I say my Church is the Big Tent

A line of people with signs expressing support for Muslims.
The Rev. Canon Gary van der Meer holds a sign with Rabbi Elyse Goldstein of City Shul synagogue during the ring of peace outside a Toronto mosque in 2017.
 on November 1, 2018
Michael Hudson

The Rev. Canon Gary van der Meer is the diocese’s interfaith officer. He has also served as incumbent of St. Anne, Toronto since 2011.

As the interfaith officer, I hope to bring a robust Anglican presence to the conversations and developing friendships between faith groups in the Toronto area. When you consider how multicultural Toronto is, there is a lot going on. It’s my first year in this role and I’m trying to find out what’s happening, then figuring out where to join in.

When Archbishop Johnson appointed me, we talked about responsibilities. He advised me that there is more than we can possibly do – more events, more dialogues, more learning opportunities. I am going to prioritize! I will represent the Bishop of Toronto at some events, make sure he is invited to occasions where an episcopal presence is appropriate, and ask the bishop to offer written reflections on significant occasions as they come up. And as always, “ministry is not to be a make-work project.” I will be working closely with Scott Sharman, the interfaith officer for the Anglican Church of Canada, especially on events of national significance such as the upcoming Parliament of the World’s Religions. In the context of interfaith discussions, our Anglican presence includes working collaboratively with the other Christian traditions, so I also work closely with the Rev. Canon Philip Hobson, the diocese’s ecumenical officer.

I became interested in the role of interfaith officer as a result of friendships growing between St. Anne’s church and our local mosque and synagogue. Our friendship with City Shul synagogue has included evenings of shared learning and preaching exchanges. City Shul’s members now regularly volunteer at St. Anne’s monthly community dinner. Our friendship with our local mosque, the Islamic Information and Dawah Centre, has also included shared learning events and preaching exchanges. We also have a joint refugee committee (shared with two other churches) and are working towards our third sponsorship. Our three communities came together when City Shul and St. Anne’s formed the ring of peace around the Dawah Centre following the attack on the mosque in Quebec City.

I became interested in other religions by meeting people who live by them. I was raised in a conservative Dutch immigrant church. I learned lots of Bible stories there, and that’s helped me along the way. But it’s also a place where I heard a lot of judgment about who is right and who is wrong. I left that world when I moved into the student residence at university. There were lots of Jewish students, a Hindu guy down the hall, Catholics, evangelical Christians, and avowed atheists. We got to know each other in the dining hall and the newspaper room. Religion would come up fairly often in conversation. It changed my life. The judgment I used to hear began to bother me. There are so many churches, and so many religions – how can anyone say they are the only one who is right?

These questions changed my university degree. I was not attending church. I thought it was because I wanted to keep an open mind. Then I heard Professor Richardson talk about Anglicanism. In a tutorial session, he talked about what he called “comprehensiveness” – how the Anglican tradition pragmatically made room for people of differing theologies, piety and liturgy to be at home in one tradition. At the time, I thought, “Finally something that makes sense. If I ever decide to go back to Church, I will look for an Anglican church.” His comment has stayed with me all these years. Now I say my Church is the Big Tent. I loved how our Primate, Fred Hiltz, phrased it: our Church is called to “Holy Spaciousness.”

When I did go back to church, it was at St. Thomas, Huron Street. At first it was the welcome at the coffee hour. In so many ways, that welcome continues to matter to me. I stayed for the refugee committee. And then I discovered how much the members of the refugee committee loved the liturgy at St. Thomas. I started to love the liturgy by loving them. I sat beside an elderly woman at an outreach committee celebration and she asked me what I thought the Church of the future should be like. I don’t remember everything I said. It’s what she said that mattered. “What do you want to do about that?” I had never used the word ordination before about myself, and I couldn’t unsay it after that. I am so thankful for those supportive people who helped me figure out what to do.

Five years from now, I hope I am part of new ways of bringing the neighbourhood and the city together to build community in God’s Church. This is my life at St. Anne’s, and I love the crossroads of people finding the church to be holy spaciousness.

My favourite passage of scripture keeps changing. These days, it was Jesus saying, “Whoever is not against us is for us” (Mark 9:40). I want to begin conversations from this place.


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