The Interview: “Ecumenism is hard work”

The Very Rev. Hon. Lois Wilson welcomes friends and well-wishers at the launch of her new book, held at Toronto's Emmanuel College. Photo: Saskia Rowley.
Published December 3, 2014

A condensed version of this interview was printed in the December Issue of the Anglican Journal.

The Very Rev. Hon. Lois Wilson is an outspoken anti-poverty activist, a critic of political oppression and an advocate for the environment; she is also a woman who has spent her career building bridges in Canada and abroad between people of various faiths and none who want to see the advent of a more just world.

Wilson has had a long and august life in ministry. Ordained to the United Church in 1965 after 15 years as a homemaker, she went on to become the first female president of the Canadian Council of Churches (1976), the first female moderator of the United Church of Canada (1980), was elected as one of the presidents of the World Council of Churches in 1983 and chosen as a senator by Jean Chrétien in 1998. She also served as Chancellor of Lakehead University from 1990-2000.

After retiring from the senate in 2002, Wilson has continued to pursue ecumenical work, and earlier this year published a new book, I Want to Be in That Number: Cool Saints I Have Known. [For more information about the book, contact [email protected]]

Where did the idea for your recent book come from?

The idea came when my daughter and I were up on Lake Superior on holiday. I went over to her and said “I think I want to write something about the mythology of old age.” And she said “No, no, you should write about something you know about. You know the biblical texts, why don’t you open that up for people?” So I went home and opened my bible and discovered that when a friend had died, for years now I have entered their name and the date of their death opposite the scripture that was used at their funeral. I had no idea why I was doing this, but I had over forty-five entries in my Bible, all the way form Genesis to Revelation. So it occurred to me that that was their legacy – either they chose the passage or their family did because it was appropriate for them and their faith and what their life was about.

I discovered later that I was really starting to write about the communion of Saints that Dietrich Bonhoeffer described, saints being in my understanding faithful people in the scriptures. My criteria was I had to have known them well.

So, in some ways this is tied to your own experience of aging, as these are all people who have passed…

Yes, and what is their legacy.

Why is legacy important to you?

When I was in New York – again with my daughter – we visited Riverside Church. They had the usual vestibule parade of pictures of ministers who had previously served there, but instead of just putting their picture and name up they had put a sentence that focused on what their main contribution had been to that congregation. And I decided that if I could focus on what this person’s main contribution has been to us then that is what I would do. And I didn’t leave it there; I also ended up including what I thought the scripture might mean for those of us who are trying to create a better world.

You’ve spoken elsewhere about the importance of the mission of the church rather than its survival. What does mission mean and what is its value?

Well, unless the church is in mission it doesn’t exist; and by “mission” I understand in some way (by word and by deed, or however) to be proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ. Unless it’s doing that, it might as well not exist. And that’s usually for people both inside the church boundaries, but also outside. It’s about engaging people in their own spiritual quest and saying what you stand for, and in whom you believe – not insisting that others copy you, but making it clear that this is who you are and that you would be glad to engage them in conversation.

You’ve been in ministry for many years. How has change in the world led to change in mission?

I think we’ve become aware of the world church in a way that I wasn’t aware of when I was younger. It came alive for me through the World Council of Churches. The meetings are absolutely stimulating because you meet these people, and suddenly you realize that your local congregation is not only part of the larger ecumenical community in Canada, but you’re part of the whole world community as well. And that led me to another understanding of the word “ecumenical,” which comes from the Greek word oikoumene, from a psalm that says “the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the oikoumene and all that dwell therein.” It’s a very broad term, and Christians have very much narrowed it to “some of my best friends are Anglicans.” But it’s got three meanings: one is inter-church, one is inter-faith (which is really important in Canada), but the root meaning of it is the whole inhabited world. So the gospel is for everyone. That greatly enlarged my understanding of what mission and ecumenism is about.

Your work has always been connected with more than just the United Church…

Absolutely. And more than just the church. It’s been what’s happening in the community. The Bible says “God so loved the world” not “God so loved the church.”

There’s a lot of talk right now about ecumenical winter, and this sense that the fervour of earlier decades is dying down. What is your opinion of the ecumenical moment we are living now?

It’s certainly diminished. In numbers of people committed to it, and also in terms of the budgets that churches allow it. They do not support it the way they used to. For me, my first thought in mission was always to seek out colleagues who were going to engage with me in it. So I tried to do nothing as United Church, but always in an ecumenical setting. And now that extends almost to interfaith as well, in some instances.

It’s a very strange thing, because you would think as mainline churches diminish in numbers they would seek to join others for strength, but the opposite is happening. We’re all into survival, and let’s keep our own little thing going, and I think that’s death. There’s no sense of mission there. Not understanding that if you don’t give your life away, it’ll go. You’ve lost it. To give away your life is to save it. That is one of the paradoxes of the gospel.

Why do you think there has been this withdrawal? Is that rooted in fear, or is it rooted in people feeling like they have fewer resources to use?

I’m not sure when it started. I know now it is certainly connected to the survival instinct. The last thing they are going to do is seek out their neighbours, because ecumenism is not a cup of tea – I mean, it’s hard work. And who wants that when your roof is collapsing or you can’t repair the furnace. But I think it started earlier and I’m not sure why. I just don’t know. It’s a great mystery to me.

One of the marvellous things we had going in Canada were those inter-church coalitions, that dealt with Latin America and all sorts of issues. That’s all gone -well not quite, it’s been picked up by Kairos, but because of lack of resources they are not able to do one quarter of what we were able to do then. And for me, I was asked to go on many of those fact-finding trips around the world, and that re-converted me. My thesis is that Christians have to be in a state of perpetual conversion, and it certainly re-converted me when I saw what was going on in Latin America. But that doesn’t happen now, and you can’t ship the whole world elsewhere to find out what is going on. So I can’t really answer that.

You’ve had a remarkable career in many ways, and you’ve had many successes, but I was wondering if you could speak a little about things that you personally have felt were perhaps failures, or not complete successes.

Well, hardly anything has been a complete success! My life is riddled with failed causes. But I think that is the measure of what you try. The measure of your commitment is the number of times you have tried and failed, not the number of successes. Even the discussion that has been going on about palliative care and end of life and so on, that’s been under discussion for years, and I was always in favour of that, but you know that’s one of the losing causes so far. The gap between the rich and the poor – we tried the Jubilee year, when we asked for forgiveness for all of the in-debt countries, and that worked for awhile but now it’s slipped off the agenda and hardly anyone talks about that anymore. The Gospel speaks of release of the prisoners – I don’t know how many church people go into prisons.

I was at the Jesuit College listening to Sister Prejean, you know, the one who accompanies men on death row, and after her speech someone at the back says “could you tell us what prisons are like on the inside, because very few of us are likely to go in them.” And she says “well, that’s too bad. Have you not read the gospels?” We have to keep doing these things…but I would say my life has been a series of causes that have not been eminently successful. The environment is another one. But that isn’t why you do it. You don’t do it for success anyway, you do it to maintain your own integrity, and for the cause. Because you think it is in keeping with the gospel as you understand it. Success isn’t a gospel category. Faithfulness is, but success isn’t.

I understand you are an avid canoer.

Yes! My first canoe trip went three months. My parents took me every summer, and when I was a minister at Thunder Bay in charge of youth work I decided maybe they [the youth] would like to go canoeing as well, but I said “well, you’ll have to do an hour of Bible study every day because I’m not just taking you on a little trip.” That cut out quite a few of them. And I’m still in touch with many of those girls. It changed their lives, as it changed my life. So I keep doing that, I’ve been taking canoe trips for women over 75 for awhile now. It’s a little slower but we get there.

Do you see canoeing as a kind of spiritual practice?

You know, people ask me that, but I did it as a holiday, for heaven’s sake. But I have to admit that the trees heal me. There is a certain healing quality there in the trees and the hills and the loons and the water. I think many people feel that. I certainly felt it. But I don’t do it as a spiritual exercise, I do it as a holiday. But I do get fed by it, and it gets me through the winter.


  • André Forget

    André Forget was a staff writer for the Anglican Journal from 2014 to 2017.

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