Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Compare and Contrast

In my web travels yesterday, I found myself roaming around the websites of two different church bodies - the United Church of Canada and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Calgary, Alberta.

Both websites had "pastoral letters" from the leaders of these respective church bodies. My understanding of the notion of a Pastoral Letter is that it is a means for senior clergy to communicate their church's position and teachings on a topic to both local church clergy as well as the congregation. As such, I would expect a certain amount of reference to scripture, or at the very least to other church writings on a topic. Otherwise, such letters essentially become a political manifesto.

I've read and dissected Bishop Henry's "pastoral letters" for their content before, and that is not my intention here. I've picked out the two of Bishop Henry's articles that are obviously intended to be pastoral letters - January 2005, and May 2005.

For contrast, I present Rt. Rev. Peter Short's "Pastoral Letter" from the end of June.

A random search of the web for "Pastoral Letters" turned up this one on a related topic from an American Bishop.

The first thing that struck me was the stark difference in content between Bishop Henry's "Pastoral Letters", and the other two that I have presented. Both Moderator Short and Bishop Thomas Daily speak of scripture and their respective interpretation of it. Bishop Henry's letters may be written from the perspective of Roman Catholic teachings on the subject, but do not speak in terms of those teachings.

Moderator Short's letter is rather interesting in the fact that while it speaks to the secular issues involved, he also addresses the reality of the impact of those issues on congregations. Rev. Short takes on the divisions and concerns of the various congregations in the context of scripture and its interpretation. He is clearly speaking to his church, and doing so in terms of the faith he believes in.

Additionally, Bishop Henry has been republishing his "Pastoral Letters" almost verbatim in the Calgary Sun as his "monthly column" recently.

May 1, 2005 Column for Calgary Sun
May 1 Pastoral Letter

There are other examples, if you are willing to compare his monthly Diocese columns with what has appeared in the Sun - it's not just his Pastoral Letters that are at play here.


To me there's a duplicity here. In principle, a Pastoral Letter is a vehicle for communication within the organization of the church. As such, publishing those letters in any church-owned vehicle is quite legitimate. Further, I would hope that such a document would go some distance in trying to explain the church's position on a topic with respect to the church's teachings. Bishop Henry's writings do not do this - they don't even appear to pay lip service to the topic of the theology behind his arguments. However, when Bishop Henry's "Pastoral Letters" happen to be published in a local newspaper - more or less verbatim - it seems to me that he has stepped out from behind the 'veil' of Church communication, and into the secular "public square". No matter how "based on his faith" those columns are, they are now a fundamentally a part of the public discourse outside of the Church.

It is here that the Bishop finds himself in an awkward place. Not only are his Pastoral Letters being multiply published outside of the Church, they are now subject to scrutiny by bodies that are not bound by the teachings of the Bishop's faith. The stark difference in structure and content between other "Pastoral Letters" and Bishop Henry's is striking. One could argue quite easily that Bishop Henry is in fact writing a political manifesto, not a document of religious doctrine.

It is in this regard, along with some of the words the Bishop's letters have used that complaints now before the Alberta Human Rights Commission will need to be considered. While Bishop Henry will continue to claim that his Charter Right to Freedom of Religion is being impinged upon by the very complaints to the human rights commission in Alberta, there is a considerable argument that Bishop Henry is playing politics while trying to hide behind the veil of his position as a senior member of the clergy.

In comparison, I doubt that one could make any claim against Rev. Short's pastoral letter, no matter how strongly one disagrees with it, as it is clearly intended for consumption within his church. Similarly, Bishop Daily's letter is so clearly written in terms of church teachings that it would be exceedingly difficult to argue that he is doing anything outside of acting in his role as guide to the congregations of his diocese.

No comments: