It was The Holy Book to him

Published January 1, 2010

The Canada Health Act is how God is experienced by a senior government administrator.

Around the table sat senior administrators and civil servants from several levels of government. The conversation was about the intricacies of budget cycles, lead times to the next cabinet decision, governance structures and policy development directives. Bureaucrats suggested ingenious ways in which conflicting policies could be co-ordinated so the dollars got to those in need, and organizational silos were identified so that lateral communication initiatives could help get the work done.

I felt totally out of place.

My governance experience consists of sorting out who is going to run the linen table at the annual rummage sale. As the conversation around me continued, meeting after meeting, I began to wonder why on earth I was there. I had nothing to contribute.

Except, of course, the faith.

But it wasn’t at all clear to me how Jesus, Christianity, faith in God, or even the most recent research on St. Paul could enlighten the discussion in which I found myself. Everyone knew I’d been asked to sit on this task force to represent the area churches, but I was sure my colleagues leading other churches would be as stymied as I about what to contribute to the conversation.

The pressure was mounting. If I said nothing, I’d become window dressing and prove to everyone present that faith is irrelevant in the modern world. I just couldn’t let the faith down.

So when the moment came, I took advantage of it. It was toward the end of a two-hour meeting on policy and structure co-ordination and the chair asked if there was any more business. From the far end of the table I waved my hand. I launched in.

Amazing things had happened in the past few months, I told the bureaucrats, as we enabled governments to serve people more adequately and address serious injustices. People were taking risky decisions to recommend new priorities to their senior officers. And from my perspective I could identify a deep goodness welling up through our technical discussions. “Not,” I was quick to add, “that it’s necessary to believe in God as an external being watching us-there are a variety of ways of thinking about this-for some people it’s more like deep goodness, or deep reality. But however we imagine it, it’s certainly been present and working through us as we re-design systems to serve those in need. What’s happened is quite wonderful. And I just wanted to say so.”

Dead silence.

I’ll probably get a call from someone who’ll suggest I might be happier serving on the committee choosing new playground equipment, I thought.

A swarthy-looking man across the large board-room table spoke. “I just became a Canadian citizen.” A round of affirmation from the rest of the table. We didn’t know he hadn’t been a Canadian. What a gentle way of breaking the awkward silence and the embarrassment that had engulfed me. Being a Muslim, he would, of course, be sensitive to what it’s like to be a religious minority. I thanked him silently. Muslims can be so gracious, I thought.

“I took my holy book to the citizenship ceremony.” Great to be in such an accepting country as Canada, he can take the Qur’an to swear on when he becomes a Canadian. God really is inclusive.

“I stood before the judge, and she said, ‘What’s that?’ I held it out for her to see. ‘Looks like an Act,’ she said. ‘What Act?'”

“It’s the Canada Health Act. It’s my holy book.”

Again, silence around the committee table.

“That is my holy book. It says there is no distinction between rich and poor. Everyone deserves to be well. That’s holy to me.”

Which, of course, was the entire point of what we had been doing around that table for the past few months.

He didn’t say anything else.

I turned out to be completely mistaken about everything. He isn’t a Muslim.  I thought people around the table had no idea what I was talking about. I thought these skilled and committed bureaucrats had no vision of the holiness behind what we were doing. I thought I was the only one who had any sense of how holiness can be incarnated. Showed how little I knew.

The Canada Health Act is how God is experienced by a senior government administrator.

I didn’t get asked to choose the playground equipment, fun though that would have been. But they asked me to continue to listen in on the complexities of government administration. And I haven’t tried to repeat my tiny profundity. But there’s no need. The passion of these secular government administrators, which was there long before I was, continues to speak God’s language.

What else should we expect as the church finds its role in a secular age? Perhaps one of our roles is to name that God is already there. Even, and perhaps especially, in a government regulation.

Canon Harold Munn
is rector of The Church of St. John the Divine in Victoria, B.C.

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