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broken glass

Our home church of First Baptist London has launched a new congregation based on contemporary worship and meaningful community, called Maitland Street Church. It has been a massive undertaking, and since the launch in November has enjoyed a great start.

This should be a major cause to celebrate. In spite of this, I find myself asking – why bother?

Over the last couple weeks I’ve been part of online discussions with other Christians/theologians around the church’s stance on LGBT, and have been deeply troubled by what I have encountered – ranging from perspectives such as “what science teaches us about sexuality doesn’t trump the fact the Bible says homosexuality is sinful” to appeals to “natural theology makes it clear homosexuality is wrong”, with one person saying the idea of a homosexual Christian is something they hadn’t even heard of until very recently, and they find very confusing.

Yikes.

There’s absolutely no way to persuade someone if (their interpretation of) Scripture comes before everything else. Modern psychology and genetics teach that sexuality is not a choice, which to me would indicate to me that the entire sexual spectrum is intentional, yet so many in the church continue to refer to it as a “sinful lifestyle”. The longer the church holds onto these beliefs, the further it drifts into irrelevance.

What does this have to do with Maitland? Very little. But as part of the global church it is part of the massive upheavals happening across the world in respect to Christianity, and religion in general. CBC posted an article today called “Rise in new city churches bucks secular trend”, reporting on the rise and fall of churches in Canada and the demographics behind it. As well, NPR posted this article, “Sunday Assembly: A Church For The Godless Picks Up Steam”. CBC reports:

“…in Australia where, in late December, one in five residents identified themselves as non-religious. New Zealand numbers are even more stark. There, two-fifths of citizens identified as non-religious, pushing Christianity out of its longtime spot as the clear majority.

In Canada in 2011, about 7.8 million people — 24 per cent of the population — cite no religious affiliation, up nine per cent from a decade prior.”

I found this interesting, especially reading it in conjunction with the NPR article, which reports how a non-religious church is gaining attention by giving people a place to meet, dance, sing and have fellowship without religion. This is how they describe it:

It sometimes feels like church in the auditorium of the Professional Musicians union in Hollywood. It’s a Sunday morning, and hundreds of people are gathered to meditate, sing and listen to inspirational poetry and stories.

But then the live band starts up — performing songs by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Jerry Lee Lewis. And instead of a sermon, there’s a lecture by experimental psychologist and neuroscientist Jessica Cail about the biology of gender identification and sexual orientation.

Churches across North America (and elsewhere) are tackling the massive question of how to keep people interested in going to church, and especially how to draw back the many people that have “strayed” – most churches see about a 1/4 rate of retention from youth to young adults/adult congregants. Reginald Bibby, a University of Lethbridge sociology professor suggests in the CBC article “…many churches need to rethink their roles and become more family-focused, something evangelical churches have done right for decades, leaving them as one of the few not experiencing substantial drops in attendance. Evangelicals take for granted that they need to have a top-notch Sunday school for kids so the little kids are going to look forward to coming to church,”.

To me, these kinds of suggestions skate over the fundamental issues plaguing the church by making it sound like something as simple as shaking up Sunday School is the solution. As a young adult in the church, I’ve heard many snide remarks from senior congregants ranging from bemoaning “the moral laxness of this generation” to how the entire world is going to Hell via the unbelieving heathens. Not new sentiments, but one that young ears are sharp to pick up, especially when pointing at issues youth tend to care deeply about – issues like LGBT rights/equality and reproductive rights. Why would we put up this?

I know that by stepping away from an organization I am stepping away for opportunity to add my voice, and only contribute to the monoculture with my absence. But, I find myself starting this year wondering if I am really changing anything by being in church, and if it would be better to step away from it, even temporarily. I have been a hesitant Christian/churchgoer ever since I started about 7 years ago, but I seem to be finding especially few reasons to go now.

Not that there hasn’t been liberal movements inside the modern church. Pastor Mark Sandlin has been instrumental in creating The Christian Left and The God Article, which among other movements have provided a liberal perspective in what is otherwise an oppressively conservative culture. Pope Francis has shaken the world since becoming the new leader of the Roman Catholic Church, becoming Time’s Person of the Year as he has challenged the Catholic Church to move in the world with compassion over condemnation, breathing fresh air into the church. Despite maintaining the Catholic Church’s stance on homosexuality, the Advocate LGBT magazine named Pope Francis their “Person of the Year”. From the CBC article:

The Advocate magazine said it gave Francis the honour because, although he is still against homosexual marriage, his pontificate so far had shown “a stark change in [anti-gay] rhetoric from his two predecessors”. It hailed as a landmark his famous response last July to a reporter who asked about gay people in the Church: “If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge?”

I’m grateful to have met other liberal Christians through resources like The Christian Left. I shouldn’t expect to surround myself only with like-minded people, but at the same time, it has been an enormous relief to find a wider of community that have similar struggles to me. And they have helped me continue to see the value of being part of a church community, though there are times like this that I still wonder.

So this is what I continue to struggle with. Should I keep with church and attempt to be a progressive voice, or decide that my energy, time and sanity are better invested elsewhere? I hope to remain and to be a positive influence in the church, and to challenge myself to read scripture, research further and work to expand my understanding of different theologies/philosophies in and outside the church. I believe that scientific and spiritual inquiry can and should work together, and I hope to find ways that this can work, and explore methods others use.

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One week ago, as the allegations and RCMP investigation against Mayor Joe Fontana unfolded, I started a change.org petition asking the mayor to temporarily step down.

This is what the petition says:

Mayor Joe Fontana, please temporarily step down as Mayor of London until the allegations against you have been resolved. I do not believe that you can effectively lead London under these current circumstances.

We ask you to consider the same standards our community holds for other similar positions that rely on public trust such as police officers, teachers, doctors and lawyers. Stepping down, much like paid suspension, is not a declaration of guilt, but ensures the highest level of confidence in public office.

I didn’t know what to expect, but had no idea the reaction would be so immediate, and strong.

The night I started the petition, I was contacted by am980 to discuss why I started it, and what I hoped to accomplish. The next few days, I was approached by the Londoner, London Community News, Fanshawe’s radio station 106.9 the X, The Western Gazette, CJBK and CBC’s Ontario Morning. The London Free Press, Metro News London, Yahoo! News Politics and National News Watch also ran stories.

And the petition itself grew steadily. By Friday the petition had over 750 signatures, currently sitting at 797.

I am grateful for how much discussion there has been about this important issue. On Friday I decided the next step was to encourage everyone that feels strongly about this issue to contact the mayor and council to voice their opinion, and to send a letter of my own. If you’d like to contact the mayor and council, you’re completely welcome to use this as a template.

This is the letter I submitted to Council:

To the mayor and city council,

I feel that the serious allegations against the mayor and the ongoing RCMP investigation into his conduct have cast a cloud over City Council and the City of London. I support the online petition asking the mayor to temporarily step down in his duties as mayor until the issue is resolved. This petition has been supported by 759 people to date, and the numbers are increasing.

Any person holding a position of public power or influence who has been publicly accused of the misuse of such a position for any means has effectively compromised their own personal image, the integrity of their leadership capabilities, and the way visitors and residents alike view London as a place to live, work, and play.

I want to thank those members of Council that voted for allowing Councillor Branscombe’s motion to be heard before Council Tuesday night.

I am deeply concerned that so many council members voted against even hearing the motion. It is, of course, each council member’s prerogative to decide how they will vote on any given motion, but it is irresponsible to shut down debate before it has even begun, especially when it is a concern that affects all Londoners. Further, the fact that Mayor Fontana voted for this motion, even though it directly concerns him, represents a clear conflict of interest and further tarnishes citizens’ trust in the integrity of council.

Councillor Branscombe’s motion would have been an excellent opportunity for the entire Council to debate the issue with so many Londoners viewing. I hope that those that voted against the motion will reconsider, and allow a debate if the motion comes before Council again.

I ask Mayor Fontana to do the right thing and step down during the investigation process, and work to restore public faith.

Over the weekend, I received respectful and considerate replies from Councillors D. Brown, Swan and Bryant.

Councillor Stephen Orser also sent this reply, within 5 minutes of my e-mail:

I had no idea how to respond.

We deserve respect and consideration from our elected officials. When a member of our council gives a flippant and abusive response to our concerns, it only degrades faith in our local government still further. How much worse, when the abuse is from someone defending the integrity of the mayor under a cloud of investigation.

Coming back to it in the evening, I sent an e-mail to Councillor Orser with City Clerk Cathy Saunders cc’d asking for an apology and explanation. I also e-mailed Cathy to ask what I could do about it.

I have yet to receive a response from Councillor Orser.

Cathy Saunders was extremely helpful in her answers, though she apologized for not being able to do more. She told me that under section D of the current Code of Conduct, the only avenue for complaint is to the Human Rights Commission, and that’s only if there are concerns of a human rights violation.

I then asked her if Council had appointed an integrity commissioner, if that person could investigate complaints like this. She replied “If Council were to adopt a new or revised Code of Conduct, it may include a provision for an integrity commissioner to investigate, but Council will need to consider this as they review their Code of Conduct in the near future.

We may just have the worst council ever.

What do we do now?

What do we do when our council can’t police themselves, but a majority won’t appoint someone who can police them?

Wait and see what happens, or demand answers and respect from all members of Council?

In early June, I wrote this post about the loss of the long-form census and what it means for those that produce and analyze census data to better understand demographics and plan for Canadians. We’re now finding just how destructive the decision to stop the long-form mandatory census was.

In my last post, I examined the Sun Media op-ed “Census cry was all elitist paranoia”, and how the author uses the roughest of population migration data to argue the data is unsullied, without offering any examination of the deeper issues the cancellation presented. Instead of examining skew and how the under- or over-representation different people groups makes the data utterly unreliable, he takes clumsy swipes at so-called “elites”, the only people that apparently care about the change.

Unfortunately this is only one example of insulting and uninformed opinion pieces on the issue. Another is this Sun editorial from February of this year, “Senseless census spluttering ceased”. In particular, this observation by the author:

Notice there are no screaming legions today trying to sell the notion that the census is now meaningless.

No, instead of carrying on with their condemnation of the mandatory long-form census’ departure, they are gleaning the important information the census continues to deliver.

As details of the census findings begin to roll out, there appears to be nothing of great significance lost for the marketers and the analysts to digest and, for governments, NGOs and the non-profits to formulate workable strategies for the future.

All that teeth gnashing was all for naught.

The author also argues that statisticians are quietly moving on with their business as usual with data that is as reliable as ever. Everything now being presented by Statistics Canada as they roll out the first set of data since the decision was made to scrap the traditional census completely contradicts such statements. Such editorials are now proving to be premature at best and at worst, purposefully misleading.

This weekend, these news reports came out, stating that the long-form census cancellation is rendering new StatsCan data unreliable and questionable. Halifax’s ChronicleHerald put it this way:

Data users are advised to exercise caution when evaluating trends related to mother tongue and home language that compare 2011 census data to those of previous censuses,” Statistics Canada states bluntly in a box included in its census material.

Those are strong words for a statistical agency, since they raise profound questions about how the data can be used reliably to come to conclusions about language trends. Officials have undertaken a thorough investigation, with a report to be published shortly.

As a student of information technology, I find the language StatsCan chose striking. It may not read as a glaring condemnation of the new methodology, but as the article observed, what has been said is very strong words for a statistics agency. For now, it seems that with some guessing (a word no statician should ever be found using!) and analysis of contextual evidence from past censuses, some approximation of reality can be gleaned. However, this in itself is a completely invalid method of producing data, and we will only be moving further into the wilderness of guesswork and supposition the more information comes out using this new voluntary method. As the Globe and Mail article stated,

…the method of gathering the new data makes it difficult to assess where Canada is going in comparison to where it has been. Experts say these questions will only grow more complicated as results from the voluntary survey start to roll in next year.

At the highest levels, this information will still be fairly reliable. As the Sun editorials observed, we can still see movement across the provinces and understand where growth is and isn’t happening. But this is far from a complete picture, and is far from the most valuable data. Professionals including urban planners, sociologists and community organizations rely on much finer, community-level data to do their jobs effectively, something that will become much more difficult as time goes on. Observations by Ivan Fellegi, the chief statistician of StatsCan until 2008 in this CBC article put it perfectly:

Even if big cities have high response rates, the swings in the data within smaller communities suggest to him that there may well be similar swings within certain groups in urban centres. Good data for the City of Toronto as a whole says little about how the Chinese population is faring, or whether low-income groups in the downtown core have enough daycare facilities.

My hope is that either the current federal government realizes just how damaging the decision to cancel the long-form census was for professionals working to understand the people they serve with the best possible data, or that the next government will reinstate the mandatory long-form census.

If you have an opinion on bringing back the mandatory long form census don’t forget to inform your MP, you can find their contact information here.

Last Friday, I found out about the “new” abortion caravan organized by a group called the Canadian Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform (CCBR) traveling the country from Vancouver to Ottawa to push for the re-criminalization of abortion in Canada. I heard about this because I found out it will be stopping in London tomorrow (Monday June 25).

Since learning this, I started to read about the original abortion caravan that also traveled from Vancouver to Ottawa in 1970, pressing for the legalization of abortion in our country. This caravan was started by a group called the Vancouver Women’s Caucus (VWC), and traveled across the country making many stops as they went, holding public meetings and listening to concerns they would aim to address in Ottawa.

The travels of the caravan culminated in the group’s arrival in Ottawa, where several protests were held. These protests weren’t without controversy, as the group carried a black coffin on Parliament Hill, and burned an effigy of then-PM Pierre Trudeau outside of 24 Sussex Drive. “The coffin represented pregnant women who’d died from back-alley procedures or their own horrific attempts with knitting needles or coat hangers” (as told in this story).

Most dramatically, on May 11, 1970 about 3 dozen women took seats in the galleries circling the House of Commons, and quietly chained themselves to their seats. Once ready, they began to read a speech the group had prepared. One article tells it this way:

Just before 3 p.m., one of the women stood up and started giving the group’s speech. As the guards closed in on her, another stood up in another gallery and continued. One guard told The Globe and Mail’s Clyde Sanger that the women were “popping up all over the place.” They shut down the House of Commons, and the Vancouver Sun reported it was the first adjournment provoked by a gallery disturbance in its 103-year history.

The caravan was also Canada’s first national feminist protest. It laid the path for the decriminalization of abortion in Canada in 1988, and marks an important part of Canadian history.

The new caravan aims to parody the original caravan, hijacking its associations and creating new ones. It too is doing a series of speaking engagements across the country, but the vehicles they’re using feature disturbing images of aborted fetuses (as does their website). The CCBR argue that the images force people to think about the issue and sparks conversation, while opponents to the caravan argue the images are being used irresponsibly to evoke emotion and stop people from thinking about the issue sensibly.

Tomorrow evening the new abortion caravan will be in London, at 254 Adelaide St S., London Youth for Christ. A group of activists that feel strongly about a woman’s right to safe abortion will be there to form a counter-protest, as has been happening across the country at every stop the CCBR has made.

Many people are getting involved. Among those that will be there to speak are Irene Mathyssen, NDP MP for London-Fanshawe and Megan Walker, the Executive Director of London Abused Women’s Centre. For more information, the Facebook page for the event is here.

This is a deeply complex and emotional issue. There is a time and a place for open dialogue and debate, but I believe it is irresponsible to use such traumatizing imagery, especially on vehicles where all members of the public will see it whether they wish to or not. As well, for my part, I believe in a woman’s fundamental right to have the option of safe abortion medically available to them.

For these reasons, I will be there to observe and take part in the counter-protest. I ask anyone who feels strongly about this issue and is able to be there to please come.