Sunday, November 27, 2011

Mysterious doings at local Presbyterian church

An interesting, if obscure, story in today's Ottawa Citizen:
OTTAWA — Today marks a new era at St. Giles Presbyterian Church. It is the congregation’s first Sunday in “exile.”

The prominent red-brick building has stood at the corner of Bank Street and First Avenue since 1928. But last Sunday night, in a grave ceremony, the congregants were locked out of the building’s main sanctuary. The Presbytery of Ottawa, which said the congregation showed a “lack of respect” for its authority, announced that until the flock repents, it will be allowed to pray only in the basement.

The presbytery, which oversees the 18 Presbyterian churches in Ottawa (and one in Gatineau), imposed the move after St. Giles members signed a petition asking for the removal of the pastor.

I know this church - we used to live just two blocks away. But the story is very unclear in just what the problem is here. Maybe someone who knows will enlighten us. It just sounds like a pretty heavy-handed reaction on the part of the local presbytery (I guess the equivalent of a diocese). From the comments I gather that the congregation is pretty elderly (no surprise there) and not exactly large, especially compared to the size of the building they occupy. They don't fit the profile of Occupy-style troublemakers, though I can well believe that they could be recalcitrant and set in their ways. What did the pastor do to get them so riled?

The only clue is that their petition to have him removed complains of his sermons and actions, which left them feeling alienated and troubled. Is he some radical slash-and-burn type who wants to start doing gay weddings in the Glebe? Or is he just the sort who keeps lecturing them on their laziness? It could be anything. Though to tell the truth, I always wonder at ministers who think they can nag a congregation of octogenarians into leaping from their pews and charging out to evangelize the world. People wear out when they get old. You have to keep some young people around to do the heavy lifting; it's unreasonable to expect age and weariness to disappear just because it's church work that needs doing. Then again, why would any young people want to hang around a joint that's full of creaky old codgers? Especially once they realize that they'll have to pull a triple load to make up for the old-timers who are beyond it (and often don't see, or more likely, have forgotten, the point of the exertion anyway)? Vicious circle.

Whatever the reason, they sent them away from the table with a good solid thrashing:
Hymns chosen for the congregation to sing included “We come to ask Your forgiveness.” The responsive readings included a turn for the congregation to say “Compassionate God, how quickly we forget you. We trust instead in our own judgments; we pursue our own agendas.”

The scriptural reading was from the book of Lamentations, Chapter 3, with words spoken by the prophet Jeremiah: “I am the man who has seen affliction by the rod of the Lord’s wrath. He has driven me away and made me walk in darkness rather than light.”

The sermon, given by Rev. Jack Archibald of St. Paul’s Presbyterian on Woodroffe Avenue, made the comparison explicit, likening the St. Giles congregants to the Jews of Judah who suffered expulsion from their temple in Jerusalem and exile from the Holy Land.

Archibald spoke of the calamity and humiliation involved in both the biblical and current episodes.

“It’s a tragedy,” Archibald went on to say. “But you know what makes it the greatest tragedy of all? Certainly for Judah it was this: that they had brought it on themselves. They knew that they had deserted their god, that they had left him and were worshipping idols as their pagan neighbours did. And they were warned by prophet after prophet who came to speak to them until finally it was too late.”

There was a lesson there, he said.

Anyway, exiling these people to the basement of their own church is the sort of action that would be advertised far and wide as an example of heavy-handed inflexibility if it were the Roman Catholic Church doing it. The Presbyterians don't really have that reputation, so I'm wondering what's going on.

It occurred to me that maybe the newspaper has hit on a new way of sparking interest in their product. Instead of the old-fashioned method of just telling us all the news in one edition, they can turn this story into a serial, like the old Charles Dickens method of publishing his novels in monthly installments. I know I can't wait for Part II of this intriguing mystery - I'll be watching the paper like a hawk for the followup story, where we may learn a little more.

UPDATE: No real additional information, but Metro News seems to have sent their own reporter along to the church this morning, and she reports that 40 people attended the service in the basement, which is a good turnout(!). I guess this church is a bit more "fragile", in the words of the minister, than I realized. The earlier story implied a church membership of nearly 200, but this sounds like a very small, probably elderly group, and the worries that people will just leave are probably very well-founded. Nobody wants to say just what is wrong there. I didn't think of it at first, but the pastor is ALSO down there in the basement with the rebellious congregation. Oh joy. It must have been a great way to begin Advent.

2 Comments:

Blogger The Underground Pewster said...

Strange story. Interesting punishment. Keep us posted.

2:01 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It was a wonderful time, in the basement. We were a faithful few who had been bullied by a few congregants who not only put forward an unsuccessful petition against this pastor but had caused the previous one to do because she dared to try some new ideas for worship. A group of us from the "basement" left in Feb 2013 and found new homes within the Presbyterian church. I am, along with a few others, worshiping in the petitioned-against minister who now feels free to bring his children to this church.

2:57 pm  

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