Church needs to engage in public debate about its future

Published November 1, 1999

HOW ONE RESPONDS to criticism in adverse times is frequently regarded as a test of character in individuals. It is no less so for corporations or public institutions.

The church is facing some of the toughest adversity in a long time as abuse lawsuits arising from residential schools make their way through the courts. The suits threaten to cripple the institution. Several dioceses and the national church are vulnerable to bankruptcy if many of the suits are successful.

The church needs society to believe it is an institution worth preserving. How is that to happen, especially in a society that has abandoned church affiliation in such numbers in the past quarter century?

The best response so far has come from the pages of the Globe and Mail. Columnist Margaret Wente presented a thoughtful, tightly argued and convincing argument that the potential demise of the church, were it to lose many more cases like the first one, would serve no one and would not see justice done.

But eye hath not seen nor ear heard a similar response from the church. One reader called concerned that the silence implied lawyers had taken over leadership of the church.

If lawyers are leading the church, it can only be because the church is letting them. Lawyers give advice ? expert advice, but advice nonetheless. The advice sought is not the solution to a problem but the legal implications of a proposed solution. Leaders can take advice or leave it; but they can’t abandon leadership.

Silence is not always bad. Bishop Jim Cruickshank of the Diocese of Cariboo is accepting legal advice not to speak about his diocese’s predicament. The diocese is on the verge of bankruptcy. The bishop may be called to testify in other lawsuits and his comments may be (mis)used by aggressive lawyers. This is probably wise, especially as Bishop Cruickshank did the right thing early on by admitting the church made mistakes, publicly apologizing for harm caused. That is leadership.

Bishop Cruickshank is now taking lumps for other people’s terrible mistakes. That’s leadership too. Besides, the regional archbishop, David Crawley, has been available and articulate in the media on behalf of Cariboo.

But that is only one small part of the wider problem facing the church. Archdeacon Jim Boyles, the national church’s general secretary, has said he hopes the federal government will be persuaded that the church is an institution worth preserving and will work with all the churches affected by the residential schools legacy to reach an equitable solution.

Maybe. But what affects the federal government, among other things, is public perception and public pressure.

With almost no clear public articulation by the church of its position, how will the public’s mind be formed on this issue?

If the media are any indication, the public will not necessarily be supportive. National Post columnist Diane Francis recently wrote a column saying it is time churches were taxed ? ironically, it appeared the same day as Ms. Wente’s column. In Ms. Francis’ opinion, churches don’t do any substantial charitable work anymore. Government, she said, provides the social safety net she so despises. If government wants churches to do something, she said, it should hire the churches as needed ? a somewhat curious suggestion for a columnist who hates government bureaucracy as much as she.

Did anyone in the church reply correcting Ms. Francis’ uninformed opinion? Churches, after all, conduct a great deal of formal and informal social work, as well as contributing to people’s well being and occasionally providing society with a conscience.

Another publicly expressed opinion was that of lawyer Peter Grant of Vancouver. Mr. Grant was counsel for the victim in the recent case and would appear to have several others on his list.

He railed in the Vancouver Sun at the Anglican Church. (He refused to return the Journal’s phone calls.) He wants the church to sell all its property, divert all its fundraising for the Third World to settle victims’ claims and generally prove that the only real treasure is in heaven. Did anyone suggest this affected anger might be little more than self-serving rhetoric?

Surely such comments were anticipated. But in lieu of any rejoinder, silence is read as tacit agreement with your foe.

Does the church agree with Mr. Grant? Does the public? The fact that there has been no public outcry indicates the church might not have a great deal of support for its position.

One wonders if the burden of guilt is so great that we are incapable of seeing our way forward. Wrongs were committed; the church has been trying to deal with those wrongs. It has apologized to the Native community, it is working with them by providing funds to help them develop healing projects for individuals and communities; it is prepared to contribute to out-of-court settlements through the alternative dispute resolution process. It has produced videos and other resources to help both Native and non-Native Anglicans come to grips with the evils of the past.

But not all the past was bad. Far from it. And society as a whole needs to come to terms with the evils that were done to Canadian Natives. The church could help in this enterprise, but not if it is crippled or worse. While it needs to keep in mind the wrongs of the past, it also needs to show a way forward.

All Anglicans, Native and non-Native, have a part to play; to tell the country what is happening in the church, to write, to address issues on television and in other public forums.

Anglicans need to tell these stories; Canadians need to hear them.


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