March, 2013 / Author:

Saskatoon-based lesbian deacon demonstrates the changing attitudes in the church 

Emily Carr (L) wants the gay community to know that the church, despite its problems, can be a place for people like her and her partner, Rebecca Brownlee (R). Photo by Ashleigh Mattern

On Sept. 30, 2012, reverend Emily Carr was ordained as an Anglican deacon in the diocese of Saskatoon. In some ways, the ordination was something she had been working towards for most of her life, having first found a passion for the church when she was still a child.

But this exciting event was tainted when a “small, very loud group” protested her ordination because she is married to a woman. This group included other priests in the diocese, as well as some Anglican parishioners.

“Because the church doesn’t recognize my relationship officially, for some people it seems like what I’m doing is sinful,” said Carr. “One of the things about being a leader in a church is that your life… has to reflect the values of your religion. And they don’t feel my life does.”

To protest, they sent mass emails across the diocese, using graphic, hateful language and making unfounded personal accusations about Carr’s lifestyle. Some church clergy also disagreed with her ordination. Days before, on Sept. 28, the bishops of Western Canada’s Ecclesiastical Province of Rupert’s Land met, passing a motion to say they didn’t approve of the Saskatoon bishop’s decision to ordain Carr.

Of course, not everybody felt this way about her ordination. The night of the ceremony, the church was packed with supporters. “[Being ordained] is something that you work towards, but it’s also a blessing because the community has to put you forward and a community has to agree to a certain extent, they have to lift you up and realize this person has gifts for ministry.” 

Despite the lack of support from some parishioners and clergy, Carr says the Anglican Church is heading in the right direction. “The Anglican Diocese of Saskatoon has evolved, it has really become an open, accepting place now,” she said. “Things have evolved and begun to change in such a way that someone like me can do the work that I want to do.”

Change slow to come

Photography by Ashleigh Mattern
The Anglican Church of Canada does not perform same-sex marriages, though in some dioceses, they will bless a civil union that has already taken place. Eleven of the 30 Canadian dioceses bless same-sex marriages to varying degrees: Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, Quebec, Montreal, New Westminster, Ottawa, Huron, Niagara, Toronto, Rupert’s Land (including Manitoba), Edmonton, and British Columbia. At the last convention of the Diocese of Saskatoon, a proposal to allow for same-sex blessings passed with 51 per cent of the votes, but because the votes were so close, a decision was made not to allow it.

The Anglican Church is a worldwide organization with a long history of tradition, so change comes slowly. Diocesan meetings, where decisions are made, only take place every two years or so, and a majority vote is required to pass. And though the organization is worldwide, some dioceses are slower to recognize change than others. 

At the end of November, the Church of England’s general synod (the Anglican Church’s term for convention) voted to continue to ban women from becoming bishops. In Canada, women have been ordained as priests since the mid-’70s, with the first female bishop ordained in 1993, but feminism is still an issue in the church. Carr says there are still churches where people are uncomfortable with a woman priest. 

Saskatoon-based Anglican priest reverend Dr. Bill Richards said the Church of England’s conservative decision against women bishops is a reaction to the changing role of the church in English society. The church in Canadian society is facing the same challenges. 

“I think in part this issue is tied up with this anxiety about what the role of the church is, what the role of the Anglican church is in Canadian society. It’s unfortunate,” said Richards. “That’s where there should be a more honest discussion, too, before we start talking about sex.” Richards is a professor of New Testament language and literature with the College of Emmanuel and St. Chad in Saskatoon, where Carr is finishing her theological studies. He preached at her ordination. 

Opening faith to the LGBT community

Carr faces homophobia on a regular basis through her work, but she believes in the church and has made a commitment to spread the word of the gospel. 

“I’m for the church,” said Carr. “It’s not that I don’t recognize that there are problems—I do—but I also want the gay community to know that there’s a place for them in the church and that they’re a vital part of the community.” 

She credits Integrity Saskatoon, part of Integrity Canada, for paving the way for her before she moved to the city to work in 2009. The group works towards the inclusion of gay and lesbian people in the ministry of the Anglican Church. Other groups, too, are helping to open the church to all worshippers, such as Faith and Equality, a religious website for LGBT youth and families.

Change may be slow to come, but Carr is optimistic about the future. “There were times when we didn’t allow interracial marriages in churches; well that looks silly now,” she said.


– Ashleigh Mattern is a freelance writer and copy editor based in Saskatoon.

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