Sunday, June 6, 2021

Recovery, rebuilding, restored to life

What better thought than to begin with an allusion to Dickens. 

It was the worst of times...

Everyone is asking and wondering 'what will be' when we have come through this pandemic. Several days ago, I said to my wife of more than five decades that I felt a bit scrambled. Not that feeling scrambled is uncommon, but the extended scorching of all our bits and pieces has been particularly noticeable these past 16 months, perhaps even 17 since we knew what was coming and that we would not escape. This wasn't SARS or Ebola from which we were largely spared. And we know also that our emergence will not be without difficulty.

It is too general a question. I must narrow it to be about 'church' because that is the issue many of my correspondents have raised. What is my vision of 'church' now that I have been largely deprived of it for 16 months.

Every church service I had been to, prior to pandemic times, but particularly the Eucharist, has ended with the priestly blessing and some form of 'for ever and ever' or 'world without end' or 'from this time forth and for evermore'. Well, it works, and good for the church. So I don't need to go back then, do I? 

I do feel the blessing is for ever, in all seriousness. Without perhaps being fully conscious at any time in my life, I believe I have turned and faced my enemies, and known the love of God which is beyond all knowledge. Yet my enemies are legion. I don't know where they come from, whether nurture or nature. But they are surprisingly emergent, like The Cat who Came Back (NFB 2015).

  • I refused to sue my school for my confused personal life because to do so would have made me a prostitute. Having been abused by priest and choirmaster, it is a wonder that I am an Anglican or a musician at all.
  • I recall in the '50s seeing the images of Auschwitz on the News of the World, a summary of news that was broadcast in movie theatres. Nothing could have made prejudice against Jews and the horror of war more obvious even to a 10 year old. Plenty of such children suffer these things first hand today. Nothing could make the distinction between good and evil more obvious.
  • We decided in the '70s, considering the issues of the population explosion, to adopt two children, the first (1970), an African boy born in Ottawa, and the second (1978) a child of a Plains Cree fiddler. What naivety. We had no idea the questions that such a commitment would raise: health, skills, character, succession planning, etc. Who would at age 25? 
  • We have been formed and blessed in Anglican churches across Canada, particularly in the musical tradition. Our other two children are both professional musicians, one within the Anglican tradition, the other in a secular school.
These bullets are fully integrated. I cannot tell when one thought changes to another.
  • The residential school taught me to read the King James version of the Bible. Eventually, 2006 to date, I began to study the background to the churches by reading the Bible in its original languages with a focus on Hebrew.
  • The music at school was of greater influence than the abuse, so I kept singing anyway until cancer stopped me. That music prepared me for the hand-signals embedded in the Hebrew.
  • My study of Tanach results directly from the News of the World and the Anglican Christian traditions of school in the style of the British residential school, as well as church tradition in Anglicanism from the conservative to the liberal. Very few of my colleagues, however, were interested in the Hebrew, nor was I for a long time.
  • The presence of children of multiple races and capacities in our family has formed us as a family. We experienced directly both the negative results of British colonialism and the facts of racism in this country that, like all countries, must face its own sin and judgment. 
As it happens, both the adopted boys have suffered from significant brain damage, one from birth, through FASD, and one from a car accident in 1996. Just prior to the pandemic, 24 years after his accident, the elder had several subsequent strokes and has now been admitted into long-term care. During the pandemic, we have been able to support him with regular visits. (This simple sentence covers the majority of our focus during the past 21 months.) The younger, in the meanwhile, has a conditional release from the forensic hospital into the care of the John Howard Society through a program begun through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

The two musicians have kept up a full program in each of their areas throughout the pandemic, teaching and performing, and learning the benefits of technology suddenly imposed on their profession.

What then, given this brief summary of 75 years, could be my vision for the church in the period upon us, the global recovery from this pandemic?

A is for authority. I think I have always been, as have my children, somewhat anti-authoritarian. Not everything comes from authority. Not everything is under my control, or the church's, or the priest's, or the city's, or the country's. Therefore we should give up our tendency to "harmony, hierarchy, and knowing our place at any cost".  There is always a tension between appointment to authority and authority arising from within the body. There is an Author who gives gifts. We must bear with this on both sides. The appointees to which I have been subject over the past 75 years have been of varying managerial and theological skills. The music I have learned is not subject to hierarchy even though the higher tenors must attenuate their noises. Every note, every part, is part of the whole.

C is for community. Even while isolated, we have been kept together. We have had exposed to us our dependency on others whom we have often taken for granted. And they are often not within a particular church community or indeed even within the same religious tradition. Quite apart from the church claiming to be the one body of Christ, we, the churches, must see that all humanity is one mutually interdependent body. We must learn to pay our thanks with more than lip-service to those whom the capitalist style has relegated to essential but low-paying jobs. The church supports community and in many ways defined us within our community in the past. But it has no monopoly here. We must be much wider in our embrace of others.

G is for God. I mustn't leave God out of mix. God has allowed us to live through this pandemic or die through it. My hope for the churches is for more openness, more participation, more training in critical thinking, and more awareness of the distance between us and the origins of our faith. Also more training in music, more youth workers, and so more youth. The pandemic created an opportunity for our choral scholars and organists to work very hard to become video experts. It was one area where our local churches were prepared since they have had an established tradition of choral and organ scholarships. 

T is for tradition. But tradition critiqued and extended. It is the technology that has kept the church functioning to me. For years, I have been part of many conversations through the web about the raw data of our faith, the Biblical text and its interpretations over the centuries. During the pandemic, music has been of vital importance. I have attended Evensong several times a week from Ely, Selwyn College, St John the Divine in Victoria, and St Barnabas and many sponsored concerts from these sources and particularly from our local Christ Church Cathedral. None of this would have been possible without technology. I hope this will continue. Many more have attended these services and concerts than would have in the days before the pandemic.

So how might we expect the churches to function in the days to come?

True to the judgment of our God, we must know and face the errors of our past. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the abuse of the residential school system in Canada. But it is not only blunt sin that needs to be faced. Also our differences. Bits and pieces of our differences float in the soup of our virtual interactions. 

On the distance between us and the origins of our faith: if the apostle Paul could say, We see through a glass darkly, then how much more are we seeing through a fuzzy lense that resists polishing. The monolingual must meet with the student of tongues, the tone-deaf with the musician, the blind with the painter, and the halt and lame with the mountain climber. Biblical student must meet with the theologian, and storyteller with liturgist, and presbyter with plebeian, and performer with them all to prepare recombinant forms that present the best we have to offer to everyone who needs to fear and love with gentleness in our fraught world. This is both the work of a moment, and the work of a lifetime.

We do say the general confession as part of traditional services. Confession and absolution are fundamentally important to mental health, but they are not an escape from active response. The churches formalize liturgy through the sacrament and administer it through the priestly vocation. The problem here is that this has become a hierarchy and often authoritarian. And while responsibility for the physical plant rests legally with the corporation (rector and wardens) of a parish, the spiritual gift of blessing and absolution should not. 

Did not Jesus say: It shall not be so among you. There must be something to learn here that we have missed. Authority is easy to abuse. The only priest in the New Testament is Jesus, the high priest (hier-archos). The term, hieros, is not used for leadership roles in the churches. We all share in that one priesthood. The whole of Israel was to be a kingdom of priests (Exodus 19:6). The churches are called to be priests and kings (1 Peter 2:9, Revelation 1:6). 

It has been debated with great confusion over the past 1000 years that the accents in the Hebrew text are a hierarchy. They are not. They are a musical phrase, where even the least note is a vital part. Music can be a model for the churches. 

These are high callings. No one is to be left behind in these things. No part of the body is to be considered disposable. The community created by God is to be whole, whether it be the paradigm of Israel formed into a people through wandering in the wilderness, or everything that breathes formed into a community that practices kindness and knows mercy as described in the Psalms, or this body as a royal priesthood destined through its union with Christ to consecrate all things, visible and invisible, in a sacrifice of praise.

It is a 'far better thing' that we could do than we have done hitherto.

[For the DNA metaphor, I am grateful to a recent Oxford lecturer at Cambridge on China.]



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