The United Church of Canada (UCC) has made history by electing its first openly gay moderator.
The Rev. Dr. Gary Paterson, who describes himself as a “passionate preacher” and a “closet poet,” was elected Aug. 16 by the UCC’s 41st General Council meeting in Ottawa. A news update from the UCC’s website said that Paterson was happy that his sexual orientation was a “non-issue” in the election.
Paterson also becomes the first openly gay leader of a major Christian denomination, the UCC noted. “What some denominations or some parts of the world see as a huge dilemma and a problem has not, within our immediate community, been seen in that way at all,” said Paterson at a news conference following his election.
Paterson added that young people who are struggling with their own sexual identity “should be able to see gay role models.” But, he said, he did not intend to make sexuality the focus of his job, but rather re-energizing the church amidst uncertainties about its future. The UCC has 2.8 million adherents, according to Statistics Canada and church figures, making it the largest Protestant denomination in Canada.
“I would see trying to enable the church to look realistically at what’s happening and not be frightened,” he told the press conference. “We will find a way through. We will be changed and we will be faithful, and God will be with us.”
In a mission statement distributed to delegates, Paterson said the United Church has “arrived at a whirlpool” due to factors ranging from growing secularism, a distrust of institutions, the “brokenness” of church, and abuses at the Indian residential schools. The church is sometimes unsure or too afraid to respond, he said. And yet it must “let go and enter the whirlpool.”
The challenge for the church is “to live into this moment; not to get overwhelmed; not to get paralyzed; but to be people of hope.”
At the news conference, Paterson also addressed the UCC’s proposed boycott of Israeli products from settlements on the West Bank and said he would engage Jewish leaders in dialogue. The UCC recognizes the legitimacy of the state of Israel but is concerned about the plight of the Palestinian people living in occupation, he said. Paterson said he recently returned from a sabbatical in Israel and Palestine and saw first-hand the devastating effects of the occupation.
The election, which had a roster of 15 nominees, lasted more than eight hours. Paterson was elected on the sixth ballot.
Born in 1949 in the Yukon, Paterson has been a UCC minister for more than 35 years. He studied theology in Boston and at the Vancouver School of Theology before being ordained in 1977.
In a biographical sketch sent to delegates, Paterson described his ministry as “varied.” He has served in both rural and urban congregations, including Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, in an inner-city ministry known as the “poorest postal code” in Canada. He has also worked in the areas of congregational support, social justice and youth ministry.
Patterson is married to the Rev. Tim Stevenson, currently a Vancouver city councillor, who has been his partner for 30 years. He has three grown daughters from his first marriage.