The first same-sex ceremony of union at UCV was conducted nearly half a century ago in 1972 by Reverend Dr. Phillip Hewett, who served for over three decades as minister of the Vancouver Unitarians. In this Q&A, former lay chaplain Katherine Roback explains more of this important history.
The Sanctuary is aptly named because for many years our heritage building here at Oak and 49th was one of the few places in Vancouver that would officiate marriage and other ceremonies for same-sex couples. What was the earliest ceremony that you can remember?
Katherine Roback: The earliest same-sex wedding I officiated was in 2003, the minute weddings honouring 2SLGBTQ+ couples became legal in B.C. Those were busy years, as many couples came here from the United States and other countries where their love could not yet be legally recognized. Prior to that, I was officiating commitment ceremonies for couples who wished for a beautiful ceremony honouring their love.
How did the Vancouver Unitarians deal with push back or opposition to 2SLGBTQ+ equality both in general and within the multi-faith community?
I don’t believe there was any resistance within the congregation. In fact, we had an LGBTQ+ program called “Unison” and opened it up, with strong requests, to the whole congregation. As far as opposition in the multi-faith community, couples from many denominations (or none at all) came to Vancouver Unitarian Church to have their love respected and legalized.
Minister Hewett was decades ahead of many others in performing same-sex ceremonies. Could you talk a bit more about his role?
Rev. Phillip Hewett actually founded the Lay Chaplaincy Program in Canada in 1972, as he was overwhelmed performing up to eight weddings in a day. This program trained and licensed lay people to officiate ceremonies. He began officiating gay and lesbian ceremonies of union and entered their ceremonies in the official record of Provincial weddings, to legitimize them. He signed certificates of marriage for each couple.
In our tradition, what’s the distinction between ministers and lay chaplains?
A minister is ordained by their congregation after completing their theology degree and being called to serve the congregation. A minister marries members of the congregation.
A lay chaplain is a Unitarian who shows special qualities that can serve anyone wishing a beautiful wedding — non-members of the church.
Could you explain the difference between a marriage ceremony and some of the other ceremonies for couples offered by Unitarian chaplains?
What makes a marriage ceremony legal are four components that include the couple’s vows, the signing of the marriage license, and the pronouncement by the officiant — and enthusiastic cheers!
We also perform Ceremonies of Union — just like a legal wedding, but without the signing of the license. Our lay chaplains are also honoured to create, together with couples, ceremonies of all kinds for all occasions, such as a ceremony where couples renew their vows of love and commitment.
Why do you think Unitarian Universalists in Canada, the U.S., and elsewhere, have often played a leading role in movements for 2SLGBTQ+ equality?
Rather than dogma and creed, Unitarian Faith is founded on a set of principles to live by. The UU First Principle affirms and promotes “the inherent worth and dignity of every person.” That says it all.