The 2021 federal election marked a new low for civil discourse in postmodern times. Leaders being confronted by protesters from other parties is par for the course but hurling eggs and handfuls of gravel at them was something new.
We should not be surprised. It was the logical next step from the online anger which has seethed for many years. I know it well. One of my many tasks as a newspaper editor was to monitor online commenting and remove anything that might be considered libellous lest we be named as co-accused in civil action. After a while, we gave up and closed comments altogether.
There is nothing new about confrontation in the public sphere. It’s part of the human condition. It’s why we learned in elementary school the rules and practice of debate. How quickly we forget the opening and closing handshakes.
I appreciate banter and sometimes I get into it. I’m a political animal, and I’m also an ideologue. Where on the spectrum does not matter for the purpose of this essay. Let’s just say I am convinced that one side of the left-right continuum is mostly correct. I have voted in every election in which I’m eligible to cast a ballot. That includes student council. I have volunteered on campaigns at every level. I was president of a riding association’s youth wing back in the day.
Of course, I am also a believer. My faith is fused into my steadfast belief that Canada is a great nation, amazingly blessed by our Maker. For the most part, we are a place of peace, freedom, order and security from domestic and international threats. I believe our democratic institutions are a gift from God and need to be protected. I love to point to preamble of the 1982 Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms which states that “Canada is founded upon principles that recognize the supremacy of God and the rule of law.”
So I freely shared the posts of the political party I support. I advised the local candidate, who was glad to hear the views of a local pastor. It was humbling and encouraging.
(Of course, there is a separation. I don’t tell my congregation directly how to vote. Just vote. It doesn’t matter for whom or what. My neighbour put up a sign on his front lawn during the federal campaign which said, “just vote.” Amen. Federal voter turnout as a percentage of those eligible to cast ballots was 66 per cent in 2019. Provincially, it’s typically a lot less. Municipal turnout in most places never cracks 50 per cent.)
I often share my political views on Facebook. It’s an implicit encouragement to others to get thinking and be engaged. Another implied message is the necessity of an informed vote; making a decision based on facts, not assumptions.
Unfortunately, some responses to my political post sharing have had nothing to do with the issue at hand. Sadly, many of these commenters are fellow political animals – former colleagues and municipal politicians. “Don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story,” the old adage goes. Reality is being replaced by perceptions. When I politely suggested that they check the facts, there was no reply or they made a response that was off topic.
Perhaps that’s the underlying problem: people believe what they want to believe. They see and hear what they want to perceive. And it’s fueled by emotion, anger and frustration.
I believe strongly that the separation of passion and emotion from reason is essential in the democratic decision-making process, and it’s one reason behind our historic national peace. And yet I see cracks in that armour. I have a sense that the politics of division we saw in the United States in the lead-up to the 2016 election has now seeped into the Canadian political consciousness. Pelting pebbles at the Liberal leader and eggs at the Peoples’ Party leader at campaign stops are a new low.
We live in an angry world.
But the church is different, right?
Witness the vitriolic Facebook reply from a Presbyterian minister to another who likened the passing of the remits to apostasy: “I no longer consider you a friend in any sense of the word.” Ouch. Facebook friendship is a bit of a misnomer (a better term would be an association or perhaps acquaintance) but being “unfriended” on Facebook over theological differences seems extreme.
Apparently, some of us are incapable of associating with those whose opinions are different. Others might continue the “friendship” but are unable or unwilling to engage in respectful dialogue.
Consider the saga of the Facebook group “A gathering place for members and friends of The Presbyterian Church in Canada,” which had 2,437 members when volunteer administrators locked its doors in early April of this year. The shop still stands and all comments (unless previously removed) were in plain view as of mid September.
The group was created in 2007 by friends of the PCC as an open place of discussion. It’s not an official voice of the denomination, which maintains its own page. The fact that it lasted 14 years is a minor miracle. We have been divided theologically for decades. Liberals and progressives have been bent on moulding the PCC into a kinder and gentler church. Those in orthodoxy have been working to hold the line against any movement towards doctrine that might be more in line with secular thinking. Many progressives recoil and state that they are simply moving us to something more Christlike, suggesting that those who stand in opposition are operating out of a false dichotomy advanced by a patriarchal, sexist and homophobic church for several thousand years. It’s a back and forth, never ending no-win debate.
“Let’s ‘up’ our politeness and thoughtfulness a bit please,” one of the administrators posted in 2018. It was an oft-repeated plea.
The administrators of the page have taken a few hits in recent years for either shutting down conversations or removing certain individuals or from being overly tolerant. It was a no-win situation. It’s worth noting that the admins are of many theological mindsets and thus represented the wide diversity of thought and practice within the PCC.
The final straw for “gathering place” occurred in the wake of debate over the selection of an Anglo male as nominee for moderator of 2021 General Assembly. He was among three ministers on the ballot; the others were an aboriginal woman and a Caribbean woman. The ballot was put to a ranked vote by members of presbyteries. It was the same process used for many years. As soon as the nominee was announced, questions were raised.
Here’s an excerpt from the post which got the “gathering place” debate going: “Indigenous, Black and Asian people are disproportionally suffering in Canadian society. Systemic racism is active in our Canadian institutions. Education, Social Services, Health, Law, Politics, and Church. And, in this context we corporately choose a white male over an Indigenous woman or a Black woman to Moderate the Assembly of our Church? I weep.”
There were several thoughtful posts and replies. Much of it was mutually respectful. I point to one notable exchange between Rev. Harris Athanasiadis and Rev. George Robertson – ministers on different ends of the theological spectrum – who bantered back and forth. It was thought provoking and delightful and if you have a few hours, check it out. Sadly, their exchange produced very few “likes.” Most of the attention went to the more-entertaining and pithy comments. It didn’t take long for emotions to flare. A mere one day later, a page administrator shut down the conversation, citing the need to avoid personal comments.
But the lid on this boiling pot wasn’t going to contain the steam. Two days later, someone made a fresh attempt to rekindle the fire: “This conversation started with a very simple question – ‘what does this election say about the church?’ . . . What bothers me the most is the intentional misunderstanding of the issue at hand. Nobody has, or will ever, claim that the vote was racist by nature. Nobody believes that the voters said to themselves, ‘I’m only comfortable voting for the white one’. We are simply asking why, again, we have decided that a white man is the most qualified. Why does it ALWAYS seem as if the white male is the most qualified?”
Discourse is too polite a word to describe much of what followed. A few deliberately poked the bear. Like political barbs, a number of responders strayed from the facts and made hay from stereotypes. It got nasty. In one noteworthy exchange, a progressive and a conservative each blamed the other of being either racist or Marxist.
Two days later, commenting on that thread was closed. Shortly after, the page as a whole was closed to any new posts.
“We’ve never seen such a volume of posts and such a lack of civility on here before,” one of the volunteer administrators posted.
“A gathering place” now stands as a snapshot in time, a memorial to our fractious nature. It might be reopened. Or not.
I am a fervent defender of free speech, no matter how odious the comments. I see nothing wrong with the original questions posed. I adhere to the belief that there is no incorrect question. (Yes, they can be loaded, baited and passive aggressive, but that’s the right of the poser.)
The challenge for all of us in a supposedly free and democratic nation is to engage one another in respectful dialogue and debate.
Is an intelligent, well-moderated and mutually respectful conversation possible? I’m a perennial optimist, so my answer is “yes.” All opinions are worthy of consideration. Yes, even the most outlandish. Even those which are clearly being advanced by the enemy.
“Worthy of consideration” does not mean we agree in whole or part. “Consideration” means that we recognize that the suggestion, proposition or question is the result of a thinking and feeling person who was created in the image of God.
Dwell on that.
“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” is the universal credo in defence of free speech.
Free speech is a rare gift. Only in very recent human history – measured by a few hundred years – has it had any measure of practice in our nations and cultures. This is why scripture doesn’t contain much direct encouragement for those who advance freedoms of speech. These are human rights, after all. The true freedom advanced in scripture is of a spiritual nature.
The closest encouragement, in my mind, are the words of our Lord as he proclaimed the Kingdom: “I tell you the truth.”
The truth will set us free once we know it and embrace it, the Lord stated in John 8:32. But he also shrugged off state control: give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar. What’s more important is to be free from the wiles of the devil.
Scripture is clear, however, on the dangers of unbridled discussion.
“Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark.” James 3:5
We have been warned in no uncertain terms how our words and speech are powerful and dangerous.
Do we have ears to hear?
We find ourselves in uncharted territory.
Theological divide has resulted in an official change in doctrine after remits ‘B’ and ‘C’ were adopted at 2021 General Assembly, allowing the coexistence of two “parallel” definitions of marriage and the “liberty of conscience and action” granting elders and ministers the right not to participate in the ordinations, inductions and installations of those in same-gender marriages or relationships.
The division is more than formally recognized — it’s been codified. Expect a a rewritten Living Faith to come.
How all of this fits with our ordination vows not to take any divisive course is an excellent question, one that was raised during the two-year discussion between the creation of the remits and their final approval. A satisfactory answer may not be possible. Nor resolution.
Interestingly, the same vow is followed by a pledge “to seek peace and unity of Christ among your people and throughout the Holy Catholic Church.”
Which brings us to the question, “How now shall we talk?”
One solution for those who don’t want to remain is simply to depart, which many have done. The exodus from the PCC has been going on for decades. While people can freely leave, it’s not easy for a congregation, which does not own its building. Efforts to allow congregations to leave the fold (for any theological reason) resulted in a carefully-researched and detailed proposal to allow “gracious dismissal,” which has still not been formally received by the council which commissioned it on behalf of General Assembly. There are also overtures calling for the creation of separate theological wings of the PCC, each with its own doctrine. Even if these initiatives are accepted as viable alternatives, it will take years to settle.
And then there are those who are content to stay. (Or they are simply not being called to depart.) Remaining faithful to orthodoxy might be a challenge, which creates a greater need than ever to lift one another up. But that’s only half of the challenge. There are the folks on the other side of the parallel definition. How do we talk to one another?
I had coffee recently with a colleague from seminary. It had been several years since we talked face to face. It never ceases to amaze me how folks with shared experiences have a certain bond. No matter how long the separation, it only takes a few minutes for the ice to break when we meet.
I should point out that my friend and I do not share the same theological outlooks on some key matters. Yet as we shared our experiences of working in ministry – trials and tribulations, joys and sorrows, hopes and dreams – our theological differences of opinion didn’t seem to matter.
It got me thinking about our seminary days. Our cohort was diverse. We knew that we came from different theological perspectives but we didn’t dwell on that because we had more-urgent things on our minds: getting through the next Greek exegesis, finishing our papers on deadline, working together on group assignments and completing that week’s readings. Get through it and graduate.
Out of the tests and trials of seminary, lifelong bonds were formed. We attended each other’s ordinations and inductions. We shared the early experiences of venturing into new callings.
Eventually, we entered the “real world,” where theological differences started to matter. Church politics reared its head. Innocent days ended. Many of us settled into different cohorts based on shared theology.
Is it possible, in the real world of working ministry, to rediscover that childlike innocence we experienced in seminary? Our Lord does ask us to be like little children. Like seminary students focused on the task at hand, what if we were so focused on our collective calls that we paid no heed to our significant differences in theology and doctrine? It might be a naïve question. But, as noted above, all questions are valid.
I can think of one immediate stumbling block, and it’s agreeing on exactly what that collective call, that priority, should be. Is it the noble cause of social justice, feeding the hungry and fighting for fairness and equity? Is it the wonderous challenge of introducing Christ to those who don’t know Him? Salvation or encouragement? Prophecy or community? That’s just a taste. Our calls are as diverse as the needs.
And yet, with God, are all things not possible?
In addition to his work with Renewal Fellowship, Andy Cornell is minister at St. Andrew’s Dresden, Ontario