ST. JOHN’S (CUP) — Reverend Robert Cooke studied theology at Memorial University in St. John’s. It was here that he came face-to-face with homosexuality in the Church.
“I encountered numerous people who were struggling with their sexuality and trying to reconcile that with their faith — questions like, ”˜Can I be gay?’ and ”˜Can I be gay and a Christian at the same time?’”
After spending some time with the chaplaincy department at Memorial, Cooke is now an associate priest with St. Mark’s Anglican Church in St. John’s. However, Cooke was raised in what he describes as a conservative Pentecostal household.
“One of the things that really drew me to the Anglican Church was the ”¦ openness and inclusiveness of the Anglican Church,” he said.
Today, Cooke says there are openly gay members in his congregation at St. Mark’s. He believes that, when it comes to faith, it’s not about whether a person is gay or straight, it’s about the individual themselves.
“We have had various, almost town hall-type meetings, to explore the idea of [homosexuality] in our Church,” said Cooke.
“At St. Mark’s, we really pride ourselves as being inclusive. Our tag line is, ”˜We are the friendly Church.’ If they happen to be gay, that’s okay. If they’re straight, that’s okay too. We are just interested in accepting people as they are.”
At 35 years old, Cooke says his involvement with the ideas of faith today, combined with his age, makes for an interesting juncture in what the future of the Church means for up-and-coming generations, views on homosexuality included.
Cooke says, as far as his Anglican practice is concerned, by no means is homosexuality, either inside or outside the Church, considered a sin. He says the conversation now is about whether people in his position are able to, or should, bless same-sex marriages.
“Here in [Newfoundland and Labrador], while we are not performing same-sex blessings, we are engaging in the discussion,” he said. “And I think it is a really serious, heartfelt discussion at that.”
“It’s not about whether homosexuality is OK or not; the big thing that we, the Anglican Church, are talking about [is] gay marriage itself.”
“Is this something that God is calling us to do, to seriously consider this?” asked Cooke.
Still, Cooke says such forward-thinking conversation in this country is not going as well in other parts of the Anglican world.
“[These discussions] have triggered a backlash from ”¦ the world-wide Anglican Church. We have churches or bishops in places like Africa, Asia and South America that are probably a little more conservative, culturally. They have taken offense that these sorts of conversations are happening,” he said.
Cooke believes that outside of the metropolitan areas of the province, views about homosexuality remain fairly conservative. He remembers when a close family member came out. While it was difficult for his rural Newfoundland family to grasp, it was perhaps paramount in the evolution of his ability to accept and understand homosexuality today.
“A very close cousin of mine came out to me,” said Cooke. “It changed my perspective on the whole thing, because I knew this cousin very well. We were very close, and I knew this wasn’t just some fad or phase that he was going through. I knew that [being openly gay] was essential to who this person is.”
Cooke says, while the Anglican Church and Christian denominations in general may be struggling with many issues — homosexuality, along with sharply declining numbers — he says it’s also a time of change.
Payphones at one time were everywhere, and everybody used payphones when you were out around — on the go. Now people still want to make phone calls, but they are not using payphones anymore. They are using cellphones, or whatever, to communicate — and that is kind of like the Church.
Rev. Robert Cooke – Associate priest, St. Mark’s Anglican Church
“I find this an exciting time for the Church, because we are kind of being freed of all the baggage of the past. It allows us to start over fresh. The people who are coming to church now — while there might be smaller numbers — those who are coming are more committed,” he said.
“People are free to explore different expressions of spirituality. I think there is a responsibility on the Church to adapt to the changing landscape,” said Cooke.
“Payphones at one time were everywhere, and everybody used payphones when you were out around — on the go,” he said. “Now people still want to make phone calls. People are still using phones, but they are not using payphones anymore. They are using cellphones, or whatever, to communicate — and that is kind of like the Church.
“People are still spiritual. They still have questions, and they still are looking for answers,” he said.
When asked if it were better to have openly gay members in his congregation, or members who are perhaps not okay with the idea of homosexuality, Cooke says it’s about having both extremes coming together to find a common place.
“Homosexuality is not just an issue. We are talking about people here,” he said. “And I think that if the Church can grasp that idea — whether or not you agree with homosexuality or disagree with it — if you realize that we are talking about people, then it becomes more than just a way forward for the Church and those involved.”