Monday, May 26, 2014

Sideline Snipers

The New Democratic Party, particularly in Ontario, has long been afflicted by sideline snipers who purport to be loyal New Democrats. Prominent Liberal Activist Basil Hargrove spent more than a decade pretending to be a New Democrat while doing everything in his power to ensure that the Ontario and federal NDP were electorally marginalized - and it took a full decade before anyone was prepared to call Hargrove out for his hypocrisy. His expulsion from the Ontario NDP in 2006 (for violating the party's constitution by supporting another party) was at least a decade overdue.

The approach of the sideline snipers has been remarkably consistent over the years. With crocodile tears about "principles," they pretend to act from conscience in demanding that the NDP campaign from a hard left platform. Yet at the same time, the same critics actively encourage NDP supporters to vote . . .  for the Liberals. It doesn't take a rocket surgeon to determine the snipers' real loyalties.

Any NDP leader who threatens (or even tries) to be electorally effective is subjected to the same attack. It happened to Howard Hampton, to Alexa McDonough and to Jack Layton. True to form, the usual suspects were out in force last week, deliberately sabotaging Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horwath's campaign. The Liberal aligned Toronto Star and CBC were quick to claim that the 34 signatories were "prominent" New Democrats. Certainly a few of them were, but most were not, and a few (such as Judy Rebick) have actively identified as "former New Democrats" for years. But the letter was the usual hodge-podge of hypocrisy posing as principle. They essentially demanded that Horwath and the ONDP all but stand down to give the Ontario Liberals a free hand in this election.

A National Newswatch piece by political statistician and data aggregator Alice Funke (whose Pundits' Guide website is required reading for anyone who seriously wants to understand hte political scene in Canada) pointed out the fundamental incoherence of a strategy which calls on the ONDP to embrace electoral irrelevance as a means of advancing progressive ideas. She does, however, miss one salient point - that an electorally weakened New Democratic Party inevitably allows the Liberal Party and the entire national / provincial political discourse to shift significantly to the right. Yes, marginalizing the NDP can (sometimes) help the Liberals electorally, but it also ensures that any Liberal government elected is far to the right of where it might otherwise have been if it had to contend with a serious challenger on its left flank.

Funke effectively sums up what Horwath is trying to do:
She has made a bold calculation that the strong desire for regime change in the province, coupled with a fear of the extreme programme of the Hudak PCs, creates a unique opening for a modern social democratic offer that balances fiscal responsibility with progressive working class populism; one that actually stands a chance of stopping a Hudak majority, in the very regions the provincial Liberals are now weakest.

The weirdest part of the whole story is the claim by some of the signatories that the letter was never intended to become public. The claim is either startlingly naive or plainly dishonest on the face of it. The letter was written for one purpose and one purpose only, to become public in order to sabotage the NDP campaign.

The way to defeat right wing party's with right wing agendas is to defeat right wing parties with right wing agendas, not to cede the electoral field to other right wing parties with (possibly ever so slightly less) right wing agendas.

Friday, May 23, 2014

A Commonwealth of Churches

Last week, the former Bishop of Southwark, Tom Butler, preached at St. Paul's Cathedral in London as part of the What I Want To Say Now series. The series was designed as an opportunity for retired bishops to say those things they felt constrained to say prior to leaving office.

I get the idea of the constraints of office. Having worn multiple hats at various points in my life, I was always aware of which hat I was wearing and when, and that in turn constrained what I might say. I don't for example, use the Sunday sermon to tell people which way to vote in an election. And when I was working in government communications, I had occasion to defend policies or decisions which I believed were mistakes.

I'm not quite so sure I get the democratic centralism of bishops in the Church of England during the debate on the Anglican Covenant. It was only as it became obvious that English diocesan synods would not approve Rowan's Folly that a very few diocesans were prepared to buck the artificial solidarity. Surely if a diocesan bishop believed the Anglican Covenant to be (to quote the anonymous Scottish bishop Bishop Butler quotes) "95% saccerine and 5% strychnine," surely they had some responsibility, as leaders in the Church, to say so.

In any event, Bishop Butler, late of Southwark, has now come out as opposed to the Anglican Covenant - but only now that it has "gone into the sand." What courage. I'm somehow reminded of Saudi Arabia declaring war on Germany in April of 1945, only after it was clear that the Allies would be victorious.

But Bishop Butler then proposes an alternative to the Anglican Covenant.
It’s been said that there’s no alternative to the covenant. That’s not so. Of course most of the Anglican Churches in the Communion were established in countries which were part of the British Empire with bishops initially sent out to serve from England. But that was not universally so, and just as the nations achieved independence with their own constitutions, so we see autonomous local Anglican provinces with their own constitutions and systems of canon law.  
And just as many of these nations, with others, have voluntarily become members of the Commonwealth symbolically focussed on the queen, but with no pretence of having authority in one another’s nations, so the Anglican provinces find the focus of their unity in the archbishop of Canterbury, but up until now with there’s been no sense of one province or archbishop trying to veto the pastoral practices of another. But that, in practice is now what’s happening over the issue of homosexuality.  
The former dean of Southwark, sadly now deceased, in a newspaper article took the analogy of the commonwealth a little further. He wrote, "We would be astonished if the government of Pakistan, for example, imagined it could dictate policy to the British parliament; similarly the archbishops of Nigeria or Sydney should not be permitted to dictate to the Church of England.” And I would want to add, and vice versa.  
In civic life, the Commonwealth has proved to be so attractive that member nations, not originally part of the British Empire have chosen to join it. Of course it has had it’s ups and down but successive prime ministers and the monarch herself have kept their nerve and the Commonwealth might well, in a dangerous world, have an even more significant part to play in years to come.  
So "what I want now to say” is that there is an alternative to an Anglican covenant; it is an Anglican commonwealth or federation, a voluntary international family of churches faithful to the Anglican tradition of thoughtful holiness and based on mutual respect, comparable in structure to the Commonwealth of nations. It might not be the new Jerusalem to which our second lesson points, but to misquote Evelyn Underhill, it might be a decent suburb of it.
Here is my only quibble with Bishop Butler's advocacy for an Anglican Communion modeled on the British Commonwealth. He doesn't seem to realize that he's describing the status quo. In fact, I've read (though cannot now find a reference to support it) that the "bonds of affection, no centralized authority" polity of the Anglican Communion was one of the inspirations to those who led the evolution from Empire to Commonwealth.

The Anglican Covenant was an attempt to radically re-engineering the Anglican Communion, to centralize authority and to abolish at a stroke centuries of provincial autonomy and autocephaly in favour of a primatial curia and a pale Lambeth papacy. Those of us who took up the struggle to defeat it are the real conservatives.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Healthy Parishes

Along with two colleagues from the diocese, I attended the National Consultation on Healthy and Vital Parishes last week in Niagara Falls. More than 70 clergy and lay leaders from both the Anglican and Evangelical Lutheran Churches participated in the conference at the Mount Carmel Spiritual Centre, an ecumenical retreat and conference centre operated by the Roman Catholic Carmelite order.

Unlike many conferences, we were not subjected to long presentations from pre-selected experts. Instead the vast majority of the conference saw participants sharing their own experience and expertise. The consultation was extensively covered by the Anglican Journal in articles here, here and here.

Despite the hype in some quarters, I have never believed that congregational vitality was inherently linked to a particular theological perspective or liturgical style. That largely seemed to be the shared opinion of the folk I met. There was broad agreement that the key to the spiritual and (usually) numerical growth of a parish was a focus outside its own walls and a determination to engage with the community beyond their doors.

I still need time to process everything I heard, saw and experienced, but it was invigorating to engage with dozens of other Christian leaders who are ready to leave the metaphorical Egypt of Christendom behind while they step boldly into the future to which God calls us.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Technological Breakdown

I've been recording and posting sermons for the past few months. It has been interesting to see how the process of being recorded has affect my preaching and my approach to preaching.

Unfortunately, technology has reared its ugly head once or twice. Well, once. Today makes twice. And what was (according to some) an excellent sermon on the importance of framing a Rule of Life (as per page 555 in the Book of Common Prayer (Canada) has been lost to posterity.

No time to worry about that. The next big thing will be the funeral for my honorary assistant tomorrow. A difficult liturgy to be sure - but I have reason to believe the hymns may blow the roof off the place. A fitting tribute to a proud Welshman.

Sunday, May 4, 2014


It is often the throwaway line from the sermon that actually gives someone the "aha!" moment.

Today I preached on the encounter between Jesus and the two disciples travelling on the Emmaus road, with a focus on that poignant phrase one of them utters, "But we had hoped ..."

But it was the throwaway observation at the end that brought one member of the congregation his "aha!" moment.

After encountering Jesus and recognizing him in the breaking of the bread, what do the two disciples do? Now, remember, they are a full day's walk from Jerusalem and it is night time. The sensible thing to do would have been to wait until the morning, until they were rested, until it was light, until it was safe.

Instead, they rush straight back to Jerusalem because their news is so momentous.

What would happen if today's first world Christians could be moved to such a sense of urgency?

Thursday, May 1, 2014

For May Day

While I prefer Billy Bragg's lyrics, I prefer this Alistair Hulett version musically.

Happy May Day.