Bradford United Church is becoming the town’s first officially affirming church in support of the LGBTQ community.
It means the church will go beyond just welcoming LGBTQ people, but also change its mission statement and work for justice and inclusion within their congregation and community.
“It just seems right to me,” said the church’s Rev. Jim Keenan. “People are people. They come in tremendous varieties. Diversity is not just a cliche. It’s a discovery of the kaleidoscope of … beauty that shines in the world.”
For Bradford United Church congregation member Maggie Kerr, who is a lesbian, the decision is a huge gesture to all LGBTQ people.
“The difference between being welcoming and affirming is all about whether one can regard me as fully human or not,” she said.
“Welcoming but not affirming leaves room for people to tell me that my ‘lifestyle’ is contrary to the will of God. To be part of an affirming church means for me: to be noticed, listened to, to be interested in my life outside the church, and to feel fully included and not tolerated.”
To join the affirming movement, the church had to study and reflect on issues of sexual orientation, gender identity and faith.
The church congregation voted two years ago at its annual meeting to explore the affirming process, and it voted last year to amend its marriage policy to allow same-sex couples to marry at Bradford United Church.
Members of the congregation have attended workshops, watched informational videos, and met in groups to discuss the issue during the last couple years, Keenan said.
Earlier this year, the congregation officially voted in favour of affirming.
Its new mission station reads: “We live out our mission as an inclusive, progressive, life affirming community within the United Church of Canada, welcoming people of all ages, race, sexual orientation, gender identity, physical and mental ability, economic circumstance and marital status. All who join us in this faith journey are invited to take part in every aspect of our church life.”
A celebration will be held on June 10 at 10 a.m. and will include a certificate presentation, speakers, potluck, and music.
Keenan said each United church is allowed to make its own policies about whether to welcome LGBTQ members, and that the option of affirming was raised by previous ministers at Bradford United Church but opposed by some members of the congregation.
He said he hopes the current decision will help break down prejudices.
“The root of homophobia in our society comes from religion. As this (acceptance of LGBTQ people) becomes the norm and something we celebrate, I think it makes it easier for parents to accept and celebrate their (children),” he said.
“We either welcome people as human beings or we don’t. Why are you focusing on how people copulate?”
Brandon Rhéal Amyot, president of Fierté Simcoe Pride, said they know of a handful of churches around Simcoe County that have become affirming, including two in Barrie, one in Orillia, and one in Muskoka.
“It’s definitely important because, especially in the early 2000s when the topic of marriage equality was being discussed … the United Church was one of the first out there really fighting for (it),” they said.
The affirming process is “lengthy,” and that shows “the church has demonstrated (its desire to) grow and learn within our community.”
Barrie’s Pride parade is June 10, the same day as Bradford United Church’s celebration, and many other Pride events will take place throughout Canada in June, Amyot said.
Fierté Simcoe Pride’s events will take place in late July.
Jeffrey Dale, youth ministries co-ordinator at Grace United Church in Barrie, who is gay, said the affirming process is about creating a space where people know they are “intentionally welcomed.”
“The reality for us in the United Church of Canada is that most of our congregations are made up of heterosexual people, and for a congregation that is predominantly heterosexual to go through the intentional process of becoming affirming, lets people like myself know that I am welcome, and invited to join their congregation in every aspect,” he said.
“I believe very strongly that by becoming an affirming congregation, like Bradford has, a congregation is opening themselves up to the true mission of the church — for God does teach us to love our neighbour as ourselves, and that takes works. It takes concerted effort. Bradford is now officially a church that can truly say, all are welcome.”