(This article was published in the May issue of the Anglican Journal.)
The date was May 20, 1979, and the place was the Cathedral Church of St. James, Toronto. I knelt before Archbishop Lewis Garnsworthy, who laid his hands upon my head and said, “You are a priest forever…”
Some 35 years later, having shared ministry in five parishes and now in a sixth, and having contributed 10 years at the national office of the Anglican Church of Canada, I find myself feeling encouraged—and sometimes discouraged—about the church.
The discouragement centres on structures and processes that bind rather than liberate, on self-centredness, lack of honesty and the misappropriate use of power. Richard Schmidt in Glorious Companions quotes the opening lines from a remarkable little book, The Authority of the Laity, by American lay theologian Verna Dozier: “A funny thing happened on the way to the Kingdom. The church, the people of God, became the church, the institution.” Schmidt continues the thought: “God calls the church, the people of God…to take the risk of faith in a world that denies faith. Very quickly, though, the church…like every institution, soon focuses its energy on perpetuating itself and maintaining its power.”
And yet the church remains the people of God. For they, the people, have given me some very unique privileges over the past three and a half decades—from baptizing and sharing the eucharist to participating in weddings and funerals, to sharing in ministry in every diocese in this country and, on a few occasions, in different settings and countries around the world.More than ever, I feel people have blessed my ministry.
I think of Malcolm, a gentleman who was financially and otherwise challenged, yet had travelled, alone, to Toronto from Montreal. He wanted to sing in a choir, and when I met him, he told me that churches kept telling him, “There isn’t a choir robe big enough for you.” I almost wept at how harsh a church can be—at how we can think God is more impressed with fine music than how the disadvantaged are treated. Malcolm proudly took a place in the choir of my parish.I think of four-year-old Larry, and how I persisted in his first communion class, teaching him to say “amen” at the moment when the host would be placed in his hand. On that glorious morning of his first receiving the sacrament, I placed the host in his hand and, with the widest grin imaginable, he looked me in the eye and said, “Thank you.”
Larry knew what the eucharist meant.I think of an inner-city parish that I served, where drugs, alcoholism and prostitution were prevalent, and that existed near a large facility for the mentally challenged. Parish membership was increased by one when ‘The Torch” joined us. Faithfully, the community stood with her and her incredibly eccentric behaviour as she succeeded and failed continually to achieve sobriety.
I think of the mother who joined me in the hospital chapel where I had paused to pray, and who asked, “Will my baby die?” Indeed the baby girl did die, but I was able to walk the journey with her parents while struggling with a thousand unanswered questions as to why.Other memories include working with a traditional parish to help a transvestite feel welcome and part of the community…sharing a community supper with a guest who was moved to tears because he was “allowed” to decorate a Christmas tree…befriending a schizophrenic man who walks miles every Sunday morning to be present with God in the parish in ways that I will never understand.I thank God that over the years, these people and many others have touched my life and showed me what the gospel of love really means.