The last Anglican priests that I spoke to in person were those of my own parish in March of last year, the day before the bishop’s order shutting down the diocese went into effect. Since then, I have spoken to one of the priests by phone once, and communicated with the others through e-mail. Oh, I could have seen them in person again, had I started attending services when the parish partially re-opened last summer. That would have meant a compromise of conviction however. I will not darken my parish door again as long as I am told to register in advance to do so, to impede my breathing in that hot, stuffy, building for the hour and a half that I am there by covering my nose and mouth with a stupid diaper that has reminded me of nothing so much as a the Mark of the Beast since it was first introduced, and to “socially distance” while there. As far as I am concerned telling people to pre-register to book a place in Church because only a limited few will be admitted constitutes turning people away from the Ministry of Jesus Christ in Word and Sacrament and is an act of blasphemy crying out to heaven for vengeance. To be fair to my parish – and the entire Anglican Church of Canada – I did not include the practice of Communion in one kind in the above list of deal-breakers, since I think they are using pre-intinction as a means of distributing the Sacrament in both kinds and thus are not in technical violation of the Thirtieth Article of Religion (and the basic principles of the English Reformation). I watch their services on Youtube but I refuse to regard this as “participating in an online service” or anything more than watching a broadcast of somebody else performing a service. This is because I have taken to heart Aleksandr Soltzhenitsyn’s instructions on the day of his arrest in 1974 to those oppressed by Communist tyranny. Those instructions were to “live not by lies”. When the government refuses to respect the constitution’s limits on its powers and claims for itself the right to completely suspend our basic freedoms of assembly, association, religion, and, increasingly, speech, in its self-delusion that a respiratory virus can be stopped by government action, subjects the entire population to the absolute rule of medical technocrats, and goes out of its way to demonstrate its contempt for religion, classifying Churches and synagogues and mosques as “non-essential” while liquor and cannabis stores and abortion clinics are classified as “essential”, it comes disgustingly close to the Soviet-style Communist tyranny that Soltzhenitsyn suffered under and about which he warned the West. While it is true that rights and freedoms are not absolute, as our governments have been saying in response to challenges to their actions, this is not at all at issue. It deflects from the fact that they have been acting like their authority to limit our rights and freedoms is absolute – this is what “nothing is off the table” means – and this is the essence of totalitarian tyranny.
My purpose here is not to knock the clergy of my parish. I have explained why I haven’t seen any of them in person since last March to lead in to the fact that apart from them, the last Anglican clergyman that I had spoken to in person, earlier the same month, was the Right Reverend Donald Phillips. Donald Phillips was consecrated Bishop of the Diocese of Rupert’s Land in 2000, the year after I had left what is now Providence University College in Otterburne and moved to Winnipeg. He served the diocese in this capacity until his retirement upon the consecration of his successor, the current incumbent, the Right Reverend Geoffrey Woodcroft, in November 2018. When I was confirmed in the Anglican Church as an adult, he was the bishop to do it.
It was at the Centennial Concert Hall that I ran into him and his wife Nancy about a week or so prior to the lockdown. 2020 was the 250th year since the birth of Ludwig van Beethoven. As part of its celebration of this anniversary, the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra performed all five of his Piano Concertos and his Choral Fantasy over the course of the two evenings of the 6th and 7th of March. The performances, conducted by WSO Music Director Daniel Raiskin, featured Russian pianist Alexei Volodin. The vocals were provided by the University of Manitoba Singers and the Canadian Mennonite University Chorus. The 2019/2020 season was the first time in several years where I had opted to buy tickets for only a handful of concerts rather than the “Ultimate Classics” package that comes with one performance each for all the shows in both of the Masterworks series. I lost my usual seat doing it this way, but was able to take in both of evenings of “Back to Beethoven” as the Piano Concerto marathon was called. These were the last WSO performances that I attended. They are likely to be the last WSO performances that I shall ever hear because the lake of fire will freeze into a solid block of ice before I ever pay concert admission to watch a livestreamed performance and am certainly not going to be bullied into taking an experimental new kind of vaccine that took less than a year to develop about which the long term side effects cannot possibly be known just to regain as “privileges” the rights that were stolen from me by power-mad paranoid hypochondriacs shortly after the concerts I have just described.
I have seldom attended a symphony, opera, or anything else at the Centennial Concert Hall without encountering at least one, and usually several, people whom I know, and this was no exception. Indeed, I was seated right next to one old acquaintance for the Friday evening performance. It was also in the Friday evening performance – some people went to both concerts, others showed up only for the one or the other – that I ran into Don and Nancy. They were seated in the row behind me, a few seats down – very close to where my subscription seat had been, actually. I chatted with them briefly in the intermission and after the concert. Did any of us suspect at the time that shortly thereafter the diocese would be essentially closed and everyone forced into social isolation for over a year by public health orders?
All of the above is a very long introduction to the real purpose of this essay. On the 9th of last month the diocesan newspaper, the Rupert’s Land News, posted an article to its website by the bishop emeritus, entitled “Christians Protesting COVID-19 Health Orders are Misguided and Missing the Greater Call”. . If it was not already obvious that I am of a very different opinion, the fact that the Winnipeg Free Press carried the article should confirm it. It is almost a matter of principle for me to disagree with whatever they publish, especially on matters of religion. I read it, nevertheless, for while I have disagreed with our previous bishop on other issues in the past, I have always found what he has to say, whether as a homilist or in the Rupert’s Land News, very interesting.
Towards the end of his article, he raised the following hypothetical objections to his article:
Some might call into question the whole nature of what I am saying. Should a Christian publicly challenge the actions of other Christians? Is that not being judgmental?
His answer was “Not when the integrity of the proclamation of the Gospel is at stake”.
Very well then. Since nothing in recent memory has threatened the integrity of the proclamation of the Gospel more than the quisling behaviour of the Church leaders who collaborated with totalitarianism in the Third Reich and behind the Iron Curtain, I claim our retired bishop’s justification for his remarks as my own for my rebuttal.
He begins by saying that one of the pastors with whom he disagrees – he does not mention any names but it was Tobias Tissen of the Church of God Restoration, just outside Steinbach – had been quoted as having said “We have no authority, scripturally-based and based on Christian convictions, to limit anyone from coming to hear the word of God. We have no authority to tell people you can’t come to church. That’s in God’s jurisdiction.”
Retired Bishop Don answers this by saying “the New Testament presents quite a different picture of the responsibility of the Church for itself”.
He proceeds to justify this statement by making reference, first to the bestowing of the “keys of the kingdom” in St. Matthew’s Gospel, and second to the Pauline epistles in which the Apostle “constantly confronts and admonishes churches to teach, direct, and sometimes even discipline their members so as not to hinder or distort the mission of the Gospel in the world and Christ’s command to his Church".
This is an interestingly novel way of interpreting these passages. Yes, the “keys of the kingdom”, regardless of whether they are understood as having been given to St. Peter and his successors alone, all of the Apostles and their successors collectively, or the entire assembly of Christian disciples (the Church) collectively, have traditionally been understood to include the authority to exclude from the fellowship of the Church. In most Christian communions the technical term for the exercise of this authority is excommunication. Some more radical sects use the word “shunning” with the same basic meaning but often with additional connotations of a more complete social ostracism. This is not where the novelty lies. What is novel in this interpretation is the suggestion that this authority can be legitimately exercised other than as corrective discipline in cases where someone refuses to repent of open sin or is found to be teaching serious doctrinal error. Had our retired bishop not intended to suggest this it would have made no sense to bring the keys up in this context. It is rather surprising, therefore, that he tries to bolster the suggestion with an appeal to St. Paul. In his first epistle to the Corinthians, St. Paul instructs them to excommunicate a man who has been committing “such fornication as is not so much as named among the Gentiles”, meaning a type that was condemned and considered extremely shameful by the rather tolerant pagan culture of the time, an assessment to which all the extent classical literature pertaining to the myth of Oedipus indeed, bears testimony. In his second epistle to the Corinthians, however, he told them that the punishment had been sufficient and to forgive and comfort the man, who presumably had since repented. The picture this paints of excommunicative authority is of a means of corrective discipline, to be applied as a last resort in extreme circumstances, and lifted as soon as repentance makes possible. This hardly supports the idea that the keys can or should be used to bar people from the Ministries of Word and Sacrament, not as an act of corrective discipline, but as an instrument of public health policy.
Novelty is not a quality that is valued very highly when it comes to the interpretation of Scripture and doctrine in the Anglican tradition which has long appealed to the Vincentian canon as the gold standard litmus test of catholicity and orthodoxy. In addition to the novelty of the Right Reverend Phillips’ interpretation of the keys, however, there is another problem in its conflict with Scriptural teaching on a multitude of other issues.
One example of this is the Scriptures’ teachings with regards to civil obedience. If the pastors protesting the bat flu restrictions are at fault their error is in practicing Thoreau/Gandhi/King style civil disobedience, for which there is no Scriptural justification. Civil obedience is commanded of Christians by St. Paul in the thirteenth chapter of his epistle to the Romans. There are, however, clear exceptions. The Book of Daniel in the Old Testament illustrates these. If the civil authorities require the worship of a false god, believers in the True and Living God are not to obey, as the example of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego who refused to bow to the golden image of Nebuchadnezzar and were thrown into the fiery furnace demonstrates. If the civil authorities forbid the worship of the True God, believers are not to obey, as the example of Daniel himself in the incident that led to his being cast to the lions shows. While the latter is the most obviously relevant of the two, I would argue that the first also applies here, in that the kind of trust and obedience the public health orders have been asking of us is the kind that properly belongs to God alone, making an idol out of medical science (George Bernard Shaw said, almost a hundred years ago, that we have not lost faith, we have merely transferred it from God to the General Medical Council, and never has the truth of this been more apparent than at present). The Lord Himself summed it all up in the twelfth chapter of St. Mark’s Gospel when He said “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s”. While a general civil obedience is rendering unto Caesar (the civil authority) that which is Caesar’s, obeying when they forbid the worship of the True God or require the worship of a false one, is to render unto Caesar that which is God’s, and that is forbidden of Christians by the Highest Authority.
Another example is the Scriptures’ teachings with regards to sickness. In the Old Testament, the Israelites were told to separate those with leprosy, a far worse disease than the one that is frightening so many today, from the general community, to which they would not be readmitted until such a time as a priest had examined them and found them to have recovered. There is not a hint anywhere in the Old Testament, that banning all healthy Israelites from the Tabernacle or Temple, let alone confining them to their own dwellings and forbidding them any social interaction with their extended kin, friends, and neighbours, would be an appropriate or acceptable manner of preventing the spread of contagious disease. This is not surprising as it is an experimental new form of hyper-quarantine, first implemented in totalitarian countries like Red China, which the epidemiologists of what used to be the free world initially, although sadly mistakenly, thought they would never be able to get away with here. The Old Testament isolation requirements for lepers, of course, had the effect of heaping further suffering upon those already inflicted. Thus, when Jesus Christ arrived to fulfil the Messianic promise of a New and better Covenant, one of the most prominent signs announcing His identity as the Promised Redeemer was that He allowed the lepers to come near Him and healed them, even, in one notable instance, using tactile contact as the means of healing. He healed all who came to Him with any affliction and instructed His Apostles to do the same. The book of Acts records them doing precisely this. The Jacobean instructions in what is widely believed to be the first book of the New Testament to have been written are “Is any sick among you? Let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord: and the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up.” Rather a far cry from “Is there a nasty cough going around? Let everyone stay away from the church, lock themselves in their houses, and never see anyone else without wearing a mask”.
Given what we have seen in the previous paragraph, is it surprising that in the two millennia of Christian history, which have seen plagues far worse than the bat flu ravage Christian countries and at times all of Christendom, never did the leaders of the Church see their duty, mission, and call in terms of shutting all the local churches down and denying the faithful access to the Word and Sacrament. Rather they saw it as their duty to keep the churches open, so that in times of great physical peril – much greater than today – access to the source of spiritual health, more important than physical health, was not cut off and hope, therefore, was kept alive, as well as to minister to the physical needs of the sick and dying, even at the risk of their own health and lives. When cholera hit Canada in 1832 and 1834, for example, John Strachan, who would become the first Bishop of Toronto in 1839 but was at the time the rector of the parish of St. James, refused to flee the city but remained to fulfil his priestly duties, visit the hospitals, minister to the sick and dying, and bury the dead.
Previous generations of Church leaders did not see keeping the churches open in times of far worse plagues than this comparatively moderate one as hindering or distorting “the mission of the Gospel in the world, and Christ’s command to the church.”
Our former diocesan chief shepherd asks the question “And what is that Gospel?” to which he provides an answer “It is the supreme command of Jesus Christ ‘to love one another as I (Jesus) have loved you’”.
This is a very enlightening answer. Not enlightening in terms of the question asked. In that regards it is just plain wrong. It is enlightening in that it reveals much about the source of confusion here.
The Gospel is not the command to love one another. The Gospel is not a commandment of any sort. It is a message. As its very name tells us, whether euangelion in Greek, or Gospel – contracted from the Old English “godspel” (“god” = “good” + “spel = “news”) it is Good News. It is spoken in the indicative mood, not the imperative. In the ministry of John the Baptist and in Jesus’ own early preaching ministry, when the Gospel was preached only to national Israel and the events around which the Gospel narratives of SS Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are centred had not yet taken place, that Good News was that the “Kingdom of Heaven is at hand”, i.e., the Messianic promises are being fulfilled before your very eyes. After the Great Commission to take the Gospel to all the nations of the world, the Ascension, the descent of the Holy Ghost on Pentecost to empower the Church, and the preaching of the Gospel to the Gentiles, the Gospel in its mature and universal form was concisely stated by St. Paul in his first epistle to the Corinthians. It is that Christ died for our sins, according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures, and was seen by witnesses.
That this, and not the New Commandment, is the Gospel cannot be stressed enough. The New Commandment is not “News” of any sort, Good or otherwise. That we are commanded to love one another was hardly something unheard of prior to the Incarnation. When Jesus said the Greatest Commandment was to love God and the second was to “love thy neighbour as thyself” He was quoting commandments already familiar from the Old Testament. Nor was His statement that the whole of the Law was summed up in these a new revelation. Indeed, while most often the Gospels place the two greatest commandments in His own mouth, in one notable instance He turned the question back on a lawyer who had been interrogating Him and got the answer He wanted (Luke 10:25-28) demonstrating that the idea was nor original with Him. The similar “Golden Rule”, which appears in His Sermon on the Mount, is common to the ethical systems of almost all religions, and was notably stated, albeit in its negative “do not” form rather than the positive form Jesus used, by Rabbi Hillel, who died when Jesus was about twelve or thirteen (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat a, passage 6), and who said of it “that is the entire Torah, and the rest is interpretation”. There is a kind of theology that sees in the command to love one another the essence of the Christian kerygma and treats everything asserted about Jesus Christ in the ancient Creeds as accidental trappings that can be discarded. This theology, and note that I am not suggesting that the Right Reverend Phillips holds this theology, merely that his unfortunate wording here expresses a thought that belongs to this theology rather than orthodox Christianity, is nonsense. If that were true there would have been no need for Christianity. While there is a difference between the New Commandment and all these earlier commandments to love each other, that difference depends entirely upon the facts of the Gospel as stated by St. Paul. Apart from that Gospel, the message of Christ’s death and Resurrection, the New Commandment is meaningless. It is the Gospel that tells us what “as I have loved you” means. Christ gave the New Commandment on the evening of His betrayal, to His disciples whom He had already told of His upcoming death and Resurrection, but like so many other things He said in St. John’s Gospel, it was these events themselves that made it comprehensible.
Isn’t it interesting that the example the New Commandment tells us to follow is that of One Who gave up His life for others? Isn’t it also interesting that the New Testament repeatedly describes this act as one of “redemption”. Today, the verb “redeem” and the noun “redemption” are often used in a sense that retains some of their connotations from New Testament usage but omits their original basic meaning. To redeem meant to purchase someone out of slavery and set him free. The New Testament writers use these words of the death of Christ to depict that act as one of purchasing freedom for mankind from slavery to sin. Therefore, the New Commandment tells us that we are to love one another in the same way as He Who gave up His life to restore us to freedom.
This is interesting because the Right Reverend Phillips’ interpretation of the New Commandment which he confused with the Gospel itself is that we are to love others by doing the reverse of what Christ did – giving up our freedom for them.
Now he does go on to support his argument with evidence from St. Paul:
In 1 Corinthians chapter 9, Paul outlines the many ways in which he sacrifices his own self, his rights and privileges, his freedom in Christ, in order to effectively witness to the love of Christ. “I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some,” he said (1 Corinthians 9.22)
For the Christian disciple, the effective demonstration and proclamation of the love of God for all people must take precedence over any personal demand or freedom.
St. Paul wrote his epistles to the Corinthian Church at a time when some had cast aspersions on his authority as an Apostle. A principle theme of both letters was to answer his detractors and establish confidence in this authority. This is what the Apostle is obviously concerned with through most of the ninth chapter of 1 Corinthians. In the first verse he gives his Apostolic credentials, in the second he declares that if he is not an Apostle to others he certainly is to the Corinthians for they are the seal of his Apostleship. He then goes on to talk about all the privileges and freedoms which he has as much as any of the other Apostles but which he refrains from for the sake of the work. The main point in all of this is that he, as a spiritual minister, is entitled to pecuniary support from them, but has refrained from claiming his right to the same. This is spelled out quite plainly in verses seven to fifteen
I wonder what St. Paul himself would have thought if someone from the Corinthian Church had written back to him and said that two thousand years in the future, someone would take his words about giving up the financial support to which he was entitled, so as to more effectively carry out the ministry of preaching the Gospel to which he was called and which he is bound by necessity to preach, as evidence that the entire Church should shut down, close its doors, and bar people from coming to hear said Gospel preached. I suspect he would be livid. I doubt very much that he would be any more impressed by the same application being made of his words later in the chapter, about meeting every type of person to whom he is sent in their own walk of life so as to more effectively share the Gospel with them.
His Retired Grace then refers to another quotation from a different pastor – again unnamed, but this time it was Heinrich Hildebrand of the Church of God in Aylmer, Upper Canada. Hildebrand had said “We are here to fight for God, we are here to defend the vulnerable.”
I could have told you what the bishop’s response to this would have been without having read it myself. However, here he is in his own words:
Surely the vulnerable we need to be worried about are those being exposed to the COVID-19 virus by persons not following the public health orders. Surely it is those languishing on ventilators in ICUs in hospitals across our country who are the most vulnerable!
I guess it all depends upon how we answer the question “vulnerable to what?” Even if, however, the answer is “the bat flu”, the Right Reverend Phillips’ thinking appears to be rather muddled on the subject. Those most vulnerable to the virus are not those who are exposed to it but those with complicating factors such as age, obesity, a compromised immune system, and other chronic conditions that make this virus more than just the non-lethal respiratory annoyance it is to the vast majority who contract it. When such people, the actual most vulnerable, have come into contact with the virus it has seldom been because of “persons not following the public health orders”. That is a lie, invented by arrogant politicians and public health officials such as those of our own province, in order to create a scapegoat for the failure of their own policies. The fact of the matter is that the worst and most lethal outbreaks have taken place in nursing homes where the virus spread got in and spread without any health order violations in spite of such places have been locked down quicker and stricter than anywhere else.
The bat flu, however, is not the only answer to the question “vulnerable to what?” Suppose that we supply “the public health orders themselves” as the answer to that question. We then get a very different picture of who the most vulnerable are.
Yes, public health orders hurt people. The kind of public health orders that have been enacted to slow or prevent the spread of the bat flu are especially harmful. This has been acknowledged by the World Health Organization, and even by our provincial chief public health officer. Take the mental health crisis for example. The Canadian Mental Health Association about how the “second wave of the pandemic has intensified feelings of stress and anxiety, causing alarming levels of despair, suicidal thoughts and hopelessness in the Canadian population.” It would have been more accurate for them to attribute this to the “second wave of lockdowns”. Viruses don’t have this effect. Mendacious media scaremongering might contribute to it, but overall this is exactly the sort of thing one would expect to see among people who have had all their social and community events cancelled for a year, have been forbidden any social interaction with their friends, and have been told their businesses or jobs are non-essential and must shut down. Public health orders are the primary cause of this problem. People are not meant to live this way, it goes against the social nature that God gave us, and when you force people to live in these conditions there will be disastrous consequences.
Since our bishop emeritus made use of the superlative degree of comparison in his own remarks about those vulnerable to the bat flu, I think it is fair game for me to do the same in my remarks about those vulnerable to the public health orders. Yes, some people are more vulnerable to the ill-effects of public health orders than others. Somebody who is single and lives alone will be more adversely affected by an order forbidding get-togethers with all except his own household than somebody who has a happy domestic life. Somebody who is in an abusive and unhappy relationship will be worse off because of a stay-at-home order than somebody who is happily married. Those who are independently wealthy, whose jobs can be done from home, and whose businesses are in no danger of being declared “non-essential” will not have the kind of hardships that lockdowns impose on those about whom none of these things can be said. Since the beginning of the bat flu scare the people who have been most likely to shoot their mouths off about how this never-before-tried experimental universal quarantine is “necessary” to fight a virus milder than most of those that caused pandemics in the last century, to lecture the rest of us about how unquestioning obedience to these orders is the loving thing to do and how expressing concern about economic devastation and the rapid evaporation of civil rights and liberties and their constitutional protections is somehow “selfish”, have been the people on the “least affected” side of each of these spectrums for whom the lockdowns have been mostly an inconvenience.
I will close with an observation that is related to the previous paragraph but is not specifically in response to our former bishop’s article. I note the irony that the clergymen who have been the most vocal in support of the public health orders have been the ones who preach the most about “social justice”. Indeed, I cannot think of a single dissenter from among their ranks. The dark irony of this is not just found in the fact that the public health orders, shutting down restaurant dining rooms and indoor public places like libraries and limiting homeless shelter capacities were put into effect before winter ended last year and again just before winter started having absolutely brutal consequences for the very poorest members of our society, while everyone who keeps droning on about “social justice” was glad to be ordered to stay home in their own warm bed. It can also be found in the fact that the economic result of the public health orders and the lockdown experiment has been to greatly enrich the multi-billionaires of the social media tech companies, internet delivery services, and the hopelessly corrupt pharmaceutical industry while bankrupting and driving out of business all the little guys, whose entire life’s work, and often the life’s work of their parents and grandparents before them has been wiped out through no fault of their own, but by the arrogance of some health bureaucrat who arbitrarily ruled their livelihood to be “non-essential”. This is accomplishing an economic transition to societies in which small, individually or family owned farms and businesses are unfeasible, and everyone must either sell their labour to some giant, multinational, corporation to survive, or live off of a government allowance. This is what Hilaire Belloc called “the Servile State” 109 years ago. At the time, the expression “social justice” was still in its infancy and to those who believed in it in its original sense, the Servile State depicted by Belloc was pretty much the opposite of what they called and strove for, the worst possible of worlds. Today’s “social justice” clergy have been calling for “universal basic income”, citing the pandemic and the “necessary” public health response to it as demonstrating the need for this measure, the most immediate effect of which would be to greatly accelerate the transition to the Servile State. Of course what they mean by “social justice” includes such things as Critical Race Theory, the inalienable right of biological males to participate in female sports, and every other notion of this type that left-wing academics have dreamed up and their students have uncritically accepted and regurgitated under the delusion that by doing so they are thinking for themselves, but precious little to do with anything that the expression meant a century ago. Should any of them be interested in the original version, I recommend to them the essay by that grand old Canadian economist, political scientist, wit, and Anglican layman, Stephen Leacock entitled “The Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice”. I wonder what Leacock would have had to say about people who consider it to be an expression of Christian love to wish government control, greater and more intrusive than any extended or even dreamed of by the totalitarian regimes of his own day – he died in 1944 when Stalin and Hitler were both still in power - on their neighbours?