Rev. Lois Wilson on sacred & secular

By Dennis Gruending

Most Rev. Lois WilsonReverend Lois Wilson has described recent spiritual and cultural history in North America as follows: “The cups rattled in the 1960s and 70s. The cupboard doors fell off in the 80s. The kitchen door came off its hinges in the 90s. There was deep crack in front yard by 2000, and by 2006 we knew that the earth had moved.” Rev. Wilson attributed the quote to her colleague Rev. Herb O’Driscoll, a retired canon of the Anglican Church of Canada, when she gave a keynote address earlier in May at a conference called Sacred and Secular in a Global Canada. It was held at The University of Western Ontario’s Huron College in London. She was an ideal choice to deliver such an address, given her previous tenure as moderator of the United Church of Canada and later as an independent member of Canada’s Senate.

Rev. Wilson spoke in a dining room following breakfast and seemed unfazed about having no microphone, no podium and having to look at her audience over a table containing the buffet remnants of bacon, eggs and pancakes. Nor did she appear overly concerned about the diminution in power and prestige of once mighty religious institutions. That occurred, she said, with the Quiet Revolution in Quebec, Protestant sectarianism, immigration from non-European countries, feminism and the increasing militancy of Canada’s aboriginal peoples.

“Canada has become global,” Rev. Wilson said. “We meet peoples of different race and religion in grocery store line-ups and children of different cultures and religions meet at school. The world has come to us, bringing with its peoples cultural understandings, traditions, customs with which we who had been settled here were unfamiliar. And familiar assumptions regarding the sacred and the secular have become blurred and unclear.”

“What will it mean,” she asked, “for the secular state to guarantee ways for people to live in just and responsible ways with their neighbours who are so different from themselves? What accommodations must be made? That, I take it, is the purpose of this conference.”

The event, with its approximately 50 presenters and guest speakers, provided what one might call an informed focus group. I was unable to attend all of the panels, which overlapped, but a number of presenters and questioners are obviously struggling with some issues raised by Rev. Wilson.

There was, for example, a palpable resentment among some toward liberal democracy and what they believe to be a secular state that ignores or devalues the sacred impulse. Dr. Robin Lathangue, an assistant professor at Wilfrid Laurier University (Brantford) and an expert on the late Canadian political philosopher George Grant, described a “state oppression” in that forces people into a private practice of religion. The state, he said, “defines religious freedom as freedom from coercion to have a certain religion but that really means no community and no belonging. There is a comprehensive silence about God. . . an anthropology of indifference . . . public atheism is privileged.”

Dr. Gary Badcock, an assistant professor at Huron University College, cited British political theorist John Gray in describing liberalism as “a surrogate religion but a shoddy replica . . . a secular fundamentalism.” Badcock said Gray prefers a political conservatism of no grand visions and a theory of “non-progress” which understands that “humans and history cannot be perfected  . . . that all human politics is compromised in the lust for power.”

It was left to Dr. Dennis Klimchuck from The University of Western Ontario’s faculty of law to argue that Canada’s liberal democracy has performed quite admirably in cases that deal with the hiring policies of religious groups. “Can religious institutions engage in discrimination in hiring?” he asked. “The answer is yes if they are hiring a priest and not a janitor. Broadly speaking a religious organization is exempted from the duty not to discriminate in hiring.”

He said that Canada has followed an “exemption approach” allowing religious organizations to make their own decisions, with the courts ruling on them only when necessary. He described this as wise and tolerant. A middle-aged woman approached Klimchuk as he left the room following the panel. “I am a lawyer,” she said, “and you are the only person here that I could understand.”

I presented a paper describing how the religious right is growing in political power and influence. I described, by way of example, how the Catholic Church had refused full participation in the church to several MPs to punish them for voting in favour of same sex marriage legislation. I was asked during the question period if I agreed with the church’s actions (I do not). Most members of the audience expressing an opinion, including another panellist, believed that the MPs should have obeyed the church’s dictates.

There were several presentations on Islam in Canada and a speech by Dr. Wael Haddara. He is a medical doctor, an assistant professor in the school of medicine and dentistry at The University of Western Ontario, and also a director of the Muslim Association of Canada. He said that when Canada’s first mosque was built in Edmonton (by a Ukrainian Canadian architect), it was considered a proud moment for the entire community. Similarly, when a mosque was built in London, Ontario, by Lebanese Canadians in 1955, local dignitaries were on hand for its opening. He talked about many young Muslims who came to Canada as students planning to return home but who eventually remained in this country. This is a commonplace Canadian immigration story but Dr. Haddara said that Muslims were more integrated in that earlier era than is the case today. In the post 9/11 period, he said, there has been more discrimination and a “fear of the other that focuses on differences rather than commonality.”

For her part, Rev. Wilson wasn’t able to remain at the conference for long after her speech. She was leaving to attend a Muslim wedding and suggested that all of us take any such opportunity whenever it might present itself.

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Dennis

Dennis Gruending is an Ottawa-based writer, blogger and a former member of Parliament