35 and counting…

Notes for a sermon preached at Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Edmonton, Alberta
May 29, 2020, the Seventh Sunday of Easter

When the Rector asked me to cover services this Sunday, I said “Sure”, and than looked at my calendar and realized it was the 7th Sunday of Easter, only two days before May 31. 35 years ago, the 7th Sunday of Easter fell on May 31, when I was ordained a Deacon. (It was also the night that the Edmonton Oilers won their 3rd Stanley Cup, so I can take no credit for the street party outside afterwards.) When I realized what the day was, I told the Rector that I wanted to take the opportunity to reflect on my time in ordained ministry, and she quickly agreed.

Then I looked at the readings and came up against the closing portion of Jesus’ “high-priestly prayer” from John’s Gospel. As John tells it, these are the last words Jesus spoke to his disciples before his death, praying for those who will come after “that they may be one.” That’s us!

When I was involved in campus ministry as an undergraduate (U. of Alberta, B.Sc. ’69), the big thing was the Ecumenical Movement, after Rome had started to open its doors through Vatican II. I recall starry-eyed students – yours truly included – running around proclaiming unity, singing “They’ll know we are Christians by our love,” and expecting organic unity among the churches – soon! By the time I was ordained, I knew that organic unity was a pipe dream, but I still had some hope for all Christians to be one. I still hold that hope after 35 years, but the history of these years has been very mixed in this respect, even within the Anglican Church.

There’s been a lot of change. For some people, the best change is no change at all. Others say we have not changed nearly enough. What I do know is that change is inevitable. The Greek philosopher Heraclitus held that “impermanence is the characteristic feature of the world,” which certainly rings true for me. It has certainly been true in the Anglican world in recent years.

It’s hard to proclaim unity among Christians when our own church has seen divisions, mostly arising from changes in the church which some people reject. One predates my ordination, the ordination of women to the priesthood and later to the episcopacy. The Anglican Church of Canada first ordained female priests in 1979, and some clergy and laity responded by moving to Roman Catholicism or Orthodoxy. It was an issue for some of my classmates during my time at seminary. It remains an issue for some today, even at Holy Trinity. For me, it has been one of the most positive changes in our church in the past half-century, bringing a new wholeness to our understanding of Christian ministry.

Another change which I regard as positive, but which has led to division in our ranks, is in gender and sexuality issues. As we have moved toward fuller inclusiveness in welcome, ordination, and marriage, some people who disagreed have gone elsewhere, including establishing a parallel Anglican Church. Some others stay, but reluctantly.

A big positive: the development of a closer relationship with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada. Again, some saw this as negative, but for me, it was long overdue. When our two churches sat down to talk, we quickly discovered that we agreed on almost everything and had done for centuries. We used different theological languages, and came at church order from different directions, but these proved easy to deal with. I was privileged to be a delegate to General Synod 2001, and to take part in the great celebration of the signing of the Full Communion agreement. I doubt that I’ll ever forget seeing our Primate and the Lutheran National Bishop dancing together around the arena in Waterloo. Our two churches have been enriched by this relationship, a visible sign of being one as Christ prayed for us.

Shortly after my ordination, we began to be aware of the issues around Residential Schools, a subject about which I had been woefully ignorant. As lawsuits began to pile up, there was some real fear that our whole institutional structure would collapse if we didn’t properly address the matter. Our Primate gave an apology to the Anglican Council of Indigenous Peoples’ Sacred Circle in 1993, opening the door to the work of healing and reconciliation. Since that time, we have become more aware of our colonial history and its effects on indigenous people. Healing and reconciliation will take years – well beyond my lifetime! – but we are on the road towards being one with our indigenous brothers and sisters.

One place where change has been at best mixed is our response to sexual abuse and harassment within the church. In times past everything was left up to Bishops’ discretion, but it became clear that this was inadequate, at times leading to greater harm. (The pattern of moving offending clergy to other parishes is not solely the province of the Roman Catholic Church. It has happened in the ACC. Most dioceses now have policies and procedures in place, but they lack consistency across the church, and a tendency to protect the institution before the victims persists. The “#ACCToo” issue is the most recent and visible example, dealing with how our national office handled a draft story intended for the Anglican Journal, potentially identifying victims when confidentiality had been assured. An open letter circulated around the national church, gathering hundreds of signatures, calling for accountability and for care for the complainants. The Primate responded in an interview on CBC News. I found her words less than helpful, but I do understand that the situation is still unfolding. Assurances that steps are being taken to ensure that it won’t happen again are not enough when people have been hurt. We have made some positive changes here, but much remains to be done.

That’s a bit of a downer, but now let’s look at one of the most positive areas of change – the growing understanding of the church as “missional.”

I served in three parishes before retiring. Two of those had long histories, and their understanding of the church had been deeply shaped by history. One was characterized by the “chaplaincy model,” seeing their role as ministering to people like them – mostly of British heritage. The other had played a big role in local history, and people looked back to the glorious past when the church was full and there were 200 children in Sunday School. I’m not criticizing them, rather observing that their sense of mission had been formed through many years of ministry practises that seemed to me to no longer fit the societal situation.

What I have experienced in other places and very much at Holy Trinity is a growing sense of the church as missional – existing for the benefit of others, not just those who are “on the list.” There will always be echoes of our history, but I don’t find it driving our agenda. The agenda continues to evolve. In some ways, the pandemic has been a blessing, forcing us to find new ways to be the Church, but God’s mission is still the same, as Jesus handed it to his disciples on the night before his death.

The church of 2022 is facing some huge challenges. With the Holy Spirit as our guide, we may move forward contributing our share of God’s mission in this world. Things won’t ever again be the same – but that’s always been true.

It has been a joy and a privilege – and at times a great challenge – to be part of the changes of the past 35 years. I do not expect to see the next 35 to their completion. But I am certain they will happen, and I believe that God will be glorified in God’s people.

May we all be one.

Amen.

The Scandal of Unconditional Love

Notes for a sermon preached at Holy Trinity, Edmonton (Old Strathcona)
Mar. 27, 2022. Text: Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

If it’s not about love, it’s not about God.” – Bishop Michael Curry.

We learn from texts in both testaments of the Bible that love is God’s essential nature, notably in Exodus 34:6f:

The Lord passed before (Moses), and proclaimed,
‘The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger,
and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,
keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation,
forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin,

Also in the first letter of John 4:7-8:

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God;
everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.
Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.

And from Jesus himself, in John 13:34, in the only thing he called a commandment:

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.
Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.

Today’s we heard one of the best-known and best-loved stories in the Bible about love. It’s most often known as “The Prodigal Son,” but it’s about three people, not one.

It is easy to focus on the younger son, and his father’s joyful reception of him when he returns to the family home. It is a heartwarming account of how much and how unconditionally the father loves his errant offspring. This first scene could stand on its own as a lesson. But then Jesus adds the second scene, in which the older brother refuses to join the welcome. An apparently simple story of restoration takes on greater depth.

The younger brother received a huge gift from his father – one-third of his estate, according to the custom of the time. It would likely have been a large sum, and the father would have had to go to great lengths to free it up. The young man lived high on the hog for a while, and then – disaster struck. Not an uncommon turn of events for people who are unprepared for wealth.

Did the young man repent? The word doesn’t appear in the text, but we are told that he resolved to go home because his life has become unbearable. He rehearses a confession but is never allowed to complete it. His father greets him without condition, without anything but sheer joy at his return. His love overrules everything, even the young man’s waste of the great gift he received.

Things change dramatically when the older brother enters the scene. He can’t even refer to the younger one as his brother and is angered by his father’s behaviour. This reveals the scandal of unconditional love. The father loves both sons, but the older cannot accept the father’s love for the younger. How can he love such an obvious sinner?

I have heard similar sentiments from people over the years. God’s love is a wonderful thing when it applies to us or to those we love or agree with. But when we hear that God’s love extends to some other people – well, it can be very troubling.

Martin Hattersley was a lawyer, a politician, and an Anglican priest. He served as an Honorary Assistant at several city parishes before his death in 2020. His life was profoundly changed when his daughter was murdered in 1988. Out of this came a ministry of involvement in victim support and advocacy on behalf of prisoners. He did not come to it easily. I heard him speak to a clergy gathering, when he talked about the process of coming to terms with the reality of his daughter’s death, and with the troubling idea – born from the teachings of Jesus – that God could still love her murderer. Martin talked about days spent raging at God. He spent days pacing his family room, sometimes in tears, sometimes in visceral anger. How could God love a person who did such an evil thing?

That’s a very important question. I pray none of us ever need to grapple with it in the kind of circumstances that Martin Hattersley did, but it’s a question that I believe is raised every time we deal with people whose actions we see as evil, whether greater or less.

Can we ever see the offender as a child of God, equal to us in God’s eyes? It’s hard; it’s really hard. But we must remember that we are all part of God’s creation, God’s great labour of love, and all human beings are loved by God. Even people whom it is easy to hate – and there are plenty of such people – even they are objects of God’s love.

However…

God’s unconditional love does mean that God loves us – everyone of us – just as we are. But it also means that God loves us too much to want us to stay the way we are. The younger brother is on the road to repentance and a new life. The father deeply loves the older brother, now his sole heir, and he invites him to shed his bitterness and join in the party. Although there is good reason for the older to resent the younger, to continue living with this kind of feeling will only serve to further divide the two. His younger brother wasted the great gift he received, but the older is now in danger of scorning and wasting the great gift of his father’s love.

Loving and praying for our enemies is very difficult. It goes against the grain for most of us, but it’s a significant part of the Gospel imperative. I am reminded of the words of the Absolution from BCP Morning Prayer, which say that God “…desireth not the death of a sinner, but rather that (they) may turn from (their) wickedness, and live.” God desires the best for all his children. God desires life for all of us. Out of this desire, when we are on the wrong track, God calls us to a change of mind, a change of heart.

Did the older brother’s heart ever soften? Did he relent and join the party? We are not told, but that is his father’s wish for him. God calls us to join the party, to turn from whatever is keeping us from entering into the fullness of joy.

And let’s remember that Jesus told the story in response to scribes and Pharisees who were upset at Jesus’ welcome of “tax-collectors and sinners.” Who is invited to dine with Jesus? Not just the supposedly holy, but everyone!

Let’s join the party, not condoning the acts of those who do us harm, but praying for them, and looking for reconciliation in the light of God’s love.

May we seek the good of all.

May we love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.

May God’s steadfast love for all of God’s children guide us today and always.

Enjoy the party!

Amen.

What kind of king? What kind of people?

Notes for a sermon at Holy Trinity Anglican Church (Strathcona), Edmonton
Reign of Christ Sunday, Nov. 21, 2021
Texts: John 18:33-37; 2 Samuel 23:1-7; Revelation 1:4b-8

Are you the King of the Jews?” may at first seem like a straightforward yes/no question. The Jewish authorities have turned Jesus over to Pilate, demanding his death. At first glance, Pilate is just seeking a quick resolution to the charge. However, I find myself hearing Pilate’s question on another level. Jesus has been accused of claiming kingship, and Pilate can’t quite believe it.

Are you the King of the Jews?” “Really?”

Whatever answer Jesus may give, he does not present as any kind of king that Pilate can recognize. What does a king look like? Certainly nothing like a Galilean peasant. Pilate knew kings – people who lived in palaces, dressed richly, surrounded by servants. Most kings in the ancient world got their positions through force or violence, whether an ancestor’s or their own, and they held on to those positions through force. Pilate can see none of this in Jesus, who is no kind of king that Pilate (or almost anyone else) understands. “My kingdom is not of this world,” as Jesus says. Living under Jesus’ reign is different from living under the rule of an earthly king. So…

       What kind of king is he?
       What kind of kingdom does he reign over?
       What kind of people inhabit this kingdom?

The Bible is ambivalent about human government, especially kingship.[1] There are texts that affirm its positive value, others that caution about it, and still others that are profoundly negative. Our reading from 2 Samuel points to this tension: someone who rules over people should do so “in the fear of God,” meaning that the ruler’s purposes should be God’s purposes. History has too many examples of rulers whose purposes were not aimed at the good of God’s people, but rather driven by self-interest, aggrandizement, and aggression.

Moves to limit the power of kings play an important role in our history. In 1215, Magna Carta sought to protect the rights of the church and the barons, but real steps in establishing rights for the wider populace came later, notably with the British Bill of Rights Act of 1689. In Canada, human rights, as enshrined in the first section of our constitution in 1982, have become a major factor in our lives, notably as part of some rancorous disputes around pandemic protection.[2]

The language of human rights has become commonplace, even finding its way into church life. At General Synod in 1998, we were asked to vote on a declaration of human rights for the church. The measure was narrowly defeated, but I found the debate instructive. I particularly recall one of the bishops saying something like “Human rights are a good thing to promote, but we in the church should remember that this is not our ‘heart language.’ Our heart language as followers of Christ is the language of responsibility, which is found in the Baptismal Covenant.”[3]

That one short speech has stayed with me ever since.

We are celebrating baptism today, affirming with the candidate and her parents and sponsors our own commitment to following Jesus. We are declaring ourselves to be citizens of Jesus’ Kingdom. Following Jesus is never about asserting rights and privileges, but rather about acknowledging and accepting our responsibilities as Jesus’ people. One of those responsibilities is related to human rights – we pledge to respect the dignity of every human being, but that has little to do with our own rights. It’s more about acknowledging others’ equal standing in God’s eyes.

Jesus could have claimed kingship for himself, with all the rights and privileges pertaining to that office. As the incarnate Word of God – the Truth walking among us – he was certainly entitled to due respect. But he never claimed it.

Instead, as Paul wrote in Philippians 2:5-8

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
   did not regard equality with God
   as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
   taking the form of a slave,
   being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
   he humbled himself
   and became obedient to the point of death—
   even death on a cross.

Jesus’ kingship is not about him – not like Louis XIV of France, who famously said “L’état – c’est moi.” For Louis and many other monarchs, it is all about them. For Jesus, it is all about God and God’s people, and his self-giving love for all that led him to stand before Pilate, and soon after to die on the cross.

Christian life – the life expressed in promise form in the Baptismal Covenant – is not about us. It’s about our participation in the Reign of Christ, a Kingdom built on justice, mercy, and love.

Christian life is about us being and becoming a kingdom of “priests serving [Jesus’] God and Father.” We are not all priests in the ecclesiastical sense, but as a people we are called to “proclaim by word and example the good news of God,” presenting God to the world in all that we say and do – the essential nature of priestly ministry. This message will not always be received in joy by people, not least because it confronts all our self-driven agendas.

I once asked a young man who was considering Baptism as part of his preparation for marriage what he understood to be the purpose of life. His response startled me: “I guess to get power over other people,” a dramatic contrast to seeking others’ good, entailed in following Jesus. I don’t think he is unique – far from it! – but I had never heard this stance expressed quite so candidly.

Being part of the people of God can sometimes be difficult, as that conversation showed. But the good news is that we are not alone.

We stand with Jesus, who stands with us, together accepting and sharing all the risks of proclaiming the Truth in a world that sometimes seems to despise it.

We are empowered by the Holy Spirit, who moves in our midst and in our hearts, driving out fear, and sowing within us the seeds of love.

We are all children of God, who created us in love, calls us to live in love, and welcomes us into the Kingdom in love.

Thanks be to God!


[1]Excursus: Biblical Ambivalence to Government”, in The New Interpreter’s Study Bible, Abingdon 2003, p.407

[2] A considerable body of jurisprudence has emerged in Canada, using the principle of “reasonable accommodation” in cases of competing rights.

[3] Book of Alternative Services, Anglican Church of Canada, 1985, p. 158

Is it about you?

Last night, at All Saints Anglican Cathedral in Edmonton, Bishop Jane Alexander ordained three people to the priesthood and seven (!) to the diaconate. If I’m not mistaken, it was the largest ordination in this Diocese since at least 1986. The Cathedral was almost full, and there was a large turnout of the diocesan clergy. Some of us had speculated about how long the liturgy would take, and we were agreeably surprised when it came in at about 2 1/4 hours. I didn’t hang around too long afterward.  Bun fights in tight spaces make me a bit anxious, and my hearing issues (hypersensitivity to crowd sound at voice range) make it difficult to function in that kind of noisy environment. Nonetheless, I did have time to greet one of the ordinands, a person with whom I have had a long and special relationship.

I don’t ever recall being at an ordination service for so many people. Most of the ordinations I participated in during my time in the Diocese of Brandon were for individuals. I have no problem with the church celebrating the new ministry of a person who has been raised up for ordination. What has often troubled me is that these celebrations often become about the individual. Ordination should not be about a person having “made it,” but about the church renewing its leadership.

Last night’s service filled me with joy. I knew three of the ten ordinands personally, one better than the other two, but that’s not really the point. I saw ten (count ’em – 10!) people being affirmed in ministries that we prayed would be of benefit to the church and the world. It wasn’t about any one of them, but about the church engaged in the continuous and joyful renewal of its leadership. It was wonderful! I give thanks for the privilege of being present for all ten, even if seven of them were previously totally unknown to me except as names on a list.

On Holy Cross Day, our preacher recalled for us the love displayed and exemplified by Christ’s death on the cross. It doesn’t make sense to some people, but that’s okay. The ten who were ordained last night will share in proclaiming that truth, in their lives and their ministries. (Is there really any difference?)

Today, I welcome three people to the fellowship of the Holy Priesthood and seven people to the company of Deacons. May they continue to proclaim the love of God at all times and all places.

Finally my question to anyone who may be considering ordination in the church. Is your call about what YOU want to do, or about what GOD needs in the world. Is it about the church (God’s people) or about you? I pray that you may be able to answer that question prayerfully and honestly.

On the journey to…

A sermon this morning on Genesis 12:1-4a (the call of Abram) started me thinking about various times in my life I have stepped out of what might be expected, and gone where the call has led.

The first was not of my own volition, but my parents’. When I was only three years old, they decided to pull up roots in England and transplant our family to Canada. We settled in Drumheller, Alberta, a far cry from the great metropolis of London where I was born. I don’t know exactly how my parents felt about it at the time, but it became clear over the years that being so far from family and old friends was difficult for both of them, especially my mother. My early years in this country were marked by a sense of being “not quite at home,” a feeling that has stayed with me throughout my life.

The second such event came when I left teaching school to return to Edmonton, and to do… I wasn’t quite sure what! All my spouse and I knew was that we couldn’t stay where we were, and the opportunities were far greater in the city where we had both attended University. Some family members were horrified that I would give a seemingly secure and respectable job to search for something different.

That move led to a graduate degree, a job with our Provincial Government, and us settling down as a family. But God had other ideas. After nine years in that job, we again pulled up stakes and left for Saskatoon for me to enter theological college. I had no real idea where this was leading, except for the conviction that I was called to go down this road.

The road led to ordination and the call to be the pastor of a small-town parish. It was a great adventure, but not without its problems. After a few years there, I moved on to a suburban parish, where I stayed almost thirteen years. In time, I felt the need to move on: I accepted a call to become Dean and Rector of St. Matthew’s Cathedral, Brandon, Manitoba.

This was another move into the unknown: a new parish, a new city, a new province, and a new diocese. I didn’t realize at the time just how big a move this would be. Local customs are different, even at the relatively small remove of a couple of Canadian provinces. But we persisted, through some great years, and some not-so-great, until my retirement in 2013.

Each one of those moves required a measure of faith. In every case, I had the sense that I was going where I had to go, except perhaps the first one, when I had no choice in the matter.

In two of the places where I served the Church, I had conversations with people whose whole lives had been centered on that place. Many of them were puzzled why I might want to live somewhere else: “[town] has everything a person needs.” That may have been true, but going elsewhere was not contingent upon needs, but upon a call, just as Abram heard God’s call to leave home and family and travel to “a land which I will show you.”

I have been on this journey all my life, and now God has brought me to a place where I might reasonably hope to live out my days in peace and reasonable comfort. Sometimes, though, I find myself wondering…

A theology of money?

Notes for a sermon preached at Holy Trinity Strathcona, Sept. 25, 2016

Texts: Jeremiah 32:1-3A, 6-15; 14-16; 1 Timothy 6:6-19; Luke 16:19-31

At one time I was deeply involved in Stewardship in this Diocese, including 1½ years as Stewardship and Planned Giving Officer. In that capacity, I received many preaching invitations, most often to parishes that perceived themselves as needing help in their finances.

“Stewardship” has become an important word in church life over the last few decades. We did various financial programs before that, but an apparent overemphasis on money per se led us to look for a more “theological” term. It’s not a bad word—it has both biblical and theological import—but it seems to me that it has become a code-word for how we fund the church. I believe most church people, if asked, would now say that stewardship is about getting more money out of church members.

In my last parish, I got a strong negative reaction if I raised the question of Stewardship programs. Previous programs had used some strong-armed tactics. It ended up putting them in a worse financial situation than they might otherwise have been.

A few years ago the church renamed our national office of Stewardship and Financial Development as “Resources for Mission,” emphasizing that the main thing is the Church’s mission, which requires a variety of resources, including, but not limited to, money.

dollar-signThe church sits uneasily with money. I read of a recent meeting of national staff in which they had concluded that we need a new theology of money. I would agree, but I would drop the word “new”—have we have had any really coherent teaching on this subject? Historical church attitudes to money have veered between the extremes of seeking either great wealth or intentional poverty.

In my various parish visits for Stewardship preaching, the clergy often said to me that they were grateful that the Diocese had someone to come and talk about these things, things which made them very uncomfortable. I understand that: a parish priest speaking about money from the pulpit cannot help but be aware that his or her own stipend is a major line item in the parish’s budget—in many cases the largest single expense. It can sound like you’re begging—even if your theology of stewardship is totally sound.

This brings me to today’s lessons, all of which have something to do with money. Maybe they will help us (and maybe also Church House!) get a handle on a theology of money.

First, I Timothy, the source of one of the commonest and most erroneous Bible quotes. People often say that “money is the root of all evil,” but note what is actually written:

…the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.

It is not money that matters but what we do with it in our lives and in our hearts. Money per se is ethically neutral, a convenient means of exchange, a means to an end, whether good or evil. It has no real existence beyond that, but how we regard it and use it has immense spiritual significance.

…in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.

And further on,

(The rich) are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.

It’s what we do with it that counts. God’s Mission is the all-important thing. If we have wealth, we are charged to use it for God’s purposes before ours. Regardless of our own personal wealth or poverty, the challenge is to seek the good, to look to know what will help advance the Kingdom of God in this world, and to use our God-given resources towards that goal.

Sometimes it may be very unclear what will actually advance the Kingdom. The prophet Jeremiah lived in just such a time of great uncertainty and anxiety. The Babylonians were threatening the Kingdom of Judah, the kings were weak, and the people had retreated behind a triumphalist theology. (God had made a covenant with them and would not allow his holy city and temple to fall. All they had to do was invoke his name.) The prophet saw otherwise, understanding the reality of the threat, and the people’s confidence to be misplaced. So he does a prophetic action: he buys some land. This looks like madness when the invading hordes are at your gates, but he offers it as a sign of hope. This may not seem the right time to affirm God’s purposes (probably better to be getting all your stuff together in preparation), but Jeremiah asserts that now is the time to work for the Kingdom.

If not me, then who?
If not here, then where?
If not now, then when?

The answer he gives us is “Me, here, and now.” It is always the right time and place to do God’s work.

And do it we must, lest we end like the rich man in the Gospel. There’s much else that could be said about this story, but it seems that at least part of the message is the injunction to do good when the opportunity presents itself. The rich man had years in which he could have helped Lazarus, but he did nothing. As Jesus tells it, the consequences are clear.

Notwithstanding the current recession, we live in one of the most fortunate countries in the world. The vast majority of our people are well-fed, decently housed, educated, and in good health. We have been given great riches, as a people, and as individuals.

Let us then not fail to use what God has given us for the good of God’s people and God’s world.

Let us keep the eyes of our Spirits open, that we may see the need around us.

And let us keep all of our resources at the ready to do God’s work.

May it be so.

On bishops and other callings

bishop-mitre-h-87A good friend and colleague recently disclosed that he had been chosen as one of the four final candidates in an election for Bishop. (Read about it here.) It put me into a reflective mood, recalling the occasions when I had a brush with episcopal office.

The first time was in 1997 in the Diocese of Edmonton, my home and current diocese. I had been serving as an Archdeacon for a couple of years, and for the first time had had some significant interactions with people in other parishes. Out of that came a request from someone present in one of those events that I allow her to put my name forward in the upcoming election of a new bishop. I was quite daunted by the idea, even though I admit to being flattered by the request. After some thought and prayer and discussion with my wife, I decided to let it happen.

The search committee asked each candidate to submit a fairly large bundle of material, including a detailed CV in a particular format, and a personal statement about ministry, and my sense of the episcopal office and how I might fill it if I were so called.

Assembling the CV was a good exercise: it was the first time since my ordination that I had put all of my work history down in one place. The document turned out to be much longer than I expected, considering I had only been ordained for 10 years. I felt a real sense of accomplishment when I re-read it after finishing.

The statement was quite another matter. I sweated blood over it, reading, thinking, praying, writing, tearing up, writing again, finally telling myself that it wasn’t going to get any better. It may be the best piece of writing I’ve ever done. In the years since, I have returned to it often, to check up on my continuing sense of vocation, and where my ministry is headed.

At the electoral synod, I was seated with the rest of the clergy, as required for voting. My wife was sitting in the observers’ seats at the back of the Cathedral, along with some other people from my parish. The preliminaries having been taken care of, we proceeded to vote, and then to sit and wait for the results. I wasn’t dead last in that first ballot, but pretty close, with 2 clergy and 3 lay votes. I knew who the clergy votes came from (me and my proposer), but to this day I have no idea who were the 3 laypeople who felt I was the best choice for bishop. On the second ballot, it was down to 1 clergy and 2 lay votes, still not the very bottom, but it seemed like a good time to drop out and stop wasting people’s time. The folks from the parish said they could all hear my wife’s sigh of relief when my withdrawal was announced.

That day, the diocese of Edmonton elected the Rt. Rev. Victoria Matthews as the first female diocesan bishop in the Anglican Church of Canada.

The second time I found myself on an episcopal election slate was for the Diocese of Qu’Appelle in 2006. I had been quite astonished to get the call from their search committee asking me whether I would accept the nomination. (My proposer had not contacted me first, as should have happened.) I asked for some time to consider it, coming as it was more or less out of the blue. My wife and I talked about it at length, and I  consulted my Bishop of the day. I was less than 3 years into a new ministry, and it hardly seemed the time to leave.

Nonetheless…
A call like this did not seem to be one that could be ignored — it might well be of the Spirit. My bishop suggested that the only real way to determine that was to let my name stand. And so I did. It felt quite different from Edmonton in 1997. For one thing, I would be moving to a completely new city, working with people I did not know at all. For another, that Diocese is a land of wide-open spaces, and many small multi-point charges. As bishop, I would likely spend much of my time in long-distance driving. The final thing was that I was nine years older and more experienced, and had a much better sense of my own capabilities and what the office of Bishop entailed.

The documentation they required was much like that asked for in 1997, so had most of it more or less ready to go, after another revisit to my personal ministry statement.

The results of that election were somewhat more gratifying. There were six candidates, and I ran a solid third until the third and final ballot. My good friend Gregory Kerr-Wilson was elected that day, while I sat at home in Brandon with my phone handy, waiting for results of the ballots.

That’s the story, although there’s an epilogue of sorts. I was approached to let my name stand in another election a year or two later. After considerable thought and prayer, I concluded that I did not hear the call to episcopal office, and did not let my name stand.

The formal processes I went through were quite different from the one my friend is in. Nonetheless, it is very clear to me that the internal process of seeking to discern a call to ministerial office is much the same however it may be externally structured. The writing of my personal ministry statement was an important turning point in my own ministry, and the document became one of the touchstones of my continuing vocation.

I learned, particularly in the 1997 election, that vocation must be heard within, and that requires intense prayer. My understanding of prayer is that it begins with listening, not with telling God what you want God to do. That became abundantly clear in 1997, in 2006, and then when I declined nomination.

Did I ever want to be a Bishop? I don’t know. I do know that some people say that anyone who really want the office shouldn’t get it — but probably deserves it. The office is almost impossible, but some people of my acquaintance have managed to make it look easy. I know that’s not true. I am also quite sure that, had I been elected, I would probably have managed to make it look very difficult!

Thanks be to God for all who let their names stand for Bishop.
And thanks be to God for all Bishops who serve Christ in His Church.

 

A new ___ ?

Some time in the ’90’s, the Rev. Loren B. Mead led a clergy conference for the Anglican Diocese of Edmonton. He had graciously agreed to come on a reduced fee, but we did not receive a discounted conference. Far from it — I recall it as one of the best of the various clergy conferences I attended while in parish ministry. I don’t recall much of the specific conference topics, and I have long since lost my notes from it, but one thing stands out.

In the final session, after recapping the major areas of discussion, Mead left us with “twelve truths” for ministry. Some of them were explicitly about church issues, but several could be applied very generally. The one that made the most immediate sense to me at the time was:

“A new ___ won’t solve all your problems.”

shutterstock_101551237When I posted this on Facebook without any referent, all sorts of people responded with either a question about what the blank represented, or their own suggestion for filling it in. The thing is, they’re all right in their own ways. What Mead was getting at in the original context (or so I heard it) was the tendency for people to latch onto a single solution for complex problems.

At the time of the conference, I was well into my second parish charge. When I arrived there, the Bishop told me to get them a building quickly, because the issue threatened to tear the congregation apart. There were a few people who resisted the whole idea of having our own building instead of the rented space we were using, but most of them were utterly fixated on getting into our own church. “It’ll be better once we get our building” was the mantra, spoken in a variety of ways, but always with the same subtext: all the problems of the congregation would be fixed by a building.

Wrong!

We did get into our own building, less than 3 years after my arrival in the parish, but the hordes of new people many were expecting never materialized. Rather, several families who had worked hard on the building project started to drift away from the church. Our income dropped by 10% in the first year, while the building occupancy costs drove the budget up by 20%. It was true that we had space to meet, we could advertise a fixed location, and we could set our service time without bumping into another congregation. But… (there’s always a “but,” isn’t there?) people’s energy levels were low. Years of working on a project had taken its toll. The new building didn’t solve all the problems — it merely helped with some existing ones, and brought along a whole set of new ones.

It took some time, but by the time I left there, the parish had managed to put its edifice complex behind it, and was beginning to behave like a missional church.

I had an analogous experience in my first charge, where I was the first resident cleric in 20 years. They had worked hard to become self-supporting once again, instead of being linked to the parish in the neighbouring town. A lot of hope was pinned on having me there, which I didn’t really wake up to until my first annual meeting, about 7 months in. One man said, “We thought the church would come to life again, and the Sunday School would be full like it was in the ’50’s.” The new priest was to be the solution to all their problems, leading them straight ahead into a glorious past. Those expectations were just as misplaced as the expectations around my next charge’s building. During my time there, we made a number of advances together, but the unrealistic expectations around my presence in an ageing congregation could never quite be overcome.

I have also seen this kind of magical thinking at work in all sorts of places inside and outside the church — enough material here to fill a small book! It appears to be happening to some extent in my former diocese, which has been through some very difficult times. A new Bishop is now taking office, and some of my acquaintances appear to me to have placed all their hope on him. I wish him and them well: they have a huge task ahead of them. Nonetheless, a change of leadership, while often very important, will not by itself solve all the problems of the diocese, nor of any other organization.

DSC_0011Individuals often fall prey to this tendency. Clergy (of whom I know quite a few!) can fall into the trap of thinking that a new charge will be the solution to their vocational and professional problems. It’s known as the “geographical cure” among some bishops of my acquaintance. It rarely works, because moving a cleric in burnout simply moves his or her problems from one place to another.

“A new ___ won’t solve all your problems.”

You can fill in your own blanks according to your situation. I’m certain it will be appropriate for you. Whatever happens, let it be a warning not to place all your hope in one solution, expecting a magical solution. There’s no magic on tap! In Christian theological terms, we might call it “pseudo-Messianic thinking,” looking for a new Messiah when the truth is we have one already. Following the true Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, is the only real solution, as long as we don’t treat God like a kind of fairy godmother. Rather, the solution to problems is to be found in hard work, careful consideration of issues, working to change things that we can change, and turning what we can’t change over to God.


Note: I intend no offense to anyone in my former parishes or diocese. If any is taken, I apologize. Things are what they are, and this is my experience and my own opinion.

 

 

Why are the poor in poverty?

A sermon on Mark 12:38-44, with a nod to Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17
Delivered at Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Edmonton, November 8, 2015

When I meet someone from another denomination who asks me about what I do in the church, the title “Honorary Assistant” usually confuses them. I explain it by saying that I’m a retired priest who hangs around the church, helping out as needed and as I’m able. Retirement has its benefits, not least the freedom from some of the duties that full-time paid ministry entails.

Over my years in parish ministry I built up an archive of sermons. There have been times when I’ve simply pulled something of the shelf, touched it up a bit, and used it here or elsewhere. I confess to being tempted to do so once more for today.

However…

Another benefit of retirement is the opportunity to reflect on past deeds, and in some cases, to repent of them. Today, I repent of most of the sermons I have preached on the Gospel story from Mark known as “The Widow’s Mite.” For a variety of reasons, I have almost always connected this to the theme of sacrifice and faithful giving, using it as the text for both stewardship and Remembrance sermons. Particular contexts pointed me in that direction and I failed to take account of what I have come to see as the story’s main point.

Let’s try to imagine ourselves in that scene in the temple. Jesus is talking to his disciples, watching a stream of wealthy people deposit their offerings. We see these folks dropping bags of coins noisily into the treasury boxes, making sure that others see them. Then we see a poor woman approaching the treasury, and dropping two tiny coins in, with an almost inaudible tinkle. Who else might be watching? Maybe she came with a friend or two, and maybe they’re saying something like, “What are you doing? That’s your last coin! Now how will you live?”

Notice that Jesus doesn’t actually commend her, but notes the same thing—she has given “everything she had, all she had to live on.” What might have led her to do this? What would it take for one of us to give everything—every last cent!—to a religious institution? And why is she so destitute? Why does she have nothing left but two small coins?

Jesus has already answered the question, in the first part of the story:

Beware of the scribes… They devour widows’ houses …

The people who were able to pour bags of money into the temple treasury were able to do so because they had made a great deal of money, very likely at the expense of the least able in the community. They participated in a system backed by the religious authorities which worked greatly in their favour. The widow was likely giving her two coins to the temple out of a sense of obedience to the dictates of this same system. God requires that you make your gift to the temple, but does God also demand that you leave yourself with no means of support whatsoever? I think not—and I believe this story suggests that Jesus also thought not.

Clearly the temple and its economic underpinnings had become corrupted in Jesus’ time. The story stands not so much as an affirmation of the widow’s sacrificial giving, but rather as an indictment of a social, economic, and religious system that abused those on the margins of society.

Throughout the prophetic writings in the Hebrew Bible, care for widows and orphans is one of the signs of the age to come. Widows and orphans had no standing in the community, having to rely on the generosity of others. The book of Ruth, from which we heard two excerpts, revolves around the plight of two widows, Naomi and Ruth, who use their slim resources (and some “feminine wiles”) to come under the protection of Boaz, who becomes Ruth’s husband. It is a story that moves from desperation to a renewed life, quite the opposite of the widow’s situation in the Gospel.

If Jesus challenges the religious and economic system of his time that has led to the utter poverty of this nameless widow, surely we are bound to challenge the systems of our world that conspire to keep many people in poverty. The fourth of the Five Marks of Mission of the Anglican Communion, now enshrined as part of our Diocese’s constitution, acknowledges this:

To seek to transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind, and to pursue peace and reconciliation.

The church is thus committed to challenging the ways of the world, seeking to live into the peace and justice of the Kingdom of God. It’s not always going to be popular. Dom Hélder Câmara, the late Roman Catholic Archbishop of Recife, Brazil, who was widely known for his work among the poor, famously said

When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.

The Diocese’s Social Justice Committee held a “Day on Poverty” just over a week ago. In the morning, we participated in the United Way’s poverty simulation, followed by an afternoon of theological reflection on poverty, including a presentation by Bishop Jane on the work of the Task Force on poverty which she co-chaired with the Mayor.

Another speaker spoke of the types of social ministry: relief, individual development, community development, and structural change. There is a role for the church at every level. It is fair to say that most church work in the area of poverty is on the level of relief. Relief work is necessary, but it will not by itself eliminate poverty, which is deeply rooted in society. Structural, systemic change must happen in order to make any real progress towards the elimination of poverty.

Some will quote Jesus, who said to Judas “The poor will always be with you…”, as if this somehow absolves us of responsibility for the poor and the hungry. However, as a Bible study we did at the Day on Poverty showed us, the out-of-context quote from Jesus refers to a passage from Deuteronomy which first states that there should not be any poor in the land, going on to say that because the will always be with you, you should never miss an opportunity to help them.

The Mayor’s Task Force has challenged us to work for the elimination of poverty. It’s a big goal, but it’s a goal that comes with Jesus’ own blessing. When the Kingdom of God comes in its fullness, there will be no poor in our midst. May God give us the grace to work towards that day.

Home? And home again.

 

My spouse and I went back to Brandon this past weekend for the first time since I retired last June. It was a very quick trip, squeezed in between commitments here in Edmonton, but it was not a short trip. Our total road time was over 25 hours, somewhat  inflated by poor weather in Saskatchewan on Monday morning.

JourneyThe purpose of the trip was to attend a wedding. The bride had joined the choir as a choral scholar at St. Matthew’s Cathedral three years ago, becoming in time not just a paid singer but an active congregant. Her fiance came with her in the second year. It was a joy to be asked to celebrate their marriage with them and old friends.

On the Sunday morning, we decided that we had to go to church at St. Matthew’s. There is something of an unwritten rule that departed clergy should steer clear of the previous place for a while, but we really wanted to see some people. Besides, the parish is still between rectors, so I was hardly stepping on the toes of my successor.

I left a happy, healthy parish, and I found that not much had changed. A few people had left, but there were also a number of fresh faces in the pews, along with (hallelujah!) a substantial contingent of children. Most things were much the same, with a few things now done a bit differently, but the folks we talked to were still the same great people whom we had come to love over our 10½ years there.

DSCN0165A big difference for me was sitting in the congregation for a Sunday for the first time ever, realizing just how long a building it is, and how far away is the celebrant at the Eucharist. It might have helped my ministry there if I’d taken some time to sit in the pews — but that’s history now. That parish was home for a decade, and the people there still hold a big piece of my heart. Nonetheless, it is clear that we have moved, both physically and spiritually. Holy Trinity is becoming home, for which we are very glad.

Some people wanted to discuss parish issues with me, but I was quite able to say, “That’s not my problem.” That ended the discussion, but not the conversation. The relationship is different now — simply as friends, not as pastor and congregant. For at least one person, that seemed to be a relief! And indeed, it is a bit of a relief for me too, because I don’t have to be “on,” as clergy always have to be in public. Today I can go to coffee time after worship and see the stipendiary clergy having serious conversations with various people, and I can think, “That used to be me,” and then I can smile.

We went to our previous home, and then we came home again.