Monday, 26 October 2015

Churches agree to close ties

Last weekend, while we were all making up our minds for Monday’s election, two large Christian denominations in North America did something very special. They signed a unique agreement which brought them closer together.

On October 17, the United Church of Canada and the United Church of Christ signed an agreement of full communion.

What this means is that two large denominations of the Christian church agreed that they had much more in common with each other than they had differences, and decided to do something about that and say so.

The United Church of Canada, Canada’s largest protestant church, was born ninety years ago in a similar agreement bringing most of the Presbyterian church and all of the  Methodist and Congregational churches in the country together. The Evangelical United Brethren joined the church in 1968.

The United Church of Christ was formed in 1957, in Cleveland, Ohio, with the merger of the Evangelical and Reformed Church and the Congregational Christian Churches. The Congregational Churches traced their roots to the English Reformation and to Puritan New England, while the Christian Church had its beginnings on the American frontier. The Evangelical Synod of North America, a 19th-century German-American church, was prominent in the Mississippi Valley, and the Reformed Church in the United States, which was of German and Swiss heritage, was initially made up of churches in Pennsylvania and surrounding colonies in the early 1700s.

Both churches have a strong commitment to social justice and commitment to inclusion of diversity in sexual and gender identities, in disabilities, and in theological openness and expression. For example, The United Church of Christ, through its predecessor bodies, ordained its first female minister in 1853, its first black minister in 1892, and its first openly gay minister in 1972. The United Church of Canada first ordained women in 1936, and in 1988 declared that sexual orientation was not a criterion for determining eligibility for ordination.

The agreement signed in Niagara Falls has five key features. Both churches agree that their common confession that “God is in Christ”. Both now recognize each other’s members and baptisms. Both agree in the common celebration of the Lord’s supper or holy communion. Both recognize the credentials of each other’s ordained ministers and both share a common commitment to the mission of each church.

At a practical level, this means that there will be much greater freedom of movement between pastors in both churches across the border, without any problems with credentials. Members of one church can be members of the others, especially in places like Florida, where some Canadians spend part of their winter. The two churches will also work together to act internationally in mission.

Such agreements are not new nor unusual. The Anglican and Lutheran churches in Canada and the US have such a full communion agreement, allowing ministers from one church to serve in the other. This has already happened in Grey Bruce.

I look forward to seeing the strengths the United Church of Christ can bring in many areas of common interest, including racial justice, aboriginal rights and climate change. Having known many United Church of Christ ministers through my own ministry, I can see their positive influence on our common work.

Rev. David Shearman is a retired United Church minister in Owen Sound and the host of Faithworks on Rogers TV - Grey County.

Thursday, 22 October 2015

Poll duty had its moments

So what did you do on the Thanksgiving weekend? Turkey dinner? Visited family? Family drop in? Me? I worked all weekend supervising an Advance Poll location so people could vote. My feet and back hurt. I’m dead tired, even after a good night’s sleep. But I have a deep satisfaction at being able to help my neighbours do something that is a right for all citizens over 18 in Canada. I wasn’t alone. A lot of citizens helped you vote, right across Canada.

It was clear well before the Advance Polls opened that you wanted to vote. You lined up an hour before opening at noon on Friday and you just kept coming for four days.

You broke voting records. You confounded the experts. Elections Canada didn’t think that so many would be voting and planned accordingly. They underestimated you.

While you were standing in line, we were doing our best to make the voting process as easy for you as possible. At my location we developed a new methods of getting the information we needed as quickly as possible so you could vote. What we did wasn’t in the training manual and we did get our ideas approved by our supervisor. They worked.

We understood your frustration. We didn’t like it either. But we had to do things according to the Elections Act and if that took a minute or two longer, we are sorry but we had no choice. We understood your tearing up your voter card and throwing it in our face. We picked up the pieces. We know why you dropped the F-bombs. And we also appreciated your coming back and apologizing to us and acknowledging that your behaviour wasn’t helpful. How truly Canadian of you. But what meant the most was that you voted, no matter what. Thank you.

If there were moments that really gave us a lot of pleasure, it was when we were able to make things work for you. I won’t forget the look of shear joy on the face of a first time voter who came up to the Registration Officer and said, “All I have is my health card and a pay stub. Can I vote?” “Of course!” we answered.

Then there was an elector who had specifically taken a taxi to the polling place but had no id with their place of residence on it. We watched as they went through their bag, checking every nook and cranny for something acceptable. Then an unnoticed pocket was opened and inside there was a handicapped parking permit. It had an address on it. Gold. And that elector was delighted.

Elections Canada is very much a hands-on agency. As the polls opened, a senior official arrived for a spot check. She saw the lineup and how we were overwhelmed. Her first words were “How can I help?” I put her to work at as a poll clerk for three hours until a replacement arrived.

Thanks to all my fellow election workers in the Advance Poll. You did a great job. As for the rest of you, if you haven’t voted yet, do it now. It’s your right as a Canadian citizen.

Rev. David Shearman is a retired United Church minister in Owen Sound and the host of Faithworks on Rogers TV - Grey County.

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

Charities deserve a say

Should charitable organizations speak out during election campaigns? It’s an important question. There has been a long tradition of churches inviting electors to look at party platforms through the lens of their faith. But in this election campaign, something has changed. Not just religions groups but the whole charitable sector is publishing position papers and forming questions for electors to consider and ask the candidates in their district.

This is not, as a recent letter in this newspaper suggested, push polling.

Push polling is a form of election telemarketing which attempts to engage in propaganda and rumour mongering in the guise of a telephone poll. There is not analysis of data, just an attempt to spread doubt or fear. Richard Nixon was a pioneer of push polling in 1946 in an American congressional race. George W. Bush used it in his successful 2000 presidential campaign.

What the charitable and non profit sector is doing in this election campaign is looking at various party platforms and out of their particular learned experience on certain issues, asking specific questions for voters to think about.

So who is doing it?

According to a recent report published by Imagine Canada, a charitable organization itself dedicated to the support of the charitable and on-profit sector alongside business and government, charitable organisations have published briefs especially directed towards economic policy and quality of life issues.

Barrier-Free Canada, CNIB, the March of Dimes, the Canadian Hearing Society, Accessible Media Inc., and the Multiple Sclerosis Society of Canada have released
a set of principles and recommendations to improve federal protection for persons with disabilities.

The Boys and Girls Clubs of Canada have developed a youth-focussed election platform, with policy recommendations on youth engagement, mental health and youth employment. The Canadian Cancer Society has made a set of recommendations regarding tobacco regulations, research, and palliative care.

Other organizations have raised questions about aboriginal affairs, violence against women, the environment and conservation and many other concerns.

This is especially significant given that the charitable and non-profit sector has been paralysed by the alleged Canada Revenue Agency’s “audit chill”, where it was suspected (though not proved) that certain charities were being singled out for review based on government direction and not general audit principles.

In Canada, charities and non-profits are permitted to address public policy and engage in advocacy if they are strictly non-partisan, present information which is based on verifiable research and experience and which are subordinate to the activities which their charitable status is based on. A charity for the homeless has to help the homeless first and foremost (and this is what is reviewed by the CRA) but can speak from that experience to public policy, including during an election campaign. As Imagine Canada says, this is a much higher standard than to which any other sector is held. 

That the charitable and non-profit sector is speaking out of their experience is a good and healthy thing for our civic conversation. I invite you to look at your own favourite charity to see if they have a position paper for you to consider as you make your choice as an elector.


In the interest of full disclosure, I worked in the charitable sector for thirty six years

Monday, 5 October 2015

Google alert lets me follow Bieber's beliefs

Anyone seen Justin Bieber lately?

I know, the young artist everyone loves to hate. The talented kind who seemed to be popping up in all the wrong places (car crashes, assaults, court hearings) at all the wrong times. Justin Bieber, it appeared, was headed for an early destruction, a victim of too much money, too much time and lot of really bad press.

Then he dropped off the radar. Gone. No bad boy antics. No real public image. An occasional TV appearance.

What happened?

I have a Google news alert on the word “church”. Google sends me all the stories it finds with the word “church in them. A few months ago, Justin Bieber started showing up in the news feed.

Justin Bieber? Yes. And it appears that he is turning into a “belieber” (um, sorry. I mean “believer”). Justin Bieber is going to church.

The first clue was several stories that Bieber and his old girlfriend, Selena Gomez, attended a Pentecostal megachurch in Los Angeles called Hillsong. Within a month Bieber was attending a week-long Hillsong conference in Sydney, Australia.

Hillsong, however, is just one piece of this story. Another is Pastor Carl Lentz of Hillsong New York and several others, all within Bieber’s circle of friends and acquaintances. Adept at social media, these Christians get the word out in ways unheard of even a decade ago. Hundreds of thousands  followers on Snapchat, Twitter and Instagram watch and listen to their message; one which is entirely conventional and evangelical. And it’s less focussed on institutional church and more on being followers of Jesus.

How influential are these leaders? If Bieber is any indication, the word is “very”.

In the October November issue of COMPLEX Magazine, Bieber speaks for himself about his faith, his journey and what he believes. Perhaps some of his deeper thoughts come on love, something he has made a career singing about. Reflecting on moving in with his girlfriend at 18, he says, “Love is a choice. Love is not a feeling. People have made it seem in movies that it’s this fairy tale. That’s not what love is. You’re not gonna want to love your girl sometimes but you’re gonna choose to love her. That’s something in life that I had to figure out. I can’t lean on people. I got to lean on God. I gotta trust in him through all my situations. Then, hopefully, my other relationships will flourish around me.”

There’s more.  Bieber says, “There’s a lot of really weird stuff going on at churches. You ever flicked on a channel and a late-night church show is on? Sometimes it’s like, “You better do this or you gon’ die and you gon’ burn in hell!” And you’re like, I don’t want anything to do with this. I’m the same way. I’m not religious. I, personally, love Jesus and that was my salvation. I want to share what I’m going through and what I’m feeling and I think it shouldn’t be ostracized. I think that everybody should get their chance to share what they’re doing or where their journey is headed, whether they’re straight or gay or what they believe in.”

Has Bieber turned himself around? I think he’s well on his way. He’s asking tough questions about life and about himself. He’s getting good faith mentoring. He knows he’s on an important journey. I’ll know, though, that he has started to develop a mature faith when he invites Nobel Laureate Malala Yousafzai on stage at a concert, has a meaningful conversation with her and then gives the proceeds from one of his albums to the education of young women. I hope that day isn’t too far off.

Rev. David Shearman is a retired United Church minister in Owen Sound and the host of Faithworks on Rogers TV - Grey County.