Those attending the Wetaskiwin Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast were privileged to hear Bruce J. Clemenger, President of The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, provide significant and interesting glimpses of the historical, political, and legal context of Christian engagement with society and government in Canada. It was a treat to listen to someone who understands the big picture so well that he can present the broader viewpoint through a series of brief biographical sketches and examples.
However, as usual, there were other interesting features of the morning including the delicious breakfast, the excellent music provided by Margaret Naturkach and Ben Christenson, the Scripture readings by fairly new to Wetaskiwin RCMP Constable Andrew Nixon, and greetings and prayers. Grade 12 student, Maggie Peterson, in her Youth Prayer, prayed not only for the youth of the community, but on behalf of the youth for the community as a whole, including many of the organizations, areas of concern, and areas of leadership. It was also noted that Pastor Greg Newman, President of the Ministerial Association, was with his daughter at Rexall Place in Edmonton where 10,000 young people and a few adults from all around the world and many Christian denominations were gathered to worship and learn.
Mayor Bill Elliot very graciously expressed his appreciation for everyone present, for the good relationships the City enjoys with the churches, the surrounding communities, and boards. When he expressed appreciation for the way our previous MLA Verlyn Olson has supported the Prayer Breakfasts and the community, Verlyn and Mardel were given a standing ovation.
The whole program was good, but the Guest Speaker, Bruce J. Clemenger, was the highlight. He considered the directive given in Jeremiah 29 to those from Judah carried into exile in Babylon where God tells them to settle down and pray and seek prosperity and peace for that city, because their blessings were interconnected with its blessings. Then he proceeded to provide the national, world, and historical perspective on how this applies here and now.
He began with the Supreme Court decision regarding state-sponsored public prayer in Saguenay, Quebec, noting that the report giving the decision is confusing and seems to be quite limited to that one situation and perceived state support of one small part of the religious spectrum. Putting this in perspective, are three facts: there is nothing in the Canadian Charter or Constitution prohibiting government supported prayer; therefore, Canada is distinctively different from the U.S.A. regarding separation of church and state; Canada is also different from England where Church of England Bishops have positions in the House of Lords. Clemenger failed to mention the other fact that the nominal head of our government, our Monarch Queen Elizabeth II, is also the nominal head of the Church of England (Anglican Church in Canada). He did mention that the Salvation Army, a church, is the largest social service provider in Canada. He concluded that the Supreme Court decision seems to indicate that governments shouldn’t take sides and rests in common law argument.
Reflecting on the intersection of church and state, of politics and Christianity, Clemenger observed that it is good to separate church and state but it is difficult to separate faith and politics because all human interactions involve a faith perspective and a political dimension. For Christians living under the Lordship of Christ, their religion encompasses all of life, so they can’t separate their faith from politics. Back in the 1830s, it was the evangelical William Wilberforce who sat in England’s parliament for 41 years where he was passionately opposed to the slave trade, but also was concerned about what he called “the reformation of manners,” treating others with respect and dignity, with agape love, especially the vulnerable in may areas such as child labourers and animals. In Canada, social services were developed in Toronto in the late 1800s by men who recognized that a Christian society is responsible to reach out and care, so for a time was called Toronto the Good. Among Canadian politicians, Wordsworth was a minister, Aberhardt was a Bible School teacher, Ernest Manning worked in the Legislature Monday to Friday, farmed on Saturday, and preached on the radio on Sunday.
After using these and other examples, Clemenger went on to tell a little about his experience with an inter-faith council including Muslims, Sikhs, and Hindus, and noted that the early church grew so quickly because it cared for the vulnerable. He noted that education and health care came out of Christianity, but in Canada the governments with their tax base have taken over. The concern is that the church continue to seek the blessing of where it lives, and recognize that it still has a role. The government can provide food and funds, but it takes the church to provide meals and homes. The church is inter-generational, intercultural, and multidisciplinary, so is different from other organizations in its abilities and perspective. He gave examples of churches engaging in ways governments can’t. One church with 10 members wanted to keep meeting together. They invited the chaplain of a nearby prison to preach monthly. He came, and brought a couple inmates with him. The church people could bake, and fed their guests well. Other inmates heard about the good food and wanted to come. Out of this small beginning came prison visitation, prisoner support groups and Bible studies, a spontaneous locally appropriate prison ministry. Another church holds an annual dinner to show appreciation to social workers. The Kelowna Mayor’s office knows the capacities of the churches, so can call upon them to mobilize and assist in times of need. Bruce Clemenger concluded, “There is no legal barrier for churches to bless their communities.”