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J.B. Pratt: A Secular State and a Religiously Inclusive Society

Address to a Forum by UPF-Canada
“Is There a Conflict Between a Secular State and Religiously Inclusive Society?”
Montreal, Canada - November 21, 2013

About two years ago, one Saturday morning I was headed downtown, on my way to a celebration of the 35th anniversary of the ordination of women in the Anglican Church of Canada. I got on the 105 bus at the Montreal-West terminus, which is right across Sherbrooke Street from the church. The driver noticed my clerical collar and asked:

Êtes-vous prêtre? (Are you a priest?)
Oui. (Yes)
Catholique? (Catholic?)
Non, je suis anglican. C’est mon église là. (No, I’m Anglican. That’s my church over there.)
Will et Kate? (Will and Kate?)
Oui. (Yes)

From there, we had a conversation about the Anglican church, how Anglican priests can marry and women can be priests, how the Anglican church is the established church in England but not in Canada, and about his mosque, of which the imam's salary is paid by the government of Turkey. This continued until the bus reached Benny Avenue, by which time there were too many passengers boarding and requiring his attention.

I come to this discussion today as an Anglican priest who has come, by my own choice, to this wonderfully diverse city. As an Anglican, I am part of a tradition of an established, state church, which in England goes back some 1200 years. The particular Anglican identity was forged in the turmoil of the Tudor and Stuart dynasties in the 16th and 17th centuries, with much acrimonious debate about the limits of religious conformity for the sake of peace and harmony. Our legacy as Anglicans in the 21st century means confronting our colonialist history, which sought to impose English customs, manners and religious traditions on indigenous populations, especially here in Canada the sorry legacy of the residential schools. In the global context, Anglicans today wrestle with that colonial legacy in reacting to very diverse cultural contexts throughout the world.

Although in Canada, the Anglican Church was never an established church, nevertheless it had many official functions, in education, in registering births, marriages and deaths, in subduing the native population and in maintaining order. In my opinion, that legacy of quasi-establishment has been detrimental, both to the Anglican Church and to the nation.

For the church, when clergy are in part officials or functionaries of the state, they have a divided loyalty, and, if the commands of our faith conflict with the demands of the state, we must compromise our beliefs. This leads to a watering down of the demands of faith. Clergy also can easily become focused more on power and status, rather than on what the Letter of James calls true religion. Among the people, if membership in a church is the only means to obtain access to education and other government services, membership becomes a matter of convenience rather than of faith or commitment. The Anglican Church of Canada, like most other mainline churches, has seen a huge decrease in its membership over the last generation as a result.

So, to answer the question, Must there be a conflict between a secular state and religiously inclusive society?

First, I think we need to define what we mean by a secular state. Some, in the current debate, have argued that the state should be officially atheistic and that religious groups and institutions should not benefit from tax-exempt status or have any public role. I understand a secular state (and I think this underlies at least the language of the proposed Charter, if not its spirit) to be one which does not privilege or favor any particular religion or system of belief, but treats all neutrally.

This principle is one of which I am entirely in favor. Indeed, our diocesan synod (our governing body), in its recent statement of opposition to the Charter, expressed agreement with the religious neutrality of the state. I find much support for this position in the sayings of Jesus: “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and give to God the things that are God’s” (Mark 12:17). A religiously neutral state should allow different religions to coexist.

The problem is that historically, Canada has been, at least in the minds of many, a de facto Christian nation. As the introduction said, members of the established Christian majority have felt their culture and heritage threatened. The majority can try to use the coercive power of the state to limit the religions and cultures of the new immigrants and minority cultural communities. This animus lies behind the Charter.

In our discussion at Synod, one of my fellow priests suggested that we ought to pass a resolution thanking Mme Marois for doing more than any other Quebecer to bring Christians, Jews and Muslims together in common cause and in dialogue. I believe that the way to defuse tensions in our society is not to enforce conformity to a particular set of norms, but to encourage dialogue and understanding. Jesus said, “Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” As people of faith, we need to recognize that we are all children of God, however we recognize God and by whatever name we call God, and hence brothers and sisters of one another, and we need to work together.

Rev. James B. Pratt was inducted as the new incumbent of St. Philip’s Church in Montreal West on March 5, 2009. He previously practiced law in the Boston area for some years, specializing in real estate, and had been in charge of the rural parish of Cow Head in the Diocese of Western Newfoundland since 2002, the year of his ordination as deacon and later priest. He has been active in various committees of the Western Newfoundland diocese and regional and national bodies, as well as community and health-care organizations. He is clerical secretary of the Synod of the Ecclesiastical Province of Canada – made up of the dioceses in Quebec and Atlantic Canada – and as such became an ex officio member of the Diocesan Council, the governing body of the Montreal diocese between synods, on his arrival in the diocese.