Will the church be proud of its conduct in latest crisis?

Published February 1, 2008

Grace. Patience. Charity. Generosity.

Leaders, clergy and lay members of the Anglican Church of Canada will need all of these virtues in the coming months. The commentary on p. 5 and more than half of the letters to the editor in recent months (and a similar fraction that is printed on these pages this month) refer to the schism – real or perceived – in the Anglican church at home and abroad.

While the issue is invisible to many congregations, many of whom are struggling with declining memberships or are simply carrying on with the work they are called to do, the divide is very real for some in the church.

So, for those for whom this is an issue, the challenge now is in acknowledging that divide, yet striving to seek common ground wherever possible. How we treat each other and how we cope with our differences is supposed to distinguish Christians from non-believers. We can and must be an example for all of God’s people. We are often reminded in sermons that observers of the early Christian church marvelled: “How these Christians love one another!”

Could observers say the same about the church today?

Anglicans, in particular, pride themselves on the notion of the via media – the middle way (the Latin term via media comes from the 16th-century theologian Richard Hooker, who posited Anglicanism as a “middle way” between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism). That tradition of the middle way, often interpreted as a compromise, could serve as a road map for the church.

How the Anglican church conducts itself during this time – a time of crisis for many – will speak volumes about how it puts its faith into action.

Canadian Anglicans do have a recent example of the church doing just that, one of which it can be proud: its acknowledgment of the wrongs it committed in operating the residential schools. One of four denominations that ran the schools on behalf of the federal government, the Anglican church has strived to repair the damage done by what it saw as well-intentioned work.

An official of the upcoming Truth and Reconciliation Commission on residential schools noted last month that the eyes of many groups overseas are on Canada because it is the first truth commission set up by a member of the G-8 or group of developed countries, and is the first to address indigenous and human rights issues involving children who are now adults. In his address to Anglicans who are involved in the work of the residential schools settlement, Bob Watts, interim executive director of the commission, said churches need to “be on the record” about their role in operating the residential schools and, importantly, what they have done since to facilitate healing and reconciliation with aboriginal people who were affected by that legacy.

Despite its acknowledged failings in operating the residential schools from the 1800s into the 1970s (and these will be enumerated during the commission), the Anglican Church of Canada can be proud of its record on the schools issue since the 1990s. The Anglican church was one of the first to apologize for its role in the schools. (Archbishop Michael Peers delivered the apology to a national native convocation in 1993; his apology was accepted at the same gathering. Two diocesan bishops had already apologized at previous gatherings.) Since Archbishop Peers’ apology, the church has backed up that apology with a $15.7-million settlement agreement that compensates former students, a healing fund that has disbursed more than $3 million to various healing initiatives, archival research that helps validate student enrolment, plus other staffing and resources. The appointment of a national indigenous bishop last year also demonstrated the willingness of a church to forge a new relationship with native people. And the work continues.

There will be times during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that Anglicans will feel shame; they will hear difficult stories about incidents at the schools that still reverberate today, generations later. Former staff, most of whom served the schools with the best of intentions, may feel hurt to be painted with the same brush as those who abused children.

But there will be a time during the commission in which the church can lay out the record of its work since the apology and can hold its collective head high.

Ten years from now, when perhaps some of the dust has settled from the rupture over issues of sexuality, will those of us in the church be proud of how we conducted ourselves?

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In January, the Anglican Journal listed six New Year’s resolutions for the Anglican Church of Canada; we asked readers to tell us what they thought. In 150 words or less, what is your New Year’s resolution as a Canadian Anglican? Please send to [email protected] or Anglican Journal, 80 Hayden St., Toronto, Ont., M4Y 3G2.


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