Thursday, December 25, 2014

Searching for the Christ Child

 A Simple Massing Priest tradition since 2007.
The title isn't quite so allegorical as you think. We actually spent about ten minutes before the Christmas Eve service desperately seeking the Baby Jesus for the main creche at the parish where I serve as interim priest. 
It is actually a very interesting creche, set up inside the altar itself. A simple wooden chevron suggests the stable, while the remaining figures stand on black satin.
It was already in place on Sunday last. Actually in the Sunday before last as we compromised the calendar in the interest of the children's pageant. But Sunday last the creche had only its minimalist roof, one ox and one ass. Mary and Joseph were not far away - standing on the altar pavement - but they hadn't arrived yet. The shepherds weren't there yet either, out tending their sheep on the edge of the pulpit. And the magi were in the middle of the aisle at the back of the church, still some ways away.
Tonight, Mary and Joseph, and after some panicked moments, the Baby Jesus, were all installed in their places. The shepherds were "summoned to his stable" during the gradual hymn. And the magi were now half way up the aisle - accompanied by a helpful "Mind the Camels" sign prepared by my good wife. 
It was a good celebration in a community which seems increasingly hopeful and future oriented. And generally united. There is no parish on earth that doesn't have some divisions and tensions. But this little parish seem quite determined to be a family together. 
We found Jesus tonight at St. James - literally, allegorically and eucharistically. We all came to the same table, together. That is where we belong in worship - at the same table, together.

This year there was some added adventure when the little girl designated to put the Baby Jesus in the manger made shy, but we got it done.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

An Endorsement

Saskatchewan New Democrats have begun nominating candidates for the next provincial election. Members in the Regina Douglas Park constituency will be choosing their new candidate and next Member of the Legislature tomorrow night.

There are two very good people running for the nomination. I count both of them as my friends.

And the problem for parties nominating candidates or electing leaders is that members are often confronted with having to choose between friends.

Stephen Moore is a professor at the University of Regina, a former federal candidate in Regina Wascana and was the Chief of Staff to former leader Dwain Lingenfelter.

Nicole Sarauer is a lawyer, and the Programs Director for Pro Bono Law Saskatchewan and a Trustee with Regina Roman Catholic Separate Schools.

Either one would make a good candidate.

But in my estimation, Nicole would make the better candidate.

Nicole is bright, compelling, outgoing and brings a track record of electoral success. She represents the renewal the Saskatchewan NDP needs. She represents the voice of a new generation of activists and citizens.

I hate having to choose between friends, but in this case, the choice isn't hard.

Nicole Sarauer represents our best chance of taking back Regina Douglas Park. She and other young, dynamic candidates like her, are the key to rebuilding a Saskatchewan NDP that can contend for power.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Preemptive Escalation and the Use of Telephones

Last week, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau suspended two Liberal MPs (including his Ethics Critic) from the Liberal Caucus based on allegations of sexual harassment against two female New Democrat MPs. At first, it appeared Trudeau had acted responsibly and decisively to address a serious problem.

It then emerged that Trudeau and his people had not bothered to give the New Democrat Caucus or the two NDP MPs any advance warning of his intentions. At least one of the victims learned of Trudeau's actions from her Twitter feed.

It also came to be known that the two alleged victims had not wanted the matter to become public. The political careers and future prospects of two Liberal MPs have likely been ruined regardless of the eventual outcome, and, according to NDP sources, the two NDP MPs feel as though they have been victimized all over again.

National Post political correspondent Stephen Maher has provided perhaps the most balanced and neutral outline of the sequence of events.

Admittedly, Trudeau was in a difficult situation. Once the matter had been brought to his attention by one of the two NDP MPs, he could hardly ignore it. But did he really need to invoke the nuclear option? We don't know the details of the cases, of course, but Toronto Star columnist Chantal Hébert has reported that the two NDP MPs did not want the matter to become public at least in part because they did not want to ruin the careers of their two Liberal colleagues.

Most modern organizations have some sort of harassment policy in place. It is telling that the House of Commons does not. In virtually all of those policies, it directs that complaints and violations of the policy should be resolved at the lowest appropriate level. Depending on the nature of the offence, (possibly) the intention of the respondent and (in general) the attitude of the victim, not every act of harassment need be a firing offence. In some cases, a simple apology and a stern warning is sufficient. In other cases, more sanctions and possibly some sort of harassment prevention training may be required.

Globe and Mail columnist Leah McLaren described an incident of sexual harassment from early in her career. While the incident she describes unquestionably constitutes sexual harassment, she wasn't convinced the harasser deserved to have his career and reputation ruined.
... did I think he deserved to be frog-marched out of the building with his belongings in a cardboard box? That seemed a bit extreme.
It would appear that the NDP victims felt that publicly frog-marching the Liberal MPs out of caucus was too severe, that an educational and corrective approach was appropriate in their cases. But they were concerned that the hothouse atmosphere of Parliament Hill would escalate the matter significantly. They were sadly correct.

Trudeau and his handlers have a habit of throwing people under the bus if they become inconvenient. Martha Hall Findlay and Christine Innes have had their political careers ended (and in the latter case, her professional reputation soiled) by Liberal operatives because they were inconvenient to the leader's plans. I suppose it's oddly reassuring that he's prepared to throw male politicians under the bus, not just women.

By acting in a public way, without the consent and cooperation of the complainants, Trudeau has violated the central principles of effective harassment policies and processes. He has destroyed two careers, and he has disempowered two victims.

Part of the victim-blaming response from Trudeau apologists has been to say of the second NDP MP, "well, what did she expect?"

I don't know what she expected. But based on Hébert's column, I deduce that she expected the Liberal MP would get a stern talking to, perhaps some diversity training, maybe some internal sanctions. To say that she should have expected what happened is to argue (rather foolishly) that every incident of inappropriate behaviour is always a firing offence. In a world like that, very few of us would still have jobs.

I've been a victim of harassment in my working life - more than once. It wasn't sexual harassment, but it was certainly harassment. In the early 1990s, I had two superiors actively poisoning my workplace. One of the few mercies was that the two despised each other and so never managed to cooperate. My one attempt to make a formal complaint was sidelined by one of the harassers. For a period of several months, every time I arrived at that workplace I would head to the washroom to throw up. One of the worst aspects of that experience was the sense that I had no control. I was powerless. I felt as though I had no agency as events ran their course.

I don't know what it's like to be sexually harassed, but I can't imagine that sense of powerlessness is any less. I have no difficulty understanding why the two NDP MPs would feel like victims all over again. Trudeau denied them any say in the outcome, denied them any agency.

But the thing that completely mystifies me is this: is there no one in Justin Trudeau's office that knows how to operate a telephone?

I'm sure they have telephones in Ottawa, even on Parliament Hill.

It's not all that hard to operate one. Press a series of numbers and the telephone makes a sound signifying that another telephone elsewhere is alerting it's minder to an incoming communication.

How hard would it have been for Justin Trudeau or his minions to telephone two MPs from another party, to explain why he felt it necessary to escalate the matter beyond what even the victims felt was appropriate, to explain why he felt it was necessary to impose the escalated sanctions in a public way, and to advise when the matter would be announced?

He still would have been denying autonomy and agency to the victims, but at least they wouldn't have found out about it on Twitter.

Monday, August 4, 2014

The Pope and Mrs. Beamish

The past week or so has seen an unusual amount of ink and electrons spilled over a new circular from the Vatican regarding the proper way of passing the Peace during the Eucharist. Specifically, the circular identified four abuses that are to be avoided (and, if already happening, discontinued):
  • the use of a "song of peace";
  • the congregation leaving their seats to exchange the Peace with those not immediately near them;
  • the presiding celebrant leaving the altar (sanctuary?) to exchange the Peace with some members of the congregation; and
  • the use of the Peace as an opportunity to offer congratulations, condolences etc.
The circular can be found here.

Perhaps the first thing to note is that the Peace, in the Roman rite, is not in the same place as it is for most Canadian Anglicans accustomed to worshiping with the Book of Alternative Services. In the Roman rite, as in the Book of Common Prayer, the Peace occurs after the Eucharistic prayer and immediately prior to the distribution of the Holy Communion to the faithful. Recent Anglican liturgical reforms have tended to conform to the Ambrosian rite and to place the Peace immediately before the Offertory. This is consistent with Matthew's Gospel, where Jesus says,
So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Matthew 5: 23 - 24
The rationale for the Peace - and the placing of the Peace - is different in the Roman rite:
Its point of reference is found in the Eucharistic contemplation of the Paschal mystery as the "Paschal kiss" of the Risen Christ present on the altar.
This is not to suggest that one placement and understanding is superior to the other. But it is clear that the two different understandings logically lead to different approaches. The Roman placement demands a more solemn and contemplative atmosphere than the Ambrosian placement familiar to most modern Anglicans.

The Vatican direction for priest and people to remain in their places, to my mind, makes perfect sense in the Roman rite. I'm not convinced they make much sense in the Ambrosian placement. Indeed, if I am to take Jesus's words seriously, I may well have to go out from the sanctuary to reconcile with my brother or my sister.

That said, I think one of the abuses mentioned in the Vatican's circular applies to the Peace in its Ambrosian placement as well. The Peace is not particularly a time for chit chat, visiting, congratulations and catching up. It's not particularly a time for condolences either, although the intentional human contact and the invoking of Christ's peace may well have a particular poignancy and meaning for the recently bereaved.

I also think the circular misses one very serious (though usually unconscious) abuse of the Peace - ignoring the stranger while seeking out one's friends. Indeed, if we take another part of Matthew's Gospel seriously, we should be making a particular point of sharing the sign of Christ's peace with the stranger.
I was a stranger and you welcomed me / did not welcome me. Matthew 25: 31 - 46
One of the best explanations and instructions for the Peace is from my New Zealand colleague Bosco Peters:
The Peace forms the hinge between the Ministry of the Word and Prayer (which we have inherited from the Synagogue), and the Ministry of the Sacrament (which we have inherited from Jesus and through him from the meals celebrated in Jewish homes). It is found at this point of the service in the earliest liturgies. A sign of peace can act out our love for our brother and sister (1 John 4:20) and the peace we wish to make before we present our gift at the altar (Matthew 5:23-24). It is especially a sharing of the peace given by the risen Christ (John 20:19,21,26). 
With hands extended wide the presider says, "The peace of Christ be always with you." On occasion an introductory sentence might link the Peace to the celebration of the day. Another option is to slightly adapt the words to the occasion. For example, during the Easter Season, the greeting could be, "The Peace of the Risen Christ be always with you." 
The people's response can be followed by "Let us offer one another a sign of (this/Christ's) Peace." Giving specific instructions on what form this "sign" should take is best avoided. For some this is an important moment of human contact in the midst of a lonely week. For others physical contact may be threatening rather than speaking of Christ's peace.  
Teaching which encourages sensitivity is appropriate. The Peace is part of worship, it is a liturgical action. To seek out our friends and ignore the stranger or visitor or the one with whom we really need to seek reconciliation is to miss the point of the Peace. The Peace anticipates the coming kingdom, it is not a foretaste of the morning tea after church! To put this in another way, it is the Peace which should shape the atmosphere of morning tea after church, rather than the atmosphere of an ordinary New Zealand morning tea being that which shapes the way we relate at the Peace. 
The period of the Peace can be ended either by using the sentences "E te whanau, we are the body of Christ ..." (page 419), or by beginning a hymn, or by beginning to prepare the table.
And by way of closing, here's everyone's favourite video about the controversies of the Peace. Peace to you, Mrs. Beamish.

Monday, July 14, 2014

The Seal of Confession

Earlier this month, the Anglican Church of Australia altered its canons (church laws) to permit clergy to reveal the contents of a penitent's confession if it included a serious crime which had not already been reported to the police. This overturned the long established (arguably centuries old) Seal of the Confession whereby the person hearing a confession (normally a priest or bishop) was not to disclose the content of the penitent's confession under any circumstances. Apparently there was already provision in the Australian canons for a confessor to reveal information with the consent of the penitent, though that would already be a departure from catholic norms.  Coverage of the story can be found here and here. One of the principal campaigners for the measure offers his apologia here. New Zealand priest Bosco Peters offers some good analysis here.

The motivation for the measure, understandably, is related to the scandal of sexual abuse - and in particular sexual abuse by clergy. And the scandal of abuse has, in many cases, been aggravated by inaction or evasion on the part of church authorities when abuse has been revealed. There is no defence to be offered for either the abuse itself or for the negligence and complicity of those who ignored or covered it up.

But the moral failure of church authorities is quite independent of the issue of the Seal of Confession. It was not through the Sacrament of Reconciliation that church authorities were discovering cases of abuse, but from the reports of victims and their parents or other advocates. The Seal of Confession, intact or otherwise, had no bearing on the failure of those in authority to address the issue.

In most Canadian jurisdictions, the laws makes it compulsory to report cases or suspected cases of the sexual, physical or emotional abuse of children. In some jurisdictions, including here in Saskatchewan, the Seal of Confession is expressly and specifically singled out as not constituting an exception to this requirement. If one hears a confession about the abuse of a child, the obligations to the church and to the state are in clear and unequivocal conflict.

That said, a priest still has some capacity to effect a positive outcome. We are not obliged to pronounce absolution if we are not persuaded that the penitent is, in fact, penitent. The most effective and reliable sign of true repentance would be for the penitent to make another confession ... to the civil authorities.  In any event, in an Anglican context - where our discipline around Confession is that "all may, some should, none must" - it strikes me unlikely that a person would disclose any serious sin, including child abuse, unless there was sincere repentance.

I think Fr Bosco is correct. The most likely outcome of this sort of change is that those guilty of such grave sins - and possibly of sins far less grave - will be less likely to avail themselves of the sacrament. Instead, they will simply continue to struggle on their own (assuming they really are penitent), and will be more likely to repeat the offence.

Indeed, one could argue that a blanket reporting requirement may actually keep some abusers from seeking any sort of help to address their behaviour. I have two pieces of anecdotal evidence to support this.

Some 25 years ago, I had dealings with several men who were at various points in the legal system after having sexually abused their children. In two of the cases, the abuse had gone on over a long period of time. In both of those cases, the men had come to understand that their behaviour was wrong and had also realized that they needed help.

Both of the men sought out professional help through a public agency. After their initial intake session, they were asked to wait in a room while the counselors, in accordance with the law, contacted the police. Both men were arrested, charged and convicted. By the time I had met them, both had completed their initial sentences but were still in the parole system. I did not have a confessor - penitent relationship with either man.

Neither man questioned the fairness of what had happened to him. Both agreed that the counselling they had been able to access through the corrections system made them less likely to reoffend. Both felt they had gotten a punishment commensurate with their crime.

But both of them were honest enough to acknowledge that, had they known of the compulsory reporting requirement, they likely would not have sought help. And both believed that it was at least possible, and probably likely that, had they not sought help, the abuse would have continued.

This is not an easy question, and I certainly see that a person of good faith might come to another conclusion. But I am far from persuaded that removing the Seal of Confession will do anything substantive to enhance the safety of children. It will, however, discourage many people - and not only those guilty of so grave a sin - from accessing a means of grace to the detriment of their souls.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Peace by Peace

When I was 18, I held a Nobel Prize.

I was in New York when I met Mairead Corrigan (now Maguire) and Betty Williams, co-founders of the group Peace People in Northern Ireland.

It was less than two years earlier that Corrigan Maguire's sister, niece and two nephews were struck by a car driven by wounded Provisional IRA terrorist Danny Lennon who had been shot by British troops. The young girl and one of the boys died at the scene. the younger boy the following day. The children's mother was eventually driven to suicide by the events of that day. Williams had witnessed the event and was moved to begin a petition across sectarian lines calling for an end to the violence. The two women became "the joint leaders of a virtually spontaneous mass movement."

I thought of these two unlikely Nobel Laureates when I read this story about the families of murdered Israeli teen Naftali Fraenkel and murdered Palestinian teen Mohammed Abu Khdeir comforting each other in their loss.

The witness of Mairead Corrigan Maguire and Betty Williams helped bring an end to The Troubles. May the witness of Rachel Fraenkel and Hussein Abu Khdeir have a similar outcome.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

The Way

The parish where I hang my biretta has St. James the Apostle as its patron. St. James is also the patron of the Roman Catholic cathedral in Compostella, Spain, the terminus of the ancient yet still very popular pilgrimage, the Camino de Santiago or the Way of St. James. As our parish leadership has worked over the past while to develop a Mission Action Plan for the parish, we have looked often to the image of pilgrimage as an icon and model of the Christian life.

It is this connection that recently led me to look for the 2010 movie The Way, starring Martin Sheen. Adapted for the screen and produced by Sheen's son Emilio Estevez, it is the story of a man who travels to France to identify and reclaim the body of his son who died in a storm on his first day on the Camino. He decides to complete the journey his son began.

I am increasingly intrigued by the idea of pilgrimage both as spiritual devotion and spiritual pilgrimage. The earliest Christians referred to our faith as The Way. Roads and journey's occur again and again in the salvation history. Deuteronomy calls on us to acknowledge a wandering Aramean as our ancestor. Joseph journeys to Egypt and, generations later, the Hebrews journey back to the land of promise. The story of Jesus begins with a journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, and much of the story of his ministry is set on the road from Galilee to Jerusalem, culminating in the Way of the Cross. 

Starting with the Camino may be a little presumptuous. Perhaps some smaller scale pilgrimages are a place to begin. But to be a Christian is to be a pilgrim. And like any journey, that pilgrimage begins with a step.