The public square and the kingdom of God

Catholic theologian William T. Cavanaugh speaks to Bishop Stephen Andrews and the Rev. Laurette Glasgow at the synod of the ecclesiastical province of Ontario. Photo: André Forget
Catholic theologian William T. Cavanaugh speaks to Bishop Stephen Andrews and the Rev. Laurette Glasgow at the synod of the ecclesiastical province of Ontario. Photo: André Forget
Published October 16, 2015

When the synod of the ecclesiastical province of Ontario met in Toronto from October 13-16, its theme was “Reimagining the Church in the Public Square.” Convened at St. Paul’s Bloor Street, an elegant, old stone edifice built in the 1840s and now dwarfed by office towers housing the headquarters of life insurance and telecommunications companies, the location could not have provided a more fitting illustration of how the Anglican church’s role in Canadian public life has changed.

When St. Paul’s was being built, the Anglican church wielded an impressive amount of political clout in what was then Upper Canada. Its bishops were influential cabinet ministers, and it had the ear of the most powerful actors in Canadian politics.

The picture today is somewhat different. While the synod included speeches by Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne and former Conservative Senator Hugh Segal, the Anglican church is no longer the political force it once was: with barely half a million members on parish rolls, Anglicans make up a tiny fraction of the Canadian electorate.

To address the question of how the church can play a faithful role in the public square in the face of reduced circumstances, the synod invited William T. Cavanaugh, a prominent American Catholic theologian currently teaching at DePaul University in Chicago, to speak on how the church can think about and respond to its secular context.

Cavanaugh began by stating unabashedly that the church should not seek to go back to a time when it wielded institutionalized political influence and power.

“The church can no longer impose its discipline on society, thanks be to God,” he said. “The law and state [have] liberated the church from the means of coercion and [have] imposed a kind of formal equality of individuals…it has institutionalized imperfectly the care for others, and these I think we can celebrate as goods, and in some ways it is the outworking of the gospel.”

However, he said, this does not mean the church should retire quietly to the private sphere, or reduce its activity to lobbying the government to do more of this or less of that.

Over the wide-ranging course of his 45-minute lecture, Cavanaugh explained how reforms within Christian theology gave rise to secularization, and charted the ways in which the modern liberal state has taken over many of the functions, such as welfare, education and health care, that the church once oversaw.

Arguing that government aid, while helpful, “immunizes the wealthier classes from the messy and potentially life-altering encounter with actual people who suffer,” he suggested that the church is uniquely positioned to minister to individuals in a way that removes barriers and actually embodies Christ’s radical but very human compassion.

“Government programs are a lesser good than direct personal care of people for one another,” he said. “Addressing our social problems begins with getting our story right: our ultimate goal is not to be independent of one another, but neither is it for an impersonal bureaucracy to take care of those people for us. Our goal is to be members of one another, to suffer and rejoice together. Government aid is a safety net-it is not the kingdom of God.”

Following the lecture, a panel discussion moderated by the Rev. Kevin Flynn, director of the Anglican Studies program at St. Paul University, and featuring the Rev. Laurette Glasgow, the Canadian church’s special advisor for government relations, National Indigenous Anglican Bishop Mark MacDonald and Bishop Stephen Andrews of the diocese of Algoma, delved deeper into some of the points Cavanaugh raised.

Of particular interest to the panel, and to many who asked questions from the floor, was the issue of how involved the church should be in trying to direct public policy.

“The church’s role in the public spaces…is also to be in the halls of power,” said Glasgow. “But it can be in a new way, and I think that’s where we have to reimagine ourselves…my sense is that there are times where, in the advocacy language, you have to say, ‘this is wrong,’ and the church can speak to that from a moral position.”

Cavanaugh noted that this was not a point with which he disagreed, but added that it must be supplemented with another kind of witnessing.

“Lobbying has its place-I think that can be a good thing,” he said. “But it captures the people’s imaginations when you go out into the streets and get messy and do things that other people are not doing, and in ways they are not doing it.”


  • André Forget

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

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