Archbishop Michael Peers has called on various religious traditions in Canada to rise above their differences and renew their public role in society saying their contributions are "particularly crucial" as more and more Canadians are "losing confidence in the common good". In a speech before the Empire Club of Canada in Toronto, his last public address before retiring as primate on 1 February, Archbishop Peers also spoke out against "diehard secularism" citing the recent "dangerous decision" made by the French government to ban the use in public of Muslim headscarves, Jewish skullcaps, and Christian crosses of any size, and the absence of religious references during the Sept 11, 2001, memorial service on Parliament Hill.
Archbishop Peers lamented that through the years he has seen an erosion of the public role of religion and public discourse concerning citizenship in Canada. These two trends, he added, have undermined the quality of life in the country and therefore, it was crucial for religious communities and leaders to "stand down from the certainties that bring us into conflict with one another, and to embrace the conversation by which together we might serve the common good." Failing to do so, he said, would only push religion and its contributions further away from public life. "If we cannot assure our fellow citizens that our discourse is not toxic with the hostility that has too often characterized it in the past, we will not be granted a hearing for the deep and holy wisdom entrusted to our care," he said.
The primate cited a number of factors for the absence of religion from public life. Religion, he said, has been treated as "a dangerous commodity, likely to lead either to conflict, or to religiously-motivated repression if allowed too much scope in public life."
Public discourse on citizenship, on the other hand, "has been degraded almost to the point of extinction, replaced by the language of 'tax payers'," he said.
But while he called for a renewal of public discourse on religion and citizenship, the primate said it "cannot succeed if it is pure nostalgia; the future we seek will not be served by a return to the old days, in which a distilled and nominal Christianity influenced and constrained public life."
Archbishop Peers acknowledged that sharp differences between and within faiths sometimes impede public discourse. "Though they hear the same Scriptures, they are often at odds over the meaning of those Scriptures," he said referring to the experience of the Anglican Church of Canada, where the debate over same-sex blessings has split some parishes and dioceses.
"Whatever the public contribution of faith may be, then, it will not be a matter of delivering a moral or spiritual consensus," the primate said. "But what if the point is not a conceptual agreement, but a shared probing of divine and human truth?"
In his speech, attended by more than 80 people including business executives, religious leaders, and high school students from schools of various denominations, the primate also expressed concern that the social agenda has "disappeared" from the government's radar.
He said that the access that religious leaders once had to political leaders in matters of social advocacy "no longer exists as it once did in Canada, and there is some question as to whether it was ever particularly effective even when it did."
Sometimes, co-operation with government comes at a heavy price, he said, citing the experience of four churches, including the Anglican Church of Canada, which together with the federal government, faced lawsuits by hundreds of native Canadians who alleged various forms of abuse in a boarding school system that it jointly operated nationwide for more than a century. Such co-operation "has cost the churches deeply - in credibility as well as in dollars," he said. (An agreement was signed in March 2003 limiting the Anglican Church of Canada's liability to CAN$25 million with respect to the litigation. The Anglican Church ran 26 of the 80 schools and was named by more than 2,000 plaintiffs.)
Article by Marites N Sison