Smithers United Church becomes first affirming ministry north of Prince George

Affirming ministries are inclusive of all sexual orientations and gender identities

A photo from the official Sept. 15 ceremony performed by a pastor within the United Church’s Affirming Ministries program. The program takes already inclusive churches through a journey designed with the purpose of understanding exactly what it means to be a welcoming denomination within the context of the unique challenges faced by 2SLGBTQ+ folk. Smithers United Church is the only church north of Prince George that has joined the program. (Contributed photo)

The votes are in and it’s official.

One church in Smithers is trying to do more for the 2SLGBTQ+ community.

The United Church in Smithers is being recognized as the first official participant of the denomination’s “Affirming Ministries” program.

On Sept. 14 Pastor Debby Bentham and the Smithers United Church (SUC) were presented with an affirming certificate in a ceremony by Victoria Andrews, a regional minister with the United Church of Canada.

The program takes already inclusive churches through a journey designed with the purpose of understanding exactly what it means to be a welcoming denomination within the context of the unique challenges faced by 2SLGBTQ+ folk.

But as Bentham told The Interior News, this goes well beyond being accepting or welcoming.

“You actually have to commit as a community of faith to going through being open to a transformational journey. So it’s not just about writing a mission statement that shows we’re inclusive, it’s about [engaging] in a process and looking at ourselves.

“Are we willing to say, you know, what are my long held beliefs or traditions or feelings about people of different sexual orientations and gender identities … do I need to change? Do I need to expand?”

Discussing SUC’s own decision to begin the journey to become an affirming ministry she noted the initial discussions began shortly after Bentham gave the opening prayer at Smithers first ever Pride celebration, held in the summer of 2018.

“It was very well received at the first gathering and from there we thought, well what would it mean for us to go through this process? That was a kind of starting point.”

Bentham said that although she felt SUC’s denomination was relatively welcoming, she felt an obligation to do more.

“I thought what if we have a different voice or different perspective on what it means to be Christian and what it means to follow the way of Christ … and yet I never say anything, you know?”

From there, the process began, with Smithers Secondary School (SSS) teacher and sponsor for the school’s Gender Sexuality Alliance (GSA) program Perry Rath one of the essential links in helping the ministry move along in the affirmation process.

“[It] was just so moving and so amazing to have a Christian voice within the 2SLGBTQ+ movement in Smithers,” said Rath.

He said when he heard SUC was the first ever United Church north of Prince George in the Province to receive the certification it was a bit of a surprise, but in the best way.

“It’s been a great process and everyone in the congregation has been so receptive to it … whenever I’ve been there to help out they’ve just been so open [to] talking about these topics and how they can do better.”

Rath said the support is especially important in an area like Smithers that might not necessarily have the supportive infrastructure for 2SLGBTQ+ folk that a larger city centre might be able to offer.

“It’s just so powerful that in a community like ours that we have a Christian voice that’s willing to fully be out there.”

Bentham said she found it especially helpful as someone who considers herself an ally but who wasn’t necessarily familiar with things such as non-binary language and preferred pronouns.

For some people this is the first time they’ve actually heard about these issues … so it was just a really open flow of listening and receiving and and being open to the new and understanding.

Another element of becoming an affirming ministry is showing a dedicated commitment to continuously being an ally for the 2SLGBTQ+ community and living out the concept of being an affirming ministry.

In this respect, the SUC has committed to providing space for the Pride Society to meet.

They are also in the final stages of planning an annual bursary that recognizes a student entering post-secondary education that shows leadership in the area of inclusivity at SSS.

Last but not least, denominations must vote.

Bentham said it’s recommended by the United Church that denominations do not move ahead with the affirmation process if they don’t receive at least 75 per cent support in a denomination-wide vote, as it can be too divisive within a community otherwise.

The SUC’s anonymous vote of the 50 or so members within their denomination was unanimous.

It’s something that Bentham said doesn’t happen very often.

“They were just beaming — the people were looking really proud that they had made this move as a congregation.”

Bentham hopes the move could be a larger signal that the times are changing, especially within more rural religious communities, between churches and the 2SLGBTQ+ community.

“I think it’s a sign of in some ways a new beginning for faith up north for a place for people to have a safe space who desire to explore their sexuality.

“I know another colleague in ministry, I know people who were turned away from churches and a colleague who was turned away from ministry 30 years ago and left the church for 30 years. So I think it opens the doors for a place for people to come back. I think it carries a huge work of reconciliation with it.”

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