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Emblem or watermark? Christian presence in society

Iron with Gold Inlaid Jeweled Anglican or Roman Catholic Cross found at Colony of Ferryland, NL, circa 16th Century CE. Memorial University Holdings

When I first moved to Newfoundland in the summer of 1997, I refrained from my civic duty to vote.  Within weeks of my arriving, the Province voted in a referendum concerning the nature of education, and the presence of religious schools within the province. It was the only time that I have not voted and upheld my rights as a citizen. I did not feel that I had the right to bring my voice to the province, because I had not long been a resident. There was much rhetoric concerning the rights of religious bodies and religious freedom in the referendum. By the end of the summer of 1997 the province of Newfoundland and Labrador had voted to abolish a publically funded religious school system. The question that was posed to voters was:

Do you support a single school system where all children, regardless of their religious affiliation, attend the same school where opportunities for religious education and observances are provided?

A part of the resolution that was adopted by the House of Assembly was the following:

17(3) Religious observances shall be permitted in a school where requested by parents.

The vote was clear and unmistakable; 73% supported the change and the adoption of the new terms.

During the following years, there were many adjustments to life in schools resulting from the referendum, some well received, and others were difficult for all involved. Since that time there has not been much controversy or challenge stemming from the 1997 referendum, until this past month.

Recently, a parent complained about the presence of a cross on the outside of a St. John’s school, St. Matthew’s Elementary, requesting it to be removed. The public has been advised that the school board will submit to this request over the summer, thereby avoiding a court battle that could possibly go to the Supreme Court of Newfoundland and Labrador.

Instantly, the province became fixated on the debate.  A local radio station held a poll, 28,000 persons responded, 16,000 in favour of the decision.  Discussion, debate, anger and controversy have stemmed from the issue.

Overall, the faith communities have been silent on the matter. It seems as if there is little impetus for faith leaders to enter into the debate.

All of this has caused me to reflect. On first hearing the news I was concerned. If the public desires to remove from schools all connections with Christianity, then the removal of the cross will not solve the issue. Christianity is deeper than that. My second reaction was to call up a friend from the Religious Social Action Coalition of Newfoundland and Labrador, the president of the Jewish Community Havura, and suggest that we present a gift of all the major faith symbols to the school to permanently display at their main entrance. My comment to him was that we are about advocating religious diversity, not promoting spiritual sterility in society.

Now that some of this discussion has died down in the media once again, I find myself reflecting on the reason for symbols and emblems in my life.  A cross does not make me a Christian. I do not wear a cross, nor do I have a cross tattooed on my body. My Christian life and witness are revealed in my actions within the world. All I do reflects my Christian identity, and my attempts to faithfully respond to God in Christ Jesus.

I don’t need a cross, a stole, a collar, or an icon to do this. The sign marked on my forehead by baptismal water has long since evaporated. The watermark that is left is within.

All the symbols can be torn from all the effigies, monuments and buildings in society. It will not make a difference to the presence of God in our midst, and our yearning to respond to God in Christ Jesus.

David Burrows

About David Burrows

David Burrows is a priest of the church, currently serving in parish ministry within the Diocese of Eastern Newfoundland and Labrador, a place he has called home for the past ten years. He consistently engages dialogue and action with the wider community through creative outreach projects. Cycling, kayaking, and driving fast cars are distractions in his life.
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3 Responses to Emblem or watermark? Christian presence in society

  1. Kyle Norman

    This is definitely an interesting debate, which brings up the whole notion of religous freedom. Unfortunately, sometimes a notion of religous freedom means ‘you can’t be public.’ Just like there are times where ‘interfaith’ unfortunately means “Let’s whittle everything down to the lowest common denominator so that we actually don’t represent any religion.

    I do find it interesting that in these places what is being affirmed is the cross’ central place as an image of Christian Faith. Individuals and denominations may take particular sides, but for most people, when they see a cross, they think Christianity. I also find it interesting that they are focusing on the cross image but not tackling the name. I would say that if the point is to remove all religious identification to the entrance of the school, then they should change its name as well. After all, St. Matthew is pretty definitively ‘Christian’.

    While I agree that removing the effigies from buildings will not remove the presence of God in our midst – I think the danger is the propulgation of the attitude that one’s faith is solely a ‘private’ matter, and should not be identified, practiced, endorsed, or spoken of in any public manner. After all, when Priests are told not to pray in Jesus name during public events (as I have been), when schools can’t mention Jesus during Christmas plays, when Easter is about a bunny and nothing else, and now when a cross is taken down from a school for it’s religous connotation (next hospitals I imagine) – at what point do we not get the message that Christians should just sit down and shut up. Isn’t this part of a larger trend of culture to continually attempt to remove all overtly christian identification from the landscape?

    But the question does have to be posed: At one point is the church called to stand up and say ‘this is not ok.’ I don’t propose to know the answer, but I would suggest that removing the cross from St. Matthew’s Elementary School speaks a message different than just ‘we want everyone to be accepted.’

  2. An interesting observation, Kyle: the name of the school speaks to corporate identity just as much as the architectural cross does. Personal symbols, crosses, hijabs, or whatever seem to be an entirely different matter, though, and one that 17(3) seems to make an allowance for.

    In the end, it sounds to me like the decision rightly accepts that one system of beliefs no longer speaks for or includes everyone–and why would we want it to? Wouldn’t national or provincial public-religious education foster hypocracy, rather than providing education to committed believers? If St. Matthew’s were to identify itself as a religious school, this would be an entirely different matter. As is, even the name will exist as nothing more than a historical artifact, forced on those for whom it has no meaning.

    Faith is personal, yes. It’s corporate, too. And it’s public in the sense that individuals and corporate believers (churches etc.) can express their beliefs publically. But it can’t represent or be forced on a population that is no longer (if it ever was) homogenous: that would be as injurious to the faith as to to students.

  3. David Burrows

    Great comments both Kyle and Jesse. In living out the faith both as a priest and an individual, I have most often begun from the realization that modern Christianity does not begin from a place of entitlement nor of right. In speaking in the multi-faith context I begin by recognizing that much of our history is caught up with the development of culture and society, and also the colonization of ‘heathen lands.’ When asked to pray, I never pray ‘to whom it may concern,’ nor do I shy from my belief in the incarnation/resurrection/trinity faith that is the essence of our expression as individuals baptized within a corporate, communal community. When I share with others, I never forget the destructive history of Christianity within community, culture, and society.

    The essence of my reflection is that the physical symbols have little meaning to my faith journey in the whole scheme of things. The prayers, thoughts and actions I adhere to are of far greater importance. Symbols speak for a larger reality, and the reality of Christian symbols in the education system of Newfoundland and Labrador is a part of their history, not their present. Another part of their history is the great pain and destruction that have been part of the journey of many by the church in this province (Mount Cashel). Too often the church’s triumphalism is married with an unnoticed oppression or subjugation of others.

    The church has too long lamented about the loss of its dynasty. I believe that when we embrace our place as marginal players in the cross section of culture and community, we can be the salt that Christ intends. My colleague and friend, Sam Rose, offers a great editorial in Anglican Life, which brings great perspective. https://www.facebook.com/anglicanlife

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