Fall comes early in the Pacific Northwest, and all the swirling leaves, dropping temperatures, and drizzly mornings have put me in a romantic state of mind. Very much reminds me of my Geoffrey–those were his moods and colours.
And I’ve also been rendered more romantic than usual by my attendance at the vow renewal of two very good friends–Ben and John Smyth/e.
I have to say, I did not head into their renewal expecting to be romanced. The men are Puritans, and I had an admittedly prejudiced vision of what their ceremony might look like.
But it was gorgeous, as is their story, and so I thought I’d share some of it here (with their permission) in the hopes of combating my own atheist tendency to write off all things religious. My empathy for the church-going can always use a bit of sprucing up. If they believe in a God who brought them together, then who am I to scoff?
In any case…
It turns out that the little wooden meeting house in the Toronto countryside, where the ceremony took place, has been John’s church home for just over 200 years. He came to Canada from England in the early 19th century looking for a new start and he was taken with the quietude of the congregation and, more particularly, with the pastor, who goes simply by Christopher.
I can see why. Christopher, is a truly lovely man who genuinely wants everyone around him to be happy–I could tell from the moment I shook his hand. And he is always willing to test his own faith life, and the faith of his congregation, by creating inclusive spaces for “all manner of God’s children.”
He is, in fact, a liberal puritan. Of all possible things.
And it turns out that inclusiveness really started to define his theology when John came to his congregation–a deadly handsome single man with a household and trade, who remained single year after year after year…
A few decades in, Christopher finally asked him why, and John admitted that he didn’t think he’d make a very good husband to a woman, and that he worried for his soul should he take up with a man, even though he knew that was the way of his heart. He asked for penance for speaking the desire aloud, poor thing.
Christopher thought about it and decided that he liked John too much to uphold teachings that would force the man to continue to live alone or live a lie. Instead of penance, he opened counselling with John, taught him self-compassion, and after a year or two, convinced him to broach the subject with the congregation and broaden his net of empathetic friends.
About a quarter of them left. John still feels terrible about it.
But the three quarters who stayed opened their arms to John, and apparently started trying to set him up, to his utter embarrassment. Puritans, he says, mean very well, but have a rather indelicate handle on what it means to be gay, haha. I can only imagine.
So, anyway, John continued on in his single ways until one afternoon service, while he was administering a reading to the congregation, Ben wandered in and sat in the back of the church, looking forlorn and tired and six different kinds of overly modern–we’re talking late 1970s/early 1980s club culture. He refuses to show me pictures. And John ‘for some reason known only to the Lord himself…’ fell in love at first sight.
Christopher apparently saw it on his face and sent him over after the service to invite Ben to attend a picnic they had coming up. (Oh to have been a fly on that wall.)
Ben said he might show up.
The congregation took this to mean ‘yes, I will definitely be there, and you should all match-make the dickens out of John and I because obviously I am gay, I’m wearing eye liner for crying out loud’.
So they did, haha. The congregation spent the next few months putting the two of them together in as many situations as possible. Ben’s demeanor softened, John grew a bit bolder, and they finally went out for supper and were Committed within a year following–recognised in the congregation as a married couple.
Both of them talk about the first five years of their marriage as a time of massive growth. John is staunchly 17th century in manner and dress, right down to the linen shirts and antiquated language. Ben felt very comforted by that after years of wandering around the world looking for highs. He stepped back into ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ at home, asked John to teach him to pray again, and purified his lifestyle. But he also needed John to work on allowing pieces of modernity into his worldview. Agreeing to disagree on some things, qualifying the occasional bottle of wine as ‘pure enough’, attending the country dances the congregation indulged in.
Obviously, though, they made it.
Ben is still the more outgoing of the two–it was his idea to publicly celebrate their 35th this last week, exemplifying Godly love to the LGBT youth they now minister to. John is still the stalwart–he agreed to the ceremony, but only if it was quietly incorporated into a regular Wednesday night service and congregational supper.
But the strength of their bond–the way their differences support each other–is actually rather inspiring. As John said, ‘When I look at thee I see an exploration. I feel it keenly both in the planning and the execution. Thou art a vast adventure. And I want to know thee better, as I also crave thy mystery.’
And the steps they have taken to live outwardly in a faith known for its restrictions are beyond courageous. I am in such admiration of their bravery, and of the way they have reached out to other LGBT Puritans. Simon, in attendance at the ceremony, has an apartment, a job, and a live in boyfriend because of their work with him. And Prid, their newest boarder, is on his way.
So, the next time I find myself rolling my eyes heavenward over some such religious nonsense or another, I will remember that there are those in the world who fiercely believe there’s something up in those heavens, and who use that belief for good.