On a January evening in Toronto, a dozen or so congregants filter in from the cold into the surprising mauve, green and yellow interior of a stately old church in a leafy west-end neighbourhood.
They stand to sing Marty Haugen’s “Here in this Place New Light is Streaming,” and listen as the Rev. Samantha Caravan, clad in rainbow vestments, asks for inspiration “to speak a new word, to shout another praise.” Caravan reads a passage from St. Peter’s letter, in which he addresses the persecuted early church: “Once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”
A sermon is preached on the need for a faith of inclusion, after which the congregation affirms that it will not “patronize, exclude or ignore the gifts of any person.”
The group stands in a circle around the altar and takes the bread and wine. Together, they offer themselves to be leaders of liberation and proclaimers of divine love. To the much-beloved Thaxted tune, they sing, “Let streams of living justice flow down upon the earth,” before gathering for refreshments and chat.
It’s “queer Eucharist” night at St. John’s West Toronto.
It was last fall, says Caravan, the church’s incumbent priest, when she first suggested having a special Eucharist for LGBTQ people at St. John’s. The church’s historic condemnation of homosexuality, Caravan says, has caused a lot of hurt to non-heterosexuals; a lot of them have left the church as a result. The idea behind the “queer Eucharist,” she says, was to welcome them back and to offer them “a safe place to explore what the church and faith might mean to them.”
Not everyone in her congregation was happy with the idea. It wasn’t the congregation as a whole, she says, which has a proud tradition of embracing marginalized people. The doubts were among its LGBTQ members.
Some, she says, objected to the term “queer,” which still carries a derogatory overtone. Others felt a separate Eucharist wasn’t necessary.
But, Caravan says, “I won them over, and here we are!”
With the permission of her bishop, Caravan uses liturgies written by LGBTQ people for The Episcopal Church, and generally invites LGBTQ clerics to preach and preside.
The church has been celebrating a monthly “queer Eucharist” since September. Attendance is modest–the January service, attended by a dozen of the faithful, makes the roomy interior of St. John’s seem cavernous. Nevertheless, says congregant Robert Townshend, momentum for the service is building. “I think, as time goes by, it’s going to get bigger and bigger, because we’re getting members from other churches that are coming in and supporting it.”
On February 16, the “queer Eucharist “will feature an unusually prominent preacher. Archbishop Fred Hiltz, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, is slated to preach a sermon, “Reflections from Canterbury,” and talk with congregants about the Primates’ Meeting in January, which saw The Episcopal Church censured for its embrace of same-sex marriage.
The “queer Eucharist” is not the only way St. John’s West Toronto has been trying to reach out to LGBTQ people. In late 2014, backed by a $28,870 grant from the diocese, it created a new position-a director of youth ministry tasked with reaching out to young people in the high school-rich neighbourhood, including LGBTQ people in particular.
Since December 2014, youth minister Meagh Culkeen has been organizing youth activities and events, meeting with gay-straight alliances in high schools and counselling-“listening without judgment and helping kids listen to God’s story in their own lives.” Over the next few months, Culkeen-who doesn’t strongly identify with either gender and prefers to be referred to as “they”-will be starting a drop-in program at the church for local kids who have nowhere to be after school.
Culkeen recognizes how people can have mixed views about a separate service for non-heterosexuals.
“I think it’s really important that we understand that LGBTQ people need to be part of the body. It’s not that we get a special little room off to the side-we have to be part of the whole thing.”
On the other hand, Culkeen says, while LGBTQ people continue to be marginalized, there’s value to a service in which their uniqueness is celebrated. “It’s a very powerful experience to come together and see each other-just be seen and to look at each other and say, ‘We’re here, and God is working in us.’ ”
It’s also important for LGBTQ people who may have left the church to know that it’s possible to be both queer and Christian, Culkeen adds. “I think, often, because queer people have been rejected from spiritual spaces, sometimes queer people have lost touch with their own need for a spiritual life.”
It’s unfortunate that LGBTQ people have not played a more prominent role in the church, Culkeen says, because, as marginalized people, they often have lived experience of a powerful biblical theme, that of exile-which could allow them to contribute powerfully to the church’s life.
Speaking to the Anglican Journal after the “queer Eucharist,” Catherine Kilelu, a Kenyan woman who spends a lot of her time in Toronto, agrees about the importance of affirming that there’s nothing wrong with being LGBTQ and Christian.
“I think the conflict that people have, that you have to choose either, is one of the things that is peddled out there,” Kilelu says.
In Kenya, a church that attempted to be more inclusive of LGBTQ people was recently expelled from its larger body, says her girlfriend, also originally from Kenya, who identifies herself only as Sarah.
One of the things she likes about the “queer Eucharist,” Sarah says, is its “progressive” liturgy.
“It is more open. It is more inclusive,” she says. “I think it acknowledges difference, which for me is important…If you’re part of a faith community, you want to feel like you’re welcome.”