Tuesday, April 26, 2016

New Rules: A Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter

Preached on Sunday, 24 April, 2016 at Trinity Anglican Church, Barrie, Ontario.

Texts for the Fifth Sunday after Easter:  Acts 11:1-18, Psalm 148, Revelation 21: 1-6, John 13: 31-35

Two days ago, on Friday evening, our Jewish brothers and sisters celebrated the start of Passover.   They met for prayers and food, the seder supper.   This year, for some Jewish families from what is called the Conservative tradition will have different food on the table.   Rabbis from this tradition have agreed to end a ban on eating legumes during Passover.  Traditionally, Jews descended from the Middle East and Eastern European (the Ashkenazi) banned legumes along with grains from the house and from the table during Passover.  This was to honour the custom that only unleavened bread be eaten during Passover, to represent the Jews hurried flight from Egypt on their way to freedom and the promised land.
This year a  council of American Conservative rabbis have decided that the legume ban no longer fits the times.  I’m not sure if they have decided that God is doing a new thing, or they have just agreed that you can eat legumes at Passover and still be a faithful Jew, but by a vote of 19 to 1, the rabbis ended the legume ban.  So for the first time in centuries, since long before Columbus discovered the New World, foods like lentils, rice and chickpeas will now be allowed on the table during Passover.   This may seem like a small change, but in Judaism the decision to change a custom that has been in place for eight hundred years is a big deal and not all are in agreement.  Jews from the stricter Orthodox tradition do not agree with the change, and will keep the Legume Ban in place.  These Jews feel that a custom is a custom and shouldn’t be changed, because it is the keeping of customs and laws that they are who they are, faithful Jews. 
This argument about changes in dietary laws and identity is interesting in light of our first reading from the Book of Acts.   The same questions are in play:  what are our religious traditions for, can they be changed, and what is really important to God?
As a chaplain in the Canadian Armed Forces, I am sometimes asked to explain religious customs to others, and I am sometimes asked to talk about why food is important to religion.  Of course, there are many things that distinguish different religions, including items of dress, ways of wearing hair, and days and hours of worship, and, of course, food.   Judaism, Islam and Hinduism have rules about what the faithful can and can’t eat.  The same is true of some members of the Christian family, such as Mormons and Seventh Day Adventists, and many Christians practice fasting on certain days, like Roman Catholic “fish Fridays”. 
 Most Christians, however, don’t have such rules.  Anglicans, as far as I know, merely like to eat together, as often as possible.   Our fondness for communal meals, which are at the heart of our worship in the Eucharist, may reflect the importance of Jesus’ miracles of food and drink told in all four gospels, which are a sign of God’s abundance and generosity which is at the heart of the Christian message.
Like Christians, other faiths have practices around food that help them to understand their relationship to God.   For Muslims, keeping the fast of Ramadan is a sign of obedience to God that is at the heart of Islam.   For Hindus, the cows is sacred (and beef forbidden) because it represents the goodness of creation. Gandhi said that the cow’s patience and nurturing represent our mother earth.   For Jews, food laws represent their special identity as God’s chosen people.   The four questions asked by the child on the night of Passover, questions which basically ask, “Why do we eat this way?”, are to remind all Jews of how God brought them out of slavery in Egypt and made them his people.   The questions are asked by a child because they are central to Jewish teaching and identity.
Sometimes religious food laws look arbitrary and foolish to outsides, who are tempted to ask, “Why do you guys act this why?”  Sometimes outsiders resent the fact they are outsiders, just like it is surprising, and possibly offensive to some, when an Orthodox Jew refuses to shake your hand or sit beside you on a plane.   We need to remember in such moments that for Jews and for the faithful of other religions, keeping their laws is keeping faith with God.   Keeping faith is especially important for minorities who are surrounded by non-believers, as Jews have lived for much of their history.
Religious identity is at the heart of our reading from Acts.   To understand the reading, we have to remember that Peter has gotten in trouble with the church in Judea, followers of Jesus who still thought of themselves as Jews, because he had gone to the house of “the uncircumcised”, or gentiles.  In Acts 10, we are told of how a Roman army officer, Cornelius, whose worships God and is faithful in his own way.  God rewards Cornelius by sending an angel to him, because “Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God” (Acts 10:4).  The angel instructs Cornelius to send men to the town of Joppa to fetch Peter.
Imagine what Peter must have felt when some Roman soldiers showed up on his doorstep and said he must come with them.   These men symbolized Rome’s iron fist.  Soldiers like these ones had crucified Jesus.   Now imagine Peter’s surprise when they told Peter to come with them and visit Cornelius, in his house.   Faithful Jews were forbidden to associate with non-believers or gentiles, which is why in John’s gospel the Jewish leaders refused to enter Pilate’s palace to ask for the death of Jesus (John 18: 28).  But God sends the Spirit to Peter, telling him to “go with them without hesitation, for I have sent them” (Acts 10:19) and so Peter goes.  He meets with Cornelius, his family and friends, and teaches them who Jesus is, how God raised him from the dead, and forgives the sins of all who believe in Jesus.   The Spirit comes again, Cornelius and his family speak in tongues and praise God, and Peter is amazed that God has given these gifts even to Gentiles.  Seeing God’s decision, Peter concludes that he has no choice but to welcome these gentiles into God’s family.  He says, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”  So he baptizes them, and for that he gets into trouble.
So now that we know what happened before today’s lesson started, notice what the faithful believers in Judea have to say.  We are told that they know that Cornelius and his family have “accepted the word of God” (11:1).  You’d think they would be excited.  Souls have been saved!  The Church is growing!   But no, they’re not happy at all.   All they want to know is, why did you visit these people?  Why did you eat with them?  You know that’s not allowed!  These people are not us!  They’re unclean! “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” (11:3).
So Peter tells them about his vision at the Simon the Tanner’s place, just before the Roman soldiers showed up to get him.   He tells the faithful about how God showed him all the animals that were forbidden to Jews since the writing of the book of Leviticus.  Peter tells them how he, as a good Jew, did not want to violate the food laws and dishonor himself or God.   But Peter is given a new teaching.  ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane’ (11:9).   In other words, Peter is told that God is doing something new, and changing the rules.   If God is showing Peter that it’s now ok to eat what was previously considered forbidden, then God is also saying that it’s ok to associate with people, the Gentiles, who were previously considered unclean.
This story from Acts shows us that God thinks big, and God cares big.  If Jesus is God’s gift, then Jesus is God’s gift to everybody.  Paul recognizes this essential truth, and many of his writings, especially Romans, circle around this new thing, that God’s chosen people are now all those who believe in Jesus, Jews and Gentiles alike.   For me, this realization is what makes the book of Acts so exciting, because it is really a book about how God starts unfolding all of the implications of Jesus’ death and resurrection, and we find that it is even more generous and more wonderful than anyone could have imagined.
In his commentary on Acts, Will Willimon suggests that the focus on the book is not on the acts of the apostles, what they do, but rather it should really be called the Acts of the Holy Spirit.  Acts, he argues, is about what the Spirit keeps doing as ripples from the resurrection of Jesus keep expanding into the world.   The number of God’s chosen people is expanded as new members, like Cornelius and the Gentiles, get added to the family, and people have to start reconsidering their relationships to God and to one another.
Willimon suggests that Acts challenges our thinking about conversion as a one-time process.  Usually we think in terms of: I was a non-believer, now I’m a believer.  I was lost, now I’m saved.  Instead, conversion in Acts keeps happening, as God keeps touching people and deepening their knowledge of God.  Think of how it works in this story.  Peter believes in Jesus, but then the Spirit comes to him and challenges his understanding of what Jesus means and who can be a follower of Jesus.  Cornelius is a good man who believes in God, prayers, and is kind to others, but the Spirit comes on him and his family and they want a deeper relationship with Jesus.   The faithful in Judea start today’s lesson thinking that Gentiles are unclean, but Peter’s story pushes them to recognize other followers of Jesus, even Gentiles.  The circles keep growing, faith gets deeper, and generosity and community expands as the Body of Christ grows.
As I said at the beginning, we as Anglicans and Christians don’t have food laws that mark us as God’s people.  Thanks in part to today’s reading from Acts, what we have instead, at the heart of our belief, is a relationship with a God whose power and willingness to love is more generous than we can imagine.   Just when we think there might be limits to what God can or will do, there is God, saying, as he said to Peter, ‘What I call clean, you cannot call unclean.”  That means we have to keep challenging ourselves, asking ourselves, am I as generous as God is?  We may not have food laws, but we may take comfort, even pride, in our faith and our traditions, and may be tempted to judge or look down on those who are not like us.  There may be some that even find unclean, unlovable, or beyond the pale.  Before we judge others unfit to be loved, we need to remember that God may have other ideas.
Acts also teaches us that we must always be prepared for the fact that God will change the rules, and do a new thing.  This summer, our General Synod will meet in Toronto to discuss changing the marriage canons of the church to allow same-sex marriage.  There will be some who will doubtless quote this passage from Acts to say that if God can change the rules on clean and unclean once, he may be doing it again.  We need to be prepared to listen carefully to those arguments, to think hard about passages like this one, and to ask ourselves if we need to be ready, like Peter, to follow where the Spirit leads us?
As a military chaplain, I try to be deeply respectful of the religious practices and beliefs of others.   I understand why things like food can be so important to their religious identity and their sense of faithfulness to God.  After all, food, like faith, keeps us alive.  However, as a Christian, my tradition holds that God, in his love and mercy through Jesus, has opened doors to me, a gentile and a sinner, that were previously closed.  We need to take faith, and hope, that God can do new and powerful things, and that he is determined to grow his family, the Body of Christ.  That is good news for us, as sinners and gentiles, and it is good news for Trinity as we seek to ask, what new thing will God do to us, and where will God lead us?

Friday, April 8, 2016

Spiritual House Keeping

Military chaplains, like pastors, are often called on to write short and pithy inspirational messages for local newspapers. 

In my case, my boss and the base newspaper (The Borden Citizen) recently decided to have a weekly "Padre's Corner" column, and I got the date for jsut after Easter.   An interesting challenge to write (in 200-250 words) from a spiritual but non-denominational way that might have something to say to believers (Christian and otherwise) as well as the secular, unchurched.  The metaphor of spring as a time of cleaning and rewewal seemed like a useful launching pad.

Here's what I came up with - on page 12 of the linked document.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

For Jews of Scottish Ancestry, An Official (And Kosher) Tartan

Today in Canada, and elsewhere in the world for all I know, we are observing National Tartan Day.   It seems a fitting occasion to pass on this story, via US National Public Radio, which certainly qualifies as one of the cheerier religious news items of the day.  In this link, NPR's Mary Louise Kelly speaks with a Glasgow Rabbi, Mendel Jacobs, who has designed the fist official Jewish Scottish tartan.

Rabbi Mendel Jacobs with his tartan prayer shawl.
The interview references a Sikh tartan, which may be seen here.  There are also mysterious references to a Christian clergy tartan, but, being a bit of a liturgical purist, I don`t have the courage to really pursue that.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

"I Made Horrible Mistakes": Regrets Of An American Torturer

Diagram of stress positions, from a US military handbook for interrogators.

A day after reading a very disheartening Religious News Service story about how nearly two-thirds of Americans support torture, I was given fresh hope when I listened to NPR's incomparable Terry Gross speaking with an American former interogator who worked in Iraq's infamous Abu Ghraib prison.

Eric Fair worked for a private contractor employed by the US military as an interrogator in Iraq.  A former soldier, his knowledge of Arabic qualified him for the work, though he admits there were times when he was reliant on translators to understand what the prisoners were saying.   He has just published Consequence: A Memoir, which has been well reviewed by the New York Times.

Eric Fair
In the interview, Fair sounds like a man who has been psychically and morally injured by torturing others, and he is very clear that how whatever  linguistically disguises we may give it, like enhanced interrogation, torture is torture.  While he is willing to give his fellow interrogators credit for sincerely believing that their work may have saved American lives, that motive for him, loking back, is not sufficiently exculpatory (setting aside the important point that torture does not work).  He writes:

I refuse to suggest that torture is successful on any level. And I'm not sure that it matters; it shouldn't matter to anyone in this country. I'm not sure why we've gotten to this point where we start to talk about the effectiveness of torture, as if that makes any difference whatsoever.

Torture is wrong. Americans, all Americans, should know better. That's what makes us attractive; what makes us attractive is the way we do things, it's the example that we set. What makes us attractive is not how tough we are or how good we are at extracting information, and anyone who thinks that way I think fails to understand what this country is about. So I've left that discussion about whether or not torture is effective or not behind. It simply doesn't matter.

At a time when a Reuters and Ipsos poll finds 63 per cent of Americans (and 82% of Republicans)  believing that toture is jsutified if it can "obtain information about terrorism activities", Fair's voice is honest and important.  I'll review his book here in the near future.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Anglicans: Catholic Or Evangelical?

A learned friend of mine would answer the question in the Post Header by saying Both, which is probably correct for some of us.

This post is just a stub and a plug for an excellent list of recent writing on Anglican ecclesiology and theology by the American writer, Christopher Benson.  Lots of items there to go on my reading list.


Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Book Review: Annie Jacobsen's The Pentagon's Brain: An Uncensored History of DARPA



The Pentagon’s Brain:  An Uncensored History of DARPA, America’s Top Secret Military Research Agency (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2015).

Annie Jacobsen


Since 1958, DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, has connected the US military with the academic and scientific expertise that it relies upon to maintain its technological advantage over present and likely future adversaries.    Journalist Annie Jacobsen has done a competent job of telling the story of this cooperation, within the limits of what information is unclassified and thus accessible.   A book with a subtitle that includes “Top Secret Military Research Agency” warns the reader that there are limits to what it is likely to tell them.   Jacobsen admits in her conclusion that “DARPA’s highest-risk, highest-payoff programs remain secret until they are unveiled on the battlefield” (451).  Given the limits of what she does not know, she tells a fascinating story of ingenuity and hubris, which ends with troubling ethical and moral implications.

Jacobsen begins her story with Castle Bravo, the codename of an operation in 1954 to test a new thermonuclear or hydrogen bomb on the remote Bikini Atoll, 2650 miles west of Hawaii.   The test was part of an effort to stay ahead of the Soviet Union in the nuclear arms race.  The Castle Bravo bomb took advantage of new technology to miniaturize warheads, so that the weapon detonated on Bilini was vastly more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb a decade before, and yet was not much larger.   The explosion was far more powerful than anticipated, to the point where the observers in a concrete and sand-covered bunker nineteen miles away wondered if they would survive the massive shockwave.    

Jacobsen uses Castle Bravo to set up her main theme, that scientific and technological progress threatens to outstrip our ability to manage it, not to mention our ethical preconceptions of how war is supposed to work.   Another example, similar to the scale of the Castle Bravo explosion, was the first test in 1960 of a massive radar in Greenland, which would allow NORAD (North American Defence Command) to detect Soviet missile launches.   The radar system was so powerful that its signals were detecting the rising moon, a quarter of a million miles away, and the primitive software was interpreting the signals as an attack.  It took human ingenuity and judgement to cancel a response and recalibrate the radar.   Similar wise judgements, Jacobsen recounts, prevailed in the eventual ending of above ground nuclear tests, by the superpowers, and the cancellation of bomb projects so vast that they would destroy continents.   Politicians, scientist, and military leaders could all agree that nuclear technology could never be used in war because there was no way to guarantee that it would not escalate, and no defence if it did.  In her final chapters, Jacobsen warns that we may not be so lucky with the technologies, including autonomous fighting systems (killer robots) and artificial intelligence, that DARPA is currently researching.

If human foresight and wisdom saved us from nuclear war thus far, that same wisdom is conspicuously absent in other chapters.   Jacobsen describes two episodes, one in Vietnam and the other in Iraq and Afghanistan, where military success depended on understanding the culture and motivation of human opponents.  In both cases, DARPA was tapped to recruit anthropologists and social scientists to help the US military understand why guerrilla insurgencies (the Vietcong in Vietnam and various insurgencies - Sunni, Shia and Taliban -in Afghanistan and Iraq) were motivating and recruiting their fighters.  These were questions that military leaders and technology could not answer.  The results, especially in the case of Vietnam, were not encouraging and provide a depressing spectacle of human folly.  When the civilian scientists concluded that the corrupt South Vietnamese regime and policies of forcible resettlement of peasants into fortified villages were creating insurgents, their findings were ignored, because they did not support the dominant paradigm that Communism was to blame.  Today, as Robert Kaplan points out in his recent book Asia’s Cauldron, we know that the Vietnamese have a long history of fighting invaders, and that Communism had far less to do with the struggle against the US than was supposed at the time.  Fears of falling dominos throughout Asia blinded the US to the role of simple, robust nationalism as a motivator.  

In Iraq and Afghanistan, social scientists were recruited into so-called Human Terrain Teams (HTTs), to help US commanders understand the tribal societies they were confronting, as counterinsurgency tactics forgotten post-Vietnam had to be relearned.  In so cases, HTTs were successful in helping troops to understand the human dimension of a complex and messy battlefield.  However, some in the civilian academic community felt that mapping the human terrain of what the military calls the “battlespace” could enable other groups within the military to identify high-value targets for capture or elimination, and that the work of civilian social scientists within the HTTs was not furthering the goal if impartial academic research.   One of the things one learns from Jaoobsen’s book is that when a DARPA program is green lighted, enormous sums of money flow.   Since the growing HTT program was farmed out to civilian defence contractors like BAE systems, unqualified people may have been hired, as this article suggests.  Eventually the Human Terrain program became a target for politicians crusading against waste, and the programs were scaled back, rebranded, or discontinued.

Because Jacobsen’s narrative is chronological, her book reads as a long series of projects that seemingly have little to do with one another, other than that their funding and research went through DARPA.   As a sequence, nuclear bombs, anthropologists in Vietnam, drones and IED jammers in Iraq and Afghanistan, and research on neurological enhancements and robots in the present day, all suggest a series of frenzied and trendy research programs, driven by the exigencies of the large wars America feared, and the small wars it found itself in.   I would suggest looking elsewhere for a military / historical perspective on why the US needs research agencies like DARPA.  Max Boot’s 2006 book, War Made New: Weapons, Warriors and the Making of the Modern World, would be one example of such a perspective.  Boot’s analysis of military technology’s evolution since 1500 shows a series of revolutions in weapons, tactics, and technology, each more remarkable and more compressed than the last, but each fatal for those powers that make poor choices.  Jacobsen’s book falls partially within what Boot calls the Information Revolution (c. 1970-2000), when America gained a decisive advantage in computer technology for weapons and command and control systems.  However, as Boot notes, having chosen to ride that tiger, the stakes involved have gotten higher and higher as the edge becomes less and less decisive.  Boot writes that:

"America’s early lead in the Information Revolution can easily be lost - it may be being lost already - if it does not stay at the forefront of military developments.  Other countries and even subnational entities such as al Qaeda have an opportunity to exert power that would have been unthinkable before the spread of personal computers, cell phones, satellite navigation devices, and other Information Age technologies” (p. 16). "

Jacobsen is write to end her book on a cautionary note as she worries about the implications of applying AI and robotics research to military uses.   She does not, however, note that other powers are undoubtedly working on the same systems.  The ease with which Russia could destroy Ukrainian field units in 2014-15 was through their own use of battlefield drones and computer controlled weapons systems.   If Jacobsen’s book is about technology as a Pandora’s box opened by soldiers and scientists, then that box was opened long ago, and, now opened, will take more than one world power to close.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Easter 1916 In The Trenches - Remembering Anglican Chaplaincy In The Great War

 This article is part of a series I am contributing to the newsletter of the Anglican Military Ordinariate, the clergy of the Anglican Church of Canada serving in the Canadian Armed Forces, as part of an ongoing celebration of the centenary of the Great War.   The complete edition of the newsletter for Easter 1916, as well as past versions, may be found here.  MP+



By Easter 1916, the Canadian Army in France had finished its apprenticeship of war and was starting to gain its reputation as an aggressive, modern force of shock troops.  With 36 combat battalions in three divisions in the line in France, and a Fourth Division soon to join them, Canada was hitting its stride of near full mobilization.   Its armed forces had doubled since the Canadian Expeditionary Force had first formed in 1914.   The CEF now included within its ranks specialists in tunnelling for the cat and mouse game of laying and detecting vast subterranean explosives planted under enemy trenches, while aggressive Canadian raiding tactics, first by night and later by day, had been approvingly noticed by the British Commander in Chief, Sir Douglas Haig.


France was not the only theatre of operations.   Canadian medical personnel operated in the Middle East, and two hospitals had been established at Mudros, a barren section of the Greek island of Lemnos (modern Limnos), to support the failed operation at Gallipoli.  Personnel and patients there suffered cruelly from inadequate water and rations, weather and disease, including scurvy.  The war diary of one of these hospitals conveys a sense of hardship in this one entry:  “Sickness among Officers, Nursing Sisters and men becoming prevalent.  Admission to Hospital of dysentery cases increasing daily.  The fly menace is very great, also the dust, and poor food supply very trying”.   It was at Mudros that Mary Frances Munro died,  the first of 47 Canadian nursing sisters to die in the Great War.  A native of Ontario and a graduate of Bishop Strachan School in Toronto, she died of illness and is among the Canadians buried at the Portianos Commonwealth Cemetery on Limnos.




Canadian military medical staff on Lemnos, ca 1916, from a Globe and Mail article, 2015.



Even in England, far removed from the hardships of Mudros, chaplaincy was challenging.  George Wells, the Anglican padre assigned to Shornecliffe military district, worried about how the Canadian soldier was “getting a very bad name” because of the temptations to “immoral behaviour” in “objectionable houses” and from those “soliciting in the streets”.  Wells worked hard to protect his soldiers, “those who were the pawns of war”.  His attempts to have such establishments put off limits were not sympathetically received by senior officers, who tended to blame the troops’ bad behaviour on the inadequate moral influences of their chaplains.  As Duff Crerar notes, the padres working in training camps faced an uphill battle.  Alcohol was easily obtainable, leadership was heavy handed, routines were tedious, and mandatory church parades were widely hated.  Social work in such conditions was especially challenging, but Wells had some success in championing unwed English mothers and getting Canadian soldiers to take responsibility for them.  In the near-Victorian morality of the period, one has to see this as an especially fearless and prophetic ministry.



For the CEF in the trenches, April 1916 was a cruel month.  Following the German offensive at Verdun, there was great emphasis on offensive action to relive the pressure on the French Army.  Just south of Ypres, Canadian troops were committed to a battle that became known as the St. Eloi Craters (27 March – 16 April 1916).  Four large mines were detonated under the German lines, but instead of the hoped-for breach, vast craters were created in the soggy landscape, complicating maneuver and navigation in the dismal landscape.   While some ground was won, the battlefield was “under constant enemy shelling, and men had been forced to crouch in mud-filled ditches and shell-holes, or stand all day in water nearly to their waists with no possibility of rest”.   During a relief in place under these appalling conditions, the Canadian 6th Brigade was caught in a German counterattack while badly strung out and not in defensive positions.   The Canadians were thrown back with heavy casualties, and the ground was retaken by the Germans.   The battle dragged on for days as an artillery duel before it ended, leaving 1,373 Canadians killed or wounded.  The Canadian official history describes St. Eloi as a “fiasco”, and its costly lessons were taken to heart in future trench offensives.


One of the St. Eloi Craters, Canadian War Museum


 One of the regiments hard pressed in the St. Eloi battle was the 6th Brigade’s 29th (Vancouver) Battalion.   Its chaplain was an Anglican, the Rev. Cecil Caldbeck Owen, a graduate of Wycliffe College and the Rector of Christ Church, Vancouver (today’s Christ Church Cathedral).  Owen, a vigorous man in his middle age, and widely popular in Vancouver, had long been a militia chaplain, and he went overseas with the newly formed 29th BN in May of 1915.  His 22 year old son Harold was by then already in France as an infantry officer.  




Padre Owen (right) with his son, Harold, in front of the Christ Church rectory, Vancouver, 1915, from Living Stones: A History of Christ Church Cathedral



 Christ Church granted Owen leave to serve in the CEF, and despite worries about his parish’s finances and attendance, he gained a reputation as a dedicated front-line chaplain.  He would have gone into action at St. Eloi still coping with grief, for his son Harold had been killed in action on 1 February, 1916.  Owen made a three hour journey on horseback to be present at Harold’s funeral, and like his colleague Canon Scott, continued in his ministry after losing his son to the war.    After the war, Owen served as a hospital chaplain in Vancouver, and was present at the dedication of the Vimy Monument, where he spoke of how “We must educate our children in the finer aspects of courage and sacrifice which emerged during the war so that they will remember the heroism and the deeper lessons which should have resulted from it”.  Sadly, war would ask another sacrifice of him.  Owen’s adopted son Luder Keshisian, an Armenian refugee, was an RCAF pilot in the Second World War, and was killed over Germany in June, 1944.   Padre Owen died in Vancouver on Christmas Eve, 1954, 


For those troops not in the line, Easter Sunday 1916 (24 April) happened to coincide with St. George’s Day, which was not lost on troops of English heritage.  Canon Scott, in the Ypres Salient with the First Division, describes how the engineers “built me a church, and a big sign over the door was first used on Easter Day … and we had very hearty services”.  For those Canadians in the nearby town of Poperinghe, like the Queen’s Own Rifles  which observed Easter Sunday with a church parade, there was the possibility of a visit to Talbot House, an all-ranks refuge created by an enterprising English Anglican, Padre “Tubby” Clayton.  


Talbot House, or “TocH” as it was known, offered soldiers a chance to worship in the chapel upstairs (which rocked alarmingly when packed with men) or to remind themselves of civilian life in the comforts of its drawing room and garden.  Visitors first saw a sign enjoining them to “Abandon rank, all ye who enter here”.  Padre Clayton knew the Canadian chaplains like Canon Scott, and welcomed many Canadian visitors.  He wrote that “Canadian churchmanship impressed me not a little.  For six months in 1916 a Canadian sergeant-major was the Vicar’s warden; and it was he who most appropriately welcomed the Archbishop of Canterbury on his memorable visit to the House early that summer.  Almost the first Canadians I saw were two tunnellers, who on a weekday morning set out from the old French dug-outs beyond Vlamertinghe at 5am and arrived at the Chapel for the celebration (then at 6:30 on weekday), having heard that the service was held daily, and being quite prepared to forgo their chances of breakfast at the end of a ten-mile walk.”  


While TocH was a refuge, it was not a shelter.  Poperinghe lay within the Ypres salient, and as Clayton wrote, shells “crossed and recrossed the roof from three points of the compass”.  The congregations who knelt and prayed in TocH’s small chapel had to return to an even more dangerous front line.  A long war and uncertain survival still lay before them.    For padres like Clayton, all they could do was to try andfind these momentary places and times of grace for the troo, and commend the men to God in the terrible battles to come.

Padre Michael Peterson+

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Easter 2016 Anglican Military Ordinariate Newsletter

Here is a link to the Easter 2016 edition of the newsletter I edit for my diocese, the Anglican Military Ordinariate of the Canadian Armed Forces.

It includes several articles on an historic event, our first election of our Bishop Ordinary, as well as a book review and a continued look back 100 years at Canadian Anglican chaplains in the Great War.


Thursday, March 17, 2016

David Gushee On The Church Losing Its Stickiness


Baptist pastor and theologican David Gushee offers an interesting analysis of how Donald Trump's supporters who self-identify as Christian evangelicals attend church less frequently than other evangelicals, particularly those with a college degree who tend not to be Trump supporters.

The point here is not why some Christians are drawn to Trump, though that is a fascinating subject and has been covered well elsewhere.

Rather, Gushee's point is that these people embody changing conceptions of how Christian identity is lived out in a way that has less and less contact with church membership and worship.  When regular church attendence is now defined as once or twice a month on Sunday, he argues, then Christian identity is attenuated as formation, discipleship, and the influence of the pastorate become hollowed out.

 It becomes very hard to pastor a flock when the flock always changes. It is hard to feel deeply spiritually connected, hard to want to become vulnerable, to a group that is not stable in its membership. The mere whiff of conflict can terrify church leaders because it can accelerate the churn and potential loss of membership that is always a possibility anyway.

Perhaps most germane to the politics of the moment, it is hard for church leaders to teach anybody anything in a sustained manner if hardly anyone is present in a sustained manner. The more technical way to say it is that Christian spiritual and moral formation weakens because fewer congregants commit to that formation in any particular place. And pastors have reason to fear that just as soon as they say anything challenging — like about racial prejudice, greed, or violence — congregants who don’t like that message can drift out just as easily as they drifted in.

So, America has a whole bunch of half-churched Christians, some of whom would answer “evangelical” on a survey. This, I think, explains a lot about what is happening in our churches, and in society.

It is worth noting that Gushee is writing s a US Baptist, so he is describing a phenomenon that is not confined to mainstream Protestant denominations.  The basic point is that wherever the denomination,  when the church loses its stickiness, its capacity to attract and form the faithful through the weekly discipline of word and sacrament, then the integrity and depth of Christian identity suffers.

This is not necessarily to say that evangelicals who align politically with Trump are necessarily deficient in their Christianity (though others, including Pope Francis, have suggested this), but it does suggest that termscasually invoked by pollsters and pundits, such as evangelical, are far more complex than many think. 

Having just returned from a three day retreat at the Society of St. John the Evangelist in Cambridge, MA, a community shaped by prayer, a shared identity in Christ and a rule of life, I am reminded of why the faithful need the church to shape and sustain our lives.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Military Goats In History

As all Mad Padre readers know, the military goat is a subject much beloved here.

Today, while working on a WW1 writing project, I came across this terrific photo of a soldier of Canada's Queen's Own Rifles with the regiment's dimunitive mascot.

In another photo of the same mascot and soldier, the handler is identified as a stretcher bearer.  The goat is wearing a "coat" showing the QoR's designation in the CEF as the 3rd (Toronto) Battalion.

The goat may be the same chap shown in this photo, identified as being from May 1918.

Sadly thus far, this goat is nameless.  In later decades the QoR had a Great Dane as their mascot.  At least one other famous Canadian regiment, the Royal 22nd or VanDoos, had a famous goat mascot known as Baptiste, who will feature in a later post, I hope.

Mad Padre

Mad Padre
Opinions expressed within are in no way the responsibility of anyone's employers or facilitating agencies and should by rights be taken as nothing more than one person's notional musings, attempted witticisms, and prayerful posturings.


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