Clergy protest ban on Jesus in Swissair prayers

Published February 1, 1999

An Anglican priest in Nova Scotia has written an angry letter to the Prime Minister’s Office, demanding an apology for placing unfair restrictions on Christian clergy at last September’s memorial service for the victims of Swissair Flight 111.

The doomed aircraft crashed into the frigid waters off Peggy’s Cove on Sept. 2, killing all 229 passengers on board.

Rev. Rick Walsh, who serves four Anglican churches in the St. Margaret’s Bay area where the plane went down, said he found out a week after the Sept. 9 memorial service that some clergy were “told not to mention Jesus or make any references to the New Testament because somebody might be offended,” he said.

Mr. Walsh heard about the gag order from Rev. Carolyn Nicholson, a United Church minister. She alleged that a protocol official from the federal government vetted her speech to remove references to Jesus or the New Testament.

Mr. Walsh said when Ms. Nicholson told him and other clergy about the problem at a meeting a week after the memorial, she was “extremely upset about it. She was almost in tears.”

A Roman Catholic priest, who also spoke at the open-air service, backed up Ms. Nicholson’s story and said officials imposed the same restrictions on him.

News of the restrictions made Mr. Walsh think back to an incident the day before the memorial service. He had been asked to write a short speech, welcoming mourners. Rev. Sally Budge, chaplain at the Halifax airport and one of a group of officials who hastily organized the service, asked him to submit the text of his words of welcome in advance. When he asked why that was necessary, he was told, “in case you don’t make it, someone else can say it.”

He “thought it was a bit funny, but I was very busy so I didn’t have time to think about it.”

Ms. Nicholson told the National Post she was given a far more direct reason for the need to see the Christian speeches in advance. The intent was to remove references to Jesus or the New Testament.

What galls her and other clergy is that Jewish, Muslim and Native leaders at the service faced no such limitations. They cited God and quoted freely from the Koran and Talmud.

“That begs the question of what is inherently offensive about Christian Scripture?” she said.

Ms. Nicholson was the first to write a letter to the prime minister to protest the gag order. Mr. Walsh followed suit shortly before Christmas.

“I think it’ll be ignored,” he said because protocol officials with the federal government “are now denying any involvement whatsoever.

“Everybody’s trying to cover their butt,” he said.

Sophie Galarneau, a press officer at the Prime Minister’s Office denied in an interview that federal officials censored the Christian speeches.

Ms. Galarneau said the prime minister and the deputy chief of protocol at the Department of Foreign Affairs have written letters to Ms. Nicholson, saying they regret that the service “has become a focus of controversy.”

William Bowden, the deputy chief of protocol and the co-ordinator of the committee that organized the memorial service, wrote that he wanted the service to be as inclusive as possible, “although this desire may have been misconstrued. If there was a misunderstanding, I am very sorry.”

Mr. Walsh, however, is convinced the PMO is in the wrong and he thinks federal officials ought to own up to the mistake.

“I don’t know if it was over-zealousness, plain stupidity, or just a mistake but somebody needs their knuckles rapped,” he said.

The claim that Christian clergy were limited in what they could say but other religious leaders were not is also backed up by a Nova Scotia rabbi, who said no one ordered him to tone down the Jewish prayers he delivered at the service.

Rabbi David Ellis said he delivered a “distinctively Jewish prayer … I put that out because I thought it was appropriate. I didn’t want to just do something bland,” he told the National Post.

Ms. Budge, who has taken some heat over this issue, admitted in an interview there was a clear decision to limit certain Christian references. However, she said that the entire committee organizing the service made the decision.

She said the committee consisted of federal and provincial employees, two representatives from the Christian community (a Salvation Army chaplain and herself), and a representative from the general community.

“The committee decided that in the spirit of sensitivity and compassion for those who would be at the memorial and in the spirit of tolerance, we decided the words ‘Jesus Christ’ and ‘cross’ could possibly be offensive and we did not want to alienate anybody,” she told the Anglican Journal.

It was well known that many Jews and Muslims planned to attend the service.

Asked why only the Christian clergy faced limits on what they could say, and not the others, she said it was a decision made “in the heat of the moment. We didn’t have the luxury of time. It seemed like a reasonable request,” she said, adding that the committee only had about six hours to plan the service.

“Hindsight is 20/20,” she said, “but we erred on the side of compassion. We knew that God was a big God and he would be able to get his message across.”

Ms. Budge said she doesn’t blame the decision on the federal government but also said “they gave the leadership on everything.”

Both Prime Minister Jean Chretien and Nova Scotia Premier Russell MacLellan – an Anglican – attended the service.

As far as Mr. Walsh is concerned, the presence of high-ranking officials put a political spin on the event.

“It was a nice service,” he said, “but in my opinion, once the Prime Minister showed up, it turned into a photo opportunity.”

Mr. Walsh said there were many secret service men in dark glasses, dressed in black. He said police dogs even sniffed all the chairs put out for the hundreds of mourners.

Other Anglican priests in Nova Scotia have been informing their parishioners about the controversy and getting a strong response.

Rev. John Newton at St. Paul’s Church in downtown Halifax spoke of the issue during a recent Sunday sermon.

“When I mentioned this to my parishioners, they were outraged. I don’t often see that after a sermon.”

Mr. Newton said he also felt “annoyed” when he heard about the controversy and thinks it represents “the increasing secularism” in our society.

“It would be interesting to investigate this and compare it to APEC. It’s a freedom of expression issue,” he said.

The Archbishop of Nova Scotia, Arthur Peters, said he thinks it’s possible for many different faiths to pray together without putting restrictions on each other, as long as they all show respect.

However, he said, “to say to one faith group you can’t mention your God and not to say the same to all others is a dishonouring of the idea of a multi-faith event.”

The bishop said perhaps things would have been different if there hadn’t been influence coming from political sectors.

“To my mind the representatives of the different faith groups should have gotten together and planned it without interference from the outside,” said Archbishop Peters.



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