Occupy the Pews

In England and Canada, the Anglican Church seems to have forgotten whose side Jesus was on. Some folks are jogging its memory.

By Kai Nagata 2 Mar 2012 | TheTyee.ca

Former CTV News Quebec City bureau chief Kai Nagata is The Tyee's current writer-in-residence (and, now, documentary filmmaker in residence). His blog is here.

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Eviction of the Occupy camp at London's St. Paul's Cathedral began Monday. Photo: Kai Nagata.

It's the same point made by Jeff Metcalfe, the young seminarian in Toronto: "Jesus exercised a prophetic ministry in his time, which is what got him killed. It's not the safest thing to do, but being a disciple of Jesus was never about security."

Ironically, Grayston identifies the Anglican Church's political activism in the 1960s and '70s as being at the root of its ongoing fiscal crisis. "When I was a teenager at Christ Church Cathedral growing up, my visual memory was of a lot of tall men in suits. When I went back there 30 years later, those men were gone. There was an alienation between the church and the business community."

Grayston describes the Anglican Church's participation in the Taskforce on Churches and Corporate Responsibility, a coalition that would invest in Canadian companies with operations in places like apartheid-era South Africa, then show up at shareholders' meetings and call executives to task. "You can imagine how popular that was."

Under the leadership of Archbishop Ted Scott, Grayston says the Anglican Church tackled "development, refugees, nuclear weapons, the works." Scott grew up in East Vancouver, wore a blue shirt under his cassock rather than a white one, and was frustrated by what he saw as the Church's Band-Aid approach to poverty.

Nicknamed "The Red Primate" after taking up national leadership of the Anglican Church in 1971, it was Scott who sent Dennis Drainville on a cross-Canada tour of frontline agencies dealing with deprivation, homelessness and hunger. Drainville identifies that trip in the preface to his book Renewing Hope as formative in the development of his own political philosophy.

After retiring, Scott was reportedly baffled by the Church's obsessive focus on same-sex marriage. Having come to his own conclusions long before, Scott wanted Anglicans to move on and deal with pressing issues of social justice and economic inequality, at home and around the world.

When Ted Scott died in a car crash in 2004, another retired Anglican archbishop, Desmond Tutu, travelled from South Africa to lead a public memorial service in Toronto. Tutu said of Scott: "Those at the bottom of the heap, those at the end of the queue, found in him a committed and courageous champion."

In short, Ted Scott practiced prophetic ministry, carrying the Church's voice into the House of Commons and the public conversation across the country. Along the way, he asked Anglicans to walk the talk, and change the way they lived.

In response, to hear Grayston describe it, thousands upon thousands turned away from the Church, taking their families and financial contributions with them. Whatever the cause, since Scott's retirement in 1986 the Church has retreated from prophetic ministry, focusing most of its energy on its own institutional survival.

The Great Turning

Don Grayston quotes from eco-philosopher and Buddhist scholar Joanna Macy, who uses the phrase "the Great Turning" to describe the epochal shift away from an industrialized society dependent on perpetual growth. Grayston sees Western institutions standing at this crossroads, faced with a moral choice.

"Selfishness -- as represented by the tar sands, and Enbridge and so on -- that's death. And then what's life? Occupy, in a very raw way, was a sign of life. So who's going to come out on top? Are we going to save ourselves, or are we going to collude in our own destruction?"

The Anglican Church, says Grayston, is "treading water." This paralysis, in Jeffrey Metcalfe's analysis, will only hasten its demise: "The Anglican Church should care about cultivating and preserving a just social structure, because it is that same structure that allows its own identity to function."

To that end, Metcalfe suggests the Church create positions within each diocese for political theologians -- officials whose entire job would be to leverage the Church's voice in the public interest. Without a formal structure for this kind of engagement, Metcalfe says, "the Church finds itself caught off guard when social movements thrust it into a public debate in which it should have been participating to begin with."

Like Saint Paul's Cathedral, caught between the worldwide Occupy movement and the globe-spanning power of the City of London Corporation. In my analysis, the decision to side with the stewards of deregulated capitalism was short-sighted, succeeding only in buying a little time. In the long term, the Anglican communion took a big step away from the tradition of prophetic ministry, and thus its relevance to the 99 per cent.

This is a shame, because when a church really gets in gear, remarkable things happen. Things like the American civil rights movement, or the downfall of apartheid. Despite the horror and hypocrisy of sexual abuse and residential schools, the Church is still a conduit for the moral authority expressed by the prophets -- from Jeremiah to Jesus of Nazareth to Martin Luther King, Jr.

The Anglican Church is also home to people like Jeff Metcalfe, Dennis Drainville and Don Grayston, as well as many more who share their convictions, if somewhat less publicly. Prophetic ministry may have helped steer the Church into its current financial straits, but prophetic ministry also seems like the best chance the Church has now for institutional sustainability.

Bishop Drainville puts it this way: "I personally believe the Anglican Church will be here for many more generations. Undoubtedly, the structure and presence of the Anglican Church will change over the years, but the Truth that it persists in witnessing will continue, because the world needs such hope."

Amen.  [Tyee]

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