The Rev. Leigh Kern is the assistant curate at St. James Cathedral, Toronto.
My work is dynamic and fluid. One moment I might be listening to and supporting someone who is seeking sanctuary in the cathedral, and the next I am contacting a prominent thinker to invite them to speak in one of our lecture series. I spend a lot of time answering emails, coordinating events, providing pastoral care, drinking coffee, planning liturgies and writing sermons. My primary ministry focuses are education and outreach, and supporting the spiritual lives of young adults. We have a fantastic team here at St. James, and I love learning from my colleagues. Evensong, every Sunday at 4:30 p.m., continues to be one of the greatest moments of my week. In that service the prayers we recite daily are expressed through our choir. Their harmonies and cadences open sacred texts for me in new and awe-inspiring ways.
One of the most exciting projects I am involved with at the cathedral is our Truth and Reconciliation lecture series. In the wake of the residential schools, the church has been called out. The Truth and Reconciliation report and process has shone light on the church’s role in systematically dismantling and disempowering Indigenous communities, family and governance structures, languages, spiritualties and more. How is the church to respond to the sword of truth? The least Anglicans can do is read the TRC report and respond to the “Calls to Action,” several of which are directed specifically toward churches. Article 59 calls us to offer education on the church’s role in colonization and its effect on Indigenous communities. I believe we should all be doing this, and listening to Indigenous leaders and discerning how we can be supportive of their work. The cathedral’s education committee, Dialogues for Living, has responded by hosting a two-year series with a monthly lecture that seeks to highlight Indigenous voices and provide learning opportunities for our broader community. I also look forward to working further with the Primate’s Council of Elders and Youth on the declaration of the rights of Indigenous peoples. There are people on that council who I really look up to; I feel deeply humbled to get to sit at their feet and dream together on how the church can be an embodied ally in the struggle for Indigenous rights.
One of the most delightful elements of my job is participating in the culture of prayer at the cathedral, from the daily offices to Mass. Leading people in prayer, raising the concerns of the community, lifting the names of the sick and the dead, and hearing scripture proclaimed, is a tremendous gift and joy.
The hardest part of my ministry is witnessing the destitution and violence that many women struggling with poverty in Toronto face. There is not enough affordable housing, shelter beds, mental health resources, or places of refuge for women, children, and LGBTQ+ people fleeing abuse. Every once in a while I meet someone on the steps of the cathedral who is on the run and doesn’t know where they can go for safety. The hardest part of my job is the anxiety of wondering if some people ever got away, or if I will ever see them again. We need more places of refuge and healing, not just mental health crisis management. We need to respond with love and commitment to sharing our resources so that all might have life abundant. I pray for increased imagination, solidarity, commitment to one another, and love.
I was born in Pembroke, Ontario to Anne and Stephen Kern. I am the third of four children. My parents, siblings, and extended family continue to be my backbone and inspiration. I was raised mostly around the GTA. My favourite thing to do is sing songs around a bonfire with friends and family in the fields of my parent’s farm in Uxbridge, Ontario. My brother, Carl, and I both write and play folk music. I also love to paint. Before going into ministry, I worked in museums; curating stories and people’s experiences was a tremendous privilege. I studied at the University of Toronto and Yale Divinity School. I am passionate about theology and love to learn!
I was raised by two people who really lived their faith. In the Ottawa valley, my parents would host various people in need of somewhere to stay. One man once ran off with all the meat in our refrigerator, and my mom said, “He must have needed it more than we did!” Despite growing up in a formative Christian home, I left the church and stopped taking the Eucharist in my early teen years, unable to believe that Jesus was God. In my early twenties, I had two totally unexpected mystical experiences, one with Mary, the Mother of God, and the second with Jesus Christ strung up on a Cross. As I wrestled with these experiences, I sought out spiritual direction, leaned on the counsel of Elders, was steeped in the liturgy, and began to surrender my life to the truth I had witnessed.
I think one of the troubles of our time is that our dominant culture is starved of reverence and respect. I believe at this time we are called as church to testify to the holy and the sacred. In a consumer society, we internalize an identity that is based primarily on viewing ourselves and one another as products and objects, not as holy mysteries that are pressed with the image of God. We see the impact of objectification and dehumanization everywhere: at least one out of every four women in our society has been raped and half of Canadian women have been assaulted; property is protected with greater might than people’s lives; and our economy is based on resource extraction that decimates the lifeblood of creation. The church may be a place where people are invited to pray and encounter the mystery and non-commodifiable glory of our Creator. In the sacraments, we participate in the divine economy of grace; there is water for all, the body of God is given to the mouths of young and old, and us fumbling fools meet the embrace of the One who calls us beloved. I feel that the church can call people into this reality through providing space for contemplative prayer and engaging the embodied senses in worship. Catechism and formation classes can be opportunities for people to learn about the symbols, mysteries, sacraments, mysticism, wisdom, and artistic traditions of the church. Likewise, we should be thinking creatively about how we can respond to the crisis of violence, especially sexual assault. How are we talking about consent, reverence, and respect in our communities? In Toronto, there is a massive gap in resources, from mental health care to legal aid, for survivors of sexual violence and abuse. I believe the church should learn more about how to become a sanctuary, ally, and advocate against violence that attacks the sacred.
I pray in five years I would be found engaged in a vibrant community that shows the wounded body of Christ enfleshed in our love, the works of mercy, life of prayer, and devotion to the Gospel.
“So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:17-18). There is so much that could be said about this passage. Instead of spilling ink over how beautiful and profound the reality it points to is, I encourage you to read, mark, and inwardly digest it for your inspiration and nourishment!