Rev. Susan Mabey in her Toronto classroom. Photo by Jill Kitchener
Rev. Susan Mabey in her Toronto classroom. Photo by Jill Kitchener

Topics: UCC in Focus | LGBTQ2S+, Society

Three LGBTQ people explain what the United Church’s 1988 decision meant to them

Twenty-five years ago, the United Church said yes to openly gay and lesbian ministers. Three people who were caught in the storm look back on the year that changed everything.


Rev. Susan Mabey applied to be ordained in the United Church in the early 1980s. She was refused, setting in motion a chain of events that led to the decision of 1988. She told her story to Ken Gallinger.

Q What drove you to want to be a minister?

A I was alone in a football field in the middle of winter, snow coming down. And I was suicidal. I was 16, and my guidance counsellor said that unless I accepted myself as homosexual, there was nothing more she could do for me. I thought my life was over, so I found myself kneeling down, in the middle of this field, praying, “God, if you can do anything with my life, take it. No one else can do anything for me.” And a voice came down and said, “Go home and go into the ministry.” That’s what I did.

Q You were a Presbyterian then . . .

A That’s right. But when I applied to them, they said, “How can you be a minister when women are supposed to be quiet in church?” Then I married a male United Church candidate for ministry and transferred to the United Church, where we went through the process together. By 1981, I was coming up to my final ordination interview. By this time, my husband and I had separated. I was to be interviewed about my “mental, emotional and moral fitness” for ministry, so I figured they had a right to know why we were apart. I told them I was still a lesbian; I had been out as a teenager and now knew, again, who I was. I never thought it would leave the room.

Q You thought you were telling them in confidence?

A Yes. Well, there wasn’t an expectation of privacy, necessarily. I was just naive. It never occurred to me this would make things so difficult. But apparently Hamilton Conference had decided, after Sylvia Dunstan was ordained the year before, that they would not ordain “self-declared homosexuals” until the national church made a ruling. And their interpretation was that I was now “self-declared.” So the process stopped.

Q What did you do?

A I was serving as trained lay supply at St. Paul’s United in Toronto; at the time, they were amalgamating with Trinity United. I had told some St. Paul’s people what had happened, and they were outraged. But the people at Trinity found out I was lesbian, and there was quite a campaign launched. It took them another whole year to drive me out, by changing the job description. But then I was gone.

Q Was that the end of your relationship to the United Church?

A Well, I was running around Toronto Conference being the poster child for lesbians in the church. I spoke all over the place about “The Issue.” But the dismissal from Trinity-St. Paul’s was the last straw. There were other gays and lesbians in the church, hiding behind positions of power and privilege. It was time for them to start carrying the torch. But they wouldn’t support me.

Q Has the United Church ever apologized to you?

A There was an apology in 1998. Unfortunately, I wasn’t really ready to hear it then. There had been a lot of fallout from not being ordained, the worst of which was having to give up custody of my son. I didn’t know how long I could battle the United Church on the issue; it was brutal. I didn’t want to bring all that pain down on my child, so I relinquished custody. I am in a better place to receive the apology now than I was then.

Q Where did that brutality come from?

A It was an ethos that was always there. People kept saying, “It’s nothing personal, but . . .” Well, what could be more personal? Even people I called the Gliberals would say, “Oh, don’t leave the church. We really need you.” And I would say, “Then help me find a job.”

Q Eventually you were ordained in the Metropolitan Community Church. How did that happen?

A By the summer of 1983, Sylvia Dunstan and I were living together, and life had a whole new meaning. Sylvia was quite involved in Affirm, but Affirm didn’t want to know me in those early days. The meetings were hush-hush, and because I was this poster child, no one wanted to be seen with me. But Sylvia and I were contacted by a tiny MCC congregation, Christos; they wanted one of us to speak. I told Sylvia, “They want you. I’m not even Christian anymore.” But in her inimitable way, she started probing my faith. Before she was done, I felt filled with the Spirit again and decided I was still looking for ministry — just looking in the wrong place. So I swallowed my pride and talked to Brent Hawkes [senior pastor at MCC]. I went through the hoops and was ordained in 1987. I became pastor of Christos, where I stayed nearly 15 years.

Q During your time there, you did your doctor of ministry. Your thesis was “When the Valley of the Shadow Is Littered with Bones.” Why such a provocative title?

A When you do your D.Min., you focus on a problem in your congregation. At Christos, I was over my head with AIDS and death. Literally everyone was dying; we had no idea what was going to happen. So I decided to look at how multiple bereavements affect the spiritual journey.

Q How did it affect your journey?

A Being with people who are dying deepened my faith. The dying person usually is at peace and has a sense of being surrounded by the cloud of witnesses. Liturgically, things like “This is my body, this is my blood” became extremely powerful; you’re talking about a disease of the blood that affects the body. Then, when Sylvia died [of cancer], I was devastated. And it decimated the congregation, too. It basically fell apart. She had been appointed my associate pastor; she hadn’t left the United Church yet but was going to. Christos was used to all the men dying. But to have a woman die, one of their pastors, was just too much. As for me, I survived, but I didn’t know if I could do ministry. I carried on for a while, but it was never the same after that.

Q In 2002, you left ministry and went into teaching. Do you miss ministry?

A It was an excruciating decision. I really believe my vocation is preaching and teaching. But there was nowhere to go. MCC is a tiny denomination. And I wasn’t willing to go through all the hoops of returning to the United Church. I did go to meet with officials of Toronto Conference, but they were talking about all these courses I would have to take. But both of my degrees are from Emmanuel! Hello?

Q Did you feel, even in 2002, that they were putting up artificial barriers?

A Yes.

Q Do you miss ministry?

A Yes. I mostly miss the preaching; I’m a good preacher. And I miss the liturgical life. We [my partner and I] have had a hard time finding a place to worship. We wanted good preaching, good worship and a place for our daughter. So we’ve ended up at Jubilee United, in Toronto.

Q So you’re back in the United Church!

A Well, there’s good liturgy at Jubilee. But I’m back in a congregation, not The United Church of Canada.

Q Do you have any interest in being back in The United Church of Canada?

A No. I have no desire to get into the politics, the “Oh my God, we’re losing members” and “How do we keep the roof on this building?” I’m six years away from retiring from teaching. I can imagine a third career, doing grief counselling, working in a hospice, whatever. That would meet some unmet needs. But I still have a great deal of emotion when I think about the United Church. Tears aren’t always my first response — but they still come easily.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Author Marc Colbourne (left) and his parents.
Author Marc Colbourne (left) and his parents.

Author Marc Colbourne was a closeted 14-year-old when the United Church voted to allow gay and lesbian ministers in 1988. The decision unleashed his father’s homophobia, tearing the family apart. Eventually, the church healed — and so did they.
By Marc Colbourne

When I was 14, I spent a lot of time alone in front of my bedroom mirror. Not practising the lyrics to the latest Bon Jovi song or what I was going to say to that girl in school, as my friends might have been doing. No. I was practising how to stand, walk, hold my wrists, talk. I was practising how to hide.

When I was 14, I knew I was gay. I may not have understood the difficult feelings I was having, but I knew enough to realize I had to conceal this fact from the world. I couldn’t show weakness or allow a snap of my wrist or a lighter-than-normal step to reveal my secret.

It was 1988, and the United Church had just announced that gay men and lesbians could be ordained and commissioned. With that one statement, my world fell apart. My father had never been silent in his homophobia, but the church’s public announcement gave him permission to voice his hatred more freely than ever before. I shed many tears at night wondering if his hatred included me. For the first time, I no longer felt secure in his love. In front of my sisters and me, my mother said little about the United Church’s decision and didn’t protest when my father declared he was leaving the church. I took her silence as agreement.

This was a huge change for my family. My father was one of the most active members of our rural Newfoundland congregation. Every Sunday, our entire family sat in a pew on the same side of the sanctuary, closer to the front than to the back. The Observer was a constant coffee-table reminder of our beliefs. And now, all of a sudden, our faith was being challenged.

For a while, my sisters and I kept attending church with my mother. At home, my father continued his tirades, and I became more desperate than ever to hide. I soon realized that siding with him would be the perfect cover, and I stopped going to church as well. This didn’t mean, however, that God was gone from my life. Quite the opposite. I prayed every night: “Please, God, allow me to wake up straight — or don’t let me wake up at all.” But each morning, I opened my eyes and knew nothing had changed.

My father eventually returned to church but with the intention of fighting the broadened acceptance of homosexuality from within.

When I was 20, I decided I could no longer hide. It was like my whole life belonged to someone else — my accomplishments, past experiences and even my disappointments. I was losing myself and, for the first time, I wondered if it would be easier on everyone if I weren’t around. I had reached the point where the ramifications of keeping my secret were more frightening than the consequences of coming out. After what I thought would be my final visit home from university, I made the phone call. “Mom, Dad, I’m gay.”

My dad reacted immediately; he collapsed in sobs and hung up the phone. Years later, my mother filled me in: “I’ve never seen your father like that. He was crying and shaking. We went for a drive, just to get out of the house. We drove around talking, but nothing I could say would calm him down. Finally, I convinced him that we should call the minister. It was late, but Rev. Watkins agreed to meet us at the church.”

Rev. Lawrence Watkins took care of my parents that night, as he would over the coming days and weeks. He did everything right. He listened, empathized and normalized what my parents were going through. Perhaps most importantly, however, he prayed with them.

Support from the church kept coming — often when least expected. In May 1996, my mother opened The Observer to an article about a family whose faith had allowed them to embrace their two gay sons. “At that time, I was grasping for whatever support I could find without actually talking to anyone. That article told me that our family would survive too,” she says.

Of course, my father didn’t accept my being gay overnight — or even over the next months. But as he was working through his feelings, he made sure I knew that he never stopped loving me.

“I had to challenge a lot of what I thought was true,” he recalls. “I had to get over my hate. But I also had to get over the guilt I felt for everything I had ever said in front of you. And then, once I dealt with that, I had to do my own coming out.”

My father came out as having a gay son years later in 2003. A neighbouring congregation was holding an open discussion on whether it would bless same-sex unions. My mother couldn’t attend that evening, but my father was curious enough to go alone.

“A lot of people spoke. On both sides,” remembers my father. “But there was a lot of ignorance in the room. Some people were just hateful. One older gentleman stood up and . . . basically called gay people sick and inferior. I couldn’t stay quiet. I stood up and told my story. I talked about you. How you were intelligent, educated, had a good job. I said how proud I was of you. It wasn’t easy, but I was so angry. I came out that night. It felt good.”

After the meeting, several people thanked my father for sharing his story. The moderator of the panel invited him and my mother to speak at the next workshop. They discussed it and agreed.

My mother remembers it as an emotional yet powerful experience. “There were a lot of good questions. It was difficult, but we felt we had to do it. We talked about how having a gay son affected us, but we also talked about how having to hide for so many years affected you. We told them how the church and our faith helped us through it and that the decision their congregation was going to make was so important for other families like ours.”

In the end, the congregation voted against performing same-sex unions. My parents weren’t discouraged. They saw their own struggle mirrored in the journey of the denomination. They hadn’t come to a place of acceptance overnight, and neither would the church. At least people were talking about the issue.

“People were thinking about it. It wasn’t hidden anymore. People were being forced to think about where their beliefs came from,” my mother says.

This August marks 25 years since the United Church allowed gay men and lesbians into ordered ministry, and 25 years since my family began dealing with this emotional issue at home. We fell apart before coming back together. We may not have done it gracefully, but we did it. We came out of it stronger and more loving. Not unlike the church.

My father told me recently that there are two things he never thought he’d see in his lifetime: a black president of the United States and a gay moderator of the United Church. He’s seen both. “See how far we’ve come?” he muses. “By having a moderator who is gay, we show we are not just talking. We’re open and we’re inclusive. Maybe it wouldn’t have been so hard if you were coming out today.”

My mother adds, “In 1988, a lot of us thought we knew what was right and what the church should do. But a power above us influenced enough people to say there has to be change — we have to move on. Thank God the majority of people didn’t feel like we did or the church wouldn’t have been there for us when we needed it. . . . Thankfully, the decision wasn’t left to us but to someone who had a faith greater than our own.”

Marc Colbourne is a writer in Edmonton.

Rev. Tim Stevenson on the steps of Vancouver City Hall. Photo by Marlis Funk
Rev. Tim Stevenson on the steps of Vancouver City Hall. Photo by Marlis Funk

Rev. Tim Stevenson, the first openly gay person to be ordained in the United Church, reflects on 25 years of painstaking progress
By Gary Stephen Ross

Looking around at the 24 men and women who had been asked to consider opening up the United Church’s ordered ministry to gays and lesbians, Tim Stevenson figured maybe five on the committee supported the idea. So be it: he had his work cut out for him. The committee members had been chosen from among the 388 commissioners meeting in Victoria in 1988 for the United Church’s 32nd General Council. Stevenson, an openly gay graduate of the Vancouver School of Theology, had been invited to attend the session, along with Allison Rennie, a young lesbian on summer staff at the Naramata Centre, a United Church retreat facility in British Columbia. The idea was to ensure that gay voices could be called on as the commissioners deliberated.

The committee — chaired by Marion Best, a lay leader from British Columbia — was to consider a report, Toward a Christian Understanding of Sexual Orientation, Lifestyles and Ministry, and a binder filled with more than 1,800 responses to it, most adamantly opposed to the recommendation that sexual orientation need not be a barrier to ordered ministry. The first morning, many commissioners put their response binders on the table and set their Bibles on top. “You knew how they intended to vote,” Stevenson recalls.

But that week, something extraordinary happened. Through discussion and reflection, as the commissioners came to know Stevenson and Rennie, even the most conservative among them began to open up to gay ordination. “It’s one of the most remarkable things I’ve ever been through,” Stevenson says. “I had a sense of the Spirit with me. I felt I’d been preparing for this very thing all my life.”

Gays and lesbians went on to become ministers, of course, and Stevenson became known as “the gay ordination guy,” both because of his role in Victoria and because he would later become the first openly gay person ordained in the United Church. But for Stevenson, these were just two pioneering initiatives in a lifetime of firsts, a life far too diverse and nuanced — before and after 1988 — to be reduced to a single issue.

Born in 1945, Stevenson grew up in West Vancouver. His mother, a homemaker, and father, an executive with paper manufacturer Crown Zellerbach, were United Church members who introduced their three children to the faith. In his teens, Stevenson knew he was gay. But a homosexual was a dirty old man in an alley, the antithesis of the way he saw himself, so he bottled up his feelings, put the bottle in a cupboard and locked the cupboard door. “I got very good at it — the way you talked about women, laughing just the right amount at fag jokes and so on.”

There was a price to pay. Suppress your sexuality, he says, and you suppress your emotional being. “If you’d asked me how I felt, I wouldn’t have known what to say. I could tell you what I thought, but feelings? And yet I’d been an emotional child. As a kid, I used to walk and talk with God. People thought I’d become a minister, but the sexuality thing didn’t allow me to go down that path.”

Instead he spent his 20s working for Air Canada as a passenger agent, at the B.C. Ministry of Labour as an industrial relations officer, and as a salesman of geodesic domes. He married, but ultimately came out to his wife. They divorced, and after what he calls “a mystical, religious experience” at age 32, he went off to the University of British Columbia. He became president of Gay UBC and started Gay Week. He became the first openly gay person to go into seminary and was one of the founding members of Affirm, the national LGBT organization in the United Church. At the Vancouver School of Theology (VST), where he earned a master of theological studies, he discussed and debated gay issues from every angle — theological, sociological, historical, psychological.

By the time of the 1988 meeting in Victoria, then, he considered gay ordination a personal issue. But he also viewed it in the larger context. The church had been a progressive denomination since its founding in 1925. “We were the first to ordain women, in 1936, light years ahead of any other denomination,” says Stevenson, who today serves on Vancouver City Council and teaches religious studies at Vancouver’s Langara College. “Capital punishment, matters of social justice, abortion — we had always thoughtfully, carefully dealt with these difficult issues.” In 1988, he believed, the time had come to deal with gay and lesbian ordination.

That week, as the tide began to turn, the Community of Concern — an anti-gay ordination lobby group within the church — asked that John Howard be brought in. Howard, an evangelical Christian, was part of the “ex-gay” movement. His message was that he himself had felt impulses, but his faith had cured him. He believed people with gay feelings could rid themselves of their “sickness,” and put himself forward as Exhibit A.

“Emotions ran high all week,” Allison Rennie recalls. “Tim and I had very different ways of being in the room — ‘zeal’ is a word I associate with him — and I think we struck a good balance.” Stevenson remembers: “Day in, day out, people voiced their views and questions. We had deeply felt discussions, and one by one people came around. The word ‘conversion’ became real to me.” By week’s end, a consensus had been reached.

The commissioners issued a statement, Membership, Ministry and Human Sexuality. It says that “all persons regardless of their sexual orientation, who profess faith in Jesus Christ and obedience to Him, are welcome to be or become full members of The United Church of Canada” and that “all members of the Church are eligible to be considered for Ordered Ministry.”

How to report the outcome to the full General Council? All committee members would go onstage, to show solidarity, and commissioners from every region would address the room. Rennie and Stevenson were also invited onstage, an invitation Rennie found “terrifying and honouring.”

In the tense, highly charged atmosphere, as Stevenson was about to go up, security guards took him aside. There’d been a death threat. Stevenson was undeterred. “I’d put everything in my being into that committee,” he recalls. “I still get emotional thinking about it. I told the security people, ‘I have to go up.’” The committee shared its recommendation, and the General Council voted in favour.

Twenty-five years later, does he look back with pride on 1988? “It wasn’t about me,” he says over coffee in his corner office at Vancouver City Hall. “We’re all instruments at times, and I was a good instrument — I’d gone through huge suffering before I came out, and I was determined that young people in future wouldn’t have to. I was there to open their minds and hearts. I just followed my path, which I knew was the right one.”

Stevenson left Victoria “physically and emotionally spent.” And he knew that the end of the church’s long journey toward gay ordination would be just the start of another — toward his own.

Some church members believed that homosexuality was not intrinsically sinful, but acting on it was. “People used to say to me, ‘I could accept you as a gay minister, but I’m not sure I could accept you as a practising homosexual,’” Stevenson recalls. “I’d joke, ‘I got over the practising bit quite some time ago. I think I’ve gotten quite good at it.’”

Such disarming levity endeared him to some, but certainly not all. Many commissioners had been sent to Victoria by their Presbyteries to vote no. Now they had to go back home — to Newfoundland or Saskatchewan or southwestern Ontario — and explain their about-face. Like other members, Stevenson worried about backlash and damage to the church. He also understood it would be prudent to give people time to adjust before pursuing his own ordination.

Rt. Rev. Gary Paterson, the current United Church moderator and Stevenson’s partner since 1983, remembers the aftermath of 1988. “It was as if the church had had a haircut, looked in the mirror the next morning and said, ‘Oh my gosh, what have we done?’ Tim understood that the church needed time to grow into the decision, so he didn’t go forward with his ordination attempt right away.”

Instead, Stevenson returned to VST to pursue his master of divinity. He was fascinated by India and had an opportunity to go to Asia. Before it firmed up, however, Nelson Mandela was released after 27 years in prison. Stevenson jumped at the chance to become the first United Church of Canada representative in South Africa since the 1970s, when the denomination was expelled for opposing apartheid.

In Africa, at the Institute for Contextual Theology and the South African Council of Churches, he became acquainted with the liberation movements in Mozambique and Namibia. He found the work vital, engrossing and productive. Here was the church in action — social injustice confronted head-on.

By the time he returned to Canada, five months later, he’d had a remarkable education. “I came away with a different lens on liberation movements and how essential they are in repressive regimes. I saw again that change is never easy. The white population feared retaliatory violence. But Mandela wanted reconciliation, not revenge.”

Stevenson resumed his studies at VST. Completing his M.Div., he did an internship at St. Paul’s United in Burnaby, B.C., and became a volunteer chaplain at Normandy Hospital, an AIDS hospice in Vancouver. Ironically, an anti-gay crusader he knew ended up at Normandy. Frank Shears, who’d married and fathered children, was gravely ill. “He’d been trying to hold himself in, just as I’d done years earlier,” says Stevenson. “But then it all blew up.” Shears had gone on a sexual binge and contracted HIV.

Stevenson sat with him for many soul-searching hours. Close to death, Shears broke down. “He said to me, ‘Tim, I’ve told countless gay people that God hated them. How can I be forgiven for what I’ve done?’” Stevenson asked if he wanted to speak to a reporter friend, Douglas Todd, who wrote on spiritual matters. Todd interviewed Shears at length, and the article ended up on the front page of the Vancouver Sun. Shears told Stevenson he felt forgiven. Not long afterward, he died.

Four years after Victoria, Stevenson felt the time had come for his own ordination. By now, he was the longest-standing student in the history of VST. “It had taken me 12 years,” he recalls. “Most people do it in three or four. But this was what I needed to do, and I had patience.”

In 1992, the United Church’s national transfer committee met in Toronto to match new ministers with vacant pulpits across Canada. At the time, newly minted clergy were required to serve a parish in need for the first three years of their careers — a process called settlement. “If you don’t get settled, you don’t get ordained. Nobody was willing to take me, and I was getting worried. Finally, after everyone else was settled, I was told Manitoba and Northwestern Ontario Conference would take me.” Stevenson was elated but hesitant. “Gary and I were raising three young girls. What would this mean for us, for the kids?” After much deliberation, he knew this was his route, even if it meant three years away from his family.

There was a wrinkle: B.C. Conference ordained him, believing he would be settled by the Manitoba and Northwestern Ontario Conference. Manitoba had the names of charges that needed settlement, but no firm commitment. Stevenson flew to Winnipeg. “I didn’t know how it would turn out,” he says, “but here was the Spirit at work again. I arrived at Manitoba Conference and did a dog-and-pony show for the three charges. ‘Hi, I’m Tim, the gay guy who just got ordained — how do you like me so far?’”

“I remember it clearly,” says Rev. Michelle Hogman, then chair of the settlement committee for Manitoba and Northwestern Ontario Conference and now the minister at St. Paul’s United in Milton, Ont. “I was told by one three-point charge, ‘We like Tim very much, but our concern is that he’d be leaving behind his life partner and their children’” — the assumption being that he’d almost certainly return to B.C. after the three-year term. Whether that fully explained their decision or masked misgivings about upsetting a significant portion of the congregation is moot. Stevenson, in limbo, got back on the plane. A few weeks later, despite the courage of the many church members who lobbied for him, he learned he’d been turned down.

Ordained but not placed, Stevenson was put on national staff; he conducted workshops across the country — Manitoba, Ontario, the Maritimes. The next year, 1993, he again put his name forward for settlement and this time St. Paul’s in Burnaby, where he’d done the internship, hired him as their minister. The covenanting ceremony made headlines locally, and the CBC covered it nationally. “It was an amazing service,” Stevenson remembers. “A gay and lesbian choir sang, and they were magnificent. Marion Best [who would become moderator the following year] did a laying-on of hands. It was a very moving day.

“After all we’d been through,” he adds with a chuckle, “I wind up getting settled into a church in Burnaby, 20 minutes from my house.”

Looking back, Stevenson’s move into politics seems almost inevitable. As Allison Rennie remembers from 1988, his political instincts, like his faith, were “part of his DNA.” What he’d realized in South Africa, he says, is that to go beyond a vision of social justice, you must get your hands on the levers of power. He’d learned this when he spent time in the Philippines in the mid-1980s, and the point was driven home when he returned to South Africa in 1994 as an international observer of the first post-apartheid election.

In 1996, an NDP organizer asked Stevenson if he’d consider being a provincial candidate in the (heavily gay) Vancouver-Burrard riding. Stevenson was intrigued but conflicted. “Would people be upset after all the turmoil? Would it appear that I was using the church as a stepping stone?”

To ponder such questions, he did what he usually does before making an important decision: he went into silence at the Bethlehem Retreat Centre, a Benedictine getaway near Nanaimo, B.C. “I’ve found it takes at least three days before the inner voices quiet down,” he says. “[Christian mystic] Hildegard of Bingen talks about the ‘greening of self.’ Wandering through the forest, you begin to absorb the various shades of green — pulling in the life force around you. The static dies down, and you tune in the station. It became clear that this is where I needed to go next.”

Stevenson won the seat and became parliamentary secretary to the minister of health. In due course, he was appointed minister for employment and investment and deputy speaker of the house — the first openly gay cabinet minister in Canada. Politics, he soon learned, meant weighing personal morality against majority will. When a casino was proposed in Vancouver, Stevenson broke ranks with his party and opposed it: “I believe casinos cause major human suffering. They’re a tax on the poor.” The proposal was ultimately rejected.

In the 2001 election, Liberal leader Gordon Campbell knocked the NDP out of office, and Stevenson lost to his Liberal opponent. He turned his attention to municipal politics the following year, running for council and winning a seat. When gay marriage was legalized in British Columbia, in 2003, he performed the first legal same-sex marriage in the province, on the steps of the Vancouver courthouse. Though he and Paterson had already celebrated their union in a covenanting ceremony in 1995 in Ontario, they also officially married.

Stevenson ran again provincially in 2005, but the Liberals were in firm control and he lost by a whisker — 11 votes. Returning to municipal politics, he was re-elected in 2005, 2008 and 2011. Again and again he struggled to balance his personal convictions against political pragmatism. When the Edgewater Casino sought to expand, Stevenson opposed it (and the city eventually nixed it). When the Ultimate Fighting Championship applied to stage mixed-martial-arts fighting at Rogers Arena, Stevenson — knowing the sport would simply carry on underground — voted with council to allow it, despite his moral qualms.

Is Tim Stevenson still the passionate idealist of 1988? Has the cut and thrust of politics hardened him? On Easter Sunday, at a Thai restaurant in Vancouver — just down the street from St. Andrew’s-Wesley United, where Paterson delivered the sermon as Stevenson sat proudly with their three daughters and four grandchildren — they both pondered that question.

“He’s the same Tim, but I’ve seen him develop the more confrontational style that our adversarial system demands,” says Paterson. “You always have to have an enemy, which troubles him. He’ll come home and say, ‘I don’t like what politics is turning me into. How do I reach out?’”

“It’s true,” says Stevenson. “It’s hard to be compassionate without seeming weak.” He also finds the suppression of his spirituality necessary but difficult. “You can’t sit at the cabinet table or in caucus and say, ‘Where do you think God is calling us to go?’ I sometimes find that difficult. In the church, that’s the question we’re always asking.”

“He has the same value system he’s always had,” offers Paterson. “The challenge is, how do you keep your faith from being limiting, or trivial, or used as a justification for whatever you’re doing — cloaking it with God’s blessing?”

To that challenge, Stevenson brings the same unwavering, righteous commitment that helped make 1988 historic. “I’ve had an incredible life,” he says. “The places I’ve been, the things I’ve done, the people I’ve met, the person I love, the changes we’ve seen — what more could one ask? And the amazing thing is, I didn’t plan any of it. It’s all just come, with the journey.”

Gary Stephen Ross is an author, editor and communications consultant in Vancouver.

This story originally appeared in the July 2013 issue of The Observer with the title “1988.”


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