Saturday 17 December 2011

Canada needs more United Church

You may be familiar with the Chapters-Indigo campaign to promote Canadian authors: "The World Needs More Canada." Well, in an absolutely shameless bit of borrowing I want to declare that Canada needs more United Church of Canada. I'm not suggesting more United Church of Canada congregations - although that might not be a bad thing. Certainly not more United Church buildings. But at this point in its history Canada desperately needs more of what the United Church once brought to our nation.

Few people know better than an historian about the dark days of our story and the various ways we betrayed the unique song that God wanted to sing through those Protestants who were prepared to identify themselves as liberal-evangelical at the turn of the 20th century. Heaven and history know that, particularly in our desire to identify ourselves as part of the cultural mainstream we actively supported - or remained silent in the face of - various trends and events which were contra-gospel in nature. For some of those we have repented and for others we need to continue to repent and lament. However, there are so many bright moments in our story as well, by God's grace. (To get a good view of that story read Don Schweitzer's newly published: The United Church: A History).

Every appearance is that 2012 will continue the trend of "structural meanness" in Canada. That means that, while Canadians as individuals, and even some corporations and companies, continue to increase their support of worthy causes, our society and governments seem increasingly dedicated to making that support increasingly crucial. As a pastor, particularly at Christmas, I am witness to tremendous outpourings of generosity. For instance, the youth group at our church raised over $400 to support a couple of local families and, during the break when many teens would be doing other things, the gathered to do the shopping wrapping and delivering. All across Nova Scotia and the rest of Canada, scenes like that were played out in gift giving, special meals, collections for particular causes and so on. That's individual generosity. However, at the same time, we know that in a very few days the CPP increase that seniors will see will be more than swallowed up by inflation and increases in electrical rates and corporate tax rates will drop from 16.5% to 15%. That's an example of structural meanness.

The "liberal-evangelical" vision that formed the United Church was, of course, limited in scope by the late Victorian era in which it emerged. But it can be updated without major distortion. "Liberal" here predates the appropriation of that title by more narrow political aspirations. It means open to a variety of viewpoints and the creation and maintaining of spaces in which those perspectives can encounter one another in openness and respect; a space in which diversity of opinion and commitment need not necessarily lead to hostility. Canada needs that: not just between Christians but as a society that is changing in ways the United Church's founders could never have imagined. That "liberal" commitment gives us the tools to overcome our vast fear of the other.

"Evangelical" has been stolen by a much narrower view point that leaves many United Church folk (and those who think like us) quite cold. Instead of a behaviour that echoes "one hungry beggar showing another where to find bread" it has become synonymous in many people's minds with lobbing the "gospel goodies" that I have from my solitude into yours because you need what I have. So United Church folk have often morphed their evangelism solely into action, telling one another that our deeds will attract others to ask about our motivation. Unfortunately, that doesn't happen too often (if at all). Our service to society and individuals is accepted as yet another form of good deed. Praiseworthy perhaps, but not pointing to God. The "evangelicalism" of the founders of the United Church was unashamedly oriented towards God's praise and, for many, the realization of God's rule in the social structures and systems of this world. (You might check out )

That's the sort of United Church I think Canada needs more of. But that means that those of us who call ourselves "United Church" need to do a better job of letting our particular sense of God's light shine. Our country needs us. Our God calls us.

Friday 16 December 2011

Finding a Home

After considerable prayerful reflection and debate the General Council Executive decided that the new home for the United Church (I always prefered the term "Church House" to "Head Office" - although one of my seminary profs loved to refer to it as "The Head Shed") will remain in Toronto. From talking to GCE members that was not as much of a foregone conclusion as some might cynically claim. Apparently there was a very strong case made by Winnipeg as well as an attractive suggestion from Ottawa.

I wasn't part of the deliberations so I can only observe from the outside. I remember when we moved from owning our own building (85 St. Clair) to renting space at 3250 Bloor. There was much concern expressed about the appearance of "corporatization" presented by the move. Having bought and sold more than a couple of family homes I know it's always easy to Monday morning quarterback such actions. Could we have sold earlier for more money? Could we have retrofitted and stayed on? Would more land further out of town have been better? And I'm just talking about houses not offices!

What factors would you consider?

Obviously land/rental costs Need to be a factor. I can't imagine that the overheated real estate market of Ottawa would be more congenial financially, either for office space or for staff locating there to live. Besides which, locating in the second furthest north national capital on the planet loses its appeal when the tulips fade! More seriously, the days are long gone when physical proxmimity to seats of power is particularly relevant. It's not as if the Prime Minister organizes a "getting to know you" dinner for the newly elected moderator (as happened up into the 1960s). Nor do we really want to get caught up in the hordes of lobbyists that swarm around Parliament Hill like so many . . .

I imagine transportation - particularly by air - was a factor. After all, getting anywhere other than Toronto Pearson can be a major hassle. From most places in the Maritimes, for instance, we often end up routing through Toronto after reaching Moncton or Halifax. The same is true for many places in the nation.

On a more positive note, I am encouraged to see that the GCE wants to work with downtown congregations that want to develop their locations. Being connected to a church may not change the way we do our business - but then again it might. I have no illusions that work is done in a more Christ-like fashion" just because it's conducted in or near a church building. However, to commit ourselves to a more visibly United Church presence in the downtown of Canada's largest, most multi-cultural and multi-faith community is a significant step of faith. It is a ray of hope.

To get to anywhere in Canada pretty well, from halifax we have to go through Toronto. The same holds true for many international destinations. And I know the challenges are mutiplied from other Canadian communities.

Friday 2 December 2011

A Christian Nation?

Not so long ago I received an invitation to attend an information and fundraising event for the Christian Heritage Party. For $35 I could get a "delicious roasted breast of chicken dinner with gravy and blueberry cheesecake." Now, if truth were told, I've paid more for far less at other fundraising meals. The letter also informed me that, although the Christian heritage Party is better known in Ontario and points west, they wanted folk to know they were alive and well in Halifax and region.

I'm not sure that is good news. They want to "preserve our precious Christian heritage." I could salute that flag if only I imagined we agreed on what that precious heritage is. They identify themselves as strongly pro-life and believe "in strong, traditional family values." They were willing to mail me a leader's portfolio with information on the separation of church and state; the church's role in the public square; and "how your church can be a powerful force for righteousness in Canada and stay within the law."

To be fair, I probably should have gone and engaged in the discussion. Excuse number one: I was attending Truth and Reconciliation Hearings in Halifax and those seemed more relevant. Excuse number two - I feel like I've had these conversations before and they don't get me very far. So I am stuck with evaluating the CHP from what I remember from living in Ontario and the material they mailed me. The topics in the "leader's portfolio" were enough to scare me off. They give every evidence of promoting the further Americanization of Canadian social life.

The church and Christianity have a far different role south of the border. That's an historic and contemporary fact dependent on a variety of social factors. In the United States the doctrine of the "separation of church and state" is an established constitutional reality, although scholars debate what the original crafters meant. There's a lot of evidence to suggest that they meant to protect the church from the state. Most folk who invoke the phrase today in the Untied States want to protect the state from religious interference. Quite a shift. Nevertheless, there simply is no such concept in Canadian history. Most of the early European immigrants to Canada were not fleeing religious persecution. Churches and church-run institutions played an important role in developing modern Canada before being (largely) peacefully surrendered to the community (think of universities, hospitals and schools). To talk about the separation of church and state in Canada is to create a ghost of a conflict that has no substance and never did. It should set off alarm bells. Perhaps some folk look south of the border and viewing the prominence of civic religion in American politics think it would be good for Canada. Down there, identifiable blocks of voters with definite socio-religious commitments are a big factor. Perhaps some would like to create that kind of presence here in order to advance their agenda.

Call me cynical but I don't imagine that the laws that I might want to "stay within" would be the same as the ones the CHP authors are concerned about when we think about the church as "a force for righteousness". I'm more likely to be found supporting an Occupy movement or protesting nuclear armed warships in Halifax Harbour than picketing a hospital that provides safe medical procedures that are legal under the Canada Health Act. And as for "traditional families" - whose traditions and whose families?

I have to compliment the CHP folk though. They have convictions and they are not afraid to take them into the public square. For instance, ask the average Canadian about the Christian position on abortion and they are likely be far more aware of the strongly "anti-" stance that characterizes the CHP, the Evangelical Alliance of Canada and the Roman Catholic Church. If that doesn't represent the majority of Christians - or even all within those three groups whose fault is that? There is currently an important court case addressing physician assisted suicide underway in British Columbia. Chances are, if you asked the same average Canadian for a "Christian" viewpoint on that subject you'd get the one that characterizes the same three players. That's only partially because of the huge spill-over of American broadcasting from a context where these are often polarizing issues for people who self-identify as Christian and non. The largest responsibility lies with Canadian Christians and churches who have been overwhelmingly silent on these subjects - at least in the public sphere. There may be good reason for the reticence: we know what happens to people who take public stands and we have traditionally been more respectful of freedom of opinion by believers. But as long as we remain silent, or talk only to ourselves about these subjects, it's not surprising that the average Canadian thinks that the "heritage" that the CHP promotes is the same that everyone who calls themselves by Christ's name might claim.

So, what might we do? Well, for one thing, the liberal-evangelical churches (the historic mainline) need to do a better job of helping Christians think like Christians – rather than merely as good, law-abiding folk who happen to attend worship. We need to help one another identify idolatry and anti-Christian behavior. Instead, our primary identifications are as consumers or partisans or taxpayers or . . . For instance, how many church members use some form of active, intentional spiritual discerning when they cast a ballot? We might not agree on the results, but at least we should actively consider whether the candidate or the party seems consistent with my understanding of God’s call in Christ to love my neighbour before myself.

A simple antidote presents itself. Christianity Today is not my normal reading, but I was caught off guard by the headline: “Frequent Bible Reading Can Turn You Liberal.” In the States, frequent church attendance seems to correlate with conservative views. But a Baylor University survey suggests that frequent bible reading raises opposition to increasingly repressive federal security actions and the death penalty, and raises concern levels for social and economic justice. Wow!! Now that’s a Christian Heritage I could support – even without the chicken dinner.

Tuesday 29 November 2011

It takes a congregation

In a 1996 book Hillary Clinton challenged the rampant individualism of modern western society by forcefully pointing out that, in the raising of the next generation, we all have a part to play. That is true whether or not we are directly related to the children in question. A society where the more affluent focus only on their children, abandoing a wider commitment to community, will be much poorer in the long run.

In recent weeks at Knox we've been hearing the phrase, "it takes a congregation." It's a sort of tongue-in-cheek way of raising volunteers and donations of materials and time for the annual turkey supper: "It takes a congregation to serve a turkey." Yes, I know, you can read that in a couple of ways! Every year our congregation puts on a turkey supper with all the trimmings. Not only does it kick off the Advent season, it also raises a portion of the annual revenue. I realized this year, that although the revenue is the "presenting reason" for the supper it's not the main benefit.

As with many such events staged by churches and other not-for-profit groups, if someone were to do a purely cost-benefit analysis of a typical fund-raising effort the truth is that if all the volunteers were to contribute $50 or $100 directly, they would raise a similar or larger amount with only a fraction of the effort. Of course, in most fund-raising efforts, many of the participants couldn't afford that contribution. Furthermore, dinners, yard sales, auctions and the like, hopefully allow others to contribute to the host organization's activity. Put bluntly, it provides the charity with another revenue stream! As well, it raises awareness that the organization - church or otherwise - is alive and functioning in the community. If someone comes for supper and is favourably impressed, perhaps they'll return for group's primary activities - such as worship. And, who knows, you might rub elbows with a long-lost friend or a brand new one, sitting on those awkward chairs at those long tables!

For the organization itself - like a congregation - the primary benefit is not financial, even if some folk imagine that it is. If the event really succeeds, it's because it draws people together in a new configuration. People who move in different circles of relationship are now side by side. New relationships are forged as plates are filled or gravy is poured; as patrons are served and places re-set for the next guest. In this case, both our youth group and Sunday School turned out in goodly numbers to help, which I know impressed not only our visitors but also regular church goers who don't always see the kids and youth because of different activity schedules. Think about it: particularly in an urban/suburban setting, how often do the generations outside of a family gather together for a shared task? How often do the children, teens, middlers and seniors get together at all, much less in a way that benefits others?

Of course, all is not shangri-la - the church is, after all, a divinely-instituted body populated by very human subjects! Always there are those who would organize this or that aspect differently. But, overwhelmingly, I was struck by the efficiency and effectiveness of the operation. And, far more importantly, by the joy being shown by those who were doing the work. They were having fun together. There was gentle teasing of one another, laughter when two servers ended up at the same patron with a plate of food at the same moment and times of pause where folk connected in very simple, human ways. No, from a purely financial perspective it wasn't terribly efficient. But the benefits to Christ's community of an opportunity to be in service together across the generations would make the event a success even if it lost money.

Sunday 20 November 2011

It calls to mind a scene from an old black and white movie: the incensed villagers converge on the castle of the rapacious lord with pitchforks and pruning hooks and torches.

A week ago, workers at the Bowater Mersey plant in southern Nova Scotia were faced with an incredible choice. In order to preserve the jobs of some, roughly 80 unionized jobs - close to half - would need to be cut from the work force. So said the employer: the alternative was to shut the mill. This is not just about the employees of course. It is about their families and indeed the economy of an entire county that has received several economic body blows in recent months. The vote was close and interviews with the workers revealed just how torn they were. This group of people has given and given and given in response to the company's demands over the years, rolling back one aspect of their contract after another.

Then came the word, not a week later, that two of company's senior employees shared almost $4million in bonuses and severance awards for making the plant more profitable! The new CEO will earn $765,000 plus performance bonuses of up to 100%. The new CFO earns $350,000 and is eligible for 100% more in short-term incentive bonuses and 125% in long-term incentive bonuses. Incidentally, the first two bonuses amount to more than the tax breaks given by the local municipality over the last ten years to encourage the company to maintain the plant and the jobs. And the company continues to plead its "need" for public assistance in taxes, power rates and the like.

Now, I don't know anything about the forestry industry. What I read in the paper indicates that it is an economic sector under tremendous pressure, particularly as the global market for newsprint continues to decline. But this isn't about cutting trees and milling wood and selling paper. This is about the just treatment of people who earn their living by the sweat of their brow and the communities that depend upon them. This about the incredible disconnect in our economy between those who actually do the work and those who pocket the lion's share of the reward. It is about the insistence that profits and executive pay must not be impacted by the financial challenges of a corporation.

I don't know anything about those Abitibi employees. They may indeed be fine , upstanding individuals, who are active in their communities and give to charity. But the system they are part of stinks! It reeks of an appalling injustice which sees the average CEO of a company in Canada make 155 times that of the worker in the company. By noon on January 3rd, the top100 CEOs in Canada will have garnered what the average employee will earn in in 2012. Henry Ford, crafty old industrialst that he was, recognized that at the level he was paying his employees they could never afford the cars running off his assembly lines. So he raised their wages. That attitude (called Fordism) and a strong trade union movement kept the disparity between the richest and the poorest in Canada in check for several decades. However, since the 1970s, income for working Canadians has been stagnant or declining, while profits for corporations and pay packages for executives have gone through the roof and continued into the atmosphere. I don't mind someone who invents a revolutionary new device or develops a genuine society-changing process gaining the rewards of their labours. But many of the highest paid are employed by companies that actually produce nothing, merely shuffling paper from one place to another. And now, recent research in Canada suggests that 10% of us would have difficulty, even with credit cards and lines of credit, meeting an unexpected $500 expense. And 59% of us would be in very serious problems if a pay cheque were delayed by one week.

Speaking of giving to charity: I applaud mega billionaires like Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett who challenge their peers to give away huge sums of money. Good for them!! But there is something radically amiss when justice is dependent on private philanthropy and the addressing of social ills relies on charity. That is a grotesque distortion of the values of our society which cherishes the obscene profits of the few over the well-being of the many.

I'm sure that some of the good people of Lunenberg and Queen's Counties would love to get out the pitchforks and torches! But, in a system where there is such disparity in values and lack of commitment to the community that has worked for the mill for generations, the risk is that the company would simply pack up and leave entirely. Imagine though, having to serve those executives in the local stores.

Saturday 19 November 2011

The Myth of Scarcity

I believe it was biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann who coined the phrase "the myth of scarcity and the gospel of abundance." The phrase sticks with me. The rest of this is from me, although it may owe something to Walter B as well. I just don't have the text in front of me to check! The myth of scarcity is a myth in two different ways. Perhaps you learned as a child, as I did, that myths were stories told by more primitive people "who didn't know as much as we do" to try and explain the way the world is. That use of myth - which represents a tremendous amount of European-North American arrogance - implies that "their" inferior lack of knowledge is replaced by "our" superior growth in knowledge - generally meaning through science.

Literary scholar (and United Church minister) Northrop Frye reminds us of the second, deeper meaning of myth. A myth is a story that is profoundly true. Despite its shape a myth isn't focused primarily on the "how" of something but the "why". Why is some aspect of the world around us or life as we experience it the way it is? So, four instance, the creation stories in Genesis are that kind of myth - a profound assertion of a people about why the world is the way it is. In summary, because God made it that way and declared it to be good.

The "myth of scarcity" is a myth twice over. At the surface level it is untrue: we demonstrate that it is untrue whenever we manage to find money to do something we really want to do. So when the government declares that there declares that there isn't enough money to have a credible national housing strategy but there is money to spend in a cabinet minister's riding. Or when world governments, confronted by the truth that an infinitesimal portion of the profits of banks each year could eliminate childhood deaths due to hunger and malnutrition and they do not step up to the plate - because money is scarce. Or when someone says that they cannot contribute to a charity or another worthy cause because money is tight - yet they have the latest gadgets or regularly take exotic vacations. In each of those cases those are myths that are untrue: the truth is not scarcity but our decisions around expenditures which, for whatever reason, we seek to hide behind the myth of scarcity.

The second, and more insidious form of the myth, comes when we have heard the claims of scarcity so often that they simply become accepted. So, when someone says, "Oh, we can't do that because money is tight" and everyone else nods sagely in understanding. That often masquerades as the practical, reasonable, commonsense response. And because we hear it so often in so many settings the expression has a currency and a credibility. Everywhere we turn there is someone declaring how times are hard and money is tight. If enough people say the same thing enough times it takes on an air of factuality regardless of the truth.

I am not denying that there are those - far too many in fact - in Canada, for whom life is very difficult financially. But, in how many cases, are their challenges related to the fact that the rest of us have bought the myth that resources are too scarce to address those grotesque differences? So let's bracket out those folk, not as proof of the myth of scarcity but as victims of it!

Like many myths that are repeated often enough and come to be accepted as fact (most racial and gender stereotypes are like that) the myth of scarcity which is so often repeated in our society creeps into the church. Governments have adopted the myth of scarcity to further the politics of division (promising to make sure that each group gets to keep its little portion when together we could be much stronger). In the church we often hear about how we can't do this, that or the other because there isn't enough money. In one sense that's true. In absolute dollars the Mission and Service Fund of my denomination is identical to where it was thirty years ago. Which means that the spending power has plummeted. Yet, when the Maritime Conference recently solicited funds to provide breakfast for survivors at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission meetings in Halifax, more than double the hoped-for amount was raised! Look at the outpouring of relief for drought stricken Africa, earthquake ravaged Haiti, flooded Thailand, and the list goes on. The issue is not scarcity - the issue is helping people realize that this needs to be a priority.

The gospel of abundance is what Jesus came proclaiming, and we've been trying to truncate it and limit it ever since. We try and explain away his assertions about the power of faith or the breadth of the kingdom's welcome or the incredible results if we act in faith. We don't teach tithing because we say it's not reasonable. Maybe what's not reasonable is to expect much from a carefully rational and controlled faith. Maybe what's not reasonable is to expect to do the work of the kingdom of God while honouring the myth of scarcity.

Thursday 17 November 2011


Halifax has shared with other, much larger cities, an Occupy movement. The Occupiers initially established themselves on the Grand Parade - the central plaza in the middle of the city. After an agreement with veterans associations they agreed to relocated for Remembrance Day (see the post for November 6th) There was certainly the impression amongst the Occupiers and in the media that the Mayor had given indications that the Occupiers could return to the Grand Parade following Remembrance Day. Here's what happened

At 11:00 a.m. on November 11th, a decorated Afghanistan veteran and one of the Occupy protesters, together, laid a wreath and shook hands with Mayor Peter Kelly. At that very moment, police were presenting notices to the Occupiers to permanently remove their tents from the park where they had relocated. They would not be permitted to return to Grand Parade.

Apparently, at a closed door meeting of City Council on Tuesday November 8th the decision had been made to enforce a bylaw forbidding camping in city parks. I say apparently, because no one is saying what happened in that meeting. Halifax City Council is very fond of such meetings. I haven't crunched any numbers, but our city must surely be near the top of the list for such gatherings.

In any event, a couple of hours after the notices were given, police showed up in force, in a driving rain storm, and with a fair degree of aggressiveness, removed the protesters, dismantled their tents and arrested fourteen. All this on Remembrance Day mind you.

Back to City Hall. This Tuesday, November 15th, two or three attempts by councilors to have an open explanation of the decision to remove the protesters were shot down. One that sticks out is when a councilor attempted to move a motion to put the matter on the agenda for the public meeting of Council, the Mayor muted her microphone and declared that the city's solicitor would need to rule on whether her motion was in order. Excuse me! Unless we've instituted a new system where the city solicitor is an elected position, staff can advise the council but the Mayor has the legal responsibility to preside. Staff advise - the elected officials choose whether or not to accept and abide by that advice and must carry the consequences for that decision as for all choices they make. A few hours later, when the same councilor attempted to publicly apologize for her part in the decision to shut down the Occupy encampment, her microphone was turned off and she was silenced because the matter is before the courts (recall those fourteen who were arrested).

So, now we have a situation where a significant action (at least for a city the size of Halifax) was undertaken for reasons that are not being made public. The Mayor is saying that once the decision was made it became "an operational matter" - which is code for, don't blame me it was the police who decided to act when and how they did On something with this kind of political optics? In the absence of fact, rumours are swirling and the political leaders are hiding behind the legal advice to not talk.

So, here's the situation. The lack of engagement by youth with the political process is often bemoaned. What can we do to get them involved, is the routine lament. Admittedly, I haven't been able to figure out a single clear message from the Occupy Movement - and I'm not sure anyone else has. But that may be because they are trying to embody a new way of doing social engagement, that takes multiple voices seriously and doesn't boil everything down to sound bites and attack ads. A way of being society that takes the time to raise multiple concerns and hear them out. Clearly they were offensive to some. Lots of folk are prepared to label them in very dismissive terms. I'm not sure how you compare someone living in a tent in a public park with someone else who passes politicians large sums of money in unmarked envelopes.

Apparently we (or our leaders) are not prepared to even consider engaging with a group that calls the entire system into question - in large measure because the system has brought us to the brink of ecological disaster, financial crisis, social decay and political gridlock. What the actions of Halifax's council seem to declare is that we're only willing to listen to your participation when the system co-opts you. It reminds me of congregations that moan about wanting new members but who really only want newcomers to sustain them in the ways they've become used to and get riled when a newcomer suggests something different. It's a sad day when politicians, meeting in secret and hiding behind advice that they've chosen to take, seek to snuff out a breath of fresh air and suppress a genuine possibility for engagement.

"'Because the poor are despoiled, because the needy groan, I will rise up,' says the Lord; 'I will place them in the safety for which they long.' The promises of the Lord are promises that are pure, silver refined in a furnace on the ground, purified seven times." Psalm 12:5-6