New Possibilities: An Interview with Gary Paterson
Although the United Church is in the midst of exile, new possibilities are unfolding, says Moderator-elect Gary Paterson. These possibilities include everything from house churches to new communication methods and beyond.
“We need to hang loose a little and see what possibilities are going to emerge,” he said in an interview the day after his election. “I am also so excited by what I’m seeing.”
Paterson noted that during a recent sabbatical in Jerusalem he learned about the more than 20 times the city was conquered and restored. As a “fan of the prophet Jeremiah,” he said he felt like he heard Jeremiah’s voice saying, “Exile is a reality that happens...but don’t be afraid because God is with you in the exile and there will be something new.”
He added that while he was in Jerusalem among colleagues in the Catholic and Orthodox churches, he came to understand “the wonderful vision” of the United Church that includes its commitment to inclusion and theological vision.
“We’re in a tough time and I would never want [the United Church’s] voice lost,” he said.
Paterson describes the newly emerging United Church as being in the midst of a “double narrative.” On one hand, he said, there will be serious difficulties, referring to a recent suggestion that as many as 50 United Churches may be closing in British Columbia. On the other hand, he noted that the church is not just about palliative care or hand wringing.
He compared possible new models of the church to the biblical story of the resurrection and the fact that the disciples did not recognize Jesus. “Will that be true of the church--that we might not even recognize how we will look in a resurrected form?”
During the interview he recounted the process he went through before deciding to run for Moderator. When people first asked him to consider allowing his name to stand as a nominee, Paterson declined. “There was almost a Jonah moment of trying to run away from it, saying it would be so disruptive.” While he consulted with his spouse and friends, he says his humility also led him to ask, “Really? Me?... God, find someone else!”
Another reservation he had was the move to Toronto that becoming Moderator would require. Some of his fears of disruption were alleviated, he said, when he discovered that while he was in Jerusalem, his congregation of St. Andrew’s-Wesley United Church in Vancouver operated very well without him under the care of his part-time associate, Kathryn Ransdell. Now that he has been elected Moderator, tentative plans are for Ransdell to assume main duties at the congregation, with the possibility of other ministry staff being added.
The 63-year-old Paterson is married to Tim Stevenson, who is currently a Vancouver city councillor and who made history as the first openly gay person to be ordained in The United Church of Canada 20 years ago. In June, they celebrated their 30th year of being together. He is the father of three girls from a previous marriage and has four grandchildren.
When asked about his spiritual practices, the Moderator-elect said his primary spiritual practice will change with his new role as Moderator. Every morning he usually takes a 40-minute walk along the sea wall in Vancouver, giving thanks for creation and sometimes saying the mantra, “Lord Jesus Christ, you are the light of the world. Fill my mind with your peace; fill my heart with your love.” He quipped that people probably think “he’s one of those who mutter to himself.”
He says other important spiritual practices that sustain his faith include music and singing, silent retreats, and the process of creating sermons and preaching. Paterson says there are house churches in England, Scotland, and two in Ontario that use his sermons, which he posts on the Internet, to stimulate discussion.
When asked what unique gifts he brings to the role of Moderator, he spoke of being a good speaker and of his love of language. “I stopped being a closet gay person, but I’m still a closet poet,” he said. He added that he has a strong sense of theology and appreciates intellectual gifts. He calls himself intense and passionate. “I hope I blend heart and mind,” he commented.
Although he said his sexual orientation has not been an issue during the election, he admits that he knows what it’s like being a stranger on the outside.
“One of the gifts of the United Church is, in fact, its invitation to gay and lesbian people to say, ‘You aren’t the strangers, the outsiders. You are welcomed and you are home.’ I’ve seen that at times as a particular calling, not a main emphasis,” he said. “To people who have come to our congregations who have been wounded by other Christian traditions we want to say, with due respect, those traditions have done poor theology and poor biblical work. Christian and gay – those are not exclusive terms.”