Anglicans are taking a vigorous part in multi-faith efforts to influence governments across Canada, from discussions with Premier Glen Clark in British Columbia to joining the Inter-faith Social Assistance Reform Coalition in Ontario to opposing legalized gambling in Nova Scotia.
Social Assistance Reform Coalition members have been telling the Ontario legislature of their concerns over social programs for 12 years, while in British Columbia premier Clark recently sat down for the second time with faith leaders to discuss poverty and gambling.
In January, several faith groups — including the Canadian Council of Churches and the Canadian Council for Reform Judaism — wrote letters to the federal finance minister, Paul Martin, asking him to use his budget to address child poverty and other concerns.
In Nova Scotia, seven faith groups held a news conference to air their views on legalized gambling. And, in Toronto, Archbishop Terence Finlay wrote letters to Premier Mike Harris and the mayor of Toronto voicing concern about video lottery terminals.
But do any of these have a discernible effect?
Archbishop Barry Curtis of Calgary, who is president of the Canadian Council of Churches and a signatory of the letter to Paul Martin, was disappointed with the federal budget, but says that winning for a cause is not the entire point.
“I think one budget will not solve the problem of poverty in Canada, but it is our job to keep raising this issue,” he says. “What pleased me about the letter campaign initiative is that it was from a variety of faith communities. I think that’s the way to go. Faith communities have to be constantly holding before the political powers-that-be some of our concerns and values that we think are important and that contribute to the well-being of the whole community.”
Gerald Vandezande has been doing just that for the past 37 years. As a social justice activist with an ecumenical group, Citizens for Public Justice, he has been involved in approaching all levels of government.
“The questions of right and wrong, good and bad, are always at the centre of any political debate or action,” he says. “The real question is – which understanding of life and justice will dominate? From my understanding of biblical faith, we are called to affirm human dignity, build community and practice solidarity in every economic, political and social situation.”
Mr. Vandezande feels that Christians are called not to be silent but to speak for the less fortunate, a view supported by a recent book by Brian C. Stiller, president of the Ontario Theological Seminary, From the Tower of Babel to Parliament Hill.
In his book, Mr. Stiller looks at Canadian society and its original Christian principles and the role of a Christian voice in our now pluralistic society.
“It is true that, while Jesus did not participate in political ruling, he did influence and speak to those who had a role in governance,” he writes. “And neither did Christ form a political party or contest the rulership of Pilate or Caesar. But he did effect change. Jesus spoke a new message, upsetting the status quo by setting forth a challenge to old and self-serving assumptions…”
In an Ottawa office tower three blocks from Parliament Hill, Bruce Clemenger’s window offers a clear view of the Peace Tower. Mr. Clemenger is a paid, full-time lobbyist with the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, one of many faith groups representing their membership to the federal government.
“We believe in the separation of church and state, religion and partisan politics,” he says. “But faith shapes who we are. While we don’t become too involved in the mechanics of politics, we come to a consensus … and address issues that concern us.”
Those concerns are as varied as funding for religious schools in Newfoundland and Quebec, reproductive technologies, poverty, refugees and others. They assemble presentations to government committees and sometimes to Supreme Court hearings.
But what do Members of Parliament make of the involvement of faith groups in the political process? Scott Brison, finance critic for the Progressive Conservative Party: “This is the appropriate way for faith leaders to address their concerns. If one wants to live as a Christian, then you aspire to live like Christ and he was an extraordinarily tolerant, inclusive and fair person.
“He was also very political. I think when you aspire to public service, you have to be willing to shake things up a little to help people, to do what’s right.”
The New Democratic Party’s Nelson Riis welcomes the participation of faith groups in forming public policy: “There is a role for the church to play in national decision making.”
Mr. Riis cites how business organizations and other interest groups invest in lobbying the government. “We also need to be reminded as decision makers what values we should take, the values of caring and compassion and sharing and concern for those less fortunate,” he says.
“If Jesus was here, he would be commenting on the budget, domestic policies, foreign policy. I think it is important.”
Mr. Riis admits occasional frustration. Referring once to a statement by the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, he was abruptly cut off by the Speaker of the House. “I never got an explanation,” he says.
Joe Gunn, social affairs co-director of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, supports the involvement of faith in politics, but says it should begin with the individual.
“People need to look at the range of options in their lives,” he says. Margaret Dinsdale is a Toronto freelance writer.