Appearance versus Reality: An examination of the real presence or absence of God

David Virtue david at virtueonline.org
Fri Dec 12 13:30:54 EST 2014


Appearance versus Reality: An examination of the real presence or
absence of God

By Brian McGregor-Foxcroft
Special to Virtueonline
www.virtueonline.org
December 11, 2014

"For the Lord will give justice to His people and have compassion on his
servants" (Psalm 135:14, New Life Translation).

There are times and situations in our lives that are so unpleasant and
unfair that we ask ourselves the question, "Where is the justice of God
in all of this?" And search as we may for the answer, we seem to come up
short of a satisfactory resolution. And yet, the perfect answer may be
right before our undiscerning hearts and eyes.

The weekend of December 6th and 7th was for me a momentous one. I left
my Vancouver Island retreat, where I now live in semi-retirement, and
returned to Vancouver to attend a very special dinner reception for my
former New Testament professor, and a man who has become to me a
long-time friend and mentor, Dr. W. Ward Gasque, one of the founding
faculty members of Regent College, a theological college at the
University of British Columbia. The event was well attended, with
testimonials of appreciation from his colleagues, followed by the
presentation of a Festschrift in his honor. It was an event well
deserved and much overdue, considering his pioneering efforts in the
area of lay theological education in North America and elsewhere. But
this event was not all that the evening had in store for me. The entire
weekend was to be one of revelations and surprises.

While in Vancouver I stayed with my younger daughter, who more recently
was also a student of Ward Gasque's in the KOINOS program, a program
which he and others founded to bring meaningful theological training to
the people of God where they live, in their local churches. As my
daughter and I found our table seats for the Gasque dinner, we were
joined by a couple, who like my daughter, had close ties to St. John's
Shaughnessy Anglican Church in the Diocese of New Westminster.

They, like my daughter, were forced to vacate the building after losing
their legal battle with former Bishop Michael Ingham and the diocese. My
daughter and this couple began to engage in conversation about the
trauma they'd shared in common over their forced move from their beloved
parish church. As I have some intimate knowledge of the circumstances
and people involved in that tragic fiasco, I took the opportunity to
chime in on the conversation. As things transpired, the greater body of
congregants, including my daughter and this couple, left to join the
newly formed St. John's Anglican Church, a member of the Anglican
Network in Canada, under the pastoral direction of David Short and Dan
Gifford. From what was once one of the largest Anglican congregations in
Canada, St. John's Shaughnessy was left with an empty church building.
It was only the bloody-mindedness of Michael Ingham that kept the old
congregation on life support.

There were many issues that led to the split between St. John's and the
Diocese of New Westminster; however, the proverbial straw that broke the
camel's back was the decision by Bishop Ingham to allow same-sex
blessings in his diocese. Over the years the diocese had been taking a
revisionist turn to the left theologically, so that almost any new
liturgical or theological innovation was inevitable. Even though the
bishop had insisted that no parish or priest in the diocese was going to
be forced to bless same-sex couples, in the minds of most Evangelical
Anglicans there still existed the very real problem of being a part of,
and giving financial aid to a diocese that was acting in clear violation
of God's intended order of creation, the union of one man and one woman
in marriage.

An alternative arrangement was not an option to the more Conservative
church members of the diocese. Thus the battle lines were drawn in what
would become a long protracted struggle between the Diocese of New
Westminster and several Anglican congregations in the Greater Vancouver
area. The end result was a forgone conclusion, the diocese with more
legal clout and more money at its disposal was given possession of the
St. John's property. The occupying congregation had to move out to new
accommodations, which they did, thanks to the generous help of a local
Seventh Day Adventist Church that was spacious enough to accommodate the
very large St. John's congregation.

My table friends became very animated as I discussed my take on the
whole situation. They had attended the court proceedings throughout the
long property dispute. The husband became more and more animated in his
responses, as he told me about some of what he viewed as the disgusting
behaviour of certain senior clergy from the Diocese of New Westminster
during the court proceedings. "They came into the court room early and
they blocked off rows of seats from other people in order to comfortably
seat their own supporters. There were elderly men and women forced to
stand due to no available seating left." He added, "They were rude and
arrogant."

At this point I could see the emotional pain that these folks still
feel, at having been pushed out of the parish church they'd loved and
supported for so many years. "Do you think we'll ever be able to get
that church property back?" he asked me. He also asked me about the new
bishop and her claim to be a reconciler determined to repair the
divisions in the diocese. "Why do they keep it going with only the 35 to
40 people that regularly attend each week?" he asked. I replied that,
given the fact that some of the gays and lesbians of the diocese had
been very militant in displacing the original congregation, and given
the fact that an openly gay, ex-Roman Catholic priest, who had been
received into communion and re-ordained by Michael Ingham, had been sent
into the parish to assist its new rector, it was unlikely that any
reconciliation was possible at St. John's, or anywhere else in the
diocese. (That priest is now dying of AIDS)

Any reconciliation offered by the diocese would be very one-sided
indeed. Can anyone unscramble an egg? Perhaps a conjuror can, and God
knows the Diocese of New Westminster enjoys no shortage of theological
conjurors. As I spoke with this lovely couple I could feel their sadness
and sense of loss. And I had personal reasons for empathizing with them,
as just last week my wife's favorite aunt, a lifetime Anglican, died at
age 96. She was a strong and independent lady, whom I'm convinced would
have lived longer, had her own parish not been closed about a year ago.
She, along with some of her other elderly friends, had their church
community cut out from under them in the name of economics and diocesan
streamlining. They could not easily adapt to having to find a new parish
home, and so they were just allowed to fall by the wayside.

As the evening honoring Ward Gasque concluded, the couple asked my
daughter where she was worshipping since the loss of the old parish
church. She replied that she was now attending a new church plant in
downtown Vancouver. St. Peter's Fireside is one of several missions
being sponsored and partially supported by the new St. John's.

[St Peter] The next morning I accompanied my daughter to St. Peter's.
And it was here that I found the answer to my question, "Where is the
justice of God when everything around us seems to have collapsed and
vanished?" Like many new downtown Evangelical congregations, St. Peter's
rents space in a theatre-like setting.

As an old line Anglo-Catholic the format of the service was not exactly
to my taste. I'm not enthusiastic about praise bands and power-point
religion. But I was in for a surprise. My objections melted away as I
listened to some very competent musicianship and witnessed the fixed
attention of the congregation as they entered into a reverential
worship.

I found myself surrounded by an enthusiastic group of young people, with
a few oldsters like myself interspersed. There were young couples with
infants and children, all fully engaged in what was going on. The lead
pastor came out in clerical collar and blue jeans to guide the
worshippers in what was clearly Sunday Matins. And though he was very
low key in his preaching, a charismatic undertow in his personality
betrayed his laid back style.

There was a brief lull in the service that allowed me to do a head
count, and I stopped at 150 people (there were many more). My daughter
explained that not everyone who normally attends was present. The sermon
touched on reconciliation and the elements necessary to make it happen.
This was a confirmation of what I had been discussing with my dinner
table friends the night before, that real reconciliation must be a two
way street, or it's a no-go proposition.

At the end of the service there was a discreet altar call, very like the
ones I knew as a young fundamentalist so many years ago, when I assisted
at small town revival services. After the service, when the congregation
members gathered for coffee, I eavesdropped on several conversations
happening in small groups.

All around me people were forming small impromptu prayer groups to pray
for the new converts that have come to St. Peter's. There were prayer
groups forming to pray for folks who were on the cusp of conversion.
Suddenly in my mind I was transported back to another time I remember
well, when in the late 1960s and early 70s the Jesus People suddenly
burst on the scene and radically reshaped the Evangelical churches of
North America.

It was a time when people like the Reverend Dennis Bennett of St. Luke's
Episcopal Church in Seattle, and Pastor Bob Birch of Vancouver were
lightning rods in a movement of God not seen since the Great Awakening
in 18th century Colonial America. I could feel the buzz I felt back in
the early days of the Charismatic renewal movement. And I thought to
myself, that should a revival suddenly break out in this congregation it
would not come as a surprise to me.

The message I received from the weekend was, that God will and does
simply bypass worn out, disobedient, and Gospel-hostile church
structures in order to further the work and growth of His kingdom. The
contrast between the Diocese of New Westminster and the new movement
that chose to separate itself in order to honor God and his laws could
not be starker. For, while the Diocese of New Westminster struggles and
strains to develop an Evangelistic program on its revisionist terms to
infuse new life into its dying structure, the young breakaway churches,
full of enthusiasm and the Spirit of the living God are seeing great
results and are growing in a manner that seems almost effortless. What I
came away with was the conviction that God rewards and honors those who
are loyal to His unadulterated Word, while He shuts out the rebellious
and disobedient from his presence. This is what I recognize as God's
justice in action.

Brian McGregor-Foxcroft is a graduate of the University of British
Columbia and of Regent College (UBC)




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