Google Alyson Huntly’s name, as I did even before I knew with absolute certainty that I’d be writing this, and you’ll see what an accomplished author, educator, Diaconal Minister, grandmother (and on and on) she is! Add Doctor, too, Alyson having received her Ph.D. in Education (Curriculum) from Queen’s University last fall.
So for these, and more particular, reasons for many of us it was never a question of if, only when, Alyson would receive the award my late brother Craig left for McGill University’s United Theological College.
I emailed her a few questions this week and she replied with warm and loving memories of a dear friendship.
My first point of contact with Alyson comes from her acclaimed 1998 book Daring To Be United: Including Lesbians and Gays in The United Church of Canada (United Church Publishing House) but her friendship with Craig went well beyond that.
My first question to Alyson was, given her understanding of Craig’s intent for the award, what her feelings are in being selected to receive it.
“I am of course very honoured to be recognized this way. It makes me feel quite humble, though, when I think of all those who are doing so much to work for justice for glbtq people in the church and in the wider community. Although many people think the issue is over, of course there is still so much prejudice and oppression – within the church and in Canadian society. Of particular concern for me is the way that young people experience such hatred and misunderstanding, including from their peers, as they are coming out.
“Craig and I talked about this award when he was first thinking of creating it. I know that his hope was to continue to raise up the issue of sexual orientation, as a way of continuing to place it in front of the church in a public way, through the UTC convocation. He saw this as a way of continuing to name the “issue” that no one wanted to talk about. I think it’s still somewhat the case. I work in a congregation and I am quite sure that there are many who would say that they are fine with me being lesbian, but let’s not be public about it – which is of course a way of silencing glbtq experience and stories.”
Published ten years following the denomination’s historic decision not to exclude qualified lesbians and gay men from ordained ministry, Daring to Be United weaves together the many stories as told by passionate church members on both sides of “The Issue”.
One of those stories was Craig’s and, re-reading it even now, the inner turmoil and fear of those days leaps off the page. I asked Alyson to reflect on the interactions she had with Craig, particularly in the preparation of the book, and on Claude’s quoting – from the book – of Craig a few years ago that “living in the closet was worse than his personal experience of HIV”. I remember that even at the worst moments of “the issue” Craig, like so many, never lost hope completely nor the collective sense of humour.
“Craig was a good friend. We worked together on a few different projects, related to lay education, during the time I was working at UTC (1990-94) and often met for supper to chat about work or just to talk. We often met at his and Claude’s apartment and had long unhurried conversations about everything under the sun. Craig was always so easy to talk to and such a compassionate listener but he also talked about his own life, his struggles and hopes, and about this award.
“I know he was hoping to write a memoir and I have often wondered what happened to that project. He did write a bit, I know. When I interviewed him for Daring to Be United he was more out (that would have been in 1997) but he talked a lot about his experiences of being in the closet and how oppressive that had been. I think it was a great joy for him that later in his life he could be public about who he was. Though many people at the church knew, there was still that oppressive silence hanging over him. I think he was very relieved when that ended and he could be fully out. And, yes, he did have an incredible sense of humour – and a deep love of life. He was an introvert by nature and needed time apart but he also loved people – his friends, his family, and the people he ministered with.
“That is what I remember most about Craig – his loving presence. This award is a reminder of how much Craig gave of himself, and his love and care. That’s also what is humbling about receiving this award. He touched so many people in such a significant way. And he continues to do so, through this bequest.”
Chaplin was ordained in 1980, in an era when “don’t ask, don’t tell” seemed the norm for gay and lesbian candidates. “I don’t even remember contemplating coming out as a serious option,” he recalls. “With anyone I did tell in those early years, the response was always the same: don’t rock the boat and everything will be fine.” He went to enormous lengths to hide his sexual orientation and his relationship from his first congregation. His partner never answered the phone. He could only enter the house through the back door. If anyone came to the door he went upstairs immediately. The pressure was horrendous. “I needed to believe people didn’t know he was in the house,” Chaplin explains. “We managed to eke out a life , but it was very stressful.”
In 1984, he moved to Union United Church in Ste. Anne de Bellevue, near Montreal. In 1986, when the congregation studied the issue, they invited a “real gay person” to come and talk to them. It was ironic. They could have talked to their minister, if anyone had known. By 1988, Chaplin had come out to a number of key people in the congregation, but most still were not aware of his sexual orientation. A commissioner to the 1988 General Council, he sat in the auditorium, a closeted gay, HIV-positive man. When he joined in the debate, he spoke carefully, in the third person.
Chaplin’s deteriorating health finally forced him to go public. In 1992, he stood in front of his congregation and told them who he was. He would have preferred to come out in different circumstances but knows that, but for AIDS, he might never have done so. “I’m grateful that if I had to develop HIV, at least it became a catalyst for the kind of growth and change I needed to do,” he says. It became a very life-affirming opportunity to claim his life back both from the closet and the disease. He feels both were deadly. “In many ways, the closet was killing me faster than the virus, spiritually if not physically, because of the enormous pressure I felt to conform outwardly to an image that wasn’t who I was.”
Chaplin recognizes the cost of all those years of speaking in the third person, answering evasively. As closets go, it wasn’t too uncomfortable. He had come out to a lot of people in the congregation, but that just meant they, too, were part of the web of silence. “I may be feeling more liberated but, really, all I’ve done is broadened the web of deceit. I have brought them into my closet. But they haven’t brought me out into the sunshine. It was quite different the day I stood up in a public forum and said, ‘This is who I am.’ Because, at that point, I wasn’t inviting them into the closet, I was knocking the door down.” Chaplin regrets that it had to be done under those kind of circumstances. “In the best of all possible worlds, it’s not the kind of script I would have written,” he says. “But given the hand I was dealt, I did the best I could.”
Alyson has been very involved with Affirm United for many years. (That’s a group within the Church for support of, and outreach from, lgbt members – ordained, laity and friends.) I wondered how she sees the Affirming Ministries movement going in the United Church of Canada – ever-growing in some areas and yet, perhaps, a little complacent in others.
“I think the Affirming Ministry movement continues to be very important, even though there are many who would say this issue is just not that important anymore (because we have glbt ministers and gay marriage and so on). Even people who understand the importance of working on issues like anti-racism will say to me sometimes, ‘Why are you still going on about gay rights when there are so many more important things to be done in the world?’ I don’t think people realize how much hatred glbtq people experience just for being who we are, or how hard it is for young people especially. It’s still socially acceptable to be anti-gay even when it is no longer socially acceptable to promote racial hatred.”
Does Alyson not enthusiastically embody Craig’s vision for this memorial award?
I’ll editorialize with some extra emphasis but this is how United Theological College announced the establishment of the Fund at the time of Craig’s death:
The Rev. Craig Chaplin, friend, pastor, teacher and graduate of the United Theological College died on Wednesday, May 9, 2007.
Over a decade ago Craig made the decision to make a bequest to the United Theological College that would support an award recognizing the remarkable contributions of ministry offered by gay and lesbian people. In initiating this fund Craig envisioned an award that would be given regularly, and publicly, to a gay or lesbian person, ministering within the formal, organized structures of the Christian Church or in other faith traditions. This award is intended to be not only a symbol of affirmation, but also a means of fostering and encouraging positive role models within the GLBT community.
It was Craig who proposed that this award be announced at the time of his death and that others be encouraged to be Craig’s partners in contributing to it and the vision it promotes.
We are honoured that Rev. Chaplin has entrusted the United Theological College with the disbursement of this memorial fund. His affirming vision of the ministry of gay and lesbian people within and beyond the life of the Church is one we seek to affirm in tangible ways through our ministry of theological education. This memorial fund allows us to live more fully into this vision and mission.
During the time Craig was so selectively “out” he would tell me how proud he was of me, and envious, as my eventual coming out (preceded by a “Me thinks he doth protest too much” homophobia at a time when I could have been much more supportive) allowed me to be at lgbt rallies ‘in the trenches’. In kind, I have absolute goose-bumps of pride reading over those terms of reference for Craig’s Memorial.
Alyson will be honoured as part of the Spring Convocation of the United Theological College to be held this year on Wednesday, May 12 at 2 pm at Union United Church of Montreal (not to be confused with Union in Ste. Anne de Bellevue) located at 3007 Delisle Street near the Lionel-Groulx Metro station (see map).
As this is an on-going memorial, donations to the Craig Chaplin Memorial are always greatly appreciated. A secure on-line link can be accessed from here or gifts to “United Theological College” (Chaplin Memorial in memo line) can be mailed to:
United Theological College,
3521 University St.,
Montréal, Québec H3A 2A9