Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Searching for the Christ Child

A Simple Massing Priest Christmas Tradition since 2007. 

The title isn't quite so allegorical as you think. We actually spent about ten minutes before the Christmas Eve service desperately seeking the Baby Jesus for the main creche at the parish where I serve as interim priest.  
It is actually a very interesting creche, set up inside the altar itself. A simple wooden chevron suggests the stable, while the remaining figures stand on black satin.  
It was already in place on Sunday last. Actually in the Sunday before last as we compromised the calendar in the interest of the children's pageant. But Sunday last the creche had only its minimalist roof, one ox and one ass. Mary and Joseph were not far away - standing on the altar pavement - but they hadn't arrived yet. The shepherds weren't there yet either, out tending their sheep on the edge of the pulpit. And the magi were in the middle of the aisle at the back of the church, still some ways away.  
Tonight, Mary and Joseph, and after some panicked moments, the Baby Jesus, were all installed in their places. The shepherds were "summoned to his stable" during the gradual hymn. And the magi were now half way up the aisle - accompanied by a helpful "Mind the Camels" sign prepared by my good wife.  
It was a good celebration in a community which seems increasingly hopeful and future oriented. And generally united. There is no parish on earth that doesn't have some divisions and tensions. But this little parish seem quite determined to be a family together.  
We found Jesus tonight at St. James - literally, allegorically and eucharistically. We all came to the same table, together. That is where we belong in worship - at the same table, together.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Premier Wall's Response

Some weeks ago I posted a copy of the email I had sent to Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall regarding the urgent need to siexe the moment and initiate the process to abolish Canada's corrupt and anti-democratic Senate.  I indicated then (and in the email to Premier Wall) that I would publish his response here. After some delay on my part, here it is.

Apart from the typo in the date (I've been the acting manager of a correspondence unit so I have great sympathy), the most telling thing about the letter is that it is clearly a form letter intended to respond to the bulk of the Premier's correspondents on this issue, and that it presumes there would be some explicit or implicit criticism of the Premier's move from supporting Senate reform to supporting Senate abolition. I don't have an issue with a standard response, and it does address my criticism up front.

November 19, 2013 
Thank you for your email.  Premier Brad Wall's reply is attached.  If you are not able to open this document, please contact us by email so we may send you the original by mail. 
Bonnie Krajewski-Riel
DirectorPremier's Correspondence Unit 
Novmeber [sic] 18, 2013

Dear Mr. French:

Thank you for your email regarding the future of the Canadian Senate.

As you know, the Government of Saskatchewan has passed a motion supporting the abolition of the Senate. Although not a constitutional amendment, this motion stands as a statement of Saskatchewan’s official position on the Senate to the rest of Canada. Our province may consider a constitutional motion in the future, but will wait to hear the Supreme Court of Canada’s impending ruling on what precisely is required constitutionally to abolish the Senate.

I have long been an advocate of Senate reform, to make the Senate elected and more accountable. However, the complete lack of progress in this regard, coupled with the growing cost, ineffectiveness and lack of accountability of the Senate has caused many people, including myself, to conclude that the more realistic solution is to work toward abolishing the Senate.

While abolishing the Senate will not be easy, meaningful reform is impossible and the status quo is unacceptable in my view.

Some provinces have begun electing Senators, who are then appointed by the Prime Minister. While this may be a small step in the right direction, it still presents a number of problems. First, all Senators including elected Senators serve until age 75 and do not have to stand for re-election every four years like MPs or MLAs. Nor are we any closer to equality reform wherein each province would have equal representation.

Finally, the fact that many provinces have indicated they will not elect Senators means we would be left with a hybrid Senate, only partially elected, lacking accountability and representational imbalance. While the election of some Senators would give the appearance of more legitimacy, I believe this would be a false legitimacy for the reasons I have just listed.

Additionally, there is no guarantee that a future Prime Minister would appoint the elected nominees to form any Senate. For example, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau has stated publicly that he supports the status quo.

It is an interesting debate and I appreciate your views. One thing that virtually all Canadians agree upon is that the Senate should not continue to exist in its current form as an undemocratic, unelected institution that is costing Canadian taxpayers nearly $100 million a year.

Thank you for taking the time to write.

Brad Wall

Monday, November 25, 2013

Saskatchewan Roughriders - 2013 Grey Cup Champions

The score was a decisive 45-23 over the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.  Oskee Wa What?

I'm tired and I'm off to bed.

Photo courtesy of

Monday, November 11, 2013

I wore two poppies today

Today I attended my first Remembrance Day ceremony since retiring from the Royal Canadian Navy. With Remembrance Day on a Sunday last year, I had other duties to attend to, and the last time I had been at the Cenotaph for the ceremony I had actually been presiding.

It was much as it has always been; several hundred people, some in uniform, some veterans, several groups of children, young families, many of those too young to have been in World War II or Korea but realistically too old to have been in Afghanistan.  There seemed to be fewer than at the height of the Afghanistan War, but that may just have been the weather. It could have been far colder, but it was cold. Though not as cold as Taylor Field last night and 30,000 plus had turned up there for a football game.

Unlike the more elaborate service at the Brandt Centre, the Cenotaph service is concise and to the point. But also, unlike the Brandt Centre service, the Cenotaph allows for the laying of wreaths from most any group or individual that wants to present one. It seemed to me that this year there were fewer wreaths from families in memory of specific war dead. As has been the case with Cenotaph services for as long as I can remember, a wreath was laid "in memory of seven brothers," though I don't recall that we have ever heard the name of that tragic family.

I did something today that I had never done before for Remembrance Day. I wore two poppies: one red and one white.

There has been controversy in Canada over the past week about white poppies. The red poppy is the traditional symbol of remembrance, and some people claimed the white poppy was an insult to the fallen and to veterans, disrespecting their sacrifice.

From time to time over the years I have heard people express the concern that Remembrance Day and the red poppy glorified war. I've never thought that was particularly true. Certainly the origin of both the commemoration and the symbol seemed rooted in the hope that an annual remembrance of the bloodiest conflict in human history to that point would move people to say, "Never Again," to view armed conflict as a highly undesirable last resort.

But the narrative of Remembrance Day ebbs and flows over the years. At times, "Never Again" seems to give way to "Dulce et Decorum Est Pro Patria Mori" the Roman Horace's poetic claim that "it is sweet and proper to die for your country." Of late, it strikes me we have been leaning closer to the latter than the former.

The red poppy emerged as a symbol of remembrance, inspired by John McRae's poem, almost immediately after World War I and was adopted in the United States and throughout the Commonwealth by the early 1920s. But only a short time later, concerned that the public remembrance had become too martial and warlike, the white poppy was promoted as a commitment to peace. There may have been some who advocated wearing the white poppy instead of the red, but most of the material I've come across promoted wearing the two together.  The National Post has a very good backgrounder on the red and white poppy "controversy" here.  They point out that the coexistence of red and white poppies for Remembrance Day is taken pretty much for granted in the UK, the only place where white poppies have been continuously in production over the entire period.

I don't buy for a second the idea that the white poppy (especially when worn together with the red) is disrespectful to veterans or to the fallen. This is a trumped up "controversy" designed to have citizens outraged over symbols and trifles instead of the real disdain and disrespect being meted out to veterans over the past couple of decades.

What is disrespectful is the way our federal governments (and not just the current one) have been scaling back support for veterans old and new. Pensions for wounded soldiers have been replaced with a paltry lump sum payment. Nine Veterans Affairs offices have been closed across the country. There are frequent and unfortunately credible reports of wounded soldiers having their discharges rushed through so that they will be released before they are eligible for a military pension.

So why did I wear a white poppy?

In part it was because I really do believe that the two sides of the Remembrance Day narrative need to be balanced. We honour the sacrifice of the fallen and, because we respect that sacrifice, we do not want to see more young men and women march off to war.

In part it was say that I do not buy into the antics of the right wing rage machine that deflect our attention from real issues by creating phony ones. The white poppy "controversy," like the "war on Christmas" "controversy," is a complete fraud from start to finish.

Mostly though, I wore a white poppy with my red poppy to take a stand against the bullying language I had seen all over social media, some of which seemed to condone if not call for violence against those who would wear a white poppy. If not for that, I doubt I'd've gone to the trouble of tracking down a white poppy to wear.

I served 25 years in the Royal Canadian Navy. Yes, it was all Reserve time and no, I never saw combat, but it was 25 years nonetheless. If anyone wants to suggest that I don't "respect the veterans" or don't "support the troops," then I challenge them to come and say it to my face instead of hiding like a coward behind a social media avatar.

Most (though not all) the commentary I saw condemning the white poppy - was from people who never served, who never put on our country's uniform. With all due respect, I don't feel any need to take lessons in patriotism from them.

At every Remembrance Day ceremony in Canada today, in every Remembrance Day message from every politician, we heard that those who served and those who never came home were defending our freedom. I agree.

And I can think of no greater disrespect to veterans and to the fallen than to self-censor on Remembrance Day and to take off a white poppy because of a handful of outraged bullies. I will not disrespect the war dead by feartly laying aside the freedom they won at such cost.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Time for talk is past.

This is the email I sent to Premier Brad Wall (with copies to NDP Leader Cam Broten and my MLA) earlier this afternoon regarding the planned Senate abolition resolution in the Saskatchewan Legislature.


I was very excited to hear that you intend to introduce a Senate abolition resolution in the Saskatchewan Legislature this fall. However my excitement swiftly turned to disappointment when, on reading the story further, I discovered that you are intending to introduce a “mind of the House” resolution rather than an actual constitutional amendment.

With respect, sir, this is a very grave strategic and tactical error.

As ably set out in this piece by Ian Peach, former Dean of Law at the University of New Brunswick and former constitutional advisor to the governments of Saskatchewan and Yukon, all that is required to initiate the process leading to Senate abolition is for the House of Commons or any provincial legislature to introduce the necessary amending resolution ( Dean Peach specifically recommends a “clean” resolution as follows:

That Sections 21 through 36 of the Constitution Act, 1867 be repealed.
(Please note that the initial reference to the wording of the resolution in the article transposes the second digits of the section numbers. Dean Peach corrects this in the comments section.)

The long and tedious processes leading to the patriation of the Constitution in 1982 and to the failed Meach Lake and Charlottetown proposals has created the false assumption that prior agreement is either necessary or advisable before initiating the amendment process.  In fact the Meach and Charlottetown experiences more aptly show that such comprehensive processes result in provincial governments creating constitutional wish lists, followed by extensive horse trading and backroom dealing which, in turn, render the final product politically unviable.

The current Senate scandal shows conclusively that time for talk is past and the time for action is upon us. A “mind of the House” resolution offers no real progress to advance this long festering issue towards a conclusion. By contrast, an amending resolution from the Saskatchewan Legislature starts the three year clock on a long overdue process to abolish the Senate. Instead of mitigating the bad smell of scandal, we will have begun to drain the cesspool.

You and your Government, with the support of Mr. Broten and the Official Opposition, have a chance to demonstrate real leadership on this file. I beg of you not to squander this opportunity.

Malcolm French

PS: I will be posting a copy of this email to my blog at later today. It would be my intention to also post your response in due course.


Friday, November 1, 2013


For a while now, we have been working on a Mission Action Plan or a strategic plan for our parish. I'm thoroughly convinced that this kind of planning is important, but I'm also aware that well intentioned planning processes often create plans that are either vapid or incomprehensible - and frequently both. (And not only in Churchland, either.)

Sometimes the name and dedication of a church can give some guidance to mission planning. I've heard of parishes dedicated to St. Luke that exercise a particular ministry towards physicians, nurses and other health care workers, for example.

Our parish church is dedicated to St. James the Apostle. Over the past year or so, this has led to some conversations with my unpaid curate about the prospect of having some members of the parish walk the Camino in Spain, the traditional pilgrimage to the relics of St. James at Santiago de Compostella.

Which got me to thinking ...

One of the central images of discipleship is the journey.  Jesus was constantly telling people, "Follow me." The Gospel narratives about Jesus teaching ministry are all set in the context of journeys to and from Jerusalem. As Geoffrey Tristram, SSJE recently preached:
Scripture is filled with great journeys. Jacob’s flight from his brother Esau, Joseph sold into slavery, and his journey into Egypt. The great journey of the Exodus from Egypt to the Promised Land. The journey of the wise men to see Jesus. Jesus’ journey into the wilderness. Paul’s journey from Jerusalem to Damascus. It seems that God loves to invite us to make journeys. Because through the journey God teaches us, forms us, invites us to grow and change into the person God longs for us to be. To become fully who we were created to be.

I have often been struck by a tagline I first heard of in association with All Saints Church in Pasadena.  I don't know if it originated there, but it has seemed to me to capture the nature of post-modern evangelism. I'll admit I've cribbed the concept.
Whoever you are ... 
Wherever you've come from ... 
Wherever you are on your journey of faith ...You are welcome here.

Arguably it is an invitation to pause in the journey. But I think, more accurately, it is an invitation to come and join a group of pilgrims so that we can journey together.

So the invitation is not, per se, to join our congregation or to affiliate with our brand of Christianity. It is not to sign on to the Thirty-Nine Articles nor to conform to a particular understanding of the Eucharistic Mystery. It is an invitation to walk together in faith, into deeper faith.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Joint Assembly - Days Five and Six

Sidetracked by late nights and general weariness, here is my delayed report on the last two days of the Canadian General Synod and our Joint Assembly with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada.

The Anglican Journal story on the Anglican Covenant debate came out including a quote from me as the No Anglican Covenant Coalition's Moderator.  I had several fruitful discussions about the Covenant which only served to confirm my opinion that the project is fundamentally at odds with Anglican ecclesiology and that the Canadian church would almost certainly never be prepared to sign.

Following a presentation from First Nations elders and others from Northern Ontario, General Synod approved a process to establish a new Indigenous Diocese in the area. The new diocese, as yet unnamed, would effectively replace the existing diocese of Keewatin. The remaining bits of Keewatin will be reallocated to other dioceses - mostly Brandon and Rupert's Land.  It was a joyful climax to the decision making business of the General Synod.

Or at least, it should have been. We had earlier dealt with a motion directing the Council of General Synod to initiate a process leading to a draft canon permitting Anglican clergy to solemnize same sex marriages. Several things went or nearly went sideways during the debate. Very conservative bishop Stephen Andrews and very liberal dean Peter Elliott combined to propose an amendment that outlined the consultative and theological work required. A brilliant bit of drafting, it offered some assurance to conservatives that their concerns would be heard. Unfortunately the original mover and seconded did not immediately understand what was being proposed and offered up a subamendment that would have cut the guts out of the very eirenic amendment. The subamendment, fortunately, was defeated.

After a very rational debate, the amendment passed. Then things decided to go sideways again.  A very few people called for question after almost no debate at all on the resolution as amended, the Primate called for the vote and off we went for a break.  When we returned, the Primate acknowledged this error, and also that he'd missed a valid request for a vote by orders. So, instead of ending on a high note with the Cree diocese, instead we took all the air out of the room and returned to the marriage resolution. Because we were now almost an hour behind schedule - the reception before the banquet was already started - there was no appetite to re-open the debate. The vote by orders passed in every house (with a two-thirds majority even though only a simple majority was required).

The way the debate played out left a bad taste in the mouths of many conservatives. At the final session of Joint Assembly, the Bishop of the Arctic gave voice to those frustrations. I spoke to him afterwards to say that there were many progressives who were also unhappy with how the debate concluded so abruptly. A productive and occasionally emotional conversation ended with the mutual assurance that, at the end of the day, we both want to be at the same table.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Joint Assembly - Day Four

The innocuous resolution on the Anglican Covenant (deferring any decision until 2016) passed, as expected. The Synod resolved into Committee of the Whole to allow for a broader discussion of the Covenant rather than a narrow discussion of the resolution. While I did put forward the mischievous suggestion of defeating the motion (which would have meant we would not be obliged to discuss in in 2016) there was no real pick up.

There is clearly no appetite in Canada for the Covenant. Even the most overtly pro-Covenant speaker essentially conceded it was unlikely ever to pass. Indeed, there was not one speaker prepared to deliver a fulsome defence of Rowan's folly, which was something of a surprise. The only real argument against an immediate "no" seems to be a fear that rejecting the Covenant would somehow remove us from the conversation - even though both Scotland and Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia are fully at the table for every conversation that matters.

Several speakers, while not expressly anti-Covenant, focussed on the various initiatives that actually are mending relationships across the Communion: the Dialogue of North American and African bishops; the Continuing Indaba; Companion Diocese relationships. I closed the debate by emphasizing that the Covenant is a distraction from these real, meaningful and effective programs. 

While HMS COVENANT is still afloat, she is clearly holed below the waterline and dead in the water. I have it from reliable sources that even the man who originally conceived the idea has now concluded it was a serious error and a distraction from the real business of strengthening the Anglican Communion. All in all, a good day's work.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Joint Assembly - Day Three

After a further joint session this morning, we had the first parallel Anglican and Lutheran sessions this afternoon and evening.

The early parts of the Anglican General Synod started a trifle roughly as the chair and officers worked out how to use the electronic voting technology more effectively.  The interim result was that simple and uncontroversial votes took far longer than necessary while the election of the next Prolocutor took about 15 minutes instead of most of the afternoon.  The problem was exacerbated by the Primate's initial insistence that the results of each and every vote needed to be walked over to him rather than being posted immediately screen.  The bulk of these issues were corrected in the evening sitting. Although we are still slightly behind on the resolution committee's work plan, it is less urgent than it had been.

A good supply of our Coalition's "Yes to Communion - No to Covenant" buttons arrived last night.  Without a dedicated distribution spot like we had last year at the Episcopal Church General Convention I can't say distribution has been brisk, but the buttons are moving.

The main challenge Covenantsceptics face, of course, is the optimistic assessment that the Covenant is a dead letter.  The fact that Anglican Communion General Secretary Canon Kenneth Kearon didn't mention the Covenant at all during his brief address tends to reinforce the general complacency. The widespread hope seems to be that simply punting the thing down the road for three years will mean it's disappeared before ever the Canadians need to set aside our cultural politeness and actually say anything. Fortunately the complacency is somewhat shaken when Synod members discover that the Church in Hong Kong adopted the Covenant just a few weeks ago.

I have been testing the prospect of urging the Covenant's critics to vote against the motion from the Council of General Synod. A first blush, it seems to make little difference if the resolution is passed or not. Either way, there is no way for Canada to take a position prior to 2016. However, as I pointed out last night, passing the motion obliges the Council of General Synod to keep the conversation going and to present another motion in 2016. By contrast, defeating the motion proposed means that neither CoGS nor General Synod 2016 are obliged to do anything at all.  This would not preclude further discussion or even further resolutions in 2016, but it would mean that the Anglican Church of Canada need not waste resources discussing a proposal which would be unlikely ever to pass any Canadian General Synod.

One other fun fact about the Covenant came to my attention today when speaking to my own Metropolitan. The constitution and canons of the Province of Rupert's Land are fairly clear that certain actions of General Synod have no force in the ecclesiastical province unless and until they are ratified by the Provincial Synod. In other words, in the unlikely event the Canadian General Synod ever did pass the Covenant, it would continue to be of no force in the (geographically) largest internal province of the Canadian Church. I don't believe any of the other three internal provinces have the same kind of provision, but at least I'd be safe.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Joint Assembly - Day Two

Thus far, all the sessions have been joint sessions with our Lutheran brothers and sisters. I've tweeted several comments and at least one picture from the day.

The other piece of business I have been involved with is the resolutions committee.  We met this morning to priorize the resolutions and to identify those to be assigned to the no debate list.  The Council of General Synod resolution regarding the Anglican Covenant has been allocated 45 minutes, and a recommendation has been made that the Synod resolve into committee of the whole in order to accommodate a wider discussion of the Covenant rather than merely the strict terms of the resolution.

From the No Anglican Covenant Coalition perspective, the resolution isn't entirely satisfactory.  Like the Episcopal Church last year, the Proposal is to punt the issue further down the road. One might argue, ironically, that the net effect is the same regardless of whether the resolution is passed or defeated.  If passed, discussions continue until 2016 and another resolution would be presented to the next General Synod. If it is defeated, it would be politically untenable for the Council of General Synod to take any action on the Covenant in advance of the 2016 General Synod.

However, the resolution does direct the Council to take certain actions to continue the discussion. It has been argued that the defeat of the motion would mean Council has no authority to do anything to advance the process and no obligation to present any resolution at all to the 2016 session on this issue.  Further discussion with the rest of the Coalition is needed before the scheduled debate on Friday, but it seems to me the best position for us is to argue for a "no" vote. This would, I argue, put us in a similar position to the Church of England - a de facto (if not strictly de jure) rejection of the proposed Anglican Covenant.

A supply of the Coalition's "Yes to Communion - No to Covenant" buttons has arrived - after accidentally having arrived at the wrong hotel.

I'm late getting to bed tonight, and I have an early breakfast with our diocesan delegation, so that's enough for now.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Joint Assembly - Day One

I've been rather lax in my blogging, despite a wealth of potential subject matter. Over the next week, I hop to blog at least daily as I attend the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada.  This year, we are meeting jointly with our full communion partners, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada.

Unlike last year, when I attended the Episcopal Church General Convention as an observer, I am here in sunny (well, rainy right now) Ottawa as a member of the General Synod, representing the Diocese of Qu'Appelle. Complete information for both the Anglican and Lutheran meetings can be found at the Joint Assembly website.

Now off to dinner with the Qu'Appelle delegation. Back tomorrow.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Don't Waste This Crisis

There is a saying (attributed variously to Winston Churchill and Rahm Emmanuel) that one should never let a good crisis go to waste.  It means that every crisis brings with it the opportunity for a creative response.  (It's like that old saw about the Chinese word that means both "crisis" and "opportunity," except that one isn't true.)

The Canadian Senate - that festering pustule on the backside of our democracy - is having a very good crisis these days.  At least four Senators are being investigated for improper expense claims. Two of them, if the evidence holds, will be proven to be ineligible to hold their seats since they do not reside in the provinces they purport to represent. One improperly accepted a gift (or was it an interest-free loan?) from the Prime Minister's now resigned Chief of Staff in order to pay back the improperly claimed expenses and, they hoped, end the probe. A couple more Senators seem to be implicated in efforts to sweep the initial scandal under the rug. One of the four Senators has been charged with domestic violence. And that doesn't even touch the Senator who is named as a beneficiary in her husband's offshore tax avoidance scheme.

This follows last year's revelation that a former Senator continued to sit and vote in the Senate despite the fact that her party's Senate leadership knew she had been declared mentally incompetent by her physician. (Note that this item does not impugn the character of Senator Joyce Fairbairn, who suffers from dementia and has since resigned. It does, however, demonstrate a singular contempt for democracy and a singular cruelty to a respected colleague on the part of the Liberal leadership in the Senate.)

Canada's unelected and unaccountable Senate has always been an offensive blot for any Canadian with a stitch of ethical sensibility. Yet for 146 years this travesty has been allowed to continue at the insistence of Canada's old-line parties who appreciate having a means of rewarding their hacks and flacks and for providing public salaries to party campaign officials.

Yes, there have been good Senators - even outstanding Senators. One thinks of the constitutional gadfly Eugene Forsey (loyal to three different parties over the years). Even some of the partisan appointees have done good work. Consider Conservative Senator Hugh Segal's recent defence of Canadian trade unions from his own government's legislative over-reach. My own uncle, Earl Hastings, was rewarded with a summons to the Senate after a less than stellar career as a Liberal operative in Saskatchewan and Alberta, and chose to focus on issues of penal reform which would have been politically untenable for someone who needed to seek re-election.

However, a handful of exceptions among the operatives, placeholders and palace intriguers hardly justifies the anti-democratic blot on out constitution. The 105 unelected, unaccountable Senators have constitutional and legislative powers equal to our 308 democratically elected Members of Parliament. Indeed, in the life of this very Parliament, the unelected Senate defeated environmental legislation that had been passed by the House of Commons, and have been threatening to defeat another bill that passed the Commons with the support of every single party.

Former Saskatchewan Lieutenant Governor Gordon Barnhart was the Clerk of the Canadian Senate from 1989 to 1995, and in a radio interview yesterday morning, he makes it clear that the utter unaccountability, the inflated sense of entitlement and the complete contempt for Canadians is nothing new in Ottawa's red-carpeted cesspool.

So there's the crisis. Canada's Senate is so dysfunctional and so corrupt that it has come to dominate the media narrative across the country for the past two weeks, even as the bizarre antics of Toronto's possibly crack-smoking mayor have hit the US comedy circuit.

And the opportunity?

Now that everyone has noticed that the Senate is nothing but a very expensive gong show, we have an opportunity to abolish the place once and for all.

From The Tyee

There is confusion in some quarters, but constitutional scholar Ian Peach is convinced that the Senate can be abolished by the passage of a resolution by the federal House of Commons and seven provincial legislatures. Peach was previously the Dean of Law at the University of New Brunswick and an advisor to then Saskatchewan Premier Roy Romanow. At the last round of constitutional negotiations in the 1990s he was an advisor to then Yukin Premier Tony Penikett.

The really neat thing, however, is that we don't have to wait for Prime Minister Stephen Harper to see and sieze the opportunity. Any provincial legislature can initiate the process simply by passing the necessary resolution.  Dr. Peach suggests keeping it simple:  "Be it resolved that sections 21 to 36 of the Constitution Act, 1867 be repealed."

Those in the know suggest that there are already at least five provincial governments that would support the abolition of the Senate. Frankly, I'm surprised Stephen Harper hasn't realized that this is the perfect way to turn around the current narrative - and conveniently cast Liberal leader Justin Trudeau as the last defender of the corrupt status quo.

Four provincial legislatures are still sitting. In Manitoba, the New Democratic Party government of Greg Selinger is formally in favour of abolition. In Ontario, the Liberal government of Kathleen Wynne hasn't taken a firm position, but her Liberal predecessor had expressed personal support for abolition and the survival of Wynne's government depends on the support of the New Democrats. Despite having no seats in the New Brunswick legislature, NDP leader Dominic Cardy has been very effective at driving the political narratve in the province.

Imagine how the narrative shifts if even only one or two of those legislatures were to pass the necessary resolution over the next few weeks. If federal NDP leader Thomas Mulcair challenged the Prime Minister to join the parade, anything but a yes would be political suicide. The anticipated opposition of the Trudeau Liberals would show them to be nothing but self-serving partisans with an overweaning sense of entitlement.

I note here that Toronto Star columnist Bob Hepburn offers a complementary strategy using a national referendum, noting that support for abolition has been steadily rising, even before recent events.

It's possible - just possible - that we could be rid of this constitutional embarrassment by Christmas.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Two questions - and it's too soon for answers

The aftermath of the 2011 Canadian election, left two interrelated questions, the answers to which would determine the shape of federal politics in Canada for a generation or more.

The first question was, "Can the New Democratic Party consolidate their historic breakthrough in Quebec and establish themselves as the principal alternative to the Conservatives?"  Within a few weeks, that question was tragically amended to add, "without Jack Layton."

The second question was, "Can the Liberal Party recover from it's worst electoral trouncing in history?"

With last weekend's coronation of Justin Trudeau after a pro forma leadership stroll, some commentators have misread the standard leadership poll bump as an indication that the two questions have both been answered with a "no" and a "yes" respectively.  These are the same commentators who breathlessly assured us that Paul Martin would crush both the Conservatives and the Bloc Quebecois, that Stephane Dion was a formidable opponent who thrived on being underestimated and that Michael Ignatieff's stature as a internationally known public intellectual would wow the Canadian electorate.

The consistently bad track record of the commentariat notwithstanding, it would be equally foolish to conclude that the questions have been answered with a "yes" and a "no."  Beyond a few broad generalizations, only a fool would try to handicap the next federal election more than two years out.

Each of the two parties have certain things that must be accomplished in order to be successful in 2015.  If only one of the two parties is successful, then it is highly likely that party will establish itself as the principle alternative to the Conservatives for at least a generation or two.  If neither party can effectively establish itself in that role, the Conservatives are destined to a whomping majority in 2015, Quebec will largely drift back to the Bloc and any other prognostication is a complete mug's game.

New Democrats need to establish their new MPs (especially, but not only, the Quebec MPs) as strong presences in their communities and establish effective constituency associations in traditional areas of organizational weakness (again especially, but not only, in Quebec).  The proof of the pudding will be in the eating, but certainly the party has been focusing its resources on these twin goals.

In the early days, the handful of mostly quite young placeholder candidates who were elected was seen as the party's greatest vulnerability.  While the so-called McGill Four were held up for a certain amount of derision, but the prime target for the corporate media attack machine was Ruth-Ellen Brosseau, the Ottawa campus pub manager who agreed to be a name on the ballot in the Quebec riding of Berthier - Maskinongé. Recent media features have highlighted how hard these young "accidental MPs" have worked to connect to their constituencies.  

The NDP organization in Quebec is stronger than it has ever been, and the membership at its highest level in history.  NDP leader Thomas Mulcair, a former Quebec environment minister and the architect of the NDP's Quebec breakthrough, is well respected in the province, and has managed to unite the party behind him following the leadership race.

For New Democrats, consolidation doesn't necessarily mean they need to hold onto all of their newly won seats, especially in Quebec where some shrinkage after a sweep is actually to be expected.  But if the NDP can retain the largest number of Quebec seats after the next election, it will be very difficult for the Liberals to overcome that inbuilt numerical advantage in the rest of Canada. 

The Liberals, who have seen their support steadily erode over the past five elections, have also seen their support become more concentrated in Atlantic Canada and in Canada's two largest cities.  In vast swathes of the country, the Liberals have no organizational depth, and the party would likely not even be competitive in any of its four seats west of Ontario were the incumbents to step aside.

In electing Justin Trudeau, the largely unaccomplished eldest son of former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, the Liberals have rolled the dice in the hope that a photogenic young(ish) leader with a famous name will garner them enough media attention to attract nostalgic former Liberals back to the fold and to recruit a handful of star candidates in areas outside their regional strength, while opening up the wallets of potential supporters.  Certainly Trudeau's initial poll numbers look good, but party poll standings generally improve in the immediate aftermath of a new leader.  Given the way the mainstream media have been fawning over Trudeau from the day he was born and the general reluctance of reporters (or Liberal leadership opponents) to challenge him with hard questions, one should expect the polling honeymoon to go on for a while.  However, continued and sustained Liberal recovery will depend on rebuilding the organizational infrastructure of the party, and vain celebrity is of limited value there.

That said, vain celebrity can have some effect in holding the media's attention and creating at least the illusion of broader capacity.  Opponents would do well not to underestimate the nostalgic appeal of Trudeau fils who, while lacking his father's gravitas, actually exhibits stronger soft political skills than Trudeau pere. 

In 30 months we will have a much clearer sense of the real answers to the two questions. Those who pretend the answers are discernible now are either fools or partisan spinners - or possibly both.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Memo to Lord Carey: Loss of privilege is not persecution.

A poll was released on Easter Day which suggests about 40% of Britons do not trust clergy to tell the truth.  According to the YouGov survey, 54% feel the Church of England has "struggled" to give moral leadership and fully 69% believe the established Church is "out of touch."  A Barna Group study from the United States a few years ago showed similar negative perceptions, with 87% of young people saying Christianity is judgmental and 85% that Christianity is hypocritical.  Only 16% of non-Christians in their late teens and 20s had a positive impression of Christianity.

I'm always a little leery of commenting on polls based on superficial media stories, but it strikes me the loss of the Church's credibility in England (and elsewhere) is related to a quite credible perception that the Church is far more interested in institutional preservation and with recovering lost privilege than she is concerned with proclaiming good news about anything or about speaking in a way that is credibly prophetic.

The perception, though credible, isn't entirely accurate.  Unfortunately for Christianity, the majority of mainstream media reporters are more or less religiously illiterate.  Add to that the desire for conflict to sell papers, and you have an inbuilt tendency for the media to pass on thoughtful religious voices in favour of hacks and cranks.  As a result, the self-identified Christian voices that get the ink are all too often the least credible and the most obnoxious.  Thus it isn't a negative perception foisted upon us by some imagined secularist conspiracy.  We do it to ourselves.

Former Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey's lunatic screed over the past weekend is a prime example. In the face of major changes to the welfare state with as yet unknown effects on the poor (of whom scripture says much), Lord Carey chooses to ignore that and instead offer up a deluded dystopia of pretendy persecution. He advances the fantasy that the loss of unearned and unmerited privilege is the same as being killed for what you believe. In a country where the head of state must belong to his religious body, where 26 legislative seats are set aside for senior members of his religious body and where the past leaders of his religious body (himself included) are always offered a legislative sinecure on retirement, where simply being a retired Archbishop pretty much guarantees you front page coverage in all the major media for your every pronouncement, no matter how inane, to talk of persecution is both idiotic and an affront to those Christians who face real persecution elsewhere.

It is said that "every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business and eventually degenerates into a racket."  George Carey, Pat Robertson and the rest of the far right hacks and flacks would lead a reasonable person to conclude that Christianity has degenerated to racket long since.

Yet just a few weeks before the latest wittering from Lord Carey, 43 serving bishops of the Church of England signed a letter expressing serious and thoughtful concern about the UK government's plan to reform assistance benefits.  Sadly, this kind of substantive intervention pales in the media's attention next to the ridiculous figure of a retired bishop making a fool of himself and disgracing the Gospel.

When someone of this stature says something so addlebrained as this, it reinforces every negative stereotype of Christianity as a gang of angry old Major Blimps raging against the end of the Victorian era.  If there is some massive secularist conspiracy out there somewhere, they'd be well advised to keep their powder dry, in keeping with Napoleon Bonaparte's dictum that you should never interrupt your enemy when he is shooting himself in the foot.  George Carey and his ilk are a greater threat to British Christianity than Richard Dawkins, the National Secular Society and the entire readership of the Guardian combined.

Friday, January 25, 2013

"There is no alternative" is not an argument.

While he was talking about austerity as a failed economic and fiscal policy, the former head of the Canadian public service, Alex Himelfarb, could have as easily been talking about the undead failure which is the Anglican Covenant when he said:
When our leaders tell us that there is no alternative, it is a safe bet to assume that there is indeed an alternative and one that we would prefer were it on offer.

There is an alternative to the failed policy of austerity. Prudent fiscal spending on things like infrastructure replacement and improvement will "prime the pump," while responsible tax policy (ie, not "lower taxes uber alles") would both ensure adequate revenue while also ensuring the wealthiest pay their air share of the costs of a civilized society.

Similarly, there is an alternative to the failed Anglican Covenant. A commitment from all sides to stay at the table as a family even when we disagree - especially when we disagree - is how we should be functioning as faithful Christians who honour our Lord's desire "that they all may be one."

But there is one other point which Himelfarb makes about austerity which also applies to the Anglican Covenant.
What became increasingly clear was that austreity had never been driven by fiscal policy or economics or evidence. It was driven by ideology. Market fundamentalism. A desire to make government much smaller, eliminate or reduce, as much as politics allowed, so-called entitlements, create a “pro-business” climate of less regulation, less government, and, above all, lower taxes.
In the same way, the Anglican Covenant was never about creating structures to hold the Anglican Communion together in the face of disagreement.  It was always about centralizing authority in the Communion, to replace a family of Churches with one international and quasi-curial (if not quasi-papal) structure controlled from the centre.

In both cases, the proponents of radical change tried to stampede a consensus by claiming, "There is no alternative."  Of course, what they really meant was, "We don't want you to look at the alternative because we know the alternative is better for you and for your interests and it doesn't satisfy our desire for control."

"There is no alternative" is not an argument.  And it is virtually always a lie.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Time for the new broom to sweep clean

A recurring image used by populist politicians in opposition, "a new broom sweeps clean," perhaps also describes the opportunity presented to the new Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev'd Justin Welby.  While Dr. Welby is unlikely to make any loud pronouncement against his predecessor's misguided project, he does have an opportunity, very quietly, to sweep the discredited Anglican Covenant into the dustbin of church history.

I was a little startled to realize that I had not made a single blogpost about the so-called Anglican Covenant since July, when I blogged daily from the Episcopal Church General Convention in Indianapolis.  In part, the extended silence was due to the lack of substantive developments. 

Indeed, having seen the Covenant go down in flames in England, Scotland and New Zealand, it is now pretty obvious that the thing is dead.  Yet because it was so incompetently drafted, it staggers on like some dessicated zombie or reflection-free nosferatu.  And in the background, its bewildered partisans try to pretend that everything is coming along swimingly.

A good example of how the ecclesiastical talking heads continue to delude themselves is the report prepared for the fall session of the Church of England General Synod which, while admitting that the draft Act of Synod had been defeated in the dioceses, tries to spin it out of the grave with a bit of fancy arithmetic and a spurious claim of moral victory. 

Of course the business committee completely ignores the unethical way in which the deck was stacked in favour of the Covenanters.  The fact that Church House refused to provide any material that was not 100 percent supportive of the Covenant is not mentioned.  Nor is there any mention of the refusal of many dioceses to permit such information to be distributed to synod members when other groups offered to cover the cost of distribution.  The fact that the debate in many diocesan synods was grotesquely manipulated to produce a pro-Covenant outcome is likewise blithely ignored.  Elsewhere I have used the analogy of a soccer match between Manchester United and the boys from the local grammar school.  If the grammar school wins the game, ManU can take no solace in having kept the score close.

Similarly, the fall meeting of the Anglican Consultative Council carried on in the best "nothing-to-see-here" manner.  The official report from the Anglican Communion Office attempted to spin the English result as a non-defeat, and unofficial commentary attempted to do the same regarding the unequivocal rejection by the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia.

It's all beginning to resemble the apocryphal tale of the Duke of Northumberland holding the dead body of Edward VI in the window so the crowd would believe the young king still lived.

It seems unlikely that Justin Welby will want to waste his ecclesiopolitical capital trying to revive a discredited and discreditable project which, whatever the intentions of its authors, has failed in its purpose.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The Sad Plight of the Religious Progressive

One of the frequent frustrations of being a progressive person of faith is having to read and listen to the false and malicious narratives of the religious right claiming that they and they alone represent the official religious viewpoint.

A less frequent frustration - though perhaps even a greater one - is having to read and listen to secular progressives who are so ignorant of the history of progressive political movements that they unconsciously parrot the false memes of the religious right.


Last month, Saskatchewan New Democratic Party leadership candidate Ryan Meili laid out a plan for reaching out to faith communities, and in particular to progressive people of faith.  His plan explicitly offers a counternarrative to the false claims of the religious right, pointing to global examples like Martin Luther KIng and Mahatma Ghandi and to more local examples like former CCF-NDP leaders and Saskatchewan premiers Tommy Douglas and Lorne Calvert.

The key point in Meili's plan is the establishment of a Faith and Social Justice Commission, modeled on a similar initiative in the federal NDP.  This commission would "open a space for dialogue within the party on the intersection of faith and politics," leading to the implementation of an outreach strategy to religious voters.

Meili's proposal is endorsed by former Premier Calvert:

"faith has inspired many of us to seek justice through political action.  To provide an opportunity of dialogue for those who arrive from the intersection of faith and politics will serve the party and the province well."

It is also endorsed by Dr. Mateen Raazi, a leader in Saskatoon's interfaith group Multifaith Saskatoon:

“While duly recognizing and respecting the diversity of religious opinion, this policy emphasizes the commonality of communal and social justice themes across various religious traditions. Adoption of such a policy further provides political common ground to the many whose social justice work is inspired by their religious traditions."

Unfortunately, political blogger Scott Stelmaschuk seems to miss the point, offering up a bit of secular fearmongering and the veiled hint that any outreach to religious progressives would mean compromising the party's principles.

"I fear I've editorialized this post more than I meant to, but I do think there are valid concerns to have over such a commission as this. There is nothing wrong with having a discussion, and attempting to do better to connect our values with those of faith-based groups throughout Saskatchewan; but at the same time, we must take heed to ensure that we are not crafting party policy that compromises on our own social values."

Like many secular progressives these days, Scott is woefully ignorant about the strong tradition of progressive religious political activism in western Canada and in Saskatchewan in particular, and he apears to be oblivious to the significant role religious progressives played in creating the CCF-NDP.  He assumes that people of faith who support the New Democratic Party do so despite their religious beliefs rather than because of them.  And he assumes that virtually all religious voters are anti-choice, even if some set that aside to vote for pro-choice politicians.

Scott seems to be completely unaware of the Social Gospel movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many of whose members were deeply involved in the formation of progressive political movements, especially the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (the forerunner to today's New Democratic Party.  He appears to have forgotten that for nearly one-third of the party's history in Saskatchewan, it was led by ordained Christian clergymen (Tommy Douglas 1942 - 1961 and Lorne Calvert 2001 - 2009).  (If we include the first Saskatchewan CCF leader, Anglican Lay Reader M.J. Coldwell who successively led the Independent Labour Party 1926 - 1929, the Farmer Labour Party 1929 - 1932 and the Saskatchewan CCF 1932 - 1934, we're well over the one-third mark.)

Somehow, according to Stelmaschuk, getting too cozy with religious people risks undermining the party's principles.  We are led to the ridiculous conclusion that those religious activists (mostly Christian activists, given the demographics of the day - though Jewish progressives played a significant role in other parts of Canada) had nothing to do with shaping the existing principles of the party.

Stelmaschuk also seems completely hoodwinked by the religious right's claim that there is only one authentic religious view on the abortion issue.  He appears to be unaware that the anti-choice consensus on the evangelical right is a recent development - indeed, it isn't as old as the McDonald's Happy Meal.  He seems similarly unaware that religious views on the abortion issue run the gamut from ardently anti-choice to as ardently pro-choice.

I grant you, many of the loudest religious voices these days tend to be pretty reactionary.  That's pretty discouraging for those of us who see ourselves as part of the long tradition of progressive people of faith.

The problem with the kind of superficial, knee-jerk reaction of people like Stelmachuk is that it plays right into the strategies of the religious right.  It alienates potential political allies, leaving us, at best, disenfranchised.  It isn't like the Saskatchewan NDP is so flush with electoral support we can discard religious progressives as an inconvenient constituency.

Indeed, Stelmachuk's shoddy analysis may be the best evidence of the need for a deliberate outreach to religious communities, and for the establishment of a Faith and Social Justice Commission within the Saskatchewan NDP.