Paying the Rent, and the Cost: A United Church Primer

It may be the Devil, or it may be the Lord, but you gotta serve somebody … - Negro spiritual

He was all things to all people, naturally, being a successful clergyman. Perhaps that’s why I disliked him from the start. But there was something particularly wrong about Jim Sinclair that words can’t describe: a quality that would one day catapault him into what passes for ultimate authority within the United Church of Canada, namely the post of National Moderator.

That was a title that finally did justice to the guy, actually. “Reverend” never sat easily as a prefix to Jim Sinclair, for so spiritual a connotation might have caused division or offense somewhere. And that was something he just couldn’t countenance, being more of a waiter than anything.

Jim loved to moderate, everything and everyone, starting with himself: a fact he disclosed the very first time we met in his North Bay church office, just before I discovered that he lacked a soul.

I was there as the official intern from 1988 to 1989, during my earnest attempt to serve both God and Mammon through ordination as a United Church clergyman. I had all the external equipment for such a grand purpose: marriage, a child on the way, a desire to see the best in people. My big flaw, of course, was an uneasiness with it all that wouldn’t let go of me, plus that annoying Annett trait of questioning anything that moves.

Jim spotted that quirk in me right away, and he reacted like a mole wincing from the dawn’s early light. Maybe that’s why I got his Banality 101 lecture right off the bat, with something he entitled, “Paying the Rent”.

“What’s that?” I asked him after he used the term during our first little chat about United Church ministry.

“Well, you can’t live in a home if you don’t pay the rent …” he began avuncularly, until I interrupted,

“Unless you’re squatting”

Never having been homeless, Jim blinked, confused, and then flashed me a placid grimace the locals mistook for a smile.

“Oh, yeah. But seriously, Kevin, it’s a core value you need to learn in the ministry, paying the rent …”

Later on in life, I would have come back immediately with a wry quip about it being pointless to pay the rent on a condemned building, or something like that. But I was still young and stupid back then, and I even put money in the collection plate.

“A core value?” I replied.

“Yes” he continued, more confidently. He sat back and grimaced at me again, his eyes bland and busy.

“If you want to do anything you love in the ministry, to follow any kind of calling, you first have to learn how to pay the rent …”

“To who?” I asked.

“Well, to your congregation, for starters …”

“To who in the congregation?”

I could tell my questions were bothering him, but of course he didn’t show his irritation. Jim never let his feelings get in the way, of anything.

“I’d say to everyone …”

“How does that work, exactly?”

I wasn’t trying to be a pain in the ass. I was genuinely curious how one could be all things to all people.

“Okay, well, it’s not simple. Paying the rent, it’s just a phrase. I guess it means, doing what you need to do to keep the structure of the church home intact, like here, at St. Andrew’s.”

As he spoke, an unexpected sensation began to churn up in the pit of my guts. I felt a deep revulsion, but much more: as if something winged within me had to flee from that room and never come back.

I actually shuddered.

Jim, or whatever ran him, noticed. His eyes narrowed suspiciously, but he grimaced again and carried on.

“There are movers and shakers in any congregation. I call them my level one players. Like Willard and Doreen Davidson …”

I nodded, against every impulse in me. Instead of vomiting or running for my life, I feigned interest.

Willard and Doreen: I had met them, unfortunately. They were a lot like Jim, wealthy but retired, always polite, and terribly vacant. The two of them were “associates” at the church and besides fussing over the older congregational ladies and doing church teas, they got to dispense occasional food vouchers to those they considered “deserving” enough to be fed, from among the steady stream of men and women and children who wandered into St. Andrew’s from off the street.

Jim droned on for awhile about the details of how to be an efficient whore, although he called it being “pastorally competent”, or some such thing. I’m sure he was right, in his world. But it took a series of blows to my guts over the years for me to realize that it wasn’t my world, nor one to which I could ever adjust.

But nevertheless, I tried at first. I really did.

Maybe I attempted the impossible at that time and place because of the looming birth of my first daughter Clare, born to Anne and I just six months later amidst the depth of winter and my own spiritual suffocation at St. Andrew’s.

Becoming a parent makes most of us frightened idiots, after all is said and done. I was no different. And being frightened, I sought a rotten compromise. I figured I could honor what was growing in me as well as become an employee of the thing that was making me sick in Jim Sinclair’s tidy office. I thought I owed it to my new child to become such a divided man, when all I was doing was avoiding a choice involving the cost of my own soul.

My attempt didn’t work, fortunately. But it took years for it not to work, as I tried to learn as a clergyman how to “pay the rent” when I was quite destitute, kept empty by some mystery, and thereby, becoming a continual stumbling block to all the church goers and god-experts around me.

Jim Sinclair only let me preach once a month in his church after he and the St. Andrew’s crowd heard my first homily and saw me in action.

“It’s fine to take on a personal calling to poverty if you’re a monk, Kevin. But you can’t expect people in the pews to follow such a life and give away all that they have”

“Why not?” I replied.

He blinked, surprised. He couldn’t find any words to answer me, which was unusual for him.

“I was just quoting Jesus, last Sunday” I explained.

“Sure, that’s what the Gospels say …” said Jim awkwardly, with a decided emphasis.

The pregnant pause that followed his words said it all, in hindsight, but I carried on.

“I don’t think we should look to the government to bring about justice for the poor when that’s our job. It’s what love commands, to share everything, like in the early Jesus communities, in the book of Acts …”

Jim nodded at my words as if he agreed with me, but he was good at that. Then he said sternly,

“Willard didn’t appreciate your offertory prayer”

During the previous Sunday’s service, I had said aloud to God, since the poor deity is obviously stone deaf,

“Loving Creator, you desire not the things of this world or our money offerings, but our hearts and lives, given wholly to you …”

“That offended Willard, did it?” I replied.

“And many other people” Jim intoned, like someone had just died.

“Why?”

Jim shook his head, like I was very stupid.

“Their money keeps this church alive, Kevin”

“Well, it pays the rent, at least” I replied.

“Yes it does”

“But God doesn’t deal in cash. That’s all I was saying”

I figure at that point, a big alarm bell went off somewhere in the United Church head office. If Jim Sinclair and the bureauracy had have had any smarts about them, they’d have figured me out by then and tossed me in the trash heap. But like most denominations, the United Church is hard up for clergy, and I guess they figured I’d eventually come around.

I was a small fry, anyway, and Jim Sinclair had bigger fish in the skillet. During my year in his church, the guy was already a big deal in the local Manitou Presbytery, and years later, after I’d been filleted and finally tossed out of the church, Jim fulfilled his lifelong dream, I suppose, by getting elected the Top Banality in the United Church of Canada, otherwise known as the National Moderator.

Of course, Jim’s only notable achievement during his two year blip as Head Honcho was to publicly oppose a unionization drive among United Church clergy with the remark,

“It’s just not a fit, for ministers to be in a union … Joining a trade union implies a lack of Christian love and faith”.

No, Jim, it actually indicates the highest level of stress leave, personal burnout, unfair job dismissal and forced overtime facing any professional group in the country. But I get it. Human and labor rights are great outside the church, but not inside. Hell, we’re Canadians, after all.

Jim’s ridiculous remarks didn’t surprise me, after my tenure at his church in North Bay, Ontario – and in the wake of my own excommunication, years later. For both Jim and his wife Donna – the long-time editor of the United Church’s glossy magazine The Observer - went out of their way to pretend they didn’t know me, after I hit the headlines with evidence of murdered Indian children in United Church schools.

The ease with which both of them lied to reporters about me was astounding, even for church officials. Donna Sinclair actually told a Globe and Mail journalist that she’d never even met me, somehow, during my entire year in North Bay.

“But Reverend Annett saw you every week in church, didn’t he?” asked the undoubtedly amused reporter.

“And he says you were there soon after the birth of his eldest daughter. He often ate at your home …”

Apparently, Donna replied at that point,

“I don’t have anything further to say”

Jim had more tact, being a politician. He didn’t deny knowing me, which of course would have been absurd. But he did say to the same reporter, whose story was never printed, incidentally,

“Kevin had an unfortunate time with us at St. Andrew’s. He wasn’t at all pastorally competent and he alienated many people in our congregation”

Damn it. I guess I just imagined that glowing recommendation and A1 competence report Jim wrote about me at the end of our year together.

I guess it’s also true that I’ve never learned about Paying The Rent, or about who and what really holds the mortgage on the whole arrangement. I’ll never cut the mustard in the church world, I suppose: not like Jim Sinclair, the United Church leader, par excellence.

True Happiness in Times like These: The Lesson from my Fallen Uncle

Written on the 70th anniversary of his death for another:

He comprehends his trust, and to the same keeps faithful with a singleness of aim;

And therefore does not stoop, nor lie in wait for wealth, or honours, or for worldly state, or mild concerns of ordinary life;

But who, if he be called upon to face some awful moment to which Heaven has joined great issues, good or bad for human kind, Is happy as a Lover; and attired with sudden brightness, like a Man inspired.

He to whom neither shape of danger can dismay, nor thought of tender happiness betray; Who, not content that former worth stand fast, looks forward, persevering to the last.

Or if he must fall to sleep without his fame, and leave a dead unprofitable name, finds comfort in himself and in his cause;

And, while the mortal mist is gathering, draws His breath in confidence of Heaven’s applause:

This is the happy Warrior; this is he whom every Man in arms should wish to be.

- “The Happy Warrior” by William Wordsworth, 1770-1850

…….

My father is the only one in the faded photograph who still draws breath.

He was a boy of fifteen when the family photo was taken: the day before his eldest brother Bob left forever to serve as the youngest officer on the doomed Canadian destroyer HMCS Athabaska.

My younger father stares soberly into the camera, bearing the same troubled look as every other member of his family, save one: nineteen year old Bob himself, whose easy and gentle smile seems untouched by the war that waits to engulf him.

One of the sailors who survived the Germans’ torpedoing of the Athabaska seven decades ago this evening, on April 29, 1943, described, later, how Bob wore the same confident radiance in the dark and icy waters of the English Channel as men died about him. He recalls how Bob tried leading the ship’s survivors in song to keep their spirits and them alive, as the ship sank and the waters burned with deisel oil.

And in the midst of the carnage, Bob actually gave up his lifejacket to a wounded man.

Last week, I held the old Annett family photograph in my hands as my Dad sipped his scotch and remembered his last memory of brother Bob.

“He could have spent his embarkation leave in town, whooping it up, or seeing his fiancee Elaine. But instead he drove out to see me, his kid brother, and he roused me out of bed and wrestled with me and cheered me up. He was that kind of a guy”.

I gazed at the snapshot and said,

“From the looks of all of you, it’s like you all knew he was going to die”

Dad nodded, and replied softly, and unashamedly awed,

“And look at his smile”

To those accustomed to the sluggish death we like to call peace time, the highest concern one can bestow on another is the admonition to “Be safe”. Even my closest friends tell me that all the time, as if safeguarding one’s own life is some kind of bottom line. It wasn’t for my Uncle Bob, nor is it for anyone like him who discovers the secret of life.

The same people who puzzle over how Bob is the only one smiling in that final photograph are the same ones who comment with regret that Bob died because he gave away his lifejacket, as if it would have been possible for him to do anything else when faced with another man drowning from his wounds.

The desperate selfishness of “everyday” life spares us the chance to be fully human that is thrust so starkly upon on us by war. And so far too many of us go away sad and troubled by the actions of shining lights like my Uncle Bob, never understanding the drama: like the crowd who encountered Jesus on his cross and saw only bloodshed.

How habitually do we struggle to shore up the unsalvageable – our own mortal life – and refuse to live for that one moment when we find our real purpose in life by giving up our life entirely for what is right and necessary.

Perhaps Bob was so radiant in that final family photograph because he knew that his own special moment was approaching; and knowing his own measure and loving what he saw, he knew he would not fail. As for the others in the picture, how could their sadness be anything but their knowledge that they could not share in Bob’s moment?

We do not live in a time of peace, as much as we pretend we do. The war in which we are all now immersed, like all wars, is rapidly clarifying everything with the same simple truth, and choice, given to my Uncle Bob in the cold waters: If we do not act, others will die.

The particular happiness of true warriors is that they can devote every moment to the service of that deed, which is after all, the essential thing. And for those who shrink back from such necessary action, there is no remedy, and no ultimate happiness.

That is why I can’t understand or give consideration any longer to the multitudes of “concerned” but immobilized people who shrink back from doing what is necessary to save not only the lives of children, but our lands and our liberties, now, amidst this final war being waged against humanity by a global machinery of death.

At desperate moments like this, hope does come to us, but always at a great cost.

What does awaken us are living examples of a true man, or woman, who show that we are not measured by our capacity to “Be safe”, but rather, to be True, regardless of the cost.

That is the secret of Bob’s smile, and of my own: a reflection of the special opportunity granted to every human being, which no tyrant can rob from us, and no cataclysm can undo.

Will you seize that noble chance?

The Rat Scurries from the Vat: The Latest Coup in Rome

Theories are abounding this week now that the first pope in seven centuries is resigning his office. But as always, the most direct way to the truth behind the world’s oldest corporation is simply by following the money: and specifically, Vatican Bank money.

Let’s put to rest, first of all, the fallacy that “looming scandals” about child rape and coverup are behind Joseph Ratzinger’s resignation. That’s just the cover story.

Nobody in the church hierarchy is losing much sleep over their standing, canon-law endorsed policy of concealing and protecting child rapists in their ranks. Even the International Criminal Court application about such crimes has been stymied by catholic-run legislators and jurists.

What pronounced the death knell on Pope Benedict was his personal implication in the bribery and money-laundering practices of the Vatican Bank, comically known as The Institute of Religious Works (IOR); and how that dirty connection gave the anti-Ratzinger faction in the College of Cardinals the lever they needed to dump the obstinate German from the papal throne.

We had a whiff of that dump-Rat Boy agenda last year, when “Vatileaks” broke into the news with a ludicrous story of how Ratzinger’s loyal butler Paolo Gabriele disclosed the pope’s dirty secrets to the Italian media. In fact, the damning documents detailing Ratzinger’s secret rewarding of Vatican contracts to his friends and family members originated in the Vatican Secretary of State’s office, which the fall-guy butler could not have had access to.

The Secretary of State and the real power behind the papacy is Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, an old insider who also engineered the sacking of Gotti Tedeschi, head of the Vatican Bank, last May.

Tedeschi had taken seriously the call of the European Parliament for “greater transparency” by the Vatican Bank /IOR, and was about to disclose to Brussels how his bosses had been laundering money for the mob for decades. The last Pope who had tried such a disclosure, John Paul 1, died from poisoning in September, 1978 after less than a month in office.

But even with Tedeschi silenced, the IOR house of cards kept tumbling, as the European Parliament seized from it 300 million Euros fraudulently acquired, and even the American Securities and Exchange Commission declared the IOR’s assets and practices “insecure”. A major Vatican housecleaning was required; or at least, the appearance of one.

It was the pivotal Cardinal Bertone who leaked the pope’s diary and other incriminating papers to a catholic-friendly journalist in Rome last year the same month that Tedeschi was sacked, to prepare the world for Ratzinger’s removal. For it is Bertone who is now reaping the benefits of the papal housecleaning; he is not only a primary contender for the pope’s position but a key player in the IOR.

During my second speaking tour in Rome, in the spring of 2010, I met with several senior Italian senators and officials of the parliamentary Radical Party. They all said the same thing about why Joseph Ratzinger had been made pope, and what awaited him. To quote one of those politicians,

“Nobody becomes pope without a sordid past, because only with such liabilities can he be controlled by the Curia. It’s the same in any big company. Well, Ratzinger made many indiscretions as a Cardinal and made many enemies. His signing letters ordering criminal concealment was just one sin. He was to be the scapegoat for all of the trash that the church knew would surface”

So now, the papal scapegoat is gone, pensioned off to wherever ex-popes end up; and the time for the big face life has arrived.

The idea of applying cosmetic surgery to a decaying facade like the Church of Rome reminds me of Shirley Maclaine trying to look forty at the age of ninety. And yet appearances are everything in show business as well as in religion.

Tarcisio Bertone is about as institutional as you can get, and represents the old Italian crowd of the Curia and are part of the Mob-government-papal clique that run the country and the Roman catholic church. In the words of one of the Roman Senators I spoke with,

“You must understand that in my country, the Mafia and the government and the Vatican are all the same people, and they really have only one concern: protecting their assets.”

Bertone, or whoever from the victorious ranks of his faction does assume the papal tiria, cannot be expected to do much but maintain the assets and security of the church, and that means by continuing the policies of silence and dissimulation that keeps the cash flowing. But their position is more difficult now in the wake of the enormous rifts developing within the wider church, where Cardinals are facing criminal prosecution for shielding child rapists, and talk of disaffiliating from Rome is widespread among Irish, American and German Bishops.

“We have all the grounds for a second Reformation now. That’s how serious is the crisis. The church will either rid itself of itself or face collapse” said an Italian media commentator recently.

It was easy to despise Joseph Ratzinger: the Hitler Youth raised, reactionary bigot who sacked liberal and independent thinkers in his church as the Cardinal-head of the Vatican Inquisition, and who told American Bishops that purgatory awaited any of them who did not cover up priestly child rape. Even among fellow Cardinals, he was known as “Joe the Rat”.

But Ratzinger was a made to order object of hatred, and put there to play out the oldest game in politics: the venting of popular rage on a disposable figurehead so that the institution itself could proceed unscathed.

I doubt that it’s totally coincidental that Ratzinger was forced out of office so quickly barely ten days after our Common Law court published online hard evidence of the Pope’s involvement in crimes against humanity. Any new Pope will face the same charges, of colluding in a massive criminal conspiracy.

But the real issue is not who or what will replace Joseph Ratzinger as the latest figurehead, but how to displace the Vatican itself as a criminal power unto itself. And that struggle is just commencing.