“We are sorry, and we repent.”
That’s the message sent last month by the Presbyterian Church in Canada (PCC) to “all those harmed by homophobia and hypocrisy by and within the church.”
The letter was written by PCC moderator Peter Bush, who is also Minister at Westwood Presbyterian Church here in Winnipeg.
In it the denomination apologizes and repents for how its churches failed “to be safe and welcoming places” for people “who do not identify as heterosexual,” and for being judgmental and excluding others “based on restrictive gender definitions.”
It also says sorry for “our failure to protect” LGBTQ* people who have been “attacked and brutalized,” for failing “to hold people accountable for abuse and hatred” for not speaking up when such attacks occurred.
It also apologizes for putting “more emphasis on a person’s sexual identity than on their identity in Christ.”
The letter concludes by noting that the denomination is committed to “go in a new way and to be a welcoming church,” and to create a “safe place” where “experiences of LGBTQ* people will be told and heard.”
I called Bush. I asked him how the letter has been received.
“The reaction has been generally positive,” he said, noting that it went through a number of drafts over period of seven months and was read by “respected leaders” and others before being released.
“Some think it goes too far, while others think it doesn’t go far enough,” he added.
I noted that the PCC was called on to repent in this way 18 years ago, in 1994, when a report on human sexuality was delivered to the denomination. What took so long?
Bush admitted it took “an embarrassingly long time” for the letter to be issued. But he didn’t think there was anything nefarious in the delay.
“It was part of a larger debate about human sexuality” in the denomination, he said.
The debate, he noted, is about whether clergy can perform same-sex weddings, or if LBGTQ* people can be ordained.
“I don’t think it was intentional, it just got lost for a while,” he said.
I asked: What does he hope the letter will accomplish?
“I hope it will help church reflect on the ways we have done wrong, and on the ways in which the church has been shaped by that wrong, and how it needs to be re-shaped,” he said.
And what will that new shape look like?
“I hope it will cause us to ask if we really are a hospitable church,” he says. “We want everyone to know they are welcome through our doors, to be a part of the life of our congregations.”
So far, there isn’t a lot of reaction to the letter on the denomination’s website. But what’s there is overwhelmingly positive; so far, only one person left a negative comment.
I contacted three Presbyterian Ministers. Two of them also felt good about it.
“It’s a good letter, we needed to do it,” said Matthew Brough, Minister at Prairie Presbyterian Church here in Winnipeg.
“It is the right thing to do,” he added, noting that “there are still bigger issues still to be discussed.”
Barbara Pilozow, Minister at Winnipeg’s St. John’s Presbyterian Church, also welcomed the letter.
“It says exactly what we need to say,” she saod, adding that “our treatment of LGBTQ* people has been embarrassing in the least, terrible at most.”
“It’s our responsibility to apologize, and to find God’s will for in all of this for us.”
But another pastor I contacted, who didn’t want to be named, is very disappointed.
For him, the letter shows how the denomination has been “hijacked” by a “liberal agenda that is so divorced from where the core of the church is.”
This issue, he said, “is killing” the denomination.
Bush acknowledged the issue is causing anxiety for some in the denomination—on both sides of the debate.
While he doesn’t think churches will leave because of the letter, what the church decides about the issue of same-sex marriage and ordination of LGBTQ* people could cause “some seismic shifts.”
Pilozow agreed; the church, she said, is not unified on this issue, both among clergy and in congregations.
“This is a hard conversation to have, she said. But, in the end, “it’s God’s church. It will survive no matter what happens.”
Read the full letter here.