Former Pentecostal pastor running for Winnipeg mayor says views on gay marriage changed years ago

Winnipeg mayoral candidate and former pastor Scott Gillingham says he hasn’t believed the tenet of his Pentecostal faith that describes being gay as immoral for years.

Gillingham was a Pentecostal pastor for 22 years before being elected to Winnipeg’s city council in 2014. 

The Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada’s 2018 general constitution and bylaws states leaders can’t do certain things, including acts of “sexual immorality.”

“Sexual immorality shall be interpreted to mean common-law marital relationships, premarital and extramarital sexual relationships … and all forms of homosexual activity, along with other practices deemed inexcusable for Christian conduct,” the document says.

CBC News asked Gillingham how he plans to lead an inclusive city, given his past beliefs and work. Gillingham said his views on sexuality have changed over the years, and he hopes voters see that.

“The people want to take a look and go, ‘There’s someone who grows. There’s someone who changes. There’s someone who’s committed to equality. There’s someone who’s committed to a better Winnipeg for me that I’m not going to be left out [of],'” he said.

‘Ethical core’

Gillingham’s most recent religious position was pastor at the Grace Community Church in Headingley, Man., for 12 years. 

“In the early 2000s, I would have held a view that was probably more consistent with what you cite,” said Gillingham, when asked if he ever preached the idea that being gay is immoral.

“But it’s something that, as I’ve said, changed over the years, and I completely support same-sex marriage.”

Gillingham said the federal government’s decision to legalize gay marriage in 2005 influenced his views on sexuality. He said he supports all members of the LGBTQ community.

WATCH | Scott Gillingham says his views on same-sex marriage have changed since the early 2000s:

Scott Gillingham discusses his past as a Pentecostal pastor

2 hours ago

Duration 2:06

Scott Gillingham was a Pentecostal pastor for 22 years before getting elected to Winnipeg city council in 2014. He says his views on sexuality have changed since the early 2000s, and he can lead an inclusive city.

Political scientist David Rayside says it’s important for voters in any election to know where politicians stand on many things, including religion.

“You want to know what their ethical core is. What, when the chips are down, do they really believe is important?” said Rayside, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Toronto.

“If someone spoke to environmental policies, you want to know whether that’s part of their ethical being or whether it’s just pandering to the crowd. But you always want to know what the ethical core is — always, always.”

‘Lean into the hard conversations’

Some in the LGBTQ community say change is a process requiring reflection, examination of beliefs, naming how a person expressed those beliefs, acknowledging potential hurt with compassion and an expression of remorse and accountability.

“That includes your ongoing work that is driven by compassion, and how proactive you are of being an ally and not just doing it performatively,” said Reece Malone, a sexologist and the CEO of Diversity Essentials, a Winnipeg-based education and training company.

That takes relationships and work with a community, he said.

“Collaboration means that you deeply value the individuals and their communities. You see their strengths. You see their identity as an advantage as opposed to a disadvantage,” Malone said.

“You genuinely believe that diversity strengthens our position.”

Reece Malone, a sexologist in Winnipeg, says changing one’s views is a process. (Austin Grabish/CBC)

It takes time for communities to trust any leader who, at one point, discriminated against others, Malone said.

“If you were a leader that really espoused discrimination and oppression against a group of people, yeah, of course not everyone’s going to trust,” he said.

“It is then that person’s responsibility to continue on with their journey, and to lean into the hard conversations, to show accountability — even restoration — and invite people around the table to really hear what they need to feel restored.”

Religious autonomy

Gillingham said as a religious leader, he had autonomy to choose how to preach to congregations.

“I wasn’t there as a minister to defend the denomination I was in. I wasn’t there as their spokesman,” he said.

“When I was a minister, I was there to serve people and focus on loving people and serving people.”

Jane Barter, a religious studies professor at the University of Winnipeg, says the heterosexual-focused idea of sexuality is an essential belief for Pentecostals, but she agrees that leaders have autonomy.

“We all have to sort of sign on to the basic structures of beliefs of a denomination or religious tradition as a religious leader,” said Barter, who is also an Anglican priest in Winnipeg.

“Having said that, the people who push for changes, often most effectively within those conditions, are often religious leaders.”

University of Winnipeg religious studies Prof. Jane Barter says religious leaders have autonomy over how they preach different aspects of the faith. (Submitted by Jane Barter)

Barter described Pentecostalism as “a mixed bag, like all religions are.”

“You will find some very conservative tendencies within the Pentecostal movement, but you’ll also find some really liberating ones. It was really one of the first traditions that allowed women to preach, for example,” she said.

Though Gillingham said he doesn’t remember if he ever spoke out against homophobia, he supports all members of the LGBTQ community.

“If you think, ‘Does he harbour any secret?’ No,” he said. “Our diversity is our strength, and people from all different walks of life, all different cultures, all different sexual orientations, all different sexual backgrounds are Winnipeggers.”

Voting record

During his time as a city councillor, Gillingham is on the record as voting to support organizations like Pride Winnipeg. For example, council unanimously waived permit requirements for Pride Winnipeg’s 30th anniversary parade in 2017. 

Gillingham didn’t sit on the city’s citizens equity committee from 2014 through 2018 nor the group that replaced it, the human rights committee. He did say he supported the committee.

“You won’t be able to find an example of where I’d be homophobic or not be inclusive or be exlusionary. That’s just not who I am,” he said.

“I’m a person, like so many other people, that grows over the years.… My views have changed over the years.”

Gillingham said the city’s workforce has to be more “reflective of the diversity within our city,” and he would continue the human rights committee.

“It’s important to be hearing from community members as well, and continue relationships with those that are fighting on the front lines for equality and inclusivity.”

Gillingham walked in this year’s Pride parade.

He said he also met with the Rainbow Resource Centre during this campaign to learn what challenges the group is facing right now.

Politics and faith

Religion and politics have long interacted in Canada, regardless of faith, said U of T professor emeritus Rayside.

While politicians can bring their beliefs into their policies, that doesn’t always happen, Rayside said.

“Even if the church still believes in only heterosexual marriage, that doesn’t mean that people informed by Pentecostalism either are comfortable with that or attach any particular prominence to that,” he said.

“Even people who believe in that — in the heterosexual essential nature of marriage — may recognize that it’s inappropriate to introduce that view into their political discourse or their public policy.”

Political scientist and author David Grayside says it’s important for voters to know a candidate’s ‘ethical core’ in any election. (Submitted by Louisa Rayside)

For example, Stephen Harper was a religious politician with strong beliefs, Rayside said. Near the end of his time as prime minister, Harper said he wouldn’t reopen the “abortion issue.”

“I don’t think there’s any doubt that Stephen Harper opposed abortion, but he knew that to keep his party together — and to give them a chance of winning the election — he had to park that issue,” Rayside said.

“There was a little — right at the beginning — where he didn’t completely park it, and he got bitten for it. Then he made it very hard for backbench, pro-life conservatives to do anything significant in Parliament to give effect to their political principles.”

Power must challenge hate: organizer

Karen Sharma, an organizer with Queer People of Colour Winnipeg and the executive director of the Manitoba Human Rights Commission, said with recent stories about global hatred toward LGBTQ communities, this is an important time for any politician to show support.

“I think this is the moment for anyone in a position of public leadership to commit to the rights of 2SLGBTQ peoples, and to challenge an emboldening of hate against us,” Sharma said.

“Especially if you have a legacy that maybe you yourself have reflected upon and say, ‘This isn’t where I am now,’ this is a time to show our communities where you stand.”

To do that, leaders can support issues that matter to the LGBTQ community, such as harm reduction, Sharma said.

“Relationships and truly enacting work in whatever sphere you occupy show that the issues that matter to those communities — and the advancement of their rights — is something that you’re willing to commit to in your own work.”