A Modern Anglican
June 6, 2010
Rev. Amy Cousineau
Thank you for inviting me back to talk to you today. You Unitarians challenge me. The last time I was here I was very concerned about doing a good job, about getting it “right” because of my deep esteem for you and for my friends Linda Reith and Betty Bean Kennedy. I’m feeling a bit less stressed about that this morning, but today’s topic has caused me to think carefully and deeply about what I believe, about why I am a Christian.
The topic at the top of this morning’s order of service is “Being a Modern Anglican.” I have to admit to you from the outset that I can’t speak with any authority about what a modern Anglican is. What I have to say certainly does not represent any official position of the Anglican Church. All I can speak about in truth is the being part of the topic. My own being, my own journey, and where I find myself at this time in my life. That includes being a priest of the Anglican Church of Canada, accountable to the Bishop of Niagara.
I am an itinerant priest, filling in where I’m needed on Sunday mornings. I meet a lot of Anglicans and work at a lot of different churches. I preside at services from the Book of Common Prayer, the basic structure & theology of which dates from the 16th century. It was last updated in 1962. I lead services from our “modern” Book of Alternative Services which was published in 1985. And I lead Celtic and other services which have been written for today, for the specific congregations in which they are used. I speak to people who want the church to be exactly like it was when they were growing up, or when their parents were growing up, and also to people who describe themselves as “emerging Christians” or “progressive Christians,” people who are questioning everything they have been taught, asking searching questions about the life and divinity of Jesus, and rethinking what it means to be church. Within the worldwide Anglican communion there is great dissension about how literally we should read the bible, centred mostly around the role of homosexual people in the church. So what is it to be an Anglican today? I don’t know. But one of the good things about the Anglican church is that we have a long history of disagreement among ourselves and a great tolerance for differences. We have a culture that, for the most part, encourages questioning and asking those questions out loud. Anglicans encourage and support personal spiritual journeys and the exploration of spiritual questions that comes with that.
It’s a bit ironic that I come to you on this particular Sunday. Last week I was at St. Paul’s church in Shelburne. It was Trinity Sunday – a Sunday that is the dread of almost every preacher. How to unravel the mystery of the Trinity, Father Son and Holy Spirit OR Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier – one God, but also three. My sermon fell naturally into two parts. I did a bit of an explanation of how the doctrine of the Trinity came to be in the early Christian church and how it was confirmed at a church council in 325 CE. And then I talked about my own beliefs about the Trinity. I accept our Trinitarian theology. For me, it’s part of the Christian story, the dance of Christian experience. It’s what I grew up with and what has been affirmed in my adult faith journey. But I don’t care all that much about the history and theology of the Trinity. What I care about is the idea that God is in relationship with God-self, and that within God there is a dance. For me, the mystery of the Trinity adds a wonderful depth to the God I worship and relate to.
The description of my talk for today which was in your newsletter was written by Linda Reith. She said that I would talk about my “journey in and out and back again to the Christian community of faith.” I loved the feel of that description. I sounded like a dance to me – in and out and back again. Throughout my life I have danced with the Christian faith – in and out and back again. And I have absorbed and treasured and told the Christian story as found in the Hebrew scriptures and the Gospels and letters of the Christian writings.
To me, for reasons I can’t fully articulate to myself or to you, the ritual of the Christian Eucharist is vitally important to my being. Not just to my spiritual being, but to my whole being, to my life. The Eucharist is also known as Communion or Holy Communion. It’s the part of our service where we share bread and wine to commemorate the life and ministry of Jesus, and to remember his death on the cross. Roman Catholic and most Anglican churches celebrate the Eucharist weekly at their Sunday services. Anglicans share the wine from a common cup, and I like it when we use one loaf of bread rather than individual wafers. For me Eucharist is communion – sharing food together at table invokes the sacred and creates community. Communion is both real and symbolic nourishment – by eating the bread and drinking the wine we nourish both our bodies and our souls. For me, the ritual of the Eucharist, the dance of coming to the altar to receive the bread and wine, repeated each week, is the centrepiece of the service and the centrepiece of my faith. Perhaps this is why I felt called to become a priest – so that I could not only receive the bread and wine, but have a central role in preparing it.
I grew up in the Anglican church. We were an “every Sunday go to church” family. I found Sunday School boring. Sitting in the pew with my parents was frustrating because I could never really see what was going on at the front. In those days girls weren’t allowed to assist the priest during the service, so I joined the Junior Choir. That way I could sit up near the altar and see what was happening. While I was watching the action at the front I can’t remember ever having a single thought of becoming a priest myself. This was the 50s and 60s. It simply wasn’t an option for women. (The Anglican Church of Canada began ordaining women in 1976.)
Like most of us who were brought up in the church, when I went away to University in my late teens, I drifted away from church. In 1971 I married a Roman Catholic man. We were married in the Anglican church, but after that we didn’t attend. We were too busy launching our careers, buying a house, and travelling. We thought we didn’t need church, that it was irrelevant for us. Looking back, though, I can see that this was a spiritually arid period of my life. Although we were making “progress” and doing all the things society and my parents expected of us, something wasn’t right with me.
In 1978 we were pregnant with our first child. For purely pragmatic reasons I decided that we should start attending the Roman Catholic church. (Fred was teaching for the Separate School Board and I thought it would be a good move for us to have the baby baptized Catholic.) But something happened for me there. Every week it seemed as if there was something I could take home from the service and chew over. Spiritually I began to come back to life. The baby, our daughter Elise, was born and baptized and we continued to attend church. But I was feeling left out. As a non-Catholic, I was not welcomed at communion. I wanted us to be united as a family in worship, so I took instruction and was received into the Roman Catholic church. Finally I could be a full member and receive communion.
We became an “every Sunday go to mass” family. I was somehow able to put aside my concerns about the church’s position on abortion and the role of women, because I was being spiritually fed and I enjoyed the sense of community. But after six or seven years a new priest came to our parish. He was authoritarian and misogynist. After a few months I found that the only thing being fed at mass was my anger! And so I stopped going.
I spent a few months without a spiritual home. But I gradually realized that I needed a place to worship, and a spiritual community. My friends Linda and Betty, both of whom I really respected, spoke glowingly about the Unitarian Fellowship, as it was called then. So I thought I would try it out. This would have been about 1988 or so, and the Fellowship was in its previous location on Bristol Street. Betty and Linda were delighted to see me! I felt very welcomed and included. But as I think back to the services I attended, what I remember is that there would be a brief ritual at the beginning and then a fairly long talk, and then people, mostly men, would stand up and debate with the speaker. After a few months it became apparent that I wasn’t getting what I needed, so I reluctantly resumed my search for a place that felt sacred to me.
I decided to try the Anglican Church, the church of my childhood. This was, in part, a pragmatic decision because St. Matthias Anglican church was within walking distance of my house. The first time I attended a service there I felt like I had come home. It felt familiar and comfortable. I liked the people and the preaching and the way they did Eucharist. This turned out to be a place that I would grow in faith and in spirit and in skill over about ten years. We experimented with different ways to worship, different affirmations of faith, different music. We asked questions and sometimes argued with one another and struggled to keep the place afloat financially. It was community in the Christian tradition. For me it was centred around the Eucharist and the Christian and Hebrew stories.
For those ten years while I grew in faith, I also took on lots of responsibilities at St. Matthias. I was a helper at services, I preached occasionally, I did liturgical dance, and I had a lot of leadership responsibilities. Around 1994 or 95 I began to feel a call to do more in the church, to take on a new role, to make my living by working for the church. I wrestled with this call for almost five years, doing every kind of theological gymnastics you can imagine to convince God and myself that there was no reason to give up my good paying job with pension and benefits, and to disrupt my comfortable life. But the call didn’t go away. For those five years I was dancing in the tension of feeling pulled towards a new kind of life and at the same time pulling back into what was familiar and known. A kind of circling around while leaning back.
Finally, in 1999 I quit my job and in September I began to study Theology at Trinity College at U of T. In 2002 I graduated with a Masters of Divinity degree and I was ordained by the Diocese of Niagara. I was a parish priest, in two different churches, for seven years. Now I am what I call a “freelance priest.” I am a spiritual director, meeting one-on-one with people to accompany and guide them on their spiritual journeys. I preside at weddings, funerals and celebrations of life. I offer spiritual care to palliative patients. And I fill in at churches on Sunday mornings. Life is good. My spirit is soaring.
Once I was no longer committed to one specific church every Sunday morning, Linda asked me if I would be willing to speak at your services occasionally. I told her I would be delighted! And so I came to you last December. In the Christian church it was the first Sunday of Advent, the beginning of the time of waiting for the birth of Jesus, the four Sundays before Christmas. And so I chose to speak about “Waiting in the Darkness ... For the Light.” I very much enjoyed preparing the talk because that exercise forced me to think about the Christian story, and beyond the Christian story. What turned out to be the best part for me, though, was the discussion we had afterwards here in this room. It was such a treat to engage with people about the ideas I had presented! Some folks resonated with my personal story and shared parts of their own journey. Others reflected on the ideas I had presented and shared their thoughts. In that discussion I was affirmed and challenged and given much food for thought. You may not be aware of how unusual it is for a preacher to have people actually engage in discussion of what has been presented. When I go other places to preach, after the service I generally get a quick handshake and a one line comment, “Good sermon” or “enjoyed the sermon,” or occasionally a substantive one-liner like “I never thought about the Trinity in that way.” So your discussion after the service last December was a gift to me, one I look forward to receiving again today.
Earlier I touched on my experience of the Unitarian Fellowship 20+ years ago. I don’t know to what extent my recollection is clouded in the mists of time, but it seems to me that your service today is quite different than it was then. I am so impressed by the high priority you now give to ritual and with the structure of your service. I believe that expressing and enacting the joys and concerns of the community are critically important. I love it that children have a real place in the service and are valued for their contributions. (When I was here last time they gave us the gift of their music making.) The opportunity to sing and to listen to a meditation are important elements in spiritual experience and growth. I think, if I were a 30 something looking for a spiritual home today, my experience with the Unitarians would be very different than it was 20 years ago. And my whole life might have turned out differently!!
And so, those are some snippets of the story of my dance in and with the Christian faith and the Christian church. Of my dance that goes “in and out and back again.” That’s the best I can do today to tell you what it means to me to be a “modern Anglican.” For others it means something different. And that’s OK.
Amen. Blessed Be.
Waiting in the dark ... for the light
December 13, 2009
Rev. Amy Cousineau
Waiting. Waiting for the talk to begin. Waiting for it to stop snowing. Waiting for test results. Waiting for someone to call. Waiting for Christmas. Waiting is something we do. Often we feel we’re waiting in the dark .... for the light.
I want to thank Linda for inviting me here this morning to explore this topic with you. I am honoured to have been asked, and a little bit intimidated. After I agreed, back in October, something inside of me said, “If it’s for the Unitarians, for the spiritual friends of Linda and Betty Bean Kennedy, it has to be really good and it has to be RIGHT!” When I told Linda that, she said the most important thing was to share myself with you, and I think, I hope, I can do that. So I have been waiting to deliver this talk, hoping it will be helpful to you.
Of all the months of the year, December is the one that makes me think about waiting. Waiting in the dark. The days grow shorter and shorter. It seems that we get up in the dark and before we’re done our work day, it’s already dark again. We eat both breakfast and supper in the dark. And if the sun doesn’t shine, it feels like it’s dark all day. We are waiting for the winter solstice, waiting for at least the idea of the light beginning to return to our world. Waiting for that great turning that marks the beginning of longer days and shorter nights. And in December, in our nominally Christian culture, we wait for Christmas. We give our children Advent calendars so they can count down the days. We wait for the big celebration of the year, the time of a tree in the house, exchanging gifts, and getting together with folks we don’t see very often. I think it’s the combination of the dark days and the anticipation of Christmas that accounts for the lights that we see all around in December. As we wait for the celebration, we push back the darkness by decorating with lights. We try to proclaim our power over the darkness by festively lighting up our windows, our homes and our cities. It’s always such a disappointment to me in January, when those lights go off. The days are still just as short as they were in December, but the fun is over, the dark is so very dark, and all we can do is wait for spring! We usually leave our lights up until the end of January!
I come from the Christian tradition. For Christians the four weeks preceding Christmas are a time of waiting, called Advent. We are awaiting the advent, or birth, of the Christ child. It is a time when we are encouraged to go inward, to think and pray about our spiritual lives, to reflect on the experience of Mary, and to prepare ourselves for the great mystery of Jesus’ birth. For me, living in Canadian society, Advent is a time of great tension. Preparations for Christmas and participating pre-Christmas festivities are in tension with the desire to be quiet, to go inward, to feel the waiting. Usually the preparations and the festivities win out!
In our time together this morning, we can take a moment of quiet to experience the waiting. Think for a moment, if you will, about Mary. A young woman, hardly out of girlhood, pregnant, promised in marriage, but not married, waiting for her baby to be born. Think about Joseph, about to become a father, told in a dream to keep his promise to marry his now-pregnant girl bride. They wait. They wait in the darkness of disapproval for the birth of their baby. Mary waits in the darkness of the discomfort of late pregnancy, wondering whether she will survive the birth, whether the baby will survive the birth. Mary and Joseph wait. Their parents wait. The whole village of Nazareth waits.
If we can stop in the midst of our mad round of “Christmasing”, for most of us it’s not very hard to enter into a space. That space of waiting ... in the dark. So often we find ourselves waiting in the dark in the hard places of our lives. We wait in uncertainty. We wait for someone to come home, or to leave home. We wait for someone to be born, or for someone to die. We wait for news or signs about our own health. We wait for the light at the end of the tunnel, the light that seems so remote that we are convinced it will never come. We wait for a dawn that signals the end of a dark, dark night.
Our bodies are pretty good at waiting, I think. Not so our minds. Our bodies go through their processes, taking as long as they take, giving the messages they need to give, healing, or not, at their own pace. While our minds tend to push and twist and shout and demand that our bodies get on with it, get well and get going. (Well, that’s what my mind does anyway.) A friend of mine recently had a fall and broke her pelvis. She is now flat on her back in the Guelph General, trying to be patient with her body and with the nurses and physiotherapist. Her body is healing in its own time, in its own way.
After the death of my mother and my best friend in 1997, I went through a long time of waiting in the dark. I couldn’t sleep and I became depressed. Very depressed. Although each day was a struggle, I kept on working as a parish priest at the Anglican church in Erin. Shortly after Christmas, as if the depression wasn’t enough, I began to have debilitating anxiety attacks that lasted for days. Refusing to listen to what my body was telling me, I continued to work as best I could. Finally I had to stop, to take a leave of absence from my job, and eventually resign from my position. My life, as I had know it and planned it, was shattered. That time of struggle felt literally dark to me. The depression was like being in a deep, dark hole, so deep that I couldn’t see the light above. There were no handholds to climb out of the hole. The anxiety attacks were like thick dark blankets that would suddenly drop on me from the sky. I found that all I could do was wait in the dark .... for the light. And wait. And wait. And those who loved me waited too, listening to me as I cried out from that dark place.
I’d like to do a little digression about depression and mental illness here. I want to say to you from my own experience that mental illness is real illness. If I could have changed any of it by the force of my will, by pulling up my socks, I certainly would have done so. God knows, I tried. If I could have prevented it coming on, or wished it away, that would have made me very happy. But it was something real that happened to me, in my brain and in my body, in my psyche and in my soul. Although there were certain measures I could take to try to make a difference, to make my world less black, mostly I just had to wait. Those of us who suffer from mental illness don’t ask for it or enjoy it, any more than someone with cancer does. Yes, there are medications that help, but like many medicines, there are side effects that sometimes discourage us from taking them. And, like many other illnesses, we sometimes get better and no one really knows the reason why. That’s my little soap box bit about mental illness. I try to tell my story, and our story, whenever I get a chance because I believe that mental illness is too often hidden and silenced.
For those who are waiting in the dark this is a very difficult time of year. It seems as if everyone else in the world is having a “holly, jolly Christmas.” In our dark places we can hear the bells and the Christmas carols in the mall, but they don’t seem to reach our hearts or our souls. It’s as if the superficial joy of the season is supposed to lift us up out of that dark hole. Whether it be a hole of illness, or mourning, or loneliness, or poverty, or anything else. We are surrounded by the bright and flashy, but it doesn’t really reach us. What might it take to lift us out of the darkness?
Maybe it begins with being outdoors in the cold beauty of winter on a beautiful day like yesterday. Or with a poem like this one by Mary Oliver. It’s called Starlings in Winter.
Chunky and noisy,
but with stars in their black feathers,
they spring from the telephone wire
they are acrobats
in the freezing wind.
And now, in the theater of air,
they swing over buildings,
dipping and rising;
they float like one stippled star
becomes for a moment fragmented,
then closes again;
and you watch
and you try
but you simply can’t imagine
how they do it
with no articulated instruction, no pause,
only the silent confirmation
that they are this notable thing,
this wheel of many parts, that can rise and spin
over and over again,
full of gorgeous life.
Ah, world, what lessons you prepare for us,
even in the leafless winter,
even in the ashy city.
I am thinking now
of grief, and of getting past it;
I feel my boots
trying to leave the ground,
I feel my heart
pumping hard. I want
to think again of dangerous and noble things.
I want to be light and frolicsome.
I want to be improbably beautiful and afraid of nothing,
as though I had wings.
(Book citation unknown. Found on the internet at http://famouspoetsandpoems.com/poets/mary_oliver/poems/15872)
Maybe the path out of darkness begins with a poem, with seeing the birds in the air, feeling boots on the ground, with heart pumping hard. Often it begins with a single candle in the dark, held by someone who cares. In my case there were always people surrounding me, holding candles in my darkness, but I couldn’t see them, couldn’t focus on them. Sometimes for the person who is waiting, it’s a question of allowing the light to come in, to admit that things aren’t perfect or that help is needed. As Leonard Cohen so famously sings, “Ring the bells that still can ring/Forget you perfect offering/There is a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in.”
(from “Anthem,” on the CD Future.)
One day, I can’t even say which day it was, I began to see a tiny light held by a friend in the darkness. And that was the beginning. Albert Schweitzer said, “At times our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us” (citation unknown). And I would add, “And each one of us has the opportunity to light the flame within another.”
Our support is so important to one another. One of the things I find most rewarding about being Christian is that Jesus told us to live as a caring community. Last week the husband of the woman with a broken pelvis told me that he had come home from the hospital to find a shepherd’s pie and a plate of cookies on his doorstep. “Left by someone from the church,” he said. I know that you too are a caring community. I remember all that you did for Bob and Betty Kennedy when they were both ill. When you put rocks in the water to share your joys and concerns, that forms caring community. When you raise your arms to make an arch for the children to walk through, that is caring community. And you will never know how much one small act of caring can mean to someone else, someone who is waiting in the dark .... for the spark of your light.
Being part of a caring community is the blessing of someone being there for us, in our joys and our sorrows, and in our waiting times. But sometimes we forget this. Someone recently sent me a story called “Cherokee Indian Youth’s Rite of Passage.” It goes like this. Please close your eyes and listen.
His father takes the boy into the forest, blindfolds him and leaves him alone. The boy is required to sit on a stump the whole night and not remove the blindfold until the rays of the morning sun shine through it. He cannot cry out for help. Once he survives the night he will be a MAN.
He cannot tell the other boys of his experience, because each one must come into manhood on his own.
The boy is terrified. He can hear all kinds of noises. Wild beasts must surely be all around him. Maybe even some human might do him harm. During the night the wind blows the grass and trees, and shakes his stump, but he sits stoically, never removing the blindfold. It is the only way he can become a man!
Finally, after a horrific night, he feels the sun’s rays on his face and he removes his blindfold. Now please open your eyes and make eye contact with someone else in this circle.
When the boy takes off his blindfold he discovers his father sitting on the stump next to him. He had been there the whole night, watching and protecting his son from harm.
When we are members of caring communities, we sometimes don’t realize or we forget that we are surrounded by others who want to help and protect us, who are willing to listen to us and wait with us. For those of us who believe in a higher power, this story also reminds us that God is always there and never abandons us.
This December, as we wait in the dark for Christmas, for the renewal of the light, I encourage you to do three things. One is to take a pause from Christmasing. To spend some time with yourself, to feel the darkness and experience the waiting. Perhaps to pray this prayer,
Give me a candle of the spirit,
as I descend to the deep places of my being.
Show me the hidden things, the creatures of my dreams,
the storehouse of forgotten memories and hurts.
Take me down to the source of my being and tell me my nature and my name.
Give me freedom to grow anew, so that I may become that self,
the seed of which you planted in me at my making.
Out of the deeps I cry to you, O God.
(from the book Dazzling Darkness by Jim Cotter, Cairns Publishing, 1999, p. 10)
As you emerge from your deeps, or not, remember that there are those around you who care for you, who are willing and wanting to share their light with you.
And, even if it’s hard for you, I encourage you to take your candle and share it with someone else. A spark is a tiny thing. But it can make a huge difference to someone waiting in the dark.
Thank you. Amen.