Full text of Archbishop Michael Peers’ New Year’s Day sermon at Ottawa’s Christ Church Cathedral
Note: The following is a lengthy excerpt of the Primate’s sermon at Christ Church Cathedral, Ottawa on Jan. 1, 2002. Because the original presentation was spoken, the text has been edited for clarity of reading, but not for content. Thanks to Brian Sarjeant, editor of Ottawa’s diocesan newspaper, Crosstalk, who provided a written transcript from which this version has been created.
New Year’s Day sermon by the Primate at Christ Church Cathedral, Ottawa
It was a few weeks ago that the Bishop reminded me that at this event a year ago – as we were standing on the threshold of not only a new year but a new century and indeed a new millennium – I made some reference to what I thought the future (at least for a part or the whole of the next century) held for us as Christian believers. What I quoted as the thing I believed to be among the necessary tasks of the century was that just as the 20th century had been the century of great movements of Christian unity and of relationships among Christians of different traditions and different Christian churches themselves, so I believe this century would bring with it the same pressures of the spirit to take that same impetus into the whole world of dialogues between people of different faiths.
Three different ways of thinking about what a new year or period of time holds for us: One way was the relatively modern way of saying the future will be like now only more so. It will be the directions that are being pursued and their continuation. This method is typical of recent centuries after the scientific revolution, the industrial revolution, the philosophical revolution of the enlightenment a couple of hundred years ago and especially the economic revolution of the 19th and 20th centuries with their view of progress, of growth, of expansion and of prosperity and its continuity. This is the classic modern way of looking at the future.
Ancient traditions had another way. Their view of history was that things came in cycles, sometimes in waves, sometimes in swings of a pendulum. Everything would have its time and run its course. Philosophies and empires would rise and fall, sometimes rise again.
The third way of looking at the future looks for – sometimes expects and sometimes hopes for – something random that happens, a random event by which the time past, the time present and the time ahead are dramatically changed. Well, we have been through such a year. So that the whole business of prophesying – not what the Bible calls prophecy, which is a declaration of where God is – but the business of trying to guess where we’re going to be, that business since last year is now all over the map.
Some people see in the recent random event, some times referred to as 9/11, the end of things as we have known them. And certainly there are people who were involved in that event who want it that way. People say things will be changed forever, so that this random event has a kind of eternal dimension and shakes everything. That gets a response from the modern world, which says that we will not be deterred, we will not change, we will continue, we will survive, we will triumph and the values we hold will prevail.
Then the people rooted in the more ancient traditions, saying that if things are rising and falling, if cycles are beginning and ending, what is it that will prevail? What do we want to see prevail? What do we really stand for anyway? This is a kind of combination view that acknowledges the profound change and also asserts a kind of ultimate continuity.
There has been an awful lot of reflecting on all of this at the end of last year. I believe that for us as a tradition of faith and as a religious community among religious communities in every part of the world, we are being confronted with some very urgent tasks.
Clearly in the events of September, there is a religious dynamic. And it is not difficult for people who look for the quick answer, the simple response, the handing out of black hats to bad guys and white hats to good guys, it is not difficult to discern, and many people will have a run at it.
Fundamentalists in the Islamic tradition have taken some very clear and very dangerous attitudes to what happened in that event.
Some fundamentalist Christians have done the same thing. Some initial interpretations of why this happened emphasized God’s punishment on us as Christians for things like feminism, and other things that they don’t particularly like. The fundamentalist answer is always quick, always clear. But I think there are far more profound questions that need to be faced, and not just as the Western world. We need to face some of them right here in Canada: the relationship of faiths to the values of society in which we live.
One of the ways that these values get declared is in how things are celebrated or mourned publicly. How does a whole country respond in some ceremonial way, some way that draws everybody together for reflection?
I want to just list three examples from three different countries.
One was in the United Kingdom, and in particular in England. England is a country which is nominally Christian, though the percentage of Christians who practice their faith is far lower than it is here, for example. And the ceremony was in a building of the Church of England as the established church but with wide representation from religious faiths, both other Christian traditions and other faith traditions that are represented within the United Kingdom. So there was an acknowledgment of the kind of constitutional reality of “establishment” but the de facto reality of what the country actually is in its makeup, in its present face.
The United States, a country with a constitutional separation of church, (especially with any one particular church), church and state chose in a couple of instances – once in a church in Washington, once in a great outdoor ceremony in New York, the other city profoundly affected – to draw together the faith traditions of the communities. It was a multi-faith event, in spite of separation of state from any organized view of religion or any connection with one particular faith.
Some of you may have participated in the event that took place in this city which the government designed in order to help us memorialize the event, and it was – because we are Canadians – different from either of the other two. That difference has created a considerable debate. Out of it have come, and I hope will come more, questions that challenge, and reflections. I say some of this in this place, in this cathedral, because this is not only the cathedral of the Diocese of Ottawa. It is also the cathedral of the Bishop Ordinary to the Canadian Forces. And the Interfaith advisory committee to the chaplaincy of the Canadian Forces took issue with the government about the ceremony. And the reason they took issue with it was that rather than try to include as many religious traditions as possible, the simplest way out was to avoid any not only representation but any religious reflection.
And out of some of that debate, thinkers and leaders have been brought, I hope, to define more sharply what are the purposes of life in our society. What is it that we really stand for?
Way back, 226 years ago, the framers of the constitution of the United States set out in classic three-word, or three phrase pattern, the goals of society: life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness. Our recent constitutional exercises didn’t try for that kind of language, although for many years people have often said the Canadian equivalent to that is peace, order and good government. That phrase is often quoted about our particular approach to this.
Recently a couple of distinguished political theorists proposed a new threefold basis for our future life as a country: pluralism, secularism and democracy. All those words need considerable expansion and thought and that is up to the authors of this phrasing.
I want to suggest that within that phrase is a powerful and potentially very serious conflict, if not in the words then inherent in the thought behind them.
What does secularism mean? It means or has meant for at least 150 years there is no established religion with which the state constitutionally or automatically connects. But secularism in other parts of the world has been much more thoroughgoing than that. Under the banner of secularism, 100 years ago for example, or almost 100 years ago, France and Belgium exiled all the religious communities of the Roman Catholic Church.
And this country among others became the beneficiary of that action because we received some great teaching orders whose ministry has enriched the life of Canada in the last century. But the rubric under which that was carried out was a far reaching definition of secularism.
Whereas pluralism in the Canadian context has something to do with a phrase we are more familiar with: multiculturalism. Multiculturalism has a whole series of different faces. But one of my contentions about it is that when we talk about many cultures, culture has to be more than just folklore. A culture is far more than simply folklore and that is especially true for people of faith. Imagine suggesting to a Sikh or a Muslim that in this country their culture is respected but that the society has no place for their faith.
Faith and culture are so completely interconnected and it is there that I believe that potential conflict between what we have meant in this country by pluralism and what is meant by secularism, that that is where one of the clashes comes.
One area where multiculturalism has to be taken far more seriously, and a multi-faith society has to be taken more seriously, is in the whole area of the values that the society wants to cherish and to promote. Because religious faith addresses not simply doctrine or tenets of belief, but more profoundly addresses the first and basic religious question, “Who am I?” The question is crucial not just in our lives as individuals but in our society. In our tradition the Jewish scripture, which we inherit, begins in its first pages with a story of Creation. And that story arises out of the universal human struggle to explain why I (and why we) can be both on the one hand virtuous, wise, thoughtful, kind and devoted to the service of the world around us, and on the other hand brutal, mean, hateful and destructive. Who am I that all these things seem to be manifest in my life and the life of everyone else?
The Bible begins with that story. It certainly doesn’t end there, and right through to the writings of St. Paul this whole subject arises, works its way through the Psalms, through the Book of Job, through the life and death and resurrection of Jesus. In that story we affirm that we are creatures of God, made in the image of God and that God’s fundamental attitude to us is that we are like all the creation: we are created good. But we have made choices, and we continue to make choices, that deny our basic character as a creature of God. And in which we try to usurp the role of God in our selfishness, in the desire to dominate and even to oppress our neighbours.
And this fundamental story of our faith has shaped the way we have lived our life as the members of the body of Christ, the church of God, and also as citizens. Other faiths have other stories and sometimes those stories are consistent with the story that we know.
Sometimes they are not. But both the points of union as well as the points of divergence are illuminating and are crucial to understand.
I think there is also at work a third, very naive view of how our society ought to live. Secularism according to some contributors to this debate will bring unity and strength to our country by removing from its life, at least its visible and audible life, the potential divisiveness of religion. This kind of thing, I think, would prove to be not only a suppression of the pluralist reality but also a folly of the worst sort for society. If we think that we can achieve unity by suppression of knowledge of and respect for religious diversity then we will never understand our world. To take two obvious examples from the front pages of our newspapers for some time back, and for some time in the future, we will never understand India and Pakistan, or even more seriously, Israel and Palestine.
One of the great and secular societies of the last century, the most radically secular society, was the Soviet Union. Its secularism simply denied reality, denied existence to anything except the material, the visible and the tangible; the only real values were economic. The words for spirit, soul disappeared from public discourse in that time. And eventually that kind of suppression implodes in on itself, because it is based on a denial of things that run far, far deeper than material life.
I hope it is clear that I am not arguing for what is called political theocracy – literally where God runs things or where God’s representatives run things. The present examples we see around the world of theocracy should be enough to discourage that. Even if we look back through our own history, our own attempts as a Church, sometimes in the Anglican tradition or in other churches, the attempt to establish that kind of society has been a failure, and very often a bloody failure. I am not even arguing for the kind of relationship between church and state that our Church of England forebears tried to establish, often by using the power of the state to enforce religious conformity on a diverse population.
What I do want to argue for is the right of people of faith to bring our faith to our citizenship, sometimes in support of what we see happening in the life of our country, sometimes in what is called critical solidarity, but always in an effort to incarnate the faith of Christ, not just the teaching of Christ, but the consequences for history and for the world of the teaching and the death and the resurrection of Jesus Christ. And I believe that when we do that, we build for ourselves not a community that is isolated and hostile to everything in the world around us and its structures, but which proposes to be, in one of Jesus’ great phrases, the yeast in the dough.
It was fascinating that earlier last year in a survey taken about involvement in the community, both financially and in terms of time and commitment in the whole tradition of volunteerism in our country, that there is a very close correlation between participation in communities of faith and participation in community as a whole. That came to many people as a surprise. It wouldn’t come as a surprise to most of us. It certainly was a surprise in the media.
Religion and diversity of religion, it cannot be denied, hold in themselves a lot of potential divisiveness and tension. But pretending they are not there, ignoring it all, thinking that if we will rise above it we will spare ourselves what someone once called endless vistas of bother, simply will not work.
Most of the great divisions that have plagued Christianity and have pitched Christians against each other throughout history are the result of what one religious thinker called the revenge of suppressed truth. Truth suppressed always takes its revenge.
So though this arises out of the controversy around a public ceremony, it’s not the first time this has happened. It was a couple of years ago, in a public service, that the government required of a Christian, who was going to be leading prayers at that service, that the name of Jesus not be mentioned. It is probably a fit subject to raise on a festival called The Naming of Jesus.
The naming of Jesus has become problematic in our society. I will submit that it is by inclusion of as many of the traditions of faith as are willing and able to be included, rather than by suppression of all mention of the subject, that we build stronger foundations for our society.
And I believe that we Christians can claim on the basis certainly of our recent history, in recent centuries, that we are a community prepared to take our place and make our contribution within the greater community, with our faith as a pillar as we build. So that I hope this debate will continue and that we will be emboldened to take our place within it. It matters to me, at least, because the country matters. But as one of the hymns reminds us, kingdoms rise and wane.
Because our Lord Jesus himself has his name, because of who he was and the fact that he came into our world with all its tensions and all its problems, because we are followers of that Jesus, it is crucial for us as disciples to engage within our society in the kind of sharing which I pray will illuminate and not inflame.
So that out of what has been this fearful random event of the year past may come, not quickly probably, but in the long term, in God’s time, and maybe even in our time, a more profound connection between faith and society, things that Jesus worked for and we pray for.
In the name of God, amen.
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