Going out with a bang: local church asked to leave parent organization over support of LGBTQ+

Andrew Sutton/Courier From left: Walter Thiessen, Mary Ellen Fitch, and Peter Fitch - Leaders at the St. Croix Vineyard Church in St. Stephen. The church has been asked to leave Vineyard Canada after refusing to comply with a request that they stop performing LGBTQ+ weddings.

St. Stephen – The St. Croix Vineyard church in St. Stephen has been asked to leave the organization it helped found after the church refused to stop performing LGBTQ+ weddings and allowing those who identify as LGBTQ+ to be in leadership positions.

In 2014, Vineyard Canada told all of its churches to stop performing LGBTQ+ weddings – an order the leadership of the St. Croix Vineyard refused to follow, going on to perform a number of same sex weddings.

In response, one of the pastors of the St. Croix Vineyard, Walter Theissen, created a group within the organization called “vineyard on the margins”, made up of like minded churches who wanted to be affirming towards LGBTQ+ as a way of “practising dissent from within”.

At the end of January, Vineyard Canada sent a letter to all of the LGBTQ+ affirming churches asking them to leave the organization.

In 1992, the St. Croix Vineyard church was founded as an independent community church, serving St. Stephen and the surrounding areas. In 1995 it partnered with churches across Canada to form Vineyard Canada and was heavily involved in the leadership of that organization.

Peter Fitch, the head pastor of the St. Croix Vineyard, said, “In the early years, I think that we were a pretty traditional conservative church, you might have called us evangelicals.

“Over the years this morphed for me, into a desire to do good irrespective of where people were coming from in terms of their belief system.”

The turn towards inclusion

Both Fitch and Theissen say they were trained in a fairly conservative understanding of Christianity which held marriage was a traditional union between a man and a woman.

“Even though I had sort of bought the party line that practicing homosexuals weren’t able to be in good standing in a church, I always felt a sense of confusion about it,” said Fitch.

Fitch said his brother is gay, and something about excluding him from a community had always felt wrong.

Fitch and Thiessen, who both teach at St. Stephen’s University, say their views really began to shift around 10 to 12 years ago as they began to hear stories from students at the university, many of whom had been brought up in conservative Christian families, about their anguish and depression regarding their own sexuality.

For many years, conservative Christian groups have pushed a harmful teaching called “conversion therapy”, which attempted to change the sexual orientation of a person.

“We started hearing from some of the students that they had been thinking of things like suicide, related to the teachings they’d heard of in their families, and then there came a point where the people really involved in conversion therapy were clearly saying, ‘no, this harms more than it helps’,” said Theissen.

All of this culminated in a book, written by Fitch in 2013, called “Learning to Interpret Towards Love,” in which he argues churches need to be affirming and accepting of LGBTQ+ people.

Fitch said he talked to his wife Mary Ellen, a leader at the church, about his desire to write the book and his misgivings about hurting his colleagues if he did.

Mary Ellen responded, “Oh, those are the people you should be worried about?”

But his concerns weren’t without foundation. After publishing the book, Fitch lost a job teaching at a university in the UK as a direct result of his position on homosexuality.

What comes next?

“Church history is littered with bad breakups,” said Fitch. “We didn’t want this to be one of them, but we also wanted to say clearly what it is that we believe.”

Both Fitch and Theissen emphasize churches need to be accepting and inclusive of LGBTQ+ people, and recognize the harm that they have caused.

It was Theissen who came up with the idea of a website where people could join with the church as they left the organization they helped to build. The website (altvineyard.ca), built by local tech company Jackets Creative, launched at 3 p.m. on February 24 and the response was immediate and overwhelming – even causing the website to briefly go down.

At the point of writing, over 1200 people have signed up by posting their name, a photo of themselves, and a message about their connection to the Vineyard Organization.

On the weekend of Saturday, March 14 and Sunday, March 15, the church will officially leave the Vineyard. On the Saturday the church will join with Affirm United to celebrate Pie Day, a day of affirmation for LGBTQ+ people. There will be children’s activities early in the evening, followed by a concert.

On the Sunday, the church will have a “jazz style funeral in the style of New Orleans,” said Fitch. “We’re going to start with a lament, followed by a litany and stories, interspersed with some beautiful music, and then we’re going to move towards stronger music of celebration.”

At the end of the service, the church will announce their new name.

Neither Fitch nor Theissen know where this journey will end, but they both agree that the outpouring of support from those who have been marginalized by a conservative stance on LGBTQ+ speaks to an urgent need for a more inclusive and affirming community.