Sworn in Saturday as the moderator of the United Church of Canada, Vancouver’s Rev. Gary Paterson is thought to be the first openly gay person to head a mainstream Christian denomination in the world. His election is being celebrated by the United Church.
“But it is an issue for some of the more conservative congregations,” Paterson, the pastor of St. Andrew’s Wesley United Church on Burrard Street, told the Courier Monday morning. “So I’m looking at international gatherings like the World Council of Churches as opportunities for conversation and dialogue. There’s a lot of misinformation out there, so I’d rather sit down with people and say, ‘Here I am. I was ordained 35 years ago, I helped raise three kids, I have four grandchildren and I’m a good minister, so let’s talk.’”
Paterson’s new position began immediately, but since everyone involved was exhausted from the election, which included six ballots and eight hours of voting culminating at his win in Ottawa on the weekend, a two-week break was approved. The job, for which Paterson was recruited to run by a group within the United Church pays between $119,000 and $135,000 annually. Over the course of his three-year term Paterson will spend about 12 months on the road, 12 months in Toronto and the rest in Vancouver. Following the announcement of the results, the 350 voting commissioners attending the 41st General Council of the United Church meeting at Carleton University rose to their feet in a standing ovation and cheered.
John Stackhouse, professor of theology and culture at UBC’s Regent College, said the United Church has long recognized that the moderator position is more about symbols than power.
“The church bureaucracy, like civil servants in government, has mostly run the denominational machinery for decades,” said Stackhouse in an email. “It’s a shame, then, that Dr. Paterson, who seems to be an energetic pastor who has helped bring growth to a small urban congregation in Vancouver, is being reduced to a sexuality symbol. He is, I am sure, much more than that, and I do wish the United Church could say unequivocally that his election was entirely based on his leadership credentials, and not on his symbolic value.”
An urgent family matter brought Paterson home immediately following Saturday’s ceremony and the Courier spoke with him Monday while he was on a B.C. Ferry headed for Vancouver Island. Paterson will spend September and much of the fall in Toronto learning the ropes, with plans to be home for Christmas. Paterson is married to Vision Vancouver Coun. Tim Stevenson, who is also a United Church minister, and the pair recently celebrated 30 years together.
Stevenson said he might not be the best person to ask about Paterson’s new role.
“Because I am completely and totally biased,” he said laughing during a phone conversation Monday morning. “But Gary is a very compassionate human being, he has a sharp intellect and the gift of oratory. He was the right person in the right place at the right time.”
Paterson said the job is about so much more than the church and he said he is not afraid to mix religion with politics. He believes the Earth should be honoured and not exploited for immediate economic gain, which he fears will be the result of the Enbridge Northern Gateway project. If approved the project will see twin oil pipelines built between Alberta and Kitimat, B.C.
“It’s not just the calling of the church,” said Paterson. “It’s the whole world God loved.”