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Lay chaplain presided at city’s first same-sex marriage

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Cathy Dobson

Fourteen years after becoming one of this region’s first Unitarian lay chaplains and spearheading a program that’s now the busiest in Canada, Sarnia’s Allan McKeown is handing in his licence.

McKeown has married hundreds of non-traditional couples, conducted weddings in places others mightn’t sanction, and officiated at the first same-sex marriage in Sarnia.

It’s been a fulfilling second career, but it’s time to hand the baton to someone else in the local Unitarian congregation, said McKeown, 68.

“I never thought we would become so popular … It’s been an honour,” he said. “To be honest, summer weddings are demanding physically and I’m not getting any younger.

“And as a Unitarian congregation, we like to offer this opportunity to other members.”

McKeown joined the Sarnia-Port Huron Unitarian Fellowship in 1996, became its president and later one of three lay chaplains conducting weddings, funerals and baby blessings.

“Here is a church with no dogma, no creed. You are allowed to think for yourself basically,” he said. “I find that very appealing.

“We can do totally non-religious ceremonies, honour all beliefs including humanist and atheist beliefs.”

As McKeown trained to be a lay chaplain – or celebrant, as he prefers – he felt the demand growing in Sarnia, he said.

But he couldn’t have predicted how busy he and the other lay chaplains would become. Sarnia’s Unitarian lay chaplaincy program officiates at more ceremonies than any other Unitarian church in Canada – more even than in large cities like Toronto, Vancouver or Ottawa.

“This year, for instance, I’m on track to do at least 75 ceremonies,” McKeown said. That’s about 35 weddings, 40 funerals and the odd baby blessing.

“Sarnia is the wedding capital of Canada as far as Unitarians are concerned,” he joked.

His time has been chock full of emotional, even historic events.

McKeown presided at the first gay wedding in Sarnia on July 4, 2003, after Ontario became one of the first jurisdictions in North America to legalize same-sex marriage.

“Every wedding is joyful, but this one moved me in a way others hadn’t,” he said. “It was a civil rights issue. We were making history.”

The couple, Jewish men in their 40s, came from California and were married in Centennial Park. That same afternoon McKeown married another same-sex couple, two men from Chicago, one a Unitarian, the other a Hindu.

“I’ve probably married about 40 same-sex couples,” he said. “I don’t remember any push back. If there was, I just ignored it.”

McKeown said he considers his lay chaplaincy a gift, especially for bereaved families without strong religious beliefs.

“This is what makes me passionate about it,” he said.  “I think every life should be celebrated in a respectful way with a few smiles, some memories, perhaps a prayer or reading, whatever they want.”

He’s married couples, officiated at their children’s weddings and led memorial services for the same family.  He’s married many mixed faith couples; participated in a unique ceremony that involved the blessing of a tree; married a couple that had already been together 40 years. And he was celebrant at his own son’s wedding.

McKeown has four more weddings this year before he gives up his licence.

It’s time, he said, to spend more weekends with his wife Dorothy, who has never once complained.

However, he intends to continue to officiate at funerals, memorials and baby blessings, for which a licence isn’t required.

Sarnia Unitarian lay chaplains Wendy Starr and Bill Franks will continue with weddings, and the fellowship hopes to find a third celebrant to replace McKeown.

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