Saturday morning’s passage from the daily office (Romans 3:9-20) lists a whole catalogue of accusations that different writers of the Old Testament marshalled against the Gentiles. Here, the author applies them to all the Roman Christians hearing or reading the letter—Jews and Greeks alike—as evidence of the need to rely, not on our ‘best behaviour’ but on God’s goodness.
“There is no one who is righteous, not even one; there is no one who has understanding, there is no one who seeks God. All have turned aside, together they have become worthless; there is no one who shows kindness, there is not even one.”
“Their throats are opened graves; they use their tongues to deceive.”
“The venom of vipers is under their lips.”
“Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.”
“Their feet are swift to shed blood; ruin and misery are in their paths, and the way of peace they have not known.”
“There is no fear of God before their eyes.”
For the last few months, our Sunday worship at 8 am has featured the Morning Prayer liturgy of the Book of Common Prayer. We begin by reciting the Confession together: “…we have done those things which we ought not to have done, and there is no health in us…”
How can praying this prayer every week—or even every day—be part of the Good News? Well, it’s certainly good news that we can utter these words before God without being struck by lightning! We have not been banished from God’s loving presence. Instead, we are offered an opportunity to acknowledge our shortcomings in all humility. To hope to be restored to spiritual health.
This theme is fitting, at the end of a week when earlier we gathered on Zoom to discuss “Black Lives Matter”—and when some points in our parish history were drawn to my attention.
Frank Dawson Adams—a Montreal geologist and academic of some distinction—published his history of this Cathedral in 1941. With scientific thoroughness he includes as context the earliest history of English Montreal, citing ample material from primary sources. The parish that became Christ Church (later Cathedral) began with organized worship in the British garrison in Montreal even before Canada was ceded to Great Britain in the Treaty of Paris in 1763. Slavery was then still legal in both Upper Canada and Lower Canada.
Here are a few facts about our church’s involvement with slavery in those years.
Some of the Montreal English families were slave-owners. They brought their slaves to be baptised and sometimes married in the church or to have their marriages registered.
The rector of the Parish and Chaplain of the Garrison, The Rev. Mr. David Chabrand Delisle, paid £20 in 1780 to acquire a Black slave named Charles who had been brought to Montreal from the Mohawk Valley of New York together with a group of other Black and Indigenous slaves.
What do we make of these facts? Do they surprise you? Distress you? It’s all too easy to tell ourselves that we are better today. I think of the worshipper in Luke 18, pictured in the icon at the top of this reflection, who prays “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector here…”. Jesus calls us to have more love—not to have more opinions. (Jonathan White invoked this perspective in last week’s sermon.)
In Pema Chodron’s book “When Things Fall Apart,” which some of us are reading for the Wednesday discussion, she writes about the danger of clinging to opinions that get us more and more riled up, and so perpetuate a cycle of aggression. If we take a moment to stay with the facts in front of us—neither awash with repugnance or blame, nor avoiding the human suffering involved, we might go forward a little. “It’s important to see suffering as suffering. We are not talking about ignoring or keeping quiet. If we don’t get swept away by our outrage, then we will see the cause of suffering more clearly. That is how the cessation of suffering evolves.” To combat systemic racism, like other forms of structural sin, we need the discipline of being persistently conscious—to bring our curiosity and awareness to the task.
Frank Mackey, Done With Slavery: The Black Fact in Montreal [1760-1840]. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2010. 384-388
Frank Dawson Adams, A History of Christ Church Cathedral, Montreal. Montreal: Burton’s Ltd., 1941
James H. Lambert, “CHABRAND DELISLE, DAVID,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 4, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed June 20, 2020, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/chabrand_delisle_david_4E.html.
Many Canadians believe that this country is where slaves came to find freedom. But before the “underground railroad” existed, Canadian slaves escaped to New York state where slavery was illegal before it was made illegal here. You can learn more about “Canada’s Slavery Secret” on this 2018 CBC Ideas documentary by Kyle G. Brown