Opinion

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.

If you happen to be looking for B.C. Premier Christy Clark at 8 o'clock on a Sunday morning, you might find her at Christ Church Cathedral in downtown Vancouver. A former religious studies scholar at the University of Edinburgh, Clark worships now and then at the century-old Anglican church on Burrard. She even popped up as a reader at one recent service, filling the beautifully restored Gothic interior with her smooth radio voice.

As she put it during the Liberal leadership race, "For me, my faith is very personal and it's very consistent with my desire to want to make a difference in the world."

Christy Clark describes herself as a devout Anglican. At the same time, she presides over the province with both the highest child poverty rate and the lowest corporate tax rates in Canada. Her first budget as premier, released last week, does nothing to diminish this inequality. Even as a lapsed Anglican, I detect a troubling contradiction. Jesus seems like the kind of long-haired revolutionary who would be down at the local Occupy camp or homeless mission, washing feet. How do you reconcile what he said about rich people with policies engineered to favour the wealthy?

Coincidentally, I was baptized at Christ Church Cathedral -- where both Christy Clark and the British Royal Family worship when they're in town. I suppose I lost interest in organized religion during high school. The Anglican Church wasn't addressing my reality, so I drifted away. Lately, though, I've had second thoughts. The larger conversation around inequality seems to be crystallizing, giving the Church a unique opportunity to make itself relevant.

Beyond scripture, the Anglican Church has infrastructure and organizers in nearly 3,000 communities across Canada. It has meeting rooms, kitchens, heated halls, garden space and an internal communications network. In other words, the Church could be a significant ally in projects of large-scale social change. If you multiply that across other Christian denominations and faith communities, some of which already take a more active political role, the potential is enormous.

Here's an example: Christy Clark still hasn't decided whether her government will support the Northern Gateway pipeline. What might happen if the Anglican Church took a public position on the pipeline before the premier?

Is the Church too stained and enfeebled by history to hold sway? Or is it time to reinvent itself as a vital voice in the public conversation?

'Colluding with Babylon'

If there has been one so-called "battle" showing just how far the global Occupy movement has still to go, it didn't happen in Vancouver. Nor did it take place in Oakland, or even at Zuccotti Park, as police cordoned off journalists and swept in on Occupy Wall Street.

The real crucible has been a church courtyard in London, England. The struggle itself took place in a nearby courtroom. In January, a judge finally ruled against Occupy London and on Monday -- months after most protest camps around the world were evicted -- police and bailiffs finally moved in to clear the courtyard around Saint Paul's Cathedral.

The biggest loss is not the confiscated tents or even the court case. Far more troubling is the lost opportunity for the global Anglican communion to side with humanity against a corporate plutocracy.

I visited London in December. A few blocks up from the Thames, the Occupy tents were still huddled in the shadow of Saint Paul's Cathedral. That put them on Church of England property, but also within the territory of the ancient and powerful City of London Corporation. It was the Corporation that launched legal proceedings to evict the protestors.

The Corporation is no ordinary local government. It's a city within a city -- an island within an island, with its own police force (backed up during the eviction by Scotland Yard). Boris Johnson's mayoral authority stops at the boundaries of the so-called "Square Mile." Indeed the Queen herself passes under a ceremonial red cord when she enters on official business. This might sound like something out of a fantasy novel, but it's real.

As described by British author Nicholas Shaxson, the city's budget comes from an eight-century-old private fund, shielded from parliamentary oversight and access-to-info laws. The city holds elections, but all candidates must be approved by medieval guilds. A majority of votes is held not by residents, but by the banks and financial companies that form the raison d'être of this "unique authority," as the city describes itself.

This is the atavistic heart of Western capitalism. It is the ur-haven, the sacred shrine of deregulation. The sun literally never sets on the City of London Corporation. With offices in Beijing, Shanghai, Mumbai and Brussels, it is the brain in an octopus of tax havens stretching across the former British Empire. Its chief lobbyist sits opposite the Speaker in the UK Parliament. Called the "Remembrancer," his job is to remind MPs of the city's interests. (They show few signs of forgetting.)

If you're looking for a windmill to tilt at, this is the big one. To put up tents on pallets inside the Square Mile was even more quixotic than to try and occupy Wall Street. Yet the camp in London lasted far longer than most in North America, and its eviction was never a foregone conclusion.

That's because there's an institution with powers and sacred privileges nearly as ancient as the Corporation -- the Church of England. (The Anglican Church of Canada is the Church of England's Commonwealth cousin.)

Internally, a ferocious debate took place over what to do at Saint Paul's. When the cathedral finally decided to support the Corporation's legal proceedings, two prominent members of the clergy resigned in disgust. British journalist George Monbiot called it "colluding with Babylon."

Still, the Church seemed less than sure of the decision. One afternoon while riding the Tube, I picked up the Evening Standard to read "We'll Give Sanctuary to Protestors If Violence Breaks Out." Anonymous cathedral sources, citing frustration at the Corporation's attempt to "tie our hands behind our backs," vowed to shelter the camp indoors in the event of a crackdown.

When it came time to testify publicly, the cathedral's registrar backed up the Corporation, giving examples of nuisance and disorder in the camp.

Saint Paul's is a tourist attraction, after all. Six days a week, admission costs £14.50. Standing on the steps, I watched visitors gamely clamber over cross-legged demonstrators. Couples were doing their best to frame the tents out of their wedding snaps. But the occupation was, by design, a disruption to life as usual.

'A lost opportunity'

Giles Fraser held the position of Canon Chancellor at the cathedral before resigning last October. Writing in the Guardian after the eviction notice was handed down, he called it "far more a failure for the church than... for the camp." After all, in Fraser's interpretation, "The task of the church is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. The Church of England has never had much stomach for afflicting anyone (except, of course, homosexuals)."

Indeed here in Canada, the question of same-sex unions has dominated Anglican politics for the past decade. Gay marriage has divided congregations and driven international wedges, while other issues -- like structural economic injustice -- go largely ignored.

Meanwhile the Anglican Church is withering, its membership declining more quickly than any other denomination in Canada. Between the census years 1961 and 2001, the church lost 53 per cent of its numbers. If the current rate holds, Canadian Anglicans will be extinct in 50 years.

Not all those losses have been due to people passing away. Rates of youth attrition are also massive -- not that this phenomenon is limited to one particular denomination or religion. Figures of spiritual authority tend to face a common contradiction. They describe one world, but they live in another. Saint Paul's Cathedral spent a decade fundraising £42 million -- to refurbish the bricks and mortar of its own building.

That number comes from Giles Fraser, and I'm inclined to trust his reckoning. He was, before resigning, in charge of the cathedral's finances. The last annual report he filed is composed of a long string of cheerful remarks about recovering global markets, portfolio earnings and the gross income of the crypt shop.

After quitting, he wrote "those who have huddled outside the cathedral in the freezing cold have acted as sentinels for an idea of social justice that can be found on almost every page of the Bible but which the church has too often lost sight of."

The reluctant seminarian

Five time zones away, at Trinity College in Toronto, Jeffrey Metcalfe has been thinking along similar lines. He's on track to be ordained this year. At 25 years old, it's not something he once wanted. "I was approached by one of the parish leaders and asked if I would consider the priesthood. It's ironic now, but at the time I laughed in that person's face and made some snarky remark like 'I'm not really interested in dealing with that level of dysfunction.'"

With an academic background in Marxist political theory, Metcalfe is about as punk rock as a postulant for ordination can get. He started a theological blog in March last year called "Catholic Commons," where he fired this shot over the bows: "If the Church is no longer capable of sustaining the imagination of a better world, if it truly has come to the horrifying conclusion that liberal-democratic capitalism is the end of history, then why would we want it to survive?"

But Metcalfe could not dissuade his recruiters. "I remember telling the priest up front "I don't feel called by God," and he responded, "Well the church is calling you, and it's the body of Christ, so you'd better damn well listen!"

Following his ordination in April, Jeff Metcalfe will be headed for a tour of duty on the front lines in the Anglican Church's struggle for relevance: the diocese of Quebec. Here, the language wars have added to demographic and economic pressures, draining rural and urban parishes alike. Only 87 churches remain, scattered across an area roughly the size of Turkey. Many branches count only a handful of worshippers. In the couple of services I attended in Quebec City, I singlehandedly skewed the average age of the tiny congregation.

The unlikely bishop

Presiding over this windswept outpost is perhaps the Church's most maverick diocesan leader. From the pulpit, Dennis Drainville's voice needs little amplification. Built like a Québécois "lutteur" -- a homegrown professional wrestler -- he commands love and allegiance reminiscent of the province's 1960s square-ring champions.

Though his struggles are peaceful, the bishop has been in protests that were not. He was once arrested for blockading a logging road into First Nations land north of Sudbury. "I presented the view to the court that what I did was necessary, as the government was acting unjustly and doing violence to the Teme-Augama Anishnabai." Drainville was sent to jail for a week. "I also indicated that I had no remorse and if put into the same position again would do precisely the same thing. Frankly, what alternative did I have?"

Drainville's politics are hands-on, and inseparable from his faith. He was already a priest when he took charge of STOP 103, an agency caring for the poorest and most marginalized people in downtown Toronto. The local alderman was Jack Layton, and the two men teamed up, notably to fight the SkyDome project.

Then Drainville accidentally won a seat in the provincial legislature, as part of Bob Rae's NDP government in 1990. "Many people," the bishop jokes, "would say that Dennis Drainville was a total failure as a politician." Perhaps. He resigned from Rae's caucus after three years, protesting the plan to bring casinos into Ontario. After the Rae government fell, Drainville moved to a parish on the Gaspé coast.

In the 1997 election he was back at it, running for the federal NDP, with his campaign office tucked in the basement of the rectory. Local reporters, he says, didn't know what to make of this mixing of church facilities with affairs of state.

"I am not totally sure that I follow rules very well. As a citizen and as a human person I engage life as I meet it," Drainville explained to me by email. "From my perspective every act is political, just as every act is moral and religious. You can no more separate politics from religion than you can separate human life from breathing."

To that end, the bishop recently posted a 30,000-word essay on his blog called Renewing Hope. Prompted by the death of his old ally Jack Layton, the work is an urgent examination of what Drainville sees as a crisis in Canadian leadership, coupled with the abandonment of the public interest -- in politics, but also in corporate boardrooms and church synods.

Drainville is also in the middle of a speaking tour, bringing a theological perspective to issues like the tar sands and pipeline debates, Canada's military role overseas, and the Harper government's attitude toward domestic dissent. He says "If the Occupy movement has taught us anything, we have conclusive proof that our political and economic elites have cared only for their own agenda and have sold the citizens of Canada to the highest bidder."

That makes Bishop Dennis Drainville one of the few high-ranking figures within the Anglican Church exercising what is known as "prophetic ministry".

The retired theologian

"Prophesy is not prediction," Donald Grayston explains to me. We're sitting at a busy coffee shop in Vancouver. Tapping out each word on the table, Grayston says "The prediction part comes when you say 'unless we do this right now, we're going to get that.' " Sometimes those warnings come true. "And people say wow, he predicted the future. But that's not the point. The point is to do justice in the present."

Grayston still teaches the odd course at SFU, but he is officially retired from both academia and the Anglican priesthood. "The big word is freedom. You can't lose your job by saying whatever you want." And he does -- especially about Israeli-occupied Palestine, the tar sands and Stephen Harper.

Jesus of Nazareth, he notes, inherited the prophetic tradition of the Hebrew prophets -- like Jeremiah, tossed down a well for annoying the king. "So there are consequences to prophesy," I say. "Like crucifixion," nods Grayston. "It's not always safe to tell the truth."

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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