This article first appeared in the February issue of the Anglican Journal.
As a teenager, Christiana Joan Clark would stay after class and passionately argue points with her history teacher. At the family dinner table, young Christy debated the issues of the day with her father, a schoolteacher and a Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) candidate, and her mother, a family therapist. As one observer noted, it would be easy to imagine a pigtailed Clark rounding up votes in the schoolyard for the game the kids would play at recess. Of hardworking Scots descent, she learned to have respect for a dollar.
Now in her second term as premier of British Columbia, Clark, 48, makes good use of those early-honed skills as she pursues her pragmatist’s agenda of growth, job creation, debt reduction and the elimination of poverty in her economically stalled province.
A cradle Anglican who grew up in the small, progressive congregation of Christ the King Church in Burnaby, B.C., Clark has since attended every type of Anglican church and pretty well every other type of worship site, from temples to synagogues and mosques. Once a student of comparative religion at the University of Edinburgh, the premier remains fascinated by other traditions of worship and the doctrines that underpin them. She considers it a privilege of her office that when she travels, she’s often invited to worship with people of other faiths.
Still, she finds plenty of variety in her own fold. “The Anglican church has many different faces of worship, but whether the service features a rock band, a beautiful choir or a spare liturgy, there is always the same basic element of tradition, which for me is very important,” she says. The familiar patterns offer her a respite from the agendas and stratagems of political office and an entry point into meditation. “The repetitiveness of worship helps draw us into a space where we are thinking about faith and what it means,” she says. “The prayers, the psalms draw me to the familiar and make it much easier for me to be contemplative.”
While she’s grateful to those who enter the priesthood, the self-confessed extrovert admits she doesn’t have the special mix of patience, diplomacy and, above all, listening ability to be a good priest herself. “I do a lot of listening, but I also give a lot of feedback. I’m probably more directive and opinionated than a good priest should be,” she says. Clark, who is a parishioner at Vancouver’s Christ Church Cathedral, admits to being ” bit in awe of the range of skills priests need to have today.”
Her faith remains an essential part of her survival kit in the often-hostile territory of partisan politics. “It allows me to find peace in a very loud and busy environment and to find perspective on all the words that get thrown around,” she says. “But the most important thing that it gives me is the reminder to be forgiving, kind, compassionate and thoughtful about others.”
In her view, the most tragic aspect of the contemporary decline in church attendance is that “busy people don’t go to a place each week where they’re reminded to be kind and to forgive.”
Her faith as well as the seasoning hand of time-she became an MLA in 1996 and, during a break from politics, has hosted a radio talk show-have tempered her reaction to the verbal slings and arrows of political fortune. “I have come to a place in my life and career where I recognize those as part of the nature of politics,” she says, crediting her faith with keeping her resilient. “When people hurl insults and question my integrity, I choose not to be hurt by it. I recognize they are flawed human beings like me who feel passionately about things.”
Although Clark rarely talks religion except with other Anglicans, she sees no reason to hide or deny faith. “The only requirement for people of faith is to remember that we live in a country that values acceptance, inclusiveness and compassion,” she says.
Her quest to understand religious belief as a defining human characteristic has drawn her to the writings of Karen Armstrong, the British former Roman Catholic nun whose books on comparative religion include A History of God. “Karen Armstrong writes so clearly and concisely on faith and why it matters, and on the basic tenets of faith such as compassion that bind us all,” says Clark.
As a Christian and a politician, Clark is deeply concerned about preserving the altruistic social institutions that make us uniquely Canadian. “Our parents and grandparents helped build the best public school system in the world, universal health care and accessible post-secondary education. But they did so in times of seven and eight per cent growth,” she says. “As a country, we have to think about how we’re going to grow again.”
As for her own political legacy, she says: “My hope is that we can expand the province’s economy for us and for all of Canada, so we can say one day that British Columbia is paying more than its fair share to support the social programs and institutions Canadians love.”