A CHURCHMAN TALKS BACK TO CRITIC PIERRE BERTON
In a new book, The Comfortable Pew, published this week, Pierre Berton is highly critical of the "religious establishment" of Canada's Protestant churches. Here, a church spokesman critically reviews the book — and vigorously replies
WHEN PIERRE BERTON accepted an invitation from Anglican officials to write a critical book for their 1965 Lenten diet, the primate, or so it was publicly reported, was not pleased. Such high-placed displeasure was apparently infectious. Soon Mr. Berton had a fattening file of clippings reporting protest and disapproval from across the Canadian Anglican world.
The rest of us (in church publishing at least) were mildly jealous. For despite Anglican emphasis on Lenten discipline and devotion, their Lenten literature has traditionally been even duller than most. This year, we knew, it wouldn't be so. We were soon reassured though, for at Berton’s request the Anglicans agreed to widen the grounds so he could attack the United and Presbyterian churches, too — and to a lesser extent, the Lutherans and Baptists.
For more than a year now we have been expecting a sort of Canadian version of Bishop John A. T. Robinson’s Honest To God, that best-selling English paperback that questioned the Biblical view of a three-decker universe and a fatherly God “up there” in His heaven, keeping a personal eye on His favorite world. Well, Berton’s The Comfortable Pew (McClelland and Stewart) is not that, because Berton is no Bishop John Robinson. But it is a lot easier to read than the bishop’s best-seller and should make a significant contribution to the continuing Honest To God debate. It is, I believe, Honest To Berton. He has important things to say, and Pierre Berton as usual invites discussion and welcomes debate. It should perk up Lent at a time when theology has again become the subject for living-room and country-store debate.
I must admit, at the outset, that although the manuscript of The Comfortable Pew I have read is a rather poor copy, I have read it twice already and have found it the first “religious” book 1 have picked up in a long time that I wasn’t perfectly happy to lay aside when summoned to dinner. And in my work I pick up a lot of “religious” books. A danger is that we who are adherents to the religious establishment on which Berton is so rough will spend so much energy defending ourselves, pointing out his obvious exaggerations and overstatements (and to some, even intolerable superficiality) that we'll miss some of the good things Berton has for us.
Actually, The Comfortable Pew isn’t about the people of the pew at all, but about the pulpit Berton sets out to make very uncomfortable. Despite the title, it’s no shotgun blast at the laity, although a few shells drift over. Rather it is a persistent sniping at the
“religious establishment” of Canada's major Protestant churches. This of course will cause it to be eagerly read. The clergy are forever putting their profession on the psychiatrist’s couch. No group spends more time criticizing itself. We’d rather have Pierre Berton or Charles Templeton in to say what’s wrong with us, than listen to a lecture from Norman Vincent Peale on Positive Thinking.
And the people like it, too. The average churchgoer gets tired of being preached at, and lectured on the need to pull up his socks or open up his pockctbook, and while he may love his pastor dearly, rather enjoys seeing him get what-for occasionally. As for the non-churchgoer, he always has a bit of a mean conscience for being unfaithful to something he believes in, deep down, and it will be pleasant to him to learn the fault belonged to others all along.
The book has two obvious weaknesses. Berton recognizes them and in the introduction defends against both. It overgeneralizes. We all know wonderful exceptions to the situations he deplores. So does Berton. When he talks of the church, he says, he means its majority attitudes and actions, not its minority. The second weakness is in his definition of the church. He ignores the major emphasis in Protestantism for four centuries, that the church is clergy and people. Berton protests often that he is troubled when the priests are so much like other people, no better. They don’t claim to be better.
Berton does not try to speak to Roman Catholics — although he suggests they too will find much of this relevant — and leaves out the conservative evangelicals for “they belong to another world.”
He’s very critical. He says that in the great issues the church has often lagged behind the atheists. He suggests that the Protestant church still clings to a sombre Puritan past and “still subconsciously believes that anything that is gay, lively, colorful or enjoyable is somehow sinful. Fast, sprightly music is sinful; rhythm is especially sinful since it connotes dancing; bright colors are sinful . . . (Sex, it goes without saying, in all its manifestations is sinful, possibly because it is enjoyable.) The church perhaps no longer believes these specifics, but the impression it gives to the world is that it does.”
Once when paying a quite deserved tribute to Alcoholics Anonymous, he adds, "AA has achieved more in a quarter of a century than all the thousands of preachers calling down hell-fire on those who were slaves to Demon Rum.”
REVEREND A. C. FORREST
editor of The United Church Observer
That's unfair and untrue. I grew up in rural Ontario where we got our share of temperance sermons, and 1 have never heard or read a sermon that was even unkind to “slaves to alcohol.” To be sure, a succession of ministers warned against alcohol, urged abstinence, blasted bootleggers and those who exploited human weakness, but tirelessly befriended the victims direct and indirect of drunkenness and alcoholism both inside and outside our church.
I get sick of this type of cliché and thoughtless criticism of ministers who belonged to that old-fashioned “temperance” school. I thank God for AA. but drunken men became sober and alcoholics were healed betöre AA was born.
That sort of thing from Berton is irritating. More than fifty years ago Albert Schweitzer, in his famous Quest, wrote some wise words about the critics of the early nineteenth-century rationalists. He said that “they (the enemies of the church) advanced the study ot the lite of Jesus more than any others. Hate sharpened their historical insight.”
Not that there is “hate” in Berton's criticisms. Anger, perhaps, at cant and hypocrisy; great impatience with a church that is often so quiet and so slow; scorn for those who would betray the mission of the Lord while wearing the badge of follower or priest. No, Berton is a friend — not as exhaustive in his research or as balanced as we might like — but a friend. In his own words:
If the Christian church is ailing, it is certainly worth reviving. . . It is hard to conceive of a Marshall Plan or a Peace Corps emerging from a country which was not inspired by Christian principles.
When 1 found myself angry at his unfairness,
I remembered that in times past when the church seemed to be unfairly criticized, it would have been better usually to have listened rather than defend. And yet I cannot approve of the fact that much of his information has been gathered by others. Those who have spent their lives in the church will read what he makes of this information and feel they do not know this church of which he writes, and these ministers he finds so badly wanting.
But they will recognize the churches of his childhood. I expect many readers who grow weary or impatient with the later chapters will delight in the early memories of his boyhood. Read this, the description of evensong in the little Anglican Church in Dawson City, as they sang. The Day Thou Gavest, Lord. Has Ended: Here, after a summer’s day spent picnicking in the blue Yukon hills, or drifting on the tawny breast of the restless river, a child
could feel that the gracefully dying day had been a gift to him by an all-wise, all-powerful and all-embracing deity. Surrounded by family and neighbors, each of whom was an old and intimate friend, listening to the anthems of a choir which included his own mother, insulated by the softly comforting sermons of a man who was a frequent dinner guest, untouched by the dilemmas and perils of that real world beyond the hills, that child could feel at peace with his religion and his God.
For the white-bearded, white-robed God of my childhood was a very real person. Lost momentarily in the mysterious woods behind the town, one babbled almost incoherently to God to keep the bears away. Caught red-handed in some minor childhood crime (such as “talking dirty” or “telling fibs") one pleaded with God to overlook the sin and keep the gates of heaven open at least a crack.
Then he lost his faith. Santa Claus, the stork and immediate answers to prayer all failed him and made him skeptical of what the adult world in general and the church in particular told him.
Many who can’t follow Berton all the way may say with me. “Now that's the church I knew in my childhood.” It is the church 1 have known through years as a minister across the land, in mining towns and farm villages, in the slums of great cities and in the posh suburbs outside, and in jungle villages in Africa and India. And while my vision has broadened and the white beard and white robes of a God still seen through a glass darkly have disappeared along with a literal Santa Claus, the stork and a Huck Finn idea of instant answers to instant prayer, the transition came without shock. The perils and dilemmas of the real world have come close, but the fellowship of the church, be they neighbors or strangers, is still real.
It may be a little amusing to those of us who have come to know Pierre Berton as the big hard-hitting controversialist to think of him as an innocent little boy, saying his prayers in church, still not knowing about sex or Santa Claus. But when he describes a Victoria Sunday school it strikes me as pure Pierre.
My recollections of that particular Sunday school are among the most colorful of my teenage era. It was simply mayhem. It seems to me in retrospect that from the moment I entered the Sunday-school hall until the moment 1 left I was subjected to a hair-raising barrage of horse-chestnuts, B-B’s, elastic bands,
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A light comment on sex interests the press, a serious issue is often ignored
paper darts, spitballs, gum wads, and the occasional Bible, all of which 1 returned in kind. There must have been hymns, prayers and Biblical instruction of a sort but I cannot recall them. All I can recall is a state of utter anarchy.
And after that we meet the devout teenager rising at 7 a.m. to trudge breakfastless to church and early communion a mile away.
In these early chapters Berton is at his best — and I say this without malice — for he is writing about that fascinating subject, Pierre Berton. I could have w'ished he had forgotten about Lent and the Anglicans and continued his spiritual pilgrimage, nasty comments about us preachers and all.
But the disillusionment that began w hen a spinster Sunday-school teacher told him that dogs couldn’t go to heaven, became complete when after graduation from the University of British Columbia he served a stint as a church reporter on a Vancouver paper. It seems sad that the end of faith came so easily, and that ministers did it to him.
While he met unselfish and stimulating men among the Vancouver clergy, he also met frauds and snobs. “What really concerned me was the discovery that the vast mass of ecclesiastics differed in no real sense from the vast mass of laymen. They conformed.”
He makes a subjective analysis of the clergy of Vancouver by denomination, a cataloguing which I assume has been added to by the experiences since. Most clergymen will find it fascinating. and perhaps not too surprising. Roman Catholic priests came off best.
From a newspaperman’s point of view, the brief contacts I had with the Roman Catholic clergy were generally the most satisfactory. The Romans did not come pounding on my door asking for publicity; nor did they complain if I got things wrong. But whenever I asked for information or help they were unfailingly courteous and polite. Their sermons only occasionally made news.
The Anglicans I found to be snobbish and often testy about giving me help . . . Anglican sermons were rarely newsworthy anyway.
The United Church people tended either to be very crusty or very eager with the press. Certainly they were worth cultivating for they often had something to say, at least from a newspaperman’s point of view, especially in the field of drink and morals . . .
The fundamentalists, the evangelists and the smaller exotic sects continued to repel me as a human being just as they intrigued me as a reporter . . . The most successful told me, quite off the record of course, that he “went into this God racket because I found it the easiest way to make money.”
While we clergy may not be in a
position to protest, some have questions to ask. Why do newspapers so often put their greenest reporters on the church beat? Berton says later that many of the men who edit religious pages of the great newspapers are laymen and often atheists. 1 wonder why.
In his book Berton criticizes clergymen for their enthusiasm for rushing into print in the summer of 1964 with comments on topless bathing suits, just as a few years ago they rushed into print on bikinis.
Now really! I’ve found myself dragged out of bed often by newspaper reporters wanting some deathless quote on frivolous topics such as nudist colonies, Fanny Hill and bathing suits. In the summer of 1964 church reporters seemed more interested in what I thought about topless bathing suits than about the Vatican Council. The only call I had from Montreal all summer was from a reporter wanting a quote on topless bathing suits. I said I didn't have one, I didn’t think they were important and didn’t care. He seemed surprised I didn’t think it something of a moral issue. 1 said 1 didn't and I was a man who often went with my family to the beach and had a wife and four daughters. Was that rushing into print?
What did the preachers say?
I have always found in my editorial work that if we say something lightheartedly on choir girls wearing earrings, or beer or sex, the newspaper reporters — many of them juveniles — think it worth quoting, but a careful comment on a great issue is ignored or so distorted you don’t recognize it.
The Comfortable Pew has much to say about the church’s failure to communicate. And of course the author knows what he is talking about. But apparently church attendance itself was too much for him, for he sent a lady operative out Sunday after Sunday to Anglican churches in Toronto. She didn’t know what the preachers were talking about. When he read her transcribed shorthand notes, Berton didn’t know either. Her report in her own words is, by the way, one of the most valuable but devastating sections of the book. He adds his cracks about the sepulchral tones, the singsong intoning, the dreary music, the absence of youth and men, inattention to children. We’d like to think that only Anglicans are guilty, but we know better.
This I've heard before. I know a few congregations that are that way, but it is not the church I see as I travel about this country to places large and small and see the packed pews, hear often — sometimes it is very bad — great congregational singing, see young people and children crowding the corridors and classrooms and note the doors swing and the lights glow seven nights and many days of the week.
Berton wishes there could be drama instead of sermons, some other music beside organs; he wonders why mod-
ern techniques and equipment used by other communicators couldn’t be used. And many a clergyman will echo. “Why not indeed?”
But the most terrible indictment in the whole book is the statement, attributed to a clergyman: “You just don’t say what you believe from the pulpit.” If that were the isolated comment of some sad soul it might be overlooked, but Berton says that he heard the comment echoed from many clergymen. And he seems to have done his homework.
With all their failings 1 had never suspected lack of integrity in the clergy. We have our faults — irrelevant preaching, woolly thinking, archaic vocabulary, professional ambition. perhaps even intellectual cowardice. But “to fail to preach what you believe” is incredible. But Berton has done his studying and this is among his findings.
He has uncovered, apparently, a significant difference in Anglican and United Church preaching. At least a questionnaire circulated among the Anglican clergy drew 235 responses, and only three percent said they chose sermon topics from the front pages of daily newspapers fairly often; none frequently. He advocates “topical” preaching, and reminds us that Jesus was a master of contemporary communication.
In the United Church and other Protestant churches there is much topical preaching, and for several decades we have been scolding ourselves about it. The emphasis in Protestant pulpits is to get back to expository preaching and leave the newspaper headlines to the commentators. At the same time, a famous United Church homiletics professor always reminded his class of “John Smith, the taxi driver, in the back pew,” and he added, “Every sermon should either start at Jerusalem and go to New York, or start at New York and go to Jerusalem.” Berton suggests that preaching is so bad there should be a moratorium on it for a few years. He concludes: The lukewarm pulpit makes hypocrites of its occupants. The priest who says less than he believes from the pulpit, the priest who says
merely what he thinks people want him to say, the priest who pulls his punches because the religious establishment requires it, loses a portion of his dignity. He knows it and so does his congregation. Ministers will, I believe, go beyond Berton. Such a brother loses more than his dignity; he loses his soul. But ministers will hope and argue that Berton's judgment on them as an ambitious, conforming, success-motivated collection is wrong.
Berton presses his questions. Why, in an age when techniques of communications are being constantly improved, cannot the sermon be adapted? Why shouldn't members of the congregation ask questions of the preacher? Why can’t any man stand up in church and argue with the pastor? Why can't sermons be plays, as they were in the Middle Ages? Why do preachers wear black? What’s wrong with controlled discussions, debates, panels, seminars?
Frustrated clergy are likely to point out that they have been doing these things just about every hour on Sunday but 1 1 a.m. and about every night through the week; that midweek meetings, retreats, conferences, classrooms have been discussed, paneled, argued to death. Does the formal worship have to go for the discussion-club technique too?
But Berton’s comments on the use of the mass media, and the reformation of the pulpit cannot be argued away. His summary on the church and television is in Mavor Moore’s words: “The ministers of the church not only demonstrate an abysmal lack of knowledge of the medium — they really don’t want to soil their hands on it; they don’t want to adapt old methods of communication to new techniques.”
Says Berton impatiently:
In the great issues of our time, the voice of the church, when it has been heard at all, has been weak, tardy, equivocal, and irrelevant. In those basic conflicts — the questions of war and peace, of racial brotherhood, of justice versus revenge, to name three — the church has trailed far behind the atheists, the agnostics, the free-
thinkers, the journalists, the scientists, the social workers and even, on occasion, the politicians.
Says Professor Hans /. Morgenthau, oí the University of Chicago: “Many oí the most important modern insights about politics have come from the pens of theologians.”
But we have to listen. The church in war and peace has spoken, and continues to speak, with many voices. In the southern United States it is one oí the most reactionary supporters of the status quo — the laity more than the clergy — as it was in the days of slavery. (Although other clergy lead the fight against slavery.) And in Canada even now only two churches have spoken out, reluctantly and late, against capital punishment.
I, like others, can go sparring through most of the chapters of The Comfortable Pew, but near the end comes a most discomfiting question, at least for my church: “Why is there such a shortage of clergymen?” And then another: “Why is it that we are attracting the passive-dependent type?” I didn't know that was what the church was attracting. Maybe we are. Bat we sure aren’t getting enough. And the majority of those who do volunteer don't want to be pastors in the old sense of parish ministers and preachers. Why0
Berton says if the church were more relevant, if the challenge to young men were more exciting, we’d get enough of the right kind of men. And he has some intriguing suggestions: that they be sent into industry as chaplains, and out into the world to all sorts of work other than drinking tea and preaching sermons. The church's answer, of course, is it hasn't got enough men to keep the establishment going as it is. He in effect asks, why keep it going? And concludes that we’re in a new age, and need a new revolution:
For this New Age we need a new kind of church . . . Religion as we know it, as distinct from Christianity, is in my opinion coming to an end, despite the present evidences of its power; and Christianity if it is to survive as a meaningful faith and ethic must rid itself of religion's trappings and false goals. It has been my observation that just as many “religious” people arc not really Christians, so many others for whom Christianity is genuinely the clue to life and conduct do not need or want what is called “religion” in the new age . . . It angers them that the establishment should require of them that they be “religious” before they can be called Christians.
Berton suggests a change may come through some terrifying persecution of the church. But he doesn’t expect that. Nor is he impressed w'ith the signs of renewal behind the Iron Curtain where the church has suffered persecution. His experience of the church there is limited, and comments naïve. He has more hope, he writes, in the emergence of “some spiritual genius yet unborn.” This leader will move, not with the elders of the church, but with youth. Berton prophesies. And this new leader of whom he speaks rather wistfully sounds like one who walked in Palestine long ago. ★