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A Proud History: Reflecting on Decades of Same-Sex Ceremonies at The Sanctuary

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+ programme 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 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. 


Summer in the Interim

As Canadian Unitarian Universalists, we envision a world in which our interdependence calls us to love and justice.  (CUC Vision Statement)

Welcome Summer!!!

Getting ready to head into some holiday time, it has been heartening and affirming to look back on the past year with UCV.  It has been quite a year.  We have all changed and grown through the challenges, both individually and as a religious community. We have adapted to new ways of being together when “the way things have always been” could no longer be.

Groups and committees began to meet online, and many now say they will continue with this convenient format.

The UCV Choir produced a tremendous December Candle Light Service that has had  almost 750 online views! The creativity, talent and resilience of the choir leads produced more than 70 hymns for regular Sunday services, ensuring that we could all sing along to favourite tunes, led by familiar faces and voices.

The dedicated Buildings and Grounds volunteers continued their tireless work to maintain the campus and plan exciting upgrades to the sanctuary space and facilities.

Environment, social action and refugee committees barely slowed down during the pandemic restrictions, finding new ways to engage.  A new IBPOC group has led impactful worship services and raised awareness and conversation around Asian, Indigenous and Black history and heritage in Canada, working with allies to build a more welcoming, inclusive and multicultural community within UCV and in the broader world.

We responded as a community when incidences of violence and hatred impacted marginalized people and indigenous communities. We have constantly renewed our commitment to advocate for love and justice by working to dismantle systems of racism and oppression. We have grieved together in ritual, ceremony and action and found sources of hope and renewal to carry us forward.  We are engaging in local and national conversations leading the way to address the systems of racism within our own lives and institutions — as detailed in the report by the Dismantling Racism Study Group CUC Dismantling Racism Final Report 2021 — and charting a path forward together in covenantal conversation — “A Way Forward for the 8th Principle Process”

Forward. Looking towards September when we hope to be able to gather once again in person for worship services and programs on the UCV campus, while also continuing to serve our growing virtual community with multi-platform live-streaming on Sundays.

During this unprecedented year of being a distant, virtual congregation, many things have been changing behind the scenes in preparation for coming back together with renewed capacity and expanded opportunities with programs for all ages and upgrades to the beautiful sanctuary space creating ways of gathering that are open to the imagination.

We will grow into the new organizational design that is detailed in this newsletter, which will enhance how programs and teams work collaboratively and help to developing sustainable goal-oriented leadership and volunteer structures.

All in all, this has been a monumental year, and I feel so very blessed and grateful for having been here with you all, through all the challenges and heartache, growth and learning.  Feeling very ready for a summer break, and also very excited for the year ahead.

May you all have a restful, healthy and inspiring summer.

Brightest blessings,

Rev. Lara Cowtan

Interim Minister.


Remembering Stonewall

Today is the 52nd anniversary of the Stonewall riots. In yesterday’s Sunday service, Elizabeth Dunn, as a representative of the Genders and Sexualities Alliance, recognized and commemorated this landmark date:

The Stonewall riots started on June 28, 1969. The riots erupted in response to police raids at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, New York City, lasting about five days. At that time, the police commonly arrested LGBTQ+ people or those serving them. This time many of those being attacked by police resisted arrest, sparking several days of protests and riots and subsequently sparking the gay revolution demanding equal rights for LGBTQ+ people. While the gay rights movement didn’t begin at Stonewall, it was definitely a turning point. And on June 28, 1970, the first Gay Pride parade set off from the Stonewall Inn. 

  • Further reading: Check out this excellent article in YES! Magazine.

Statement on Anti-Muslim Hate Crime

The Vancouver Unitarians condemn the recent act of violent terrorism that killed four members of a Muslim family in Ontario, orphaning a nine year old boy. We are shocked and horrified by this premeditated hate crime, and stand in solidarity with our Muslim siblings.  Islamophobia and racism have no place in our world. We celebrate diversity and are one human family. No-one should have to live in fear of violence or discrimination.

We will hold the victims of this tragedy close to our hearts, and share our deepest condolences with their family and friends and with the Islamic community. The people of London, Ontario, Muslims all across Canada, and indeed all Canadians have been hurt by this attack, and all of humanity is diminished by it. We will stand alongside our local Muslim communities and support its members as they mourn. We will show those who hate that their hatred isn’t welcome, isn’t shared, and will be confronted and rejected at every turn with calls for justice, solidarity and compassion.

We will be sharing suggested resources for people to become better informed and engaged in actively supporting anti-Islamophobia and our local Muslim communities, and welcome suggestions and invitations for involvement.

With blessings and in faith,

Rev. Lara Cowtan