CONVIVIUM: So you’ve moved from being a reporter on Parliament Hill and in Quebec’s National Assembly to becoming the Anglican Bishop of Quebec. That seems like a fairly unconventional career path. Are you meeting people these days who might need you to explain it to them just a little?
BRUCE MYERS: It’s funny because I have been encountering people from my other walks of life before ordination, or people who have never had anything to do with the Church, who have said: “I know what a bishop is in chess, but could you explain it to me in the context of you being a bishop?” It’s a reminder of the secular age we inhabit that we can’t even take for granted people knowing what a bishop does. I thought it was neat that there was sufficient interest beyond: “Here’s a former press gallery member whose gone on to do something a little quirky and offbeat.” It confirms for me that there is still a lot of goodwill out there toward people of faith.
C: You see it as goodwill even though they have no clue about the Church or faith?
BM: I do. There’s a lot of confusion, and world events help contribute to the confusion. But I think a lot of people who aren’t involved in any kind of faith community are curious and interested and find it compelling when they hear a story of someone who’s left a successful career to do something that’s less obviously success-oriented, such as become a priest and subsequently serve as a bishop. Why would somebody do that? I think that, in its own way, is a kind of witness.
C: Tell me a bit about the process. Right now, you’re awaiting ordination in May…
BM: I was elected last November to become the next bishop of the Diocese of Quebec for the Anglican Church of Canada. The cathedral is in Quebec City, but the territory covers about 620,000 square kilometres of Eastern and Central Quebec.
There are five Anglican dioceses that have jurisdiction in the Province of Quebec. The two principal ones are Montreal and Quebec. The diocese I’ll be serving begins in the Eastern Townships and extends on both sides of the St. Lawrence River all the way down to the Gulf, so the whole North shore bordering Labrador and all of Gaspé, including the Magdalen Islands, and pretty much everything in between. So the main cities would be Quebec City, Trois-Rivières and Sherbrooke.
C: That’s a huge area.
BM: Exactly, with a relatively small number of Anglican Christians spread out across that territory. If we’re being honest, the number I’ve been typically using is about 4,000 people. I will be ordained as coadjutor bishop, which means assistant bishop with right of succession. When the current bishop of Quebec, Dennis Drainville, retires, then I will officially succeed him as the 13th bishop of Quebec. He’s the one who initiated this process, so he foresees retirement in the very near future.
C: And you’re elected to serve that diocese? It’s not like Rome says, “You, there, go and be the bishop.”
BM: That’s one of the things that sets Anglicanism apart from Catholicism. We don’t have a central curia or authority that makes these appointments. It’s always the local church that makes the decision directly, for good or for bad. Sometimes we wish we had a curia, because it tends to make things easier….
C: I’m not sure even the Pope would agree the curia makes things easier, but you could always inquire about renewing your membership with us. Now, you are only 43. So you are going to be a bishop for a good long time.
BM: Our bishops normally serve until 70. While it’s theoretically possible I could remain the Bishop of Quebec until retirement, there’s also the possibility that it might seem right for everybody involved that I move on to another ministry. That is looking way ahead. I haven’t even been ordained yet.: Our bishops normally serve until 70. While it’s theoretically possible I could remain the Bishop of Quebec until retirement, there’s also the possibility that it might seem right for everybody involved that I move on to another ministry. That is looking way ahead. I haven’t even been ordained yet.
C: The small number of Anglicans in such a vast territory, that’s got to be a huge challenge for you. I think a lot of Quebecers wouldn’t know what an Anglican is, let alone know one. In fact, my late mother-in-law once asked me: Les anglicans, sont-ils chrétiens?” (Anglicans, are they Christians?)
BM: Yes, and that number is spread out across the diocese but concentrated in certain regions, so there’s a concentration of Anglicans in the Eastern Townships, another concentration around Quebec City, another in the Gaspé and Magdalen Islands and another in the lower North shore.
There are huge expanses where it is mostly Roman Catholic, and there’s never been an Anglican presence. So, yes, it is one of the challenges of the Anglican Church. I mean, in that territory, which excludes Montreal, anglophones, let alone Anglicans, have never been a majority presence. We’ve always been a linguistic minority and a religious minority, from our arrival in the 18th century.
We’ve always been accustomed to making do with relatively few resources, both human and financial, which can have a wonderful focusing effect on your mission and purpose. Part of the challenge I see for Anglicanism in that part of Quebec is related to our heritage as “The Church of England in the Dominion of Canada.” It’s a history and an identity that we don’t disown. Our roots are in the Church of England. Historically, even to this day, we remain a majority English-speaking Church.
We’re trying to discover ways to express the truth that Anglicanism, like any expression of the Christian faith, can be realized in different contexts and situations. Even though Anglicanism is historically English, it’s not its primary characteristic. That’s the heritage and context from which it emerged. That’s the context from which it came to Quebec and Canada. In fact, hundreds of thousands of Anglicans in the world speak French as a first language and worship and live their lives as Anglican Christians in French and a multiplicity of other languages.
C: In Africa and…
BM: Yes. So it’s through a different legacy of colonialism there that Anglicanism is experienced. We’ve seen the manner in which Anglican Christianity has been inculturated in different places – I think it’s 120-plus countries in the world. Initially, everywhere the English went, either as explorers or conquerors or traders, the Church of England went with them. What’s emerged, almost without intention, is this global family of national and regional churches that point to a common heritage and identity historically rooted in the Church of England but sharing other attributes that set us apart from other expressions of the Church.
One of the challenges for Anglicanism in Quebec is how we cease to be the Church of the English, the Church of the establishment, the Church of the bosses, the church of the Queen. That is still a question I commonly get from francophone Quebecers: “Oh, you’re the Church that has the Queen as its head?” I patiently explain that no, the Queen’s never been the head of the Anglican Church in Canada. She has a particular role to play in the Church of England, with which we’re in full communion, but we’re not the Queen’s church, though we pray for her regularly.
But the question is: How do you strike that balance between not renouncing your heritage as a Church with its roots in the Church of England while trying to express to the predominant culture, which in Quebec is francophone, that you’re not locked into that history and that there’s a place for people of all different linguistic and cultural backgrounds within Anglicanism? Partly what you need in order to do that is to have indigenous, with a small i, faithful and, in our case, clergy, too. That’s a process that’s begun, and we have a few French-speaking parishes that are led by not just bilingual anglophone clergy but Québécois francophone clergy. Those are small but growing.
C: That’s where the future lies without denying the past?
BM: I think there’s huge potential for growth in that direction. Notwithstanding Quebec possibly being the most secular or atheistic place on the planet right now, it means it’s also very fertile ground for the Church. The pendulum has swung the other way from the Quiet Revolution, when there was this very violent rejection of organized religiosity. Yes, the rejection was principally of the Catholic Church because that’s always been the largest Christian presence in Quebec. To a generation of Quebecers who grew up without, if I could say, the baggage of the Quiet Revolution and this ingrained disinclination toward organized religion and the Church, there’s a curiosity and openness, a willingness, to engage and ask questions. I think the Church, too, has learned from the experience of the Quiet Revolution. It has learned to assume a more humble stance in its approach to the predominant culture and to the people who are seeking answers to some of those fundamental, existential questions that people have always asked and continue to ask, and the Church offers one answer or a set of answers.
C: What is the lesson there? What was learned?
BM: I think we’ve learned to become a Church in dialogue with the dominant culture in which we exist as a minority. That openness and that hunger, for lack of a better word, for spirituality or meaning among a lot of Quebecers has also meant we’ve seen a rise in New Age approaches to things. It’s no secret that cults have become a part of the landscape, too, everywhere; but there have been some notable examples in the last 20 years or so in Quebec. People are looking for something, and the Church continues to have something important and meaningful to offer. I think the time might be right for that conversation to happen again.
Charles Taylor has been just wonderful – to read his analysis in that great big tome, The Secular Age. He doesn’t specifically name Quebec as the context, but his context is as a Catholic and a Quebecer. I think he’s helpfully named how we’ve gotten to this place we’re in, especially in the Quebec context, where the Church in many ways has lost its traditional place in society and where there’s much that the Church has traditionally taught and offered that people aren’t willing to accept or aren’t necessarily interested in. But at the same time, there’s a void in their lives. There’s still this hunger and search for meaning.
C: Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in his new book, Not in God’s Name, has a wonderful description of Homo sapiens as a “meaning-seeking species” in our very genetic makeup. He makes the point that all the great fruits of the Enlightenment haven’t answered our evolutionary need to seek meaning, our natural desire to ask “Why?”
BM: That’s partly what Taylor points out, too, and it’s my own experience as a parish priest in Quebec City and in the Magdalen Islands for a few years. I know this is an experience in the Catholic Church and many others of the historic expressions of Christianity in Quebec. There are people who would normally not have any association with the Church. They might even be actively opposed to some of what the Church proclaims – or what they perceive the Church to be proclaiming. But at those key, fundamental moments of their lives, those life passages – birth, marriage, death – they still come seeking the ministrations and the sacraments of the Church. They aren’t always able to clearly articulate why, or what the something visceral is that brings them back, but these are sacred, holy moments in the lives of people.
There hasn’t been anything created yet that adequately fills the void, secularly. I think we are starting to see that, especially around death rituals where there are no options other than calling up the local Anglican or Catholic priest, or United Church or Presbyterian minister, to say a loved one has died. He didn’t have any real connection to the Church, but can we have the funeral at your church?
Now there are whole organizations that exist to help you plan your own funeral, and maybe that’s healthy, but part of what Taylor helps do for me is mitigate some of the frustration I would feel as a parish priest when these folks approach us, asking for the Church’s services, its ministrations, its sacraments, with no real intention of subsequently participating in the life of the Church. Almost as if we were a service provider of some kind, and this is a commodity we’re offering.
What Taylor helped draw out for me was what I think I knew deep down, but he gave voice to it in a very specific way: These people don’t have anything else at the moment, so it’s natural that they would turn to, for lack of a better term, the sacred institution in their neighbourhood. There’s still this echo, this memory, of the sacred that drives them to the Church, even if they’ve had nothing to do with it most of their lives. There’s an opportunity there.
C: And the right response is to open the door and help them feel they belong?
BM: I’ve seen first-hand how being open and erring on the side of grace in those situations isn’t just the pastoral thing to do; it’s in fact drawn some people into the life of the Church in a very meaningful, helpful way for them. It’s not about getting more people on the parish rolls or bums in pews on Sundays. It’s about helping afford these people some meaning in their lives.
C: There’s the wonderful story about the priest who went to say Mass every week at a prison for women and no one ever came. Finally one day, the warden thanked the priest for coming and told him how much the inmates appreciated it. The priest got annoyed and said, ”Please don’t patronize me; no one ever comes.” And the warden said, “Yes, Father, but they listen. They wait to hear the sound of your footsteps, and they stop what they were doing. They don’t come because they are ashamed. But when they hear your footsteps, they listen.”
BM: I think that illustrates the value of the Church or for any people of faith to be faithful to the witness they represent, even if it seems like nobody’s listening, nobody’s paying attention, nobody cares. We continue, in the case of Christians, to celebrate the Eucharist, week after week, to pray for the world and for all sorts and conditions of people day after day, even if that’s not always welcomed or even if it doesn’t seem as if it’s being listened to.
I think there’s value in that even though it can be, as for the priest in that story, deeply frustrating because sometimes you don’t know until years or decades after. This is part of how I try to encourage fellow clergy around things like baptism and confirmation. You don’t know what God is going to work in the people who, even as infants, are brought to the sacrament of baptism and the other rights of Christian initiation. It’s analogous to planting seeds. You might not see the fruit those seeds are going to bear, even in your lifetime. That’s part of the need for Christians, especially, to live with a certain amount of ambiguity.
C: Even our Lord said, “Will none of you stay awake with me?” And the answer was snoring. The disciples fell asleep. They snored right in His face. Just hours before his trial, Crucifixion and Resurrection, they snored. Yet He still went through what He had to go through.
BM: And He went through it with them. The apostles are among the greatest examples. Here’s this motley, seemingly unreliable, crew of fellow travellers who constantly let Jesus down, falling asleep, doubting, questioning, perpetually not getting it, and yet he nevertheless entrusted the Church to their care. They met the task. It’s in part to their life and work and witness that we’re here today, talking about this very thing, and that the Church still has a life and work and witness in the world. One that I think is as valuable as ever.
C: Had you always been a very faithful person? Did you do what many do, go to church as a child, leave the Church, come back?
BM: Sort of. I grew up in what I would describe as a Christian, but not an especially religious, household. My parents were Anglicans, but I grew up in the United Church of Canada, partly because when my folks moved from Montreal, right after they were married, to Eastern Ontario, it was a pocket of Eastern Ontario that was pretty thin on the ground for Anglicans. All of the neighbours on the concession road we lived on went to East Hawkesbury United Church. Glengarry County is where I grew up.
They had a Sunday school, so it was a bit of a no-brainer for my folks. They weren’t so tied up in their denominational identity that it was inconceivable that they might go to another church. Let’s be honest, on the ground, a lot of our churches, at least Anglican and Protestant denominations, are pretty similar, and I think confessionalism is becoming less and less important for people.
I grew up in the United Church, was baptized, confirmed, went to Sunday school, youth group, and sensed a vocation to ordination even as a young adolescent. In some ways, I took the first steps toward that but also felt a call to writing and journalism and, as it turned out, broadcasting. It was the latter door that opened wider, sooner. That’s the one I stepped through. I also had an interest in politics, public policy and government. Before I knew it, I abandoned my undergraduate studies at the University of Toronto, two years in, and got my first full-time journalism job. I subsequently found my place in the press gallery in Ottawa.
C: You were in the national press gallery in the 1990s?
BM: I was there from 1995 to 1997. I covered the Chrétien government. The last thing I covered was the 1997 election that brought back another Chrétien majority. After the election, a few of us thought the interesting place to cover the next few years would be Quebec, not Ottawa. I spent two years covering the legislature there. It was a fascinating time to cover a Parti Québécois (PQ) government, and I had wanted to move to Quebec City for years. I’d only really visited once before, and it was on a school trip in Grade 7. I kind of first caught the bug of this beautiful, magical city then. That never really went away. When the opportunity presented itself, or I helped create the opportunity, I seized it.