When the day comes, as it looks increasingly possible it might, that the sun rises on a landscape devoid of major churches as national institutions, Canadians should look to Ottawa for a large measure of responsibility for the new world created. They should look there as well for some kind of guidance as to how to fill the void in the social fabric left by the churches, which were, for so long, largely taken for granted. And if nothing is found, perhaps there will be ample time to reflect on the simple fact that often the sudden sense of loss of something once familiar speaks more eloquently about its worth than its presence ever did. It may be that only then, when the churches as we know them today no longer exist, will Canadians appreciate what has been lost and reflect on why it was lost.
And in those reflections, thoughts may pause to ponder the madness of a government that seems ever-ready to meddle in the affairs of every enterprise under the sun, public or private, from sports teams to book publishers, if it means assuring their survival, and yet, which failed to find the political will to reach an agreement with churches to do the same for them.
We live, after all, in a country where people’s lives are regimented by government to an extent exceeding that of almost any other nation in the world that claims to be a democracy. Our governments have a hand in everything from the television channels we must pay for as part of our cable packages, to the complexity of labels on products we buy and the languages those labels must be printed in. Governments regulate everything from the kind of child seat you must buy for your car to what we may receive in our mail. And yet, in a nation in which “the government” meddles in absolutely everything, the mainline churches fall victim to a deadly slowness and apathy in the political will. Here, the government will not meddle; here it declines to intervene in an effective way to stay the course we are on.
The predicament in which the major mainline churches – Anglican, United, Presbyterian and Roman Catholic – find themselves in is a political scandal unique in the history of Canada, regardless of the conclusion still to be written. It is a scandal that begins with a barbarous, ill-fated policy aimed at the racial assimilation of aboriginal peoples, and that now threatens to end with the financial destruction of one of the instruments of that policy. Along the way, hearts have been broken and hearts remain to be broken; lives have been ruined or lost, tragedy has been heaped on tragedy and church coffers, previously dedicated to good and noble and necessary work, have been despoiled. It is, in a sense, the ultimate triumph of the secular state, to have come to a point in our history where a government, by legal entanglement, by dawdling and by inactivity, perhaps even through sheer ignorance and lack of thought, now seems about to eradicate all that is not secular.
General Synod, in many ways the national embodiment of the Anglican Church of Canada, today stands on the brink of bankruptcy protection at best, dissolution at worst, in part as a result of federal government action in the courts and inaction everywhere else. The evil of the present situation is compounded by a lack of political vision. Lawsuits over residential schools, after all, did not begin yesterday. The ensuing legal entanglements were predictable years ago. It has been apparent to the Anglican church for several years that its future as a national institution is in jeopardy. It has been obvious at least since the last General Synod in 1998, that barring some sort of arrangement with Ottawa, the church could not survive the legal costs of the barrage of civil actions brought against it, largely at Ottawa’s instigation. One diocese – Cariboo – has already faltered and others are at their financial eleventh hour. None of these factors are new. The church at the highest level has shared its concerns with Ottawa and has strived to come to an arrangement to avert what now appears all but inevitable.
So now we are at the point where, in words used recently by General Synod Treasurer Jim Cullen in an appearance at the Council of General Synod, the church will be “out of cash” before the end of the year. “Out of cash” means either that the church folds its tents and ceases to exist nationally, which is unlikely, or that it seeks bankruptcy protection, which means that trustees would then be placed in charge of a “restructuring.” What this restructuring would effectively mean is difficult to predict before the situation is upon us. But it is unlikely that a trustee would bring to the work of the church quite the same dedication and fervor as presently exists in the area, for instance, of healing and reconciliation with native people, an activity very much to the point in the current situation.
If the government fails to find the means to resolve lawsuits around residential schools in a way that allows the churches to go on with this and other ministries, the victims of that failure will be the people of Canada, those who never use the churches no less than those who do. And the cumulative costs of that failure will require of us immeasurably more in time, energy and resources than would ever have been needed to settle the lawsuits in the first place.