In late October 2021, in our very own Christ’s Church Cathedral in Hamilton, I was ordained a priest. I’d been made a deacon two years earlier, and that followed three years of academic theological studies at Trinity College, University of Toronto, accompanied by several placements in churches and a gritty but glorious curve of learning like no other in hospitals, street support, food banks, and generally with those too often forgotten if not completely ignored. I’m sometimes asked why I gave up various lucrative positions in media in my mid-50s to return to university and seek ordination. The answer, I suppose, is that I’d either lost my senses and had some sort of mid-life crisis, or that I believed the Christian story to be true. I may well have lost my senses—many would argue so—but I also believed it all to be true.
Apparently I’m what is known as bi-vocational, which has always sounded to me much more sexy than it actually is! I’m a priest, but I still write columns, publish books, sometimes appear on radio and TV. Because of my media work I’m allowed an entry into public life that very few other clerics are permitted, and that matters a great deal to me. Because the church, the faith, the image of Christianity, has seldom been as grim as it is now. I wish I could say otherwise but that would be a pointless and damaging illusion.
Anti-vaccination zealots holding crosses as they scream ignorance and conspiracy theories, supporters of Donald Trump justifying their extremism with scripture, anti-choice obsessives praying ostentatiously. The list goes on. Of course, this is only a right-wing fringe of the international church, but the loudest noise is often in the shallowest end of the swimming pool, and my goodness these guys really know how to splash.
So, when I promised on that special day to “love and serve the people among who you work, caring alike for young and old, strong and weak, rich and poor” and to “declare God’s forgiveness” I was taking on quite a bit.
Every week on social media I’m accused of being a child abuser or screamed at for worshipping a “sky fairy.” It’s standard stuff from angry God-haters but has as little connection with thoughtful atheism as Jesus does with Trump-adoring fundamentalism. Stephen Fry, one of the most brilliant atheists in the world, wrote to me before my priesting with the most beautiful words of encouragement. Our humanity should define rather than divide us, and if we can’t disagree within a community of organized goodness, we have no hope.
I fully understand apathy and often anger towards churches. I myself have written numerous times about the failings of Christian institutions, and while Anglicans may not be the greatest sinners, we all have bloody stains on our hands. My father’s family were east-European Jews, and they saw precious little compassion from a body ostensibly based around a Jewish messiah who preached peace, equality, and justice.
But that makes what I do, what we do, more significant than ever. Christianity and churches matter. Some people might doubt that but if they could shadow me on an average week they’d understand. The state, and God bless public medicine and social support, simply can’t cope with every demand. A lot of what I do is helping people with rent, food, and health challenges, and they come to us because they know they’ll be received. Interesting how people who are struggling often have much more affection for the church and Christianity than do those who are comfortable.
But at the philosophical foundation of this is my faith in a man who 2000 years ago in a largely unnoticed part of the world occupied by an imperial power sang an exquisite but challenging melody of love, change, hope, and grace. I’m not a fool, I’m not unworldly, and I’ve kicked away at faith for years. The fighting stopped, the resistance ended, I gave in. I think I’m a different person from who I was eight years ago, and I suspect the growth will continue. Jesus called for the revolution of the self as well as of the world. Is that political? If it is, so be it. I’m his for life, and the day I stop trying to make the world a better place is the day I’ve failed him.