He quotes Leonard Cohen from the pulpit, gives sermons on the links between best picture Oscar nominees and life’s eternal questions, and now Vancouver’s hippest minister is also the first openly gay leader of the United Church of Canada.
Metro got a chance to interview him Friday morning, the day after he was elected from among 15 contenders for the position.
Metro: I’ll start with the obvious: How does it feel to be the first openly gay man to head any mainstream Christian denomination?
GP: It feels humbling, and the exciting thing for me is, at least within the United Church community, it’s really been a non-story. I was very clear in the opening biography that was sent to people that I’ve been partnered with my spouse [Vancouver city Coun. Tim Stevenson] for 30 years, and we have raised children, but that was just a description of my life. It wasn’t ‘I am a gay person.’ And so to recognize that this community has said, ‘Yes, we’ve worked on this issue for 24 years, since 1988, [the year when the church declared anyone who professes faith in Jesus Christ can be a member or be ordained, regardless of sexual orientation] we’ve made some historic decisions, and this feels like a very logical, sensible and low-key new step in that journey.
On the other hand, I recognize that for many denominations, and for many places in the world, to have someone lead a church who is openly gay is a surprise and perhaps problematic, so I’m looking forward to having conversations. I’ve often discovered in my own journey that when people are in conversation with a real person, rather than a theoretical construct that is often associated with fear or rumour or prejudice, then they begin to change.
M: What effect do you think this will have on society’s perception of the church?
GP: I’m hoping that they’ll say, “Ahh, this is a church that interprets the gospel, God’s love, as being available for everyone.” The United Church is an inclusive community, and so I’m hoping that the larger society will say, ‘Ahh’, not only for people who are specifically gay or lesbian, but I’ve often found that many people will say ‘I am not, but I want to be with a community that takes that stance’. So I’m hoping it will be a statement that we have an open mind, an open heart, and an open door.
M: You have a way of making peace in tense situations, such as during last November’s mayoral debate on homelessness in Vancouver, during which Occupy protesters repeatedly interrupted the candidates. What is your secret?
GP: To keep centred myself, always, and to do that with a quick prayer or to recognize that I’m being held by the Spirit. But the other is to always see the other person, even somebody who can be loud or in-your-face, that there’s grace there as well.
I was spending some sabbatical time this last spring in Israel and in Palestine, and I visited a community, and they had a big rock. It was a Palestinian community surrounded by settlements, but there was a stone saying “We refuse to be enemies.” I’ve held that. So when the Occupy folk came in, I said, “Friends! Neighbours! We need to work on this together, because we share so many values. We may disagree on our strategies, but can we work for a recognition of respect? And try carefully to listen to each other.”
M: In your campaign speech for moderator (begins at 30-minute mark) you mentioned the need for the church to build relationships with First Nations, the imprisoned, the homeless, and Mother Earth. What will you tackle first and how will you do it?
GP: I don’t have an answer to that. They’re all important, and one of the things I often find is that you start dealing with the neighbour that God places directly in front of you. The work of our present moderator has been around the environment and climate change, and so I see us continuing that with passion, absolute passion.
I think our commitment to relationships with First Nations Peoples needs constant attention. We are in the midst of Truth and Reconciliation hearings, and I’m hoping to be a voice that would encourage all Canadians, new and old and of multi-colours, to go to those hearings and to listen to the stories. I’ve been told by First Nations brothers and sisters that the worst thing that could happen is that they’re telling their stories to themselves, and that they hear from the country by non-attendance that nobody really cares. We’ve just this morning heard stories from what’s happening for aboriginal children across the land, and it breaks one’s heart. And so I think that is something not just for the church, but for our entire nation to address, not with beating and guilt, nor excusing ourselves by saying, “Well I wasn’t there 50 years ago when the (residential) schools were started.” I want to help us hear the stories that are happening right now, and offer compassion and a movement toward change and a renewed relationship. And if Canada cannot get right its relationship with First Nations, then we have missed it. We’ve missed it. I could get a little choked about that.