Our stories must be told more aggressively

Published October 1, 2002

The Environics survey of how Anglicans feel about several major issues (which is reported elsewhere in this edition) is described in its subtitle as “A snapshot of Anglican issues and visions in Canada.” It’s a faulty analogy. What the survey reveals has none of the focus and cohesion of a “snapshot” and all of the helter-skelter confusion of a kaleidoscope. This, of itself, is not a bad thing. Anglicans embrace diversity – diversity in expressions of the faith in Canada, diversity of the nation itself, diversity in the worldwide communion. The common wisdom quite rightly holds that diversity in the expression of core values or a core set of beliefs, while it is not the easiest way to give life to those values and beliefs, is the truest and strongest way. One may disagree wholeheartedly with what a focus group in Red Deer had to say about homosexuality, or one may be appalled at what a similar group in Toronto had to say about it; regardless, it is still possible to revel in being part of a faith community in which extremities not only have a voice, but are encouraged to co-exist and are counted as a strength. That we are more kaleidoscope than snapshot may lead to sleepless nights but it is still one of our virtues.A kaleidoscope is a lively, mobile jumble of colors, some of which are bright and attractive, and other which are dark and forbidding. So it is with the Anglican kaleidoscope. Among the bright spots is a tone which seems common to all 11 focus groups participating in the study, to the effect that Anglicans value highly their communities of faith. This is good, since if it were otherwise, none of the other parts of the kaleidoscope would have much meaning. Anglicans are enthusiastic about their church. Focus group participants, the study notes, “came with spirited energy, eager to help build a strong church that will serve spiritual needs today and into the future.” This expression of, as the Environics writer puts it, “joy, enthusiasm, hope and vision” will eventually wend its way to General Synod and synod members in 2004 can rightly take pride in being part of a community that engenders such feelings. But then there are those darker shards of glass, which may be relatively few in number, but that will present General Synod with a problem of such alarming proportion as to be potentially fatal to the church as a national institution if it is not addressed effectively. Simply put, the Environics study depicts General Synod – the national embodiment of the church – as having utterly failed to tell its story, to such an extent that it appears its dissolution and death would cause scarcely a whimper among the church population at large. People value their church tremendously, but do so, according to this document, at the local level. General Synod is understood, if at all, as a far away thing that takes forever to make up its mind about issues and that seldom rears its head locally, and then only to ask for money. Nowhere is this failure of General Synod to tell its story more graphically illustrated than in what focus group members had to say about native residential schools. Focus group members cared tremendously about the residential schools issue, but what evoked this emotion was the potential financial impact of the hundreds of lawsuits now before the courts, again at the local level. They cared considerably less, if at all, about the historical and lasting impact of the church-run schools on Canada’s native population, both on those who attended the ill-fated schools and on their descendants who still suffer. Healing and reconciliation were seen as theoretically valuable, but irrelevant at this time, and in any event considered impossible until after the church and native people have emerged from the legal morass they are now in. The thunderclap for General Synod in this finding should be that these positions are the exact opposite of those it has been presenting for several years now both to church members and to government. General Synod, in short, has been saying all along that the top priority in this saga is precisely healing and reconciliation and that the cost of it is secondary to the church doing the right thing. General Synod, in other words, has either failed to get itself heard or failed to persuade rank-and-file church members of the legitimacy of its positions on residential schools. Communication by an organization can take one of two forms. There is a soft, benign approach that lets the merit of the organization’s persona and the value of its ideals speak for themselves. And there is a more aggressive form of story-telling that attempts to cajole and persuade, to teach and promote. For a church, the former is akin to a soft type of by-example evangelism, and the later is akin to what in the secular world is public and media relations. For at least a generation, the church has been using the first approach and the Environics study proves conclusively that it has met with resounding failure. The time has come to try the second approach and see where it leads us. It is not in a church?s nature to work this way, but General Synod has no other option. General Synod in 2004 will consider the Environics study as well as other surveys that remain to be done that will attempt to quantify the opinions expressed in the first, and out of that process will emerge a strategic plan to follow on the Preparing The Way plan approved in 1995. General Synod owes it to the church, as a matter of top priority, to reconsider how it tells its story, and in light of this study, to find a better way to do it. This may ultimately be one of the most important tasks members will have before them.


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