when I grew up,” he said. “You knew everybody; it was a wonderful environment to grow up in as a child.”

At the age of eight he wanted to become a priest, and he became one, at 25, in 1970, after studying theology at McGill University in Montreal.

Before St. John’s, Mr. Bulmer served in various parishes in Montreal; he was also a prison chaplain for several years. Always, he found himself involved in community outreach – from housing initiatives for the homeless to advocating for refugee rights. “My passion has always been for the margins, and bringing the margins into the centre.”

This passion is fuelled, in part, from the marginalization he himself has experienced as a gay man, he said. “Living in a society in which my deepest sense of who I am is treated with contempt; living with a secret you cannot tell to even those you love,” were just some of the experiences that shaped his vocation. Like some gay men of his generation, he got married, divorced, and lived “with guilt for failing in these relationships,” he said. “We bear the scars on our souls.”

Back then, he recalled, the Anglican church did not have the current policy that doesn’t bar the ordination of homosexuals into the priesthood, as long as they’re not in a same-sex relationship. “If you told somebody (then), that was the end.”

Mr. Bulmer said he did not feel a need to disclose his sexual orientation until now. “Quite frankly, it didn’t occur to me this was something that you told people,” he said, adding he was also considering his family’s welfare.

Why do so now? “I want to play this last card of outing myself as a way of proclaiming loudly and clearly my absolute refusal to tolerate any further homophobic nonsense in church or society,” he said. “I owe it to the gay activists in this parish (St. John’s) and in the broader church to say this.”

A priest for 38 years, Mr. Bulmer said that despite his own struggles, “I still feel that the Anglican church has been a remarkable place in the freedom it allowed me, to work where I want to, and to be who I am.”

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