BY INGRID BROWN Associate editor — special assignments firstname.lastname@example.org
VANCOUVER, Canada — Tim Stephenson is a former Canadian government minister, a current city councillor of Vancouver, and an ordained pastor, while Reverend Gary Paterson holds one of the highest positions in the United Church of Canada as its elected leader/moderator.
But the extensive political and religious accomplishments of both men are not what these two Canadians are most known for.
In Stephenson's case, it is the title of being the first openly gay man to be ordained a church minister in Canada, while for Paterson, it is the historic election of a gay man as moderator within this once ultra-conservative denomination.
The two, who have been legally married for the greater part of the 33 years and have lived together as partners, sat down at City Hall earlier last week to have a frank discussion with a Jamaica delegation of journalists and policymakers here in Vancouver participating in a knowledge exchange sesson organised by Panos Caribbean in partnership with Simon Fraser University and the Vancouver Initiative.
"We sometimes define ourselves as church and state sleeping together," Stephenson quipped as he began the conversation.
He added further, "it took me 12 years to get ordained as a minister as the church wrestled with the issue".
Both men have been previously married to women, with Paterson fathering three daughters from his union.
As a member of Canada's New Democratic Party, Stephenson said he was elected as the first openly gay member of the legislature, then deputy speaker of the House, and subsequently cabinet minister, before his party lost power after a five-year stint in office.
Following this defeat, Stephenson said he returned to the church congregation to serve as minister before heading back to politics, this time to run for City Councillor 11 years ago. He has been re-elected four times, and was also appointed the Canadian representative to China.
Paterson had been ordained as the lead minister in the church before he disclosed his status as a gay man.
"The church struggled with me and Tim as ministers, although I was ordained when I was a married man," he said.
Explaining the journey, Paterson said the United Church started to do educational work around homosexuality as far back as the 1980s, staging various workshops to help people get comfortable with the issue.
"In 1984, we produced the first report that there should be no contradiction between being Christian and gay," he said, adding that there was extensive consultation done across Canada.
Out of this it was recommended that gay men and lesbians be allowed full membership in the church. Not everybody took the news with an open heart and mind, as about 10 per cent left the church. However, Paterson said, for the most part, the other 90 per cent were comfortable with the decision. Currently, 20 per cent of the church's members are gay.
In the discussions that followed, Paterson said the evangelical church accused them of not being Christians, while the Catholics avoided the issue altogether.
Now, he says a large number of the church's membership consists of "refugees" from evangelical churches; persons he said have been "damaged" by their old church's beliefs.
"A lot of gay persons went to church because there is a belief that if you pray to Jesus you won't be gay, but psychological studies prove there is just cessation of sex," he said.
As such, Paterson said a part of his ministry is to reach out to people who have been badly damaged by the Christian church.
Turning to the biblical stance on homosexuality, Paterson said Jesus Christ never had anything to say about homosexuality, but had a lot to say about divorce and yet the church has been able to find ways to get around the dissolution of marriage.
"In fact, Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed because of the people's inhospitality, and not because of the act of homosexuality," he opined.
Questioned as to whether there is some truth to the statement that the gay community is becoming the most powerful and influential group on the planet Paterson dismissed the notion.
"That statement is ridiculous and comes from fear... sometimes gay people have influence and sometimes they don't," he said.
As a lawmaker, Stephenson was instrumental in allowing gay Canadian men to adopt children and to change the definition of the word 'spouse'.
In fact, Paterson believes children raised by gay couples are stronger and more resilient, as they learn how to deal with differences and how to cope with bullying at school.
Paterson, who said he discovered his love for men from age 13, said he initially told his wife he was bisexual, but she was willing to give the relationship a chance.
"We had seven years of marriage, and when it ended we made a decision to share the parenting of the girls and not live more than 10 blocks away from each other," he said.
Stephenson, who left his five-year marriage without fathering any children, said he quickly fit into the parenting role.
The men said they usually travel around the world on vacation as a couple and are looking forward to visiting Jamaica, although they have heard the stories that "it is a difficult place for gay people".
They however expressed optimism that the Jamaican buggery laws will eventually be repealed.
"I think Jamaica will change its laws and things will get different," Paterson said.
The couple say they have been invited to the United Church in Bermuda and are looking forward to sharing there.