Happy thanksgiving, Reverend Andrea Brennan says, greeting me with a warm smile and a hug. Dressed in black jeans and earthy tones, the Fernie church minister matches the fall colours around downtown. The neckline of her loose-fitting poncho reveals the white of a clerical collar.
She pushes open the heavy wooden doors to the old stone church, revealing a long traditional hall filled with pews. Heavenly light from colourful stained glass fills the room.
Brennan is one of the most recognizable faces around town for one particular reason – she’s always smiling. For almost three years she has served as the minister of the Christ Church Anglican in Fernie.
Behind the everlasting smile is a person confident in what they believe in and not afraid to challenge the status quo.
Aside from breaking the stereotype by being a female minister, Brennan is also openly queer. She is also serving at a time when her denomination is considering marrying same-sex couples.
“When I came out to my Bishop, I don’t think he had ever had anybody come out to him before,” said Brennan.
“He’s of course, polite above all else, and he said, ‘Well, I know that you will manage the mission field as best appropriate’, which is Bishop speak for, you’re not going to do an altar call, you’re not going to stand up on a Sunday morning and say, ‘Guess what! I’m queer!’”
Something that Brennan doesn’t understand is when people say that being homosexual is against God. She believes it all boils down to love. She admitted that there are several letters in the chapter of Paul where the prophet mentions, ‘A man should not lie with another man’.
“Taken out of context, you can make that as an argument against homosexuality,” said Brennan. “But within context, that’s not what he was getting at, at all.”
Brennan lives her life openly and has accepted that she is known as ‘the weird one in that church over there that doesn’t wear shoes, sometimes with pink hair’.
“I am who God made and for people that will tell me that I don’t have a seat at the table, they’re not going to say that to me simply because of my sexuality. They’ll also say that to me because of my gender,” said Brennan.
“But I keep having a seat at the table because God has called me to be there.”
Brennan’s very first homily (reading of scripture) in Fernie began with an apology. This triggered some laughter in the congregation.
“I said, ‘let me explain’,” said Brennan.
“I don’t do anything in a small manner, there’s nothing small about me. Not my heart, not my mouth, not my backside. Everything I do is full on, and out there.
“So I’m going to say things that are offensive, most of the time it won’t be intentional. Every now and then I’ll push you intentionally to make you uncomfortable, to start a conversation.”
Her speech concluded with an offer of private conversation, if someone is offended or upset by something she has said.
She recalled one day, a church goer who always sat with her arms folded, approached Brennan and invited her for tea at her home. Despite dreading a possible lecture, she agreed.
In conversation, the woman said, “I really didn’t want to like you”.
The women went on to explain that she didn’t like that she was coming from the east or that she was a woman. But when Brennan walked through the doors for the first time, the woman admitted it challenged all her preconceptions.
“She’s talking to me and she’s watching me very carefully, and she’s measuring her words very carefully,” said Brennan.
“I said, ‘so how do you feel now?’ And she said, ‘well, I love you. Because I didn’t realize that I really needed somebody to make me feel uncomfortable and to make me question why I do what I do’.”
The woman further explained that hearing Brennan say to them that they had permission to question why things were the way they were, opened up doors that had been closed shut for years.
From a young age, Brennan has been called to serve in some capacity and has always enjoyed helping others. As she grew older and finished her high school education, she decided to pursue a career in teaching. Almost finished university, Brennan discovered that she didn’t have the grades to enter teachers college. Instead, she decided to study English and philosophy.
Now an educated woman with a resume to pursue a multitude of careers, Brennan froze, unsure what she wanted. During this time, she attended church again and realized how much she missed it. After some time she became a layperson, with a new goal of becoming a lay-minister. When she approached her Rector about becoming a lay-minister, he instead encouraged her to consider priesthood.
“I started laughing, I didn’t realize he was serious,” said Brennan. “And I said, ‘no, I want to be a lay person, I don’t feel that God would have a use for me any more than that’.”
Acknowledging this, her Rector told her to keep it in the back of her mind.
While on a retreat at a convent, Brennan spent five days in silence, pondering what she should do. She left feeling encouraged and returned a year later for another five days, with a new idea of pursuing monastic life.
On the second retreat and after much discernment (meditation), Brennan approached her Reverend Mother and told her that she was thinking of becoming an Anglican nun.
“She said, ‘I can’t see you coming to us as a sister, as a nun, but I can see you coming back to us as our priest’,” said Brennan.
Brennan rejected the idea at first but realized after leaving the retreat that her Reverend Mother was right – seven years without privacy, as an extremely introverted person, was not the path for her. Not having materialistic wealth didn’t bother her and neither did a limited wardrobe, but not having a place to be alone bothered her tremendously. It was at this point that she decided to apply to Seminary.
What ultimately cemented her decision to serve was something Brennan experienced while in meditation on the second retreat.
“I was sitting on the ground and I heard a male voice call my name,” she said. “I looked around and there was nobody around, and I thought, that’s weird. So I continued where I was with my eyes closed in a time of prayer and meditation and then I heard, ‘You will serve me’.”
“I got up and ran because I thought, there’s some strange guy around here.”
Writing down what she heard on a piece of paper, a sister confirmed that there were no other men on the grounds. Frightened and confused, Brennan returned to the same spot for several days, and waited.
“I waited and I said, ‘okay, if in order for this to happen I need to surrender, then that’s what I’m doing’,” said Brennan. “… and then I heard again, ‘You will serve me’.”
“Part of me was elated to hear it again and part of me was really annoyed because now I have to do something about it.”
Making that decision and surrendering her life to that, Brennan explained, was very hard to do. But she said once she did, she felt an overwhelming sense of peace.
Brennan was ordained in October of 2007 at St. Paul’s cathedral in London, Ont., the same cathedral where she was baptized 40 years earlier.
Before coming to Fernie, Brennan worked at the Anglican Diocese of Huron in southwestern Ontario in a small town called Dorchester.
Asked about her drive to help people, Brennan said that in order for the world to be a better place, we have to have relationships with each other.
“It’s easy to say things that are hateful and negative about somebody that you’ve never met or somebody that you don’t know. But if you have a relationship with that person, we’re far more likely to be kind to each other,” said Brennan.
She added that if we could stop looking at our differences and start looking at our similarities, and see each other through the lens of love, then we can change the world.
“The world is a broken place, a very broken place,” she said. “And we can get caught in (the mindset that) everything is so broken, I don’t know what to do, or we can take our own corner of creation with our own selves and say, ‘today I choose to live from a place of love’…”
“…Included in that love is that we’re all the same in God’s eyes.”
In saying this, Brennan also explained that her congregation is a safe place for anyone to come.
“My congregation is so loving and welcoming to people who are same gender to people who are transgender to people who are divorcees, to single moms, single dads, to folks that are tattooed and pierced.”
“They called a priest who is tattooed and pierced,” continued Brennan, referring to herself.
Sometimes, Brennan says she has to explain to people why she has a certain piercing or tattoo behind her ear.
“It’s a matter of conversation,” she said.
Currently, the marriage canon for the Anglican Church says that the definition of marriage is between a man and a woman. June of 2019 will go down in history for the denomination when church leaders consider allowing same-sex marriage.
They will be voting to change the definition of marriage to ‘two eligible people’.
“I truly believe that love comes from God,” said Brennan. “So if God sends someone for me to love that’s not traditional, does that make it any less valid than if God sends me someone who is traditional?’
Christ Church, Brennan explained, is known as an affirming congregation. Brennan cannot, as stated by the doctrine of the Anglican Church, marry two same-sex people. However, if they were to be civilly married, their marriage could be blessed at the church.
“My great hope is that we change the canon,” said Brennan, adding that changing it requires a tremendous amount of work.
The General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada meets once every three years. In order for the canon to be changed, the motion has to be approved at two successive Synod meetings, requiring a minimum of six years’ time.
Since 2002, when gay marriage was legalized in Canada, the Anglican Church has been discussing changing the canon.
By comparison, the ordination of women into the Anglican Church took 18 years to complete.
Forty years ago, female lay-leaders started a movement to change the canon and allow the ordination of women. Brennan explained that this took some time because, according to scripture, a woman must remain silent and a woman must defer. Brennan noted that although it took 18 years, it was the male clergy who voted in favour of this.
“When the marriage canon changes, I don’t think for a second there’s going to be a line up of people banging on the door saying, ‘please, can you marry us now’,” said Brennan.
“But it will be one more way that we can show we are open to all of God’s children, regardless.”