The Vicar, who was a chain-smoking health crusader, reached out to bless the cute, little visitor to his church, but his words couldn’t be heard over the sound of barking dogs, squawking birds, hissing cats and a braying donkey.
That was my first experience with the Anglican Church of Canada. It was in 1992 at St. Francis of Assissi Anglican Church in Hinton, Alberta, when I was a young and eager reporter always on the lookout for a scoop.
In this case, the news nugget was a Blessing of the Animals Service. Apparently, Saint Francis had some sort of affinity with all things four-footed, so the church honoured its namesake’s legacy by inviting the community to bring their beloved pets to a special annual Saturday night ceremony. I was sent to take photos for the paper; thus I found myself at my first-ever Anglican church service.
And it unfolded with all of the piety and dignity I implied above.
OK, Father Will Drake didn’t call himself a vicar, but I never saw him out in public in any clothes other than the stiff, white collar, black shirt and black pants of a traditional Church of England clergyman, so I always thought of him as The Vicar. And he did call himself Father, rather than the less paternalistic Pastor or Reverend, so he clearly had something of a penchant for pomp. On the other hand, his manner was very vibrant, disarming and accessible, so he was something of a puzzle to me. Adding to that enumeration of enigma, Father Will was a heavy smoker, and he was also the chairman of the local hospital board. Thus, the slightly unfair, but affectionately intended, ‘chain-smoking health crusader’ label with which I branded him.
At the time of the Blessing of the Animals service, I was a bit surprised at the ridiculousness of it all. I found it funny (in a laughing-at sort of way, rather than laughing-with), but I had the feeling that if I’d been at all religious, I’d have been offended by such a frivolous and undignified use of the church – both the building and the institution. But nowadays, I am religious (for lack of a better term), and I gotta tell you – that memory makes me proud to be an Anglican.
For starters, what could be wrong about holding a service that celebrates and gives thanks for the great gifts of pet ownership? That kind of genuine, specific worship brings glory to God. Who cares if it’s noisy and messy (although, as I recall, there were no puddles or piles left on the church floor that day)? I think God revelled in the happy chaos of that event, and delighted in the fact that a few dozen more people attended a worship service that night than would have otherwise done so.
And it says something about Anglicans as a denomination that we don’t mind if everything’s not neat and tidy. We invite donkeys into our churches for crying out loud! How much more do we welcome the two-legged kind of asses?
Indeed, I’ve found Anglican churches to be intensely welcoming – and not only of people who ‘have it all together.’ Yes, every parish has its beautiful, affluent, impeccably dressed and coiffed GQ Family (mine has more than most), but they also have plenty of the ordinary and the dishevelled; the tired and the broken; the family whose offering of $5 is a bigger sacrifice than the hundreds casually tossed in by others.
And the slightly cross-eyed, chubby guy with the too-small plaid shirt, ear hair and a combover is as likely to be the People’s Warden in an Anglican church as the Mr. GQ is. And he’s just as likely to carry out the job more effectively.
You don’t have to be a six-footer; you don’t have to have a great brain. You don’t have to have fancy clothes on; you’re an Anglican the moment you came! (Thanks and apologies, Michael Palin.)
Lutherans are understandably proud of the beginnings of their church: a principled clergyman saw some sketchy things happening inside the established church of his day and called for reform. When it didn’t come, he and his followers launched a movement that grew into a major new denomination. Other Protestant churches can trace their roots to similar attempts to bring what they saw as a wildly off-course church back to its true self.
Anglicans, on the other hand, got their start because the Pope wouldn’t give the King of England a divorce. Henry VIII had no trouble with the rites and dogma of Catholicism, he just didn’t want to be subject to the Pope’s authority, so he took his bat and his ball and went home.
Not exactly a noble origin, is it? But as He has a habit of doing, God turned Henry’s frown upside-down and used that dubious beginning to do something awesome.
That ‘accident of history’ is the reason why there are so many similarities between Anglicanism and Catholicism – we still say ‘holy, catholic and apostolic’ in our creed, for one thing. We use wine, wafers and chalices in Communion, and most of our churches hold Eucharist services every week. In a lot of ways, we’re just like Catholics, except without the Pope.
And for my offering money, that’s a great thing.
Out of Old King Harry’s self-serving, cynical act grew a beautiful, welcoming church that embraces the majestic liturgical tradition that touches the souls of many, without being bound to an earthly authority that many of us couldn’t bring ourselves to submit to.
And an amazing assortment of approaches to worship are practised at Anglican churches in Canada. Traditional Roman Catholics would feel quite at home in some parishes; Baptists and Pentecostals could find commonality in others. (At my church, as I’ve mentioned before, we serve both wine and grape juice, in both the common cup and individual mini-shotglasses.) We Anglicans are careful about substance, but flexible about style.
Some might say we’re not careful enough about substance, though. Several parishes across the country – including at least a couple in Calgary – are in various stages of leaving the Anglican Communion and joining other alternative denominations (some have even decided to go back to Papism!), because they think we’re too wishy-washy on some issues.
I’m not saying they don’t have a point, and I’m not saying Anglicanism is right and everyone else is wrong (It seems to me that we’re all wrong, so why quibble about who’s wronger?). But when I look at the House that Harry built, there’s a lot more good than bad. And mixaphorically speaking, it’d be a shame to throw the family out with the fontwater.
Peace be with you.