It was a much shorter flight back to London than the nine and half hours that it took to get to Vancouver. The train journey heading east to Toronto shaved off three hours time difference and so it was just over six hours until we landed having left Montreal. It was a fantastic three weeks in Canada.
My purpose in going was, I suppose, three-fold. A sabbatical gives you the opportunity to spend time doing something you wouldn’t normally be able to do. The last time I had a sabbatical – back in 2006 – I visited places that I had always wanted to, notably South Africa and India, and so one purpose was simply to see Canada.
As far as that was concerned it was everything and more than I had hoped for. The three cities – Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal – were all interesting and each had its own beauty. Vancouver is in a stunning location; Toronto is big but not brash and the lake it sits alongside is stunning; Montreal is distinct and has a character unlike the other two. I was always conscious that I was not in the USA, it felt very different. The big surprise was that Montreal felt very much like France, not just Canadian with French sprinkled in. It’s European character is in the grain of the place.
The second purpose was to visit family. One of my cousins has lived there for a long time and though I’ve seen her back here I hadn’t had the chance to see her at home. Staying with her and meeting her Canadian family, my Canadian family, was fantastic. It also gave me the chance to see something of suburban life in Ontario.
But the third and, I suppose, the principal reason was to get to know something of the Anglican Church of Canada. I’ve been fortunate over the last few years to be able to offer hospitality to the Primate of Canada and his successor along with their Chaplain as they pay their annual visit to the Archbishop of Canterbury. It’s been a wonderful opportunity to hear about a part of the Anglican Communion that I knew nothing of. That isn’t quite true. I had always plundered their prayer book for ‘other texts’. As a Precentor I collected prayer books from other parts of the Communion and the Canadian, along with the one from New Zealand, provided lots of useful material.
But apart from that I really knew nothing about a church with which though the Commonwealth we are still enormously close, until the issues around same-gender relationships began to be a dividing issue in the Communion. Then I began to take notice and listen to how the Canadian church was dealing with the issues that we have to deal with and how they were doing it in a different way to the Anglican church in the USA (TEC).
In January when the Primates of the Anglican Communion met in Canterbury to discuss the issue, again, and when the decision was made to impose some kind of discipline (I don’t know what other word to use) on TEC a number of people in the congregation at Southwark Cathedral asked what the Chapter was going to do about it. To be honest we felt that there was little we could actually ‘do’ but we did want to make some kind of response. The issues around how LGBT+ people are welcomed and cared for and celebrated and included have always been part of the mission of the Cathedral. I was there when we hosted the LGCM 20th Anniversary Service; I was there for wonderful AIDS Day Services; I was there when we went through the Jeffrey John debacle; I am still there and continuing to respond to the call of God in this part of our life and to do it in a way that helps the church as well as LGBT+ people is something that I and my colleagues are passionate about.
Part of the response that we thought we could make was to consider whether we might possibly consider finding a cathedral in Canada with which we could link. Canada was still struggling with the issue, they were approaching their Synod, and we had some links already in each of the cities I decided to visit. But knowing whether there was any mileage in this idea required a visit as much as conversations.
We enjoy wonderful links already with the cathedrals in Rouen and Bergen and they constantly feed our life from an ecumenical perspective. Our diocesan link with Zimbabwe and our own Cathedral link with the Diocese of Masvingo are central to our life, our prayer and our mission. The thought was that a link with a Canadian cathedral might enable our own thinking about how we might continue to address the issue of the inclusion of LGBT+ people in our life in a truly positive way and a way which could also help us respond to God’s mission call in the diocese.
The church is always set in society and breathes the same air. We are incarnational because God is incarnational. Whether the church has been in first century Palestine, in ancient Rome, in medieval Europe, in colonial Africa, in post-colonial India, in North America or wherever, the fabric and life of the institution has absorbed a huge amount from the context. At the Reformation we left behind an alien church language and embraced the language of the place in which we were set and that made it’s own changes. The story goes that the missionaries in Papua New Guinea in translating the scriptures and the liturgy for the indigenous people knew that ‘Lamb of God’ would be meaningless, there were no lambs. So instead they had to look for the equivalent, which turned out to be ‘Pig of God’. The church must breathe the local air.
Canada is a very secular country. Montreal is full of wonderful and exotic churches. It is a city of saints, people like St André of Montreal, of whom I’ve written, and the nuns and the priests who brought the faith and taught the children (and did some horrendous things at times). The Anglican Church is part of the mix, not established but, as with TEC, punching a little above its weight within that society.
The principles on which Canada is based, and which people will always tell you about, are ‘peace, order and good government’. It is felt that each informs the other and produces a good society. From what I saw it is true. Canada is the only country asking for more Syrian refugees; it is truly inclusive. Tolerance is not a word that is used, tolerance is not what that society looks for, it is all about acceptance. If we’re thinking about the place of LGBT+ people in society Canada is a fantastic example. Every city I visited had its own Gay Village, not some seedy corner, an ashamed backstreet, but somewhere celebrated with rainbow flags flying and, in Montreal, a street covered the whole of is length in thousands of pink balloons as a permanent feature – a place for the whole community, gay and straight, to relax. It’s a country of politeness and quietness, it isn’t rude, it doesn’t shout.
So is it any wonder that the Canadian Church shares these characteristics? In every Anglican Church I visited there was a rainbow banner and a proclamation of full inclusion. Now, I’m often called a liberal and I don’t object to that but even I was challenged. One church in the centre of Toronto had a banner on the outside proclaiming ‘Every day is gay pride day at Holy Trinity.’ Inside the church street homeless were sleeping on the pews, the floor, the benches and volunteers were feeding them in this safe space – so inclusion there went beyond the gay community. But on occasions I did wonder how straight people felt, whether they felt as included as some others in the community. But in the conversations I had, they did, and wanted to celebrate the really inclusive church to which they belonged and of which they are proud and which they sincerely believe reflects the all-inclusive nature of the God they seek to serve.
The first evening I was in Toronto I was invited to attend with the Primate the regular ‘Queer Eucharist’ that happens in one particular suburban church on a regular basis. It was fascinating to be there, celebrating, albeit with what I found a rather challenging liturgy, the life and hopes of the LGBT+ community. It was a blessing to be there.
The opening greeting we were invited to say (not from Common Worship!) was
We are here! Being the Church! We have not retreated! We are standing in praise!
They hadn’t retreated and the place was full of praise of God. The Primate was there to talk about their Synod vote on same-gender marriage and the questioning of him was long and polite and caring. But then it would be because as I said in my sermon in Toronto’s Anglican Cathedral, the shock was that Canadian people are SO polite. They are also so caring.
So is it any wonder that the church is responding to society in the way that it is. I’m not saying that the grass is greener there or that the Canadian Church has it sorted. But it appears to me that they are trying to do that impossible thing – being the universal, eternal church in the particular, now, place.
The Second Reading for the Eucharist on the Sunday I was preaching in Toronto was 1 Timothy 2.1-7. That passage, which begins like this, was pure gift from God that day.
First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings should be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. (1 Timothy 2.1-4)
This seems to me to be exactly what the Anglican Church of Canada is trying to do. It was fascinating and a privilege to be able to share in its life just for a few weeks. Where this takes us as a Cathedral community we have yet to decide but the bonds of affection for me are strong. I was encouraged by a polite, quiet, engaged and engaging church that truly is inclusive.
The ‘Queer Eucharist’ concluded with us praying this prayer together. It’s my prayer at the end of this first stage of my sabbatical.
Almighty God, once again you have given us what we need: sacrament, one another, hope for a better day. With renewed energy we offer ourselves to be sent out in your name; hopeful, grateful, useful, leaders of liberation, proclaimers of love. Amen.