The United Church of Canada elected its first openly gay moderator this week.

At the church’s 41st general council in Ottawa, Reverend Gary Paterson won out over 15 candidates in a historic vote.

He now holds the highest position at Canada’s largest Protestant church, making him the first known openly gay person to head any mainstream Christian denomination.

Don Butler at the Ottawa Citizen reported that 350 voting commissioners at the general council gave Reverend Paterson a standing ovation, and quickly voted to make Paterson’s election unanimous.

The Reverend said he was “humbled by the trust and the responsibility you have placed in my hands.”

The role of the moderator is to preside over meetings of the church’s general council and executive, and essentially be the principal spokesperson.

At a press conference, Reverend Paterson, who will remain in the role for three years said: “Among main line denominations, as far as I know this is probably a first.

“I would suspect that that’s the primary news story. What some denominations or some parts of the world see as a huge dilemma or problem has not, within our immediate community here, been seen that way at all.”

He added that for certain denominations, his election may be seen as “problematic.”

“I’m particularly aware that some denominations in what you would call the developing world will have very serious questions. I think we need to be in dialogue, that my very presence will in some ways force the issue.”

The United Church was the first church in the Canadian mainstream to ordain gay ministers. Back in 1988, the general council declared that all believers in Christ, regardless of their sexuality, were welcome – and eligible to be considered for ministry.

Four years later, the United Church ordained Tim Stevenson as its first openly gay minister. Rev Paterson is now married to Mr Stevenson, his partner of 30 years. After the election results were announced, the two men embraced as those present applauded.

The Reverend said: “I’ve heard from so many individuals that they’re worried or they’re feeling a lack of hope.

“The role of the moderator is someone who can bring inspiration and hope. We will find our way through. We will be changed and we will be faithful.”