2013 11 December

Church & State by Moderator Gary Paterson

Posted in Steinbach United

I live with a politician…who is also an ordained minister of the United Church. For five years he was a member of the B.C. Provincial legislature, eventually serving as a cabinet minister. For the last eleven years he has been a Councillor for the City of Vancouver. I have lost track of how many election campaigns I have participated in. Faith and politics; church and state…these are staples of our household conversation.

So when I was in Ottawa at the end of last month, I was looking forward to the breakfast meeting where as Moderator I would have an opportunity to connect with those MPs and Senators who were thought to have some connection or affiliation with The United Church of Canada.

But, it was a busy time of the year for politicians – the House was in session, and a number of other breakfast meetings had already been arranged for November 28.  In addition, the Federation of Canadian Municipalities had gathered for its annual Ottawa meeting, and many city councillors and mayors were eager to meet with various MPs.

So it was a small gathering – me, and my spouse, Tim Stevenson; several clergy from the Ottawa area; three Senators; and four MPs. I found myself reflecting on John Young’s essay, “A Golden Age: The United Church of Canada, 1946-1960,” found in The United Church of Canada: A History (ed. Don Schweitzer, Wilfrid Laurier Press, 2012), where he notes it wasn’t unusual for the Moderator during his term of office to have lunch with the Prime Minister and other key political leaders. Such was the influence the United Church enjoyed in Canadian society during those years.

It doesn’t happen that way anymore; times have changed.

And that’s okay. The “mainline church,” as an institution,  now finds itself on the sidelines; we have been “disestablished” and have minimal power to directly impact government decisions. Unlike the influence that United Church members can have when they contact their local MP, when the Moderator or General Secretary send letters or forward statements from General Council, we usually receive a standard letter of reply whether it’s about  Enbridge’s proposed Northern Gateway pipeline; the labelling of products from the settlements in Palestine; or the cutback of part-time prison chaplains.

We are now a prophetic voice coming from the margins. And yet, that can be a powerful position, especially when we aren’t just pointing the finger at someone else, but are also engaged in our own hard work of repentance, change, and transformation. I think particularly of our church’s witness in the long journey towards reconciliation with Aboriginal peoples; our apology for participation in Indian Residential Schools, and the terrible destruction that resulted; and then, of our ongoing witness to and conversation with the government about issues of compensation, reparation, national apology, and right relations. We had a lived experience to draw upon, a real word to offer.

The breakfast meeting was a good one. I had come with a couple of questions; first, hoping to have a conversation about how faith influences the way one does politics and makes decisions. And then, did they, the politicians, have any suggestions about how the church might better express its prophetic voice?

Interestingly, though, we didn’t actually spend much time on those questions. Rather, three or four of these MPs and Senators represented rural ridings, and they were full of concern and dismay about the closure of churches in the small towns of this country – and what were we doing about it? The conversation was good, and heartfelt.

Six different times these politicians talked about the need for “comfort.” That’s what people needed, they said, when so much of traditional rural life was disappearing; when other community institutions were closing down; when jobs were gone and young people were leaving, searching for work and a future.

It was tempting to dismiss this plea for comfort – that’s not what church is about, I thought to myself, thinking of mission, discipleship, changing the world. And yet, and yet…there was a wisdom here, from politicians who were listening to their people. What are we doing as our small rural churches struggle to stay open in these changing times? How do we offer support and comfort? And what’s wrong with comfort, anyhow? Maybe we need to rethink the word, and learn to offer a comfort that is honest, that helps people deal with grief and loss; that brings insight and strength so as to enable people to live into the inevitable changes that arrive, both personal and community-based …“Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God, speak tenderly to Jerusalem….” (Isaiah 40:1)

Recently Pope Francis spoke about the church being like “a field hospital after battle” – the need is to care for people, listening to them, responding to where they are hurting, and doing what can be done to bring healing, and… well, yes, comfort.  Perhaps the church is called to speak of God’s love and care, even in, or perhaps especially in, tough times. The Holy Spirit not only energizes for mission, but also brings comfort; John’s “Paraclete” can be translated in so many ways: Advocate, Intercessor, Strengthener, Helper, and, yes, Comforter.

Who knows what you’ll learn at an Ottawa breakfast meeting!