September, 2010 / Author:

Augustine United led the way

Augustine United Church
Augustine United Church sits near a bustling intersection in the city’s bohemian Osborne Village neighbourhood. From the outside, its century-old stone walls, sweeping double staircases, oak doors and towering spires make it look a bit old-fashioned and conservative. But it’s anything but old-fashioned and conservative.

Five short years ago, Canada enshrined the right to same-sex marriage in law. That’s a source of pride for Canadians. But few people know that 10 years before that, Augustine United Church in Winnipeg helped pave the way by becoming the first affirming church in Canada.

Known informally these days as the “Village Church”, Augustine was built by Presbyterians in 1904. It banded with Congregationalist and Methodist churches in 1925 when the United Church of Canada was founded.  Christine Coltart, who joined the Augustine congregation in 1948, was born that same year.

Coltart remembers the years of study and preparation before Augustine became an affirming church.  While some churches have seen their congregations torn apart by the process, Coltart says it was a “smooth transition.” Any members of the congregation who were unable to fully accept members of the GBLTTQ community left quietly, she says.

The United Church was an early leader in accepting gays and lesbians. In 1988, at the General Council in Victoria affirmed that gays and lesbians could be ordained and commissioned as ministers in the United Church.   

The Augustine congregation voted to become an affirming church in 1993, but the celebration of affirmation took place on Feb. 26, 1995, after much preparation.  Keith Black has been a member of the Augustine choir for 48 years and was on the affirming committee that guided the process of the ‘official becoming’.  “We took the time and the effort; we went through a process, to earn the status of an affirming church,” he says.

The pews were full for that celebration and Coltart recalls that it was a “thrilling” night.  The following words are taken from the program under the heading, Ceremony of Recognition:

“In the name of God the Creator, who has made us for each other, and who delights in our diversity, we welcome you, our lesbian sisters and gay brothers and acknowledge your rightful place beside us.”

A duet was sung that night summing up the sentiment of the occasion:

“Here and now, in clear plain view,

God is doing something new.”

A straight man himself, Black laughs at the joy he later felt when invited to a dinner party at a gay man’s home.  As Black tells the story, the host declared, “I’ve been pretending to be straight for years – you could pretend to be gay for one night.”

Black acknowledges the church’s traditional roots but says Augustine’s congregation has always been a risk-taking bunch, prepared to challenge the status quo, especially on issues of social justice.  

In the ’60s, Augustine opened its doors to feed hippies at a time when they were the epitome of an in-your-face counterculture. Many people called them dirty freeloaders or promiscuous druggies and the term “hippie” could not be said with too much disgust, scorn or hatred.  Yet the members of Augustine recognized them as children, vulnerable teens – like their own – in need of nurturing, outreach, caring, kindness, support, respect and love.  Coltart recalls seeing these hungry teens streaming across the Osborne Street Bridge for a free meal at Augustine.  

“…we welcome you, our lesbian sisters and gay brothers and acknowledge your rightful place beside us.”

Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd is the minister of Augustine.  She says the key to being  an affirming church is that “You have to be public about it.”  This injunction has been a deal-breaker for some congregations that contemplated taking the affirming journey. MacKenzie Shepherd is out to her congregation and is in a long term same-sex relationship.  

Before that important day in 1995, Augustine’s affirming committee heard from an Anglican woman whose church had given her “permission” to “be” lesbian as long as she didn’t “do” lesbian.  At Augustine there are no first- and second-class members of the congregation. Don Ross, minister emeritus of Augustine and a gay man with a long-term partner, says members of the GLBT community are fully integrated at Augustine  – they contribute with talent, ability, money, enthusiasm and spiritual energy.   

Today, there are three affirming United Churches in Winnipeg. Young United/Cross-Ways and Immanuel United have joined Augustine by opening their doors to everyone.

– C. R. Procyk is a Winnipeg-based freelance writer. To comment on this or any other article in Outwords, e-mail letters@outwords.ca

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