Inside the Gibson Centre in Alliston, Ont., the Meeting House’s evangelical church service begins with attendees, some with their hands in the air, singing along to upbeat Christian worship songs. It has the atmosphere of an intimate pop concert.
There are fewer than 50 people here, a mix of young families and middle-aged couples. They are the faithful who still attend Sunday services – under the cloud of sexual-assault allegations that have rocked what was once one of Canada’s largest and fastest-growing evangelical churches.
“Because we value family and togetherness, we have a strong desire to stick with our broader church family through the good times and the bad times,” said Ruth Wright, the ministry co-ordinator in Alliston.
The Meeting House’s roots trace back to the mid-1980s, when Craig and Laura Sider started Upper Oaks Community Church in Oakville, Ont. Bruxy Cavey, an entertaining preacher, was recruited to join Upper Oaks in 1996 and quickly changed both its name and the course of the church. Under Mr. Cavey, a different kind of evangelical institution was formed, one that purposely met in common spaces such as movie theatres and branded itself “a church for people who aren’t into church.”
The initial congregation in Oakville was similar in size to that of the Alliston site, but it quickly ballooned to more than 6,000 people spread across Oakville and 19 satellite locations in southern Ontario.
With Mr. Cavey as its star preacher, the Meeting House became a megachurch with growing influence.
That is, until last November, when an allegation surfaced against the pastor. In May, Hamilton police charged Mr. Cavey, 57, with sexual assault and encouraged other potential complainants to come forward.
Its 2022 annual report, published Oct. 24, indicates a little more than 2,000 attendees on Sunday mornings, which includes churchgoers tuning in online.
Carol Penner, who teaches a course on “abuse in the church” at Conrad Grebel University College in Waterloo, says a significant number of evangelical churches shaken by sexual-abuse scandals close within five years.
“Pastoral sexual misconduct is always conflictual, as remaining church leadership needs to make difficult decisions, and there will be people who disagree with those decisions,” Prof. Penner said.
In March, the Meeting House hired Melodie Bissell as a victim advocate. Dr. Bissell completed her PhD dissertation at the University of Toronto on spiritual healing for survivors of abuse.
When churches process pastoral abuse like it’s a funeral for their hero, Dr. Bissell said, “this continues to shatter any steps the victims have taken towards healing.”
Mr. Cavey was synonymous with cool – a one-word brand: Bruxy. He held “Q and Eh” sessions after each Sunday teaching. Congregants could pose on-the-spot personal faith questions to Mr. Cavey, who would explore pontifications from scripture. He was even in demand at U.S. churches trying to find their way out of that country’s highly politicized evangelicalism. Mr. Cavey tapped into the zeitgeist of a new church generation that wanted to know not just what to think but how to think.
He led a church as progressive as one could be while holding to evangelical Christian theology. He hired female pastors, preached against violence and shared the stage with leaders of other religions on Sunday mornings.
“You can emphasize just how radically steep this fall from grace has been because he promised he would be different,” said Peter Schuurman, author of The Subversive Evangelical. “He was going to be the egalitarian, pacifist, apolitical, generous and gentle nonevangelical, evangelical pastor. There’s a deeper travesty here.”
At the Meeting House, God was presented as peace-loving and approachable. It was a welcoming church for a wounded world. At least that’s how it was seen – until Hagar found her voice. Hagar is the pseudonym of the woman who accused Mr. Cavey of sexual assault last November. She chose her name from the Book of Genesis – the first slave mentioned in the Bible.
Mr. Cavey was put on a leave of absence at the end of last year, and the Meeting House’s board of overseers hired a third party to investigate the allegations. On March 8, this year, the board disclosed the investigator’s findings: Mr. Cavey had maintained a sexual relationship with the complainant in violation of the church’s policy against such relationships between clergy and congregants, which led it to ask Mr. Cavey to resign.
Mr. Cavey published a blog the same day called “My Confession.” In it he said: “This adulterous relationship is my greatest failure … I was also irresponsible in my role as a spiritual leader and Christian clergy.” The blog has since been removed.
The trial is scheduled for February, 2024. In an e-mail, Mr. Cavey’s new lawyer, Megan Savard, said, “This was the earliest date offered by the court. Mr. Cavey is eager to proceed to trial and clear his name.
“Mr. Cavey is innocent and will plead not guilty,” Ms. Savard said. “As the matter is before the courts, I will not comment further. We look forward to answering the allegations and defending the case vigorously in court.”
The Meeting House’s response has had the appearance of openness, with recurrent town hall meetings, even via YouTube, and regular e-mail updates, including additional allegations of sexual assault and sexual misconduct made against Mr. Cavey and other former pastors. Those complaints were lodged with the church through the third-party investigator but have not led to criminal investigations.
Not everyone appreciated the frankness.
Dr. Bissell said the “town halls were very triggering for congregant members and victims.”
“They [churches] have good intentions but are ill-equipped to provide trauma-informed care,” she said.
Questions and comments posed by some churchgoers at the town hall meetings reflected a stymied people, increasingly losing faith in the church. Spectators of an August meeting watched as a member of the Meeting House board suggested that Mr. Cavey’s career as a pastor was not over.
The church later apologized for the comment. Its leaders, Karmyn Bokma and Matt Miles, have travelled to different sites this fall to address concerns and to give satellite locations more autonomy.
“We’re grieving as a church – with those who have experienced abuse and with those whose trust has been broken,” said Ms. Bokma, the interim senior pastor. “But we are recommitted to revealing truth and we’re learning and growing through this.”
Meanwhile, former Meeting House pastor Danielle Strickland, who resigned in solidarity with Hagar in March, sees the scandal as a potential watershed moment – not just for the Meeting House but for churches across Canada.
“I pray every church that continues to abuse and [to] protect abusers will close,” Rev. Strickland said. “I pray for a letting go of a survival mentality and an embrace of surrender with the hope in resurrection possibilities.”